Title: Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait
Series: Six Tudor Queens #4
Author: Alison Weir
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction
Published: May 14th, 2019 (Ballantine Books)
Synopsis: 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.
When news arrives that Henry VIII is looking to strengthen ties with the German duchy of Kleve, twenty-four year old Anna is considered a likely candidate to wed him. Henry commissions Anna’s portrait, which he is well pleased with. Many months of negotiations later, the treaty is signed, and though Anna is wary due to Henry’s reputation, she is willing to do her duty by Kleve. But as she sets off for England, she carries with her a dark secret from her past that would spell the end of everything if it was found out.
Things go wrong from the very beginning though, and after a disastrous first encounter and much political stalling later, Henry and Anna are finally wed – with much reluctance on Henry’s part, who takes a dislike to her on sight. Alone in the precarious Tudor court, surrounded by people who do not really accept her, whom she cannot trust, things seemingly settle down, if into an uneasy routine. But Anna continues to remain on edge, as her position is far from secure, and when Henry’s eye begins to stray again, it is not long before he is searching for reasons to end his marriage – a delicate situation, as the treaty with Kleve hinges on it.
This is the first full novel I’ve read that is centred around Anna of Kleve, who is perhaps the least well known of Henry’s Queens. This book wonderfully portrays how she left her home behind to come to England with hopes and dreams of her own, only to meet cruel rejection from the moment she arrives. Yet, Anna is probably my favourite for the singular fact that she remained somewhat level-headed throughout the breakdown of her marriage and had enough common sense to understand that if Henry wanted the marriage annulled, it would happen one way or another. Her willingly granting the annulment allowed her to walk away from the poisonous court with some measure of dignity and as such, was seemingly the sole Queen of Henry’s untouched by some terrible scandal. She didn’t really have a choice in marrying, it certainly wasn’t her fault things didn’t work out, and she made the smart decision in accepting the way out when it appeared, escaping unscathed unlike her predecessors and easily settling into a good friendship with Henry, afforded every comfort and privilege as an English citizen for her lifetime.
Anna’s childhood in the court of Kleve was another aspect that I found intriguing. I have read in multiple places that she had an extremely strict upbringing, and as this book shows, perhaps too strict of one that left her innocent and ultimately vulnerable. It is also startling that Anna was given so limited an education even though her family intended for her to marry well – initially the future Duke of Lorraine and ultimately the King of England. Her upbringing certainly did her no favours, and instantly put her at a disadvantage in the more liberal English court where it was expected for women of high rank to be accomplished in arts like music, dance, languages and more. With the treaty being so important to Kleve, I found it odd that they didn’t seek to give Anna every possible advantage to make it succeed, regardless of their views about educating women more than necessary.
Though I typically dislike it when liberties are taken with established historical fact, Alison Weir does so in a way that barely stands out from the original narrative of events. And when it comes to a figure like Anna, much of whose life remains a mystery, certain creative liberties are perhaps necessary, for without them, this book would have hardly been neither half as interesting, nor half as long.
Where I had quite a hard time connecting to Jane’s character in book three, that was never an issue here. Of course, that could be because so much of this book does read a little like fiction, but that makes it no less entertaining. Anna’s life after the divorce, where she begins to adjust to and enjoy her newfound independence is really the larger focus of the story, which surprised me as I always assumed that she led a rather quiet life after her departure from court, though Henry favoured her as his dear sister until his death. It was interesting to find out that life as the King’s beloved sister wasn’t always sunshine and roses for Anna, and that she had her share of hardships, both political and financial, right to the very end. As always, Alison Weir’s books are not something I would classify as an easy read, not due to the length, but the depth of the content, but they are ever fascinating and thought-provoking. I would highly recommend this in-depth look into Anna’s life for Tudor enthusiasts!
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!
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