Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets, by Alison Weir, is the fourth in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the tales of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did.
Anna of Kleve opens in 1530 when the young lady is fourteen years old. She has been raised by her wealthy and aristocratic family to put duty before her own desires. Anna’s upbringing has been strict but loving. Betrothed to the eldest son of the Duke of Lorraine since she was eleven, her wedding – to a boy she has yet to meet – is expected to take place later in the current year. Anna’s acceptance of the life she has been raised for is threatened when her cousin by marriage visits and she is smitten.
The fallout from this encounter could have been personally devastating but, with the advice and support of her devoted nurse, events are managed and defused.
Anna’s life resumes its quiet monotony. Years pass during which her betrothal is annulled. Then, in 1538, England seeks an alliance with Kleve. King Henry requires a new bride and his Principal Secretary, Cromwell, recommends Anna.
The section of the book during which Anna is prepared for and then travels to England are fascinating. Her family value modesty and simplicity in women so the fashions and accomplishments of the English court ladies make Anna appear odd and lacking interest. She does her best to fit in but struggles to please her new husband, not understanding why.
As a foreigner, Anna had known about Henry from talk abroad of his religious reforms and controversial marriages. By the time she meets him he is already aged and temperamental. She is required to bear him a child yet he makes this impossible.
Anna and Henry’s marriage lasts a mere six months. Aged twenty-five, Anna finds herself in a position where she must carve a place for herself in England or return to the strictures of Kleve. So long as she acquiesces to his every wish, she is offered Henry’s continued patronage. Over the years factions at court vying for personal betterment put Anna in danger with their intrigues. She must act quickly and with great delicacy to diffuse situations not of her making.
Anna outlives both King Henry and Queen Mary. It is interesting to view the machinations and religious turmoil of the Tudor court through the eyes of someone with inner contacts but living apart. Anna takes risks to make her life more pleasurable but, due to her reliance on their finance, is never free of royal obligation. She suffers when gossip or rivalry threaten to tarnish her name.
The strength of this series is that it portrays the same, well known era from differing perspectives. In this book we are also offered a window into the life of a wealthy, peripatetic household and the difficulties associated with maintaining expected standards of comfortable living. Anna’s later years are spent outside of London. Although highly privileged, her autonomy is stymied by the need to preserve an unsullied reputation within an ever changing political landscape.
The writing is fluid and engaging. As well as being of historical interest it is a captivating story with subplots weaving convincingly around the known headlines. Anna is developed with sympathy but also realism. An enjoyable and refreshingly accessible read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.