When it comes to Henry VIII’s six wives, it is the fourth wife, Anne of Cleves – the wife many of us have been taught was the dowdy, plain and dumpy daughter of a German duke – who remains perhaps the greatest enigma.
Chosen by the king almost entirely from a portrait by his famous court painter, Hans Holbein, Anne was instantly rejected by Henry when he finally met his bride-to-be in the flesh, and although he couldn’t get out of the marriage, he spent the next six months engineering an annulment.
But who was this young woman, catapulted from the strict confines of a comparatively small European duchy into the maelstrom of the English Tudor court where a mercurial king, notorious for dispatching wives who did not please him, was growing increasingly unpredictable and irascible? And what became of her after their brief marriage?
In the fourth book of her groundbreaking sequence of novels featuring the six wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir uses her vast historical knowledge, in-depth research, and a tantalising slice of artistic licence to bring us a fascinating and compelling account of Anna of Kleve, the real name of perhaps the ‘luckiest’ of the six Tudor queens.
Brimming with the kind of rich period detail that has made Weir as much loved for her historical novels as her illuminating non-fiction books, this is an enthralling story that fuses a large helping of real history with one particularly intriguing flight of imagination, a twist which adds a thrilling sense of tension to the life of the woman whose quiet intelligence and pragmatism helped her to survive against the odds.
For undoubtedly Anna of Kleve, born in Dusseldorf, daughter of Duke Johann III of Kleve, one of the leading principalities of Germany, was a realist, choosing to settle into relatively comfortable obscurity as Henry’s ‘Beloved Sister’ and an honorary member of the royal family rather than take her chances back in the strictures of her homeland.
Her story begins here in 1830 as 14-year-old Anna spends her days in a repetitive round of prayers, needlework, weaving, cooking and ‘instruction on how to run a great household.’ The Kleve court is dull and strict, music and singing for women is condemned as ‘indecorous’ and Anna’s mother, Maria, prides herself on ‘so virtuously bringing up her daughter.’
But one single event in what turns out to be a momentous year for Anna is set to overshadow the rest of her life… it’s a dangerous secret that she will hold close to heart and hope that that no one will ever unearth.
Ten years later, 48-year-old Henry VIII of England is still grieving for his third wife Jane Seymour who died in childbirth. He is under increasing political pressure to marry again in the hope of a ‘spare’ for his young heir, Prince Edward, and to forge a Protestant alliance.
Overweight, long past his prime, rumoured to be impotent, and with a festering leg ulcer, Henry is entranced by Holbein’s portrait of Anna of Kleve who is twenty-four and whose brother, now Duke Wilhelm after the death of their father, is eager to forge a political alliance with England.
For Anna, the prospect is at first terrifying… everyone knows the English king has disposed of wives he does not like. However, she is severely constrained by her brother’s zealous views on ‘female decorum’ and when she sees a portrait of a handsome, vigorous King Henry, she is wooed by the prospect of such a prestigious marriage.
But Holbein’s portrait has enhanced her looks, painting her straight-on in order not to emphasise her rather long nose, and Henry is bitterly disappointed when Anna arrives in England, and their first meeting turns into a spectacular disaster.
Anna, with her dowdy German clothing and strange headdresses, has none of the accomplishments he seeks in a new bride; she cannot dance or sing, she can barely speak English, and the sexual chemistry is non-existent.
For Anna too, the portraits she has seen of King Henry belie the man he is now… massively fat with thinning red hair, a Roman nose, a prim, appraising little mouth, and with ‘a sickly smell of sweat and something worse’ about him.
Rejected from the day she arrived and surrounded by powerful courtiers who begrudge the marriage on political and religious grounds, Anna feels alone in an alien royal court and guards the secret that could spell her downfall. And as everyone knows too well, the king won’t stand for a problem queen…
Weir’s fresh and exciting perspective on Henry’s much-maligned fourth wife – and one of the most awkward royal unions in history – is a captivating read, harnessing immaculate research with an enchanting portrait of the mysterious Anna.
This is a queen brought to vivid life as a very human, passionate and intelligent young woman with hopes and dreams of her own. As a stranger in a foreign land, she must brook her own bitter disappointment at the failed marriage, look clear-eyed at the realities of her precarious situation, and bow to the man who holds her fate in his unreliable hands.
Anna’s acquiescence was rewarded with a generous settlement from Henry which saw her endowed with homes and land, but in this new fictional account, this wasn’t the end of her story by any means.
With the backdrop of the Tudor court and its ever present perilous politicking, a dangerous past which casts a long shadow, and the gossip and rivalry that constantly threatens both her reputation and her very existence, this riveting new chapter in the life of the forgotten queen finally lifts her out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
(Headline Review, hardback, £18.99)