Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

This is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell in fictional form the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. I enjoyed the previous three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – but I was particularly looking forward to reading this one, on Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Before I began, all I really knew about Anne was that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in arranging her marriage to Henry, that the King was disappointed when he saw her in the flesh as she didn’t live up to the Hans Holbein portrait he had seen, and that after their divorce she lived in comfort and was given the honour of being described as the King’s ‘beloved sister’. I knew there must be more to Anne’s story than this and I hoped to learn more about her from this new novel.

Alison Weir refers to Anne as Anna, so I will do the same for the rest of this post. She also uses the spelling Kleve rather than the Anglicised version, Cleves, and tells us that this should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘waver’. The duchy of Kleve, in what is now Germany, is the setting for the first section of the novel, which describes Anna’s life prior to her marriage. Her journey to England and brief time as Henry’s wife follows, and finally an account of the period after the divorce, taking us all the way through to her death in 1557 at the age of forty-one.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’ve always considered Anna to be much luckier than most of Henry’s other wives: she wasn’t beheaded, she didn’t die in childbirth while providing the king with an heir, and unlike the other divorced wife, Katherine of Aragon, she was treated with respect and generosity (at least while the king still lived). Of course, this doesn’t mean that life was always easy for her – it can’t have been very nice, after all, to have to leave your family and friends behind and travel abroad to marry a man you’ve never met, only to be rejected by your bridegroom almost on first sight. As portrayed here by Alison Weir, she is a sensible, pleasant and good-natured woman and I did have a lot of sympathy for her, but her story is certainly less tragic and turbulent than some of the other wives’.

Bearing in mind that this is a novel with around 500 pages and that there isn’t really a lot of factual information available on Anna von Kleve, I felt that there was too much padding and at times I found the book quite tedious and repetitive. Because Weir takes us right up to the time of Anna’s death, towards the end of the book a lot of attention is given to the next two queens, Katheryn Howard and Catherine Parr, as well as various incidents and plots that took place during the reigns of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. Unfortunately, by this point Anna is living away from court on her various estates, so she has little personal involvement and most of these events are described from afar which made them less exciting to read about than they should have been.

To flesh out Anna’s story and make it more interesting, Weir has imagined a romance for her in Kleve before she marries the king and this has repercussions that affect the rest of her life. I won’t go into too much detail, but looking at other reviews of this book, some readers liked this imaginary storyline while others hated it. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility as Henry did allegedly tell people that he ‘doubted Anna’s virginity’, but that could have just been an excuse for not consummating the marriage and demanding a divorce. However, even if it was true, there is no evidence to suggest who her previous lover may have been, so this aspect of the novel is entirely fictional.

Although this is my least favourite book in the series so far, I have a copy of the next one, Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf and am anticipating a more entertaining read – and hopefully, given Katheryn’s much more dramatic life, one that needs to rely less heavily on fiction.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

13 thoughts on “Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

  1. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    Tricky balance to strike writing about a person who has significance in being married (if briefly) to a very famous person, yet about whom there is little factual evidence to go on and not an exciting life to follow. It was inevitable therefore that taking on a project writing about all the wives of Henry VIII that this one would be harder to make interesting than the others – without reading the book it’s perhaps not fair to comment, but I am surprised it stretched to 500 pages – as a reader I’d have been satisfied with much less, recognising the potential story didn’t warrant a lengthy treatment.

    • Helen says:

      There definitely wasn’t enough material to fill so many pages – it would have worked much better as a shorter book, then it wouldn’t have been necessary to make so much of the story up. Actually, although I enjoyed the three previous books in the series, I think they all felt unnecessarily long and repetitive.

  2. Kathy says:

    Your review of Anna of Kleve absolutely agreed with my own thoughts about the book. I enjoyed the
    first three books in the series very much but this one was a disappointment and I really disliked the
    fictional story of Anna’s lover. Katheryn Howard should provide some much juicier content matter.

    • Helen says:

      It sounds as though we had very similar feelings about this one, Kathy. I disliked the fictional storyline too and didn’t find it very convincing. I’m still looking forward to reading the Katheryn Howard book, though.

  3. piningforthewest says:

    She got it wrong about the pronunciation of Kleve anyway as it doesn’t rhyme with waver, there’s definitely no ‘r’ sound on the end. My sister-in-law’s mother grew up there.

  4. whatmeread says:

    I understand the attraction to this series, but I don’t think that Weir’s talent is for fiction. Possibly she is getting better, but judging by your comments about this book, perhaps not.

    • Kathy says:

      I would agree with Weir’s talent not being fiction except for her first fiction novels written several years ago. They are Innocent Traitor about Jane Grey and The Lady Elizabeth about a young Elizabeth I.
      I really enjoyed these but it has been years since I read them so my memory may be faulty.

  5. Calmgrove says:

    I enjoyed (if that’s the best word—she mostly just read out her commentary to a series of interesting slides) the author’s talk at our last literary festival on this, but I’d always prefer a good bit of historical non-fiction (even with a! bit of speculation thrown in) with characters who really existed than a novel expecting me to invest in figments of the author’s imagination… By her own own lights she’s a good ferreter out of new documentary material.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t mind authors using a bit of imagination to flesh out the story of historical characters, but not to the extent that Alison Weir does in this novel. A shorter book that stuck more closely to the known facts of Anne of Cleves’ life would have worked better for me.

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