In Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait, readers are introduced to Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anna von Kleve, commonly referred to as Anne of Cleves. Following the loss of his third wife, Jane Seymour—who died less than two weeks after the birth of Henry’s longed-for male heir, Prince Edward—it was decided Henry’s next wife should be the means of forming a political alliance, in case England was attacked by France and the Holy Roman Empire. Thomas Cromwell (Henry’s Principle Secretary and Chief Minister) suggested Anna, so the King sent Hans Holbien to paint a portrait of Anna and her younger sister, Amalia. Henry would use the portraits to decide which sister to marry. Pleased with Anna’s portrait, Henry chose her to be his wife.
The King (wearing a disguise) met Anna for the first time in Rochester on New Year’s Day, 1540. Anna failed to recognize him, displeasing the King, who decided she looked nothing like her portrait. He no longer wished to marry her, but to back out of the marriage would threaten the alliance with Kleve, which Henry believed he needed. In order to preserve that alliance, Henry and Anna were married January 6, 1540—but their marriage was never consummated. The morning after their wedding, Henry reportedly told Cromwell: “I liked her not well before, but now I like her much worse, for I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, I can judge, she should be no maid, which so strake me to the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters.” (Quote source: Author’s Note, Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait.)
Within six months, Anna was ordered to leave the Court, and shortly afterwards was asked to give consent to an annulment. Anna agreed, and their marriage was annulled July 9, 1540. Pleased with her acquiescence, Henry gave her a generous settlement of properties and income, referred to Anna as “The King’s Beloved Sister,” and decreed that she would be given precedence over all the women of England, except for his wife and daughters.
None of this is a spoiler, it’s all history. (I may or may not have gotten a bit carried away in sharing all of that, but hey… I’m a history geek. It’s what I do.) Weir covers all of this within the book, as well as historical events that take place following the annulment of the marriage all the way up to Anna’s death. (I’m betting anyone reading this review is relieved I didn’t mention all of that, as well!) So how did the fictional aspects of the story fare? Weir made a bold choice in that regard… and it is likely to prove controversial among Tudor enthusiasts. (This is an assumption on my part, as I’ve not yet read any reviews of this book… but I suspect it will prove to be a correct assumption.)
I won’t discuss what that ‘bold choice’ was in this review, but I will say that it was definitely surprising, and more than a little shocking to me when I realized where things were heading. It put a whole new spin on the failure of Anna’s marriage to Henry, and—even though I don’t consider it to be something that could have actually happened—the idea of it certainly sparks the imagination, and made for an intriguing storyline. It gives the reader something new to discover amidst all the historical fact, an unknown with the potential to take the story in a completely different direction that they expected it would… and in doing so, keeps the story fresh and entertaining.
Anna was the wife to live the longest—surviving not only Henry, but his heir, as well. As such, Anna’s story includes (to some degree) Katherine Howard, Katherine Parr, Edward VI, and Mary I. With each succeeding monarch, Anna’s life—not to mention, her financial circumstances— was to change course in ways that were completely out of her control. This was of particular interest to me, as I was either unaware or had forgotten what became of Anna after Henry’s death. This, along with the fictional storyline I mentioned earlier, kept me eagerly reading until the end.
Historical fact and fictional possibilities combined served to make Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait a fascinating read. The bold choice that drives the fictional storyline may not appeal to all readers, but it gave the story a unique edge not found elsewhere. I loved this book, and highly recommend it to others who enjoy reading Tudor historical fiction.
About the Book
Bestselling author and acclaimed historian Alison Weir tells the little-known story of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, as a grieving king chooses a bride sight unseen in the fourth novel in the epic and intrigue-filled Six Tudor Queens series.
Newly widowed and the father of an infant son, Henry VIII realizes he must marry again to insure the royal succession. Now forty-six, overweight and unwell, Henry is soundly rejected by some of Europe’s most eligible princesses, but Anna of Kleve–a small German duchy–is twenty-four and eager to wed. Henry requests Anna’s portrait from his court painter, who enhances her looks, painting her straight-on in order not to emphasize her rather long nose. Henry is entranced by the lovely image, only to be bitterly surprised when Anna arrives in England and he sees her in the flesh. She is pleasant looking, just not the lady that Henry had expected.
What follows is a fascinating story of this awkward royal union that had to somehow be terminated tactfully. Alison Weir takes a fresh and surprising look at this remarkable royal marriage by describing it from the point of view of Queen Anna, a young woman with hopes and dreams of her own, alone in a royal court that rejected her from the day she arrived.
About the Author
ALISON WEIR is a British writer of history books for the general public, mostly in the form of biographies about British kings and queens. She currently lives in Surrey, England, with her two children.
Before becoming an author, Weir worked as a teacher of children with special needs. She received her formal training in history at teacher training college.