Book Review: “Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife” by Sarah-Beth Watkins

91UpsDD9PWL.jpgHenry VIII, the king who was notorious for his six marriages. His first three marriages, to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour, gave Henry VIII his only children that were considered eligible for succession. Catherine of Aragon was his first foreign bride, but he would divorce her to marry Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn would later be executed and Jane Seymour would die after giving birth to Henry’s son Edward. Henry wanted to marry again, so his most trusted advisors decided to try for a foreign alliance as well as a new bride for the king. They decided that Anne of Cleves from Germany would be the perfect bride, but it did not work out and Henry decided to divorce her and claim Anne as his “sister”. She is often viewed as Henry’s “lucky wife”, but who was she and what was her life like before and after she met her husband Henry VIII? That is exactly the question that Sarah-Beth Watkins wanted to explore in her latest book, “Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife”.

Sarah-Beth Watkins explains who Anne of Cleves was  and how has she has been described in the past:

Contemporary reports of Anne are mixed but time has not been kind to her memory. In a book by Sarah Tytler published in 1896, I was shocked to read Anne described as ‘a woman of entirely negative characteristics’. The author really had nothing good to say about her. She was ‘dull-witted as well as a hard-favoured young woman, possessed of a stolid sluggishness of temper’. Her writing reads as if Anne had personally upset her in some way. She was ‘plain and stupid’ and even had a ‘meaningless expanse of forehead’! She hasn’t favoured much better with other authors. Hume described her as ‘large, bony and masculine’ and Burnet coined the phrase ‘Flanders mare’ which has stuck to Anne throughout the centuries. Strickland, however, wrote with more sympathy that Anne ‘ was a most unfortunate, ill-treated princess…who deserved a better fate than to become the wife of a king so devoid of the feelings of a gentleman as Henry VIII’…She was Queen of England for just over six months and after became the King’s ‘sister’- a role she adopted and thrived on. She became the richest woman in England for a time with an astounding divorce settlement. Henry may not have wanted her for a wife but he did not blame her for the failure of their marriage- that would fall upon his chief minister. Anne would outlive the king and all of his other wives. (Watkins, 2-3).

Watkins begins her book by diving into Anne of Cleves’ life in Germany before she was even considered as a bride for a king. Anne’s life in Germany was simple. She didn’t really have the education that one would expect for a future queen, but she never was expected to marry a king. She was the sister to William, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Her sister, Sybilla, was married to John Frederick, Duke of Saxony, who was one of the leaders of the Protestant Confederation of Germany and was considered one of the champions of the Reformation. Anne didn’t  follow her sister’s path to the Protestant faith as she was a devout Catholic, but the religious issue doesn’t seem to have caused a rift in the family.

Anne was supposed to marry Francis of Lorraine, but the engagement was broken since Francis was only 10 when it was arranged. After the death of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII needed a new wife. He wanted to make an alliance with the Schmalkaldic League, a league of Protestant territories that wanted to defend itself against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Anne was not exactly Henry’s first choice of bride to help join this alliance, but she was the one he decided to marry, and so Anne left her home in 1539. The marriage did not last long, only six months, before Henry divorced her. Anne was a bit disappointed, but Henry was able to provide her with a wealthy lifestyle, one fit for a former queen.  There were talks about Anne becoming queen again after the fall of Katherine Howard, but it never happened. Anne was able to form a close relationship with Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter since they were so close in age. Even when she was not queen, Anne of Cleves kept a close eye on what was happening, not only in the English court but what was happening in her beloved Germany. As stated before, Anne did outlive Henry VIII, the rest of his wives and King Edward VI. Anne of Cleves died at the age of 41 on July 16, 1557.

This is the first time that I have read a book by Sarah-Beth Watkins and I really enjoyed how easy it was to read and the amount of information in this book. I did not know a whole lot about Anne of Cleves before reading this book, other than the fact that she was married to Henry VIII for a short time. Watkins’ book packs in so much information that you want to learn more about Anne of Cleves and her family.  This book is well researched and thoroughly enjoyable. If you want a fantastic book to introduce you to the life of Anne of Cleves, I highly recommend you read “Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife” by Sarah-Beth Watkins.

Book Review: “Six Tudor Queens- Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen” by Alison Weir

9781472227713Henry VIII’s wives were some of the most fascinating women of the Tudor Dynasty.  Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, the mother of Mary I, and the first wife Henry divorced. Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth I and the first English queen to be executed. Anne of Cleves, the wife Henry did not like and divorced. Katherine Howard, the second wife Henry executed, and Katherine Parr, the wife who outlived Henry. All of these women were unique, however, there was only one who gave Henry the son that he so desperately desired. Her name was Jane Seymour. Her death was well documented since she died shortly after giving birth to Edward, yet we really don’t know who she was or what her life was like. Alison Weir decides to explore Jane’s life in her third book of the Six Tudor Queens series, “Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen”.

So what makes Jane such a mystery? In her author’s note, Alison Weir explains what we know about Jane and why she was a challenge to write about:

Jane Seymour’s career spanned three of the most tumultuous years in England’s history. She was at the centre of the turbulent and dramatic events that marked the Reformation, a witness to the fall of Anne Boleyn, and an adherent of the of traditional religion at a time when seismic changes were taking place in the English Church. Had she left behind letters giving insights into her views on these events, we would know much more about the role she played in them- but she didn’t and therefore she remains an enigma. Historians endlessly debate whether or not Jane was the demure and virtuous willing instrument of an ambitious family and an ardent and powerful king; or whether she was as ambitious as her relations and played a proactive part in bringing down the Queen she served. It is impossible, given the paucity of the evidence, to reach a conclusion. And yet a novelist approaching Jane Seymour must opt for one view or the other. For me, this posed a challenge, which set me poring once more over the historical evidence on which this book is closely based, looking for clues as to how to portray her. (Weir, 503).

Weir introduces us to Jane and the Seymour family on the wedding day of her eldest brother Edward to Catherine Fillol. This marriage was doomed to fail as there was a huge scandal that rocked the Seymour family to its core. During this time, at least according to Weir’s novel, Jane was contemplating becoming a nun, but alas, it was not the lifestyle for her. Jane would eventually move to the court of Katherine of Aragon to work for the Queen. Jane is content with her new life inside the royal court, but that all changes when Anne Boleyn starts to have a relationship with Henry VIII.

Jane was not the biggest fan of Anne Boleyn and she stayed with Katherine of Aragon for as long as she could. Eventually, Jane made her way into the court of Anne Boleyn and fell in love with Henry VIII. Jane sees a softer side of Henry, a side that is not often portrayed. As Anne fell from favor, Jane rose to become the next wife and queen of Henry VIII. It is Anne’s death that haunts Jane as she questions whether she did the right thing falling in love for the King. Jane is a strong and loving character who cares about her family, Henry and the Catholic Church. She works hard to bring Mary, Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, back to her father’s good side, as well as restoring the monasteries that Henry was destroying. Jane’s love and her courage to do what was right for her country and those who were close to her defined her life.

This third book in the “Six Tudor Queens” series is an absolute delight to read. It continues the trend that the first two books set, one of opening the readers’ eyes to another side of Henry VIII’s queens. Alison Weir’s Jane Seymour is full of strength and love for others that you can’t help but like her character. Weir combines events that happened with how Jane might have reacted to create a strong story full of love and heartache. Her life and her beloved son changed England forever. If you want a fascinating and complex story of Jane Seymour’s short life, I highly recommend you read the third book of the “Six Tudor Queens” series by Alison Weir, “Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen.” It is an absolutely eye-opening novel.