Reading History: “Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait” (by Alison Weir)

When it comes to the wives of Henry VIII, a few stand out in the popular consciousness: Anne Boleyn (obviously), Katherine of Aragon, perhaps Jane Seymour. Then maybe Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Rarely, I suspect, do many people give much of a thought to Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife whom, it was said, he found so physically disgusting that he had their marriage annulled. Indeed, it is often held that the failure of this marriage is what cost Thomas Cromwell the king’s love and eventually his life.

Poor Anne has not received much justice from popular culture. Joss Stone did a serviceable job portraying her in The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory brought her usual soapy approach to at least part of Anne’s life in her book The Boleyn Inheritance. But other than that, she has tended to hover in the background, eclipsed by her more glamorous peers.

Enter Alison Weir’s new book, Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait.

I’ll admit that when I first heard that acclaimed historian and historical novelist Alison Weir was writing a six-book series about these women, I was a little dubious that she’d be able to write anything new or exciting about them. To some extent, alas, I was proved correct. While the earlier entries in this series were enjoyable, they all seemed to lack a certain spark that would have made them really soar. Don’t get me wrong. They were enjoyable; they just weren’t thrilling.

With Anna of Kleve, I think she may have finally hit her stride. The novel doesn’t get bogged down in relentless recitations of detail (Weir is nothing if not rigorous in that regard), but it does give us a very rich, thorough portrait of Anna’s emotional state as she moves through the dangerous world of Renaissance politics, both in her own country and, later, in Henry VIII’s England.

The novel starts with Anna’s young adulthood in the Duchy of Kleve, during which she has an illicit affair with one of her cousins and gives birth to a bastard child, a secret she carries with her for the rest of her life. After interminable negotiations with the English, she eventually sets sail to be the next Queen of England. Unfortunately for her, King Henry takes an instant dislike to her, and she ultimately feels pressured to concede to an annulment, after which she is granted significant wealth and manages to stay out of the worst of the political troubles that afflict the kingdom.

The novel is quite a brisk read, and Weir manages to keep the pace going while also largely adhering to, and even correcting, the historical record. We learn, for example, that Anna was a devout Catholic, though her marriage was intended to solidify Henry’s relations with the Protestant German princes. Indeed, Weir does a fine job of conveying how integral Anna was to the politics of her day, and how astute she was in her own political calculations.

Admittedly, Weir does take some rather generous liberties with the established truth, most notably in the ongoing plot-line of Anna’s illegitimate son and her cousin Otho, who is truly the one love of her life. Her reasoning on this in the “Author’s Note” reads a little thin to me, but I will agree that it does give the book an emotional core and resonance that I think it might otherwise have lacked (the irony is not lost on me that the very thing that makes the novel really work is the one thing that is probably not true).

That quibble aside, the novel is a strong outing. Indeed, one of its greatest strengths is in its ability to portray Anna’s emotional attachment to Henry. Rather than fighting to hold onto a position that knows is rightfully hers, she quickly gives in to the king’s request and becomes, in effect, his sister, blessed with manors and incomes and wealth. She’s shrewd enough to realize that she has far more to gain as the king’s sister than as his wife, and her reasoning proves sound when it is revealed that Catherine Howard has been committing adultery with and is summarily executed. At the same time, however, Weir does show how it must have stung for Anna to accept what was, in many ways, a humiliation, even if a lucrative one.

In that sense, the novel is more emotionally textured than I found the other three entries in the series to be. There, I often felt at somewhat of a remove from the titular heroines (part of this may be due to the fact that Weir chose to narrate each of the books in third person limited, rather than the first person). Here, however, we really get a chance to live inside Anna’s head, to experience with her the trials and tribulations of the Tudor era. It also allows us to get a more sympathetic perspective on Henry, a man vainly fighting against encroaching age and infirmity.

Likewise, it answers the question: what exactly happened to Anna after Henry VIII died? Some, no doubt, remember that she was actually present at Mary’s coronation, but others will have assumed that she died in obscurity. In fact, she continued to fight for rights against all the odds. While she died in her early 40s (probably of breast cancer), she nevertheless managed to outlive all of Henry’s other wives. Needless to say, that is quite a feat!

Anna of Kleve is a fascinating portrait of a royal woman’s struggle to not only survive but thrive in a world haunted by the past. Confronted with challenge again and again, she nevertheless perseveres. And when, in the end, she finally succumbs to illness, she does so surrounded by the people that she loves, including her illegitimate son. Her story is one, then, of ultimate triumph over adversity. Finally, after all of these centuries, Anna gets to tell her own story, and Alison Weir deserves tremendous praise for doing it with such grace, beauty, and eloquence.

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