The King's Pearl: Henry VIII and His Daughter Mary by Melita Thomas

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The King's Pearl: Henry VIII and His Daughter Mary by Melita Thomas

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Mary Tudor's relationship with Henry VIII, his 'pearl of the world', was an important and often fraught one. This excellent biography looks in detail at the relationship between both, concluding that in spite of differences between them caused by the annulment of her parents' marriage, it ended harmoniously. The author paints a vivid picture of the Tudor court and of the early life of the woman long reviled as 'Bloody Mary'. Mention must also be made of the first-class timeline, genealogical table and appendices. Melita Thomas popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us about the relationship betweem Henry and Mary.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: September 2017
Publisher: Amberley
ISBN: 9781445661254

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As the eldest surviving child of a much-married father whose main aim was to secure the royal succession with sons, Mary Tudor's relationship with Henry VIII, who called her his 'pearl of the world', was inevitably an important and often fraught one.

When she was born in 1516, the first healthy child of Henry VIII and Katherine, foreign representatives were seemingly in no hurry to congratulate her parents, as they would have if she had been a boy. Everybody assumed her arrival was a good omen as baby princes would surely follow, making her one of several princesses of little dynastic importance, except as a potential bride who could help to bring about a prestigious alliance with some European power once she was married to the right foreign prince. The mere thought of a Queen regnant in England, still tarnished by the example of Matilda whose battles against her cousin Stephen nearly four centuries earlier had precipitated nearly two decades of civil strife, hardly crossed anybody's mind. Sadly, within a few years it was evident that the first healthy child of Katherine was destined to be the only one.

Mary's early years were filled, it appears, with almost incessant negotiations by those at her father's court for the right husband for her. By the time she was ten plans had been made to pair her off with the French Dauphin, then Charles, Duke of Orléans, and then King James of Scotland. Even more prestigious might have been her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a nephew of Katherine, as the possibility of having a grandson who would rule most of Europe would have probably reconciled Henry to the prospect of a female heir. Yet nothing came of any of these schemes.

By the time Mary was about ten years old, her mother was forty and it was obvious that she would never bear another healthy child. Although he was hurt and his sense of not-to-be-questioned authority was affronted by her siding with her mother Katharine when the marriage was annulled, Henry could be a doting father to her. Ms Thomas weaves a skilful thread through life at Henry's court and Mary's sometimes precarious position, especially after she acquired a stepmother, Anne Boleyn, who plainly regarded her very existence as something of a threat. As a biographer she does not shrink from offering the occasional judgment, such as in her account of Henry's preparations for marriage to Anne although her sister, another Mary, had already been his mistress. She points out that Henry had the same degree of affinity to Anne as he claimed he had to the shortly-to-be discarded Katherine, 'suggesting either breathtaking hypocrisy or an entirely literal reading of the Bible', which conveniently for him said nothing about the idea of marriage to a sister of a former mistress.

Mary evidently suffered much ill-health throughout her life, perhaps partly attributable to stress. Living through such uncertain times would surely have taxed even the strongest of spirits. Her name had been proposed as a wife for several sovereign princes during her father's lifetime, and as she reached the age of thirty before she died, she must have despaired of ever finding a husband. Whether she would have been prepared to go through adult life as a single woman, like her half-sister Elizabeth, is another matter.

Yet at the very least, this biography not only paints a vivid picture of the Tudor court but also demonstrates that the woman long reviled as 'Bloody Mary' has a very difficult life. Under the reign of her father, she had seen so many close relations, male and female, die long before their time, a number of them under the executioner's axe. All the same, there was a happy ending to the father-daughter relationship. They appear to have been on the best of terms during the last ten years of his life, and the ladies who surrounded his last wife, Katherine Parr. Ms Thomas suggests that he did not fully appreciate his daughter's best qualities, such as her courage and determination, but that even so he was fully reconciled with her, although he probably did not expect her to inherit the crown within a few years of his own death.

In addition to a very comprehensive selection of portraits and relevant buildings in the colour plates section, we are very well served in this book with a very detailed yet clear timeline of British and European events between 1485 and 1547 and a genealogical table at the front, plus to appendices at the back, one of European states and the other a Who's Who of important contemporaries. A reader could probably not ask for more.

Among the many recent relevant titles, we recommend above all a very full yet thoroughly readable life of Mary's unfortunate mother, Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII's True Wife by Amy Licence. For the women of the family in general, there is a full account in The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women's Stories by Amy Licence, while for the full family saga, Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle is a must-read.

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