Anna of Kleve – The Princess in the Portrait – by Alison Weir
Each year in the early spring readers of historical fiction look forward to a new book in the Six Tudor Queens series from Alison Weir. Beginning with Katherine Of Aragon, The True Queen, and continuing with Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession, Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen, and now Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait.
These are great big books, and have I read each of them in the early days of May each year in Newfoundland, when I have long days of uninterrupted reading. I may be looking out at eagles and icebergs but I am transported to Tudor England.
The earlier books in the series were about Queens I had already read about in books by other authors, but this Queen, Anna of Kleve, I knew nothing about and found her story a fascinating one - though far less dramatic and tragic than those who came before her.
Anna of Kleve was a European princess and her marriage to Henry VIII was arranged as an alliance between Kleve and England. A portrait was sent to Henry when he was shopping around for a 4th wife. Anna had long ago been promised to another, but a marriage to Henry was more politically advantageous. Though anxious about leaving her home and going to England Anna knew her duty was to her family and her country, and she found herself looking forward to marriage to a great King.
Anna becomes the wife of a man who has already had three difficult marriages; he is now an older man, and unwell, and they are not, it seems, physically attracted to each other. Henry may be hedging his bets, and Anna may or may not have any idea about sex and reproduction. In any case it is an odd marriage.
Of course, Alison Weir puts words into Anna’s mouth, and thoughts in her head, in order to create a story. And though the author has used original source material in her research she has also created as much fiction as fact.
Anna of Kleve is an interesting character and the time in which she lived is one of great change, as the alliances in Europe shift and religious observance in England is in flux, from Catholic observance to Protestant and back again. Henry VIII’s young children, one from each of his previous wives, are growing up and all develop a relationship with Anna who it seems is anxious to be a mother to them.
Fortunately for Anna, when her marriage to Henry ends she is not beheaded but simply put aside and continues to live as a “sister” to the King. And quite a nice life it is with her castles and properties and her many servants – but it is also a life in which she must be ever vigilant that she does not do or say anything that will cause her problems with the many factions that would be happy to see her removed.
I am always struck when reading Alison Weirs novels, that while writing historical fiction, she is able to make these women so contemporary in both their desires and their woes. In this case we see Anna, the discarded wife, attempting to make a life for herself while mourning the loss of her marriage.
Henry VIII dies in 1547, while Anna lives until 1557. In the decade after Henry’s death his son, Edward, becomes King, followed by Mary as Queen, with much political and religious upheaval.
Another series of historical fiction I have been reading this the past year is the series of mystery novels by CJ Sansom that take place at much the same time as the Tudor Queen novels and, of course, feature many of the same historical figures, with the addition of the fictional Master Shardlake.