Category Archives: Tudors in Fiction

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.

Reading History: “Bring Up The Bodies” (by Hilary Mantel)

Bring Up The Bodies begins almost immediately after the events of Wolf Hall, with Thomas Cromwell orchestrating the precipitous downfall of Anne Boleyn and the meteoric rise of the blushing Jane Seymour.  The novel chronicles Anne’s inexorable slide into oblivion and ends with her execution and Cromwell’s triumph.

As with Wolf Hall, one gets the sense that this is an England on the brink of tremendous political change, and it is Thomas Cromwell who both represents and can sense the imminence of this new world order.  While the old families–the Howards, the Seymours, the Poles, and the Courtenays–largely dismiss Cromwell as an upstart hardly worthy of their attention, they also recognize his usefulness, and his power, as he slowly becomes more indispensable to the king.  While the old families refuse to accept the fact that their star is in the descendant, the reader is clearly aware of this fact and is invited to share in Cromwell’s wicked delight in their preening vanity.  We know that the old families will continue their downward slide into obsolescence, while self-made men like Cromwell, with all of the sleek political skills that enable their rise to power, will come to dominate and occupy the key positions of power.

Bring Up The Bodies also continues to show Cromwell as justified, at least somewhat, in his ruthless pursuit of justice for his deceased master Wolsey.  Indeed, his motivation for entrapping several of Anne’s alleged lovers–including her brother George–is their participation in a masque that was utilized to mock the cardinal after his death.  The novel works overtime to convince us that Cromwell’s ruthlessness is the result not of his own desires per se, but of a man determined to see an injustice righted.  It also strenuously disavows (often somewhat disingenuously) that Cromwell did not resort to torture in order to gain the pivotal confessions he needed to hold his case together.  For example, rather than binding the singer Mark Smeaton’s forehead with a knotted cord, for example, Cromwell merely has him locked into a storage closet; the only torture the young man endures is at the hands of his own imagination.  Cromwell skates above the scandal, vaguely amused by those who claim he is a monster.

It is precisely this continued valorization of Cromwell that is the novel’s weakest point.  Sometimes, Cromwell emerges as too knowing, too detached, too amused at the foibles of the people surrounding him.  This may be the result of the central enigma that Cromwell represents; of the many larger-than-life figures that surrounded Henry, Cromwell (along with Anne) are perhaps the most inscrutable and indecipherable characters.  It stands to reason that Mantel, eager to get to the center of this puzzle of a man, would seek to make him as appealing as possible, hence rendering him a more understandable, if slightly too perfect, historical person.

For his part, Henry continues to emerge from these novels as little more than overgrown child, prone to fits of pique and rage when his ruthless appetite and need for immediate gratification are not fulfilled.  It also allows us to see his fundamentally capricious nature, as he begins to mourn the downfall of Wolsey (although he places the blame for that on his malevolent councilors rather than on his own desire to punish those who do not do as he wishes).  His will is dangerously unpredictable, and one gets the sense that this is a dangerous and unstable world, where the sexual desires of a king can, and do, have significant consequences for both the individuals surrounding him and the country over which he rules.

Fortunately, this emphasis on Henry’s vindictive caprice enables a measure of sympathy for Anne (something quite conspicuously lacking through much of Wolf Hall).  The scene of her execution has a solemn grace for it, and it is hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at this reign cut so tragically short.  Further, the scene inspires and encourages us as readers to feel a sense of powerlessness, as we stand with Cromwell and witness an action we cannot change, and as we experience with Anne the ultimately forlorn hope that Henry may yet have mercy upon her.

Anne’s downfall also allows us to get a sense of foreboding, for the canny reader knows that Cromwell himself is riding for a precipitous and calamitous fall after Henry loses faith in him as well.  I suspect that the projected final volume in this series, The Mirror and the Light, will provide us with a mingled sense of pleasure and anxiety at seeing this canny and fiercely intelligent figure eventually brought low by the king he has so assiduously served.  Like its predecessor, Bring Up shows the tremendous influence one individual can have on the course of a nation’s history.  And that is a comforting, and a terrifying, thought.

Score:  9/10