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The Children of Henry VIII

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The Children of Henry VIII
By John Guy. (Oxford University Press, New York: 2013. 272 pages, Illustrations, Genealogical Tables.) ISBN: 978-0-19-284090-5

A History in Review Book of the Week Selection

Reviewed by Boris Segel - July 1, 2013

Despite being redundantly fertile, Katherine of Aragon was unable to provide Henry the VIII with a son that lived more than a few weeks. Had she fulfilled her royal duty of producing a male heir, the shape of English history would have taken an entirely different track than it did. In The Children of Henry VIII, John Guy offers a unique perspective on the history of Henry the VIII and his children, by looking at how reproductive issues impacted not only his life and reign, but also those of his children.

John Guy is a Fellow of Clare College, at the University of Cambridge, he also holds other academic appoints and has written a number of books on Tudor England including Thomas Becket, A Daughter's Love, My Heart is my Own, The Reign of Elizabeth I, and many more. As with his other books, this offering is engaging, authoritative, and highly informative. Within the pages of this concise history, Guy examines Henry's multiple extramarital liaisons, including the dates and implications of the various mistress's that he took. Guy also provides detailed information on the birth and life of Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset, the illegitimate son that King Henry had with Elizabeth Blount. Guy examines the steps that could have been taken to make Fitzroy Henry's legitimate heir, and why these steps were never taken.

Guy also looks at the possible medical reasons that Henry the VIII had so much difficulty fathering children, and why those women that did produce a living child with Henry as the father, often only were able to do so once. Guy also provides medical evidence to explain the reproductive and medical problems faced by Henry's children. More than anything else, I found the medical diagnosis of the various problems that beset the Tudors to be the most fascinating aspect of this book. (Apparently Henry had a positive Kell antigen, which caused a blood group incompatibly between Henry and his wife and mistresses, as most Europeans have a negative Kell antigen. Guy explains this phenomenon in nontechnical terms, and why it is thought that this was one reason that Henry had so few children.)

The bulk of this book, as you would expect from the title, is devoted to the lives of Henry's four surviving children, Mary, the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, Henry Fitzroy, the son of Elizabeth Blount, Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour's son, Edward. Guy examines the circumstances of the birth of each child, how they were raised, and how the circumstances of their respective births and the specter of illegitimacy that swirled around Fitzroy, Mary, and Elizabeth impacted their lives. He also provides a glimpse into the brief reign of Jane Grey, and how it affected British history and the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth.

For the information covered, The Children of Henry VIII is a very short book. To keep the book down to a manageable size, Guy has elected to concentrate the bulk of the narrative on the children's early lives. While he does cover their adult lives, and reigns, he does so with the utmost of brevity. As the lives of Henry's legitimate children have been covered in excruciating detail in other books, those seeking to more deeply into this aspect of the lives and reigns of Henry's children will have no problem doing so. What this book does, is to provide a compelling overview of their lives. It is filled with often unique anecdotes, written in a narrative nonfiction style more akin to that of a novel rather than an academic text. Guy also provides greater detail into the life of Fitzroy than you'll often encounter on other works on this period. In addition, Guy also shows how Henry's marital relations and inconsistent parenting influenced the personalities and upbringing of his children and, by extension, impacted the course of British history.

Filled with unique details seldom found in other book, and based totally on primary sources, The Children of Henry VIII is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of the Tudors. No matter if that interest stems from an academic pursuit or simply from an eagerness to learn about the real history behind such popular shows as The Tudors.

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