You can officially call yourself obsessed with all things Tudor when you buy a book about the six wives of Henry VIII in middle school. Since then, I’ve read many more books on the subject (both fiction and nonfiction), but have enjoyed none so much as those by Philippa Gregory. A noted English historian, Gregory has the magical ability to dress the facts with fictional color and educate while entertaining. It is this special talent that keeps me coming back to her stories again and again.
I’ve often been asked which of her books I like best. Over time I’ve been able to narrow it down to two. The first is The Other Boleyn Girl about the ill-fated love affair of Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII and his later marriage to Mary’s sister Anne (I think most of us know what happened to poor Anne Boleyn). The second is The Constant Princess, the story of Henry’s first wife and the Queen, Katherine of Aragon. Katherine had the distinction of being both the widow of Henry’s older brother, Arthur, and having been abandoned by Henry in favor of poor Anne Boleyn.
The Other Boleyn Girl is her most well-known novel because of the feature film by the same name. It’s my favorite because it has all the trappings of an epic family saga: intrigue, war, politics, sex, love, betrayal, adultery, and even a hint of incest. Henry was a randy fellow and his courtiers were all too eager to use the women who surrounded him to advance their political agendas. History has often painted Anne as a scheming, politically driven animal, but in Gregory’s hands she becomes a more sympathetic character. I wonder what it must have been like to be the pawn in so many political games.
My other favorite, The Constant Princess, offers the other half of the most famous—and some would say infamous—part of the Tudor story. Katherine of Aragon is one of the most significant women in history often overlooked in the sordid Tudor lore. I didn’t know much about Katherine’s early years in England, when she was waiting for Henry to marry her, or about how she stood up to Henry, one of the most powerful men of his day when he tried to trade her in for a younger, more beautiful model. In her deft narrative, Gregory helped me see firsthand Katherine’s grit and determination to honor her principles in the face of overwhelming hardship.
I find the similarities in these stories more fascinating with each read. Both were strong women who understood the delicate nature of their situations; manipulated by the governments and men who surrounded them; at the mercy of the political and religious power plays of the day; loved and scorned by their husband and kept from their children; and key players in a period of social and religious upheaval that changed the world. The plot doesn’t get better than that!
Sue Fleming is a publishing executive at Simon & Schuster.