Book Review of Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait by Alison Weir

Anna of Kleve is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, and the most controversial. In the novel, Weir suggests that Anna had a child before her marriage to King Henry VIII. The author bases her conclusion on the words of Henry VIII, who told his advisors “I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid.”

Yet Anna professed to have no knowledge of how children were conceived. We know also that Henry became displeased with the portrait upon which he based his decision to marry Anna. He claimed that the portrait (see below) flattered her too much. Did he suspect that she had borne a child and used this as another reason for setting her aside? There is no way to know for certain. What is certain is that whatever he may have suspected, Henry VIII placed more emphasis on a precontract of marriage Anna’s father had made with the Duke of Lorraine’s son. He claimed that the contract was not resolved, so the marriage had to be annulled.

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Portrait of Anna of Kleve by Hans Holbein, 1539

Although there have been protests about Weir’s choice to make Anna a mother before her marriage, I feel that Weir exercised a historical novelist’s prerogative to speculate on what might have happened in the past. I would not use this interpretation of Anna as absolute fact. As Weir states in her author’s note at the end of the novel, she wondered what Henry VIII’s comments meant and decided to use her imagination.

Even without the controversy, Anna is a fascinating character. Growing up in Germany, she received no formal education except reading and writing. Most of her time was spent with devotions and needlework. Unlike some of Henry’s queens who spoke multiple languages, Anna spoke only German. Obviously, this put her at a disadvantage at the English court.

Despite her lack of education, Anna displayed remarkable intelligence throughout the novel. When the king fell in love with Katheryn Howard, Anna privately grieved that she would no longer enjoy the privileges she had as queen, but she publicly agreed that the marriage was invalid. By going along with what Henry VIII wanted, she literally kept her head and protected her homeland which might otherwise have warred with the much richer country of England. Anna was richly rewarded for her cooperation. She received 4,000 pounds per year and four houses of her own from the king. In addition, she was referred to as the king’s sister.

Anna enjoyed a certain amount of freedom for a sixteenth century single woman. She delighted in playing hostess to visitors, including the king, at her various residences. When rumors circulated that Henry might remarry Anna after discovering Queen Katheryn’s adultery, Anna was dismayed. “She did not want to be restored as queen, especially after what had happened to Katheryn Howard, or be be the wife to a prematurely aged man who was not in the best of health, fond of Henry as she was.” Of course, Anna was not made queen again and the king married Katharine Parr instead.

After the death of Henry VIII, Anna became much more preoccupied with money. Neither King Edward VI nor Queen Mary I were nearly as generous with her as Henry VIII was. Until the end of her life, she had to cut back on expenses and sometimes struggled to pay her staff.

I recommend Anna of Kleve to fans of the Tudor period. Anna is an interesting and relatable character. Even though I knew that she would be cast aside by Henry VIII yet manage to live, the writing was so compelling that I was on the edge of my seat whenever a major event occurred. Author Alison Weir provides a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of one of the wisest Tudor queens.

Note: English sources refer to Anna as Anne of Cleves. Yet she signed her name Anna and Kleve is the German name of her hometown. Katheryn Howard is also referred to in other sources as Catherine Howard.

 

 

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