Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

Review by Julie Barham, 20 August 2019

It is well known that Henry VIII had six wives – and none more mysterious than the one that he married virtually unseen, and parted from almost immediately. Alison Weir’s wonderful series of biographies of these women, queens, continues with the story of Anna, usually known as Anne of Cleves. Weir, who is known for her non fiction historical biographies, carefully notes that she signed herself Anna, and it is Anna that she is called throughout this book. In this series, and in Weir’s fictional biographies generally, her research is impeccable. Where she has unearthed a fact, a suggestion that inspires an entirely reasonable explanation for known if mysterying actions by the protagonist, she carefully exploits this. This carefully told story of Anna from her girlhood to her death takes in her background in Kleve, in the heart of European politics and with a strict upbringing that ill prepares her for her role in a royal marriage. As her relationship with Henry is shaped by religion and the balance of power between France and Spain, this is not a simple matter of a marriage between equals. This novel achieves an enviable balance between suggesting political machinations and telling a deeply personal story of love, loss and the intention to live a good life. Secrets and danger haunt a woman whose innocence may well be her downfall. I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review this book, the latest in this popular series.

The novel begins with a picture of the young Anna in 1530 at the age of fourteen. She is with her family, with her father’s court, but his father’s legacy is not only power or money. For within this court there is a welcome for his sixty – three illegitimate children, which seems to make the careful upbringing of his legitimate granddaughter even more remarkable. Anna’s affections are soon engaged, as she has an encounter will affect her life forever. The complications within her family despite the loyalty of Mother Lowe means she is persuaded that she will marry the King of England, who although being well known to have treated his previous three wives poorly, represents a rich and potentially powerful balance between France and the Emperor of Spain and other countries. She is dispatched to England in great state, richly dressed and attended, but almost sick with nerves about marrying this older man with a secret she must never divulge. The relationship gets off to a poor start when Henry determines to visit her unannounced and in a disguise; she has little English and despite a seemingly helpful interpreter she soon discovers that there are few people she can trust. As she learns more of her husband, she discovers just how delicate her position is, and  how her actions may have an impact on not only her life, but on the balance of power in Europe. Fear and innocence, advice and conflicting information makes Anna’s life difficult, and this is a story of wealth, power and the potential cost of royal life for the Tudors.

As with the previous books in the series, Henry himself remains a shadowy figure whose whims and decisions have far reaching impact on the lives of those around him. The popular fascination with the Tudor period and Henry’s wives in particular is well served by this engaging and well written book. Anna is an independent woman in some ways, but subject to the frequently inexplicable decisions of a king who has now become older and infirm on occasions. Each wife is separate with their own identity in Weir’s series of novels, and she can back up each strand of her novel with her research and knowledge of the period. This is a brilliantly written novel which is a powerful installment in a series that is uniformly well written and powerful. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to the many fans of historical novels who will relish this read of a mysterious but significant woman in British history.     

Julie Barham blogs at Northern Reader.

Alison Weir, Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets, Six Tudor Queens Volume 4 (Headline Review, 2019). 978-1472227720, 528pp., hardback.

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