BIOGRAPHY//Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife- Sarah- Beth Watkins*

 

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Anne of Cleves is a bit like Anne Bronte- you appreciate her more when you’re older. Sure, you crave the glamour and drama of Anne Boleyn/Wuthering Heights as a teenager, but you come to understand the importance of keeping your powder dry and not putting your head above the parapet (or on the block) to get your message across.

I have always been fascinated with Anne of Cleves. As a young Tudor enthusiast in Year 4, I remember having a heated conversation with a boy called Ryan when he said she was ugly and I passionately defended her. I’ve visited the mis-named house in Lewes a few times and I even dyed some yarn based on the most famous portrait of her:

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I also recently learnt that she owned the land my very house was built on as part of her divorce settlement from Henry VIII. The woman was a badass- she SURVIVED. She had a good relationship with one of the biggest dictators this country has ever had. She deserves more than to go through history being defamed as a ‘Flanders mare’ (which, btw, Henry never called her) and stinky (which… he kind of did. Rude, considering he had a FESTERING ULCER ON HIS LEG THAT WOULD HAVE STUNK TO HIGH HEAVEN.) Obviously, when this biography appeared on Netgalley, I snapped it up.

I must confess that I came to this book having read quite a few biographies of Henry VIII and his wives, including Antonia Fraser’s (the best biographer of queens, in my opinion), David Starkey’s (much quoted here) and Alison Weir. So I have more than an passing interest in the subject, albeit from the distance of a few years since I read them.

This book feels quite light on analysis and relies heavily on primary sources, some of which are quoted in full. This is fine, although I would prefer an author to pick these apart with some detail. As a biography, this feels like more of an introduction than an in-depth exploration of its subject. I get that historical women are ill-served by male-dominated record keeping and I understand this is frustrating (what I would give to have a brilliant biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine). But I felt that the socio-political environment that meant Anne was packed off from what was essentially a provincial dukedom was not explored as it could be. I felt that I didn’t really learn who Anne was, or what really happened to her after Henry’s death. I wanted more about the relationship between Anne and her step-daughters Mary and Elizabeth. I didn’t quite understand just how Anne got to the decision to go along with Henry’s divorce. I just didn’t get… much of her. She feels less like the joke of history and more of a Tudor Miss Haversham, constantly asking money in her later years.

Overall, I’d consider that this book is a primer, rather than a full biography. It’s be a great place to start before going on to the more detailed, fuller biographies mentioned above. I think it’ll be quite a while- if ever- before any of Henry’s wives receives the full biography she deserves.

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