Heather R. Darsie is a woman with a mission, happily also laden with the talent to accomplish the seemingly impossible. After an interest sparked in learning the entire life story of Henry VIII’s fourth wife and queen, Anna of Cleves, Heather embarked on a journey — one I was stunned to learn no historian successfully attempted before. She used her exemplary research skills — Heather is a lawyer, after all — fluency in German and English, proficiency in French and Spanish, and a well-used passport to head to the primary sources — not only in England, but throughout Europe. By doing so, we now have our most comprehensive look yet at the life of Anna of Cleves available in the English language.
The biography begins with a delightful look at Anna’s colorful and illustrious family history and childhood. The second daughter of Johann III of Cleves and Maria of Jülich-Berg, Anna von der Mark was born into a life of privilege. Following the traditions of her homeland, rather than music, dance, and languages, she and her sisters were instead taught exclusively by her mother and female servants the domestic and finance skills necessary to manage a ducal household, as well as embroidery and clothing construction. Thus, until arriving in England, Anna’s sole language fluency, inclusive of reading and writing, was German.
Beyond the basics of Anna’s childhood education, however, Heather provides a fascinating in-depth look at the Court of Cleves, in doing so, highlighting how the culture, values, and politics of the Cleves Court influenced the woman Anna of Cleves would ultimately become. I was also struck by the pervasive cultural differences between the Court of Cleves and the English Court, punctuating the vast change in lifestyle Anna would eventually need to navigate both as Henry VIII’s wife and Queen and later her life as his “beloved sister”.
Heather does a fantastic job explaining the religious intrigues and politics of the Holy Roman Empire in general and Anna’s homeland in particular. Throughout the biography, the shifts in politics and religion, the Protestant Reformation, and the various wars waged throughout Europe play a critical role in defining not only the course of events in the lives of Anna’s family there but also her life in England. I was especially impressed with how Heather’s research surprisingly added significant context to the ultimate fall of Thomas Cromwell, a feat I did not think possible after Diarmaid MacCulloch’s definitive biography, Thomas Cromwell, A Life, released. I think Professor MacCulloch will find her work fascinating. He certainly will have an opinion.
Beyond Heather’s truly groundbreaking research of Anna of Cleve’s life in Germany, she does a wonderful job exploring Anna’s life in England. We learn of Anna’s meeting with King Henry VIII, their wedding, their short but eventful life as man and wife, their ultimate marriage annulment, and her remaining life in England. I found Heather’s exploration of Anna’s loving relationships with Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk; Queen Mary Tudor, and the Lady Elizabeth Tudor, exceptionally interesting. Anna certainly “turned a lemon into lemonade”, commendably redefining herself to English customs without losing her German essence.
Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister is an exceptional biography of King Henry VIII’s least known and perpetually unexplored Queen. To be frank, I haven’t learned so much new information about any Tudor Era historical figure in a very long time. I found the content comprehensive, fascinating, and engrossing. BRAVO!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather R. Darsie lives in the United States with her family and three parrots. Heather’s new biography Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’ will be released by Amberley Publishing on 15 April 2019 in the United Kingdom and on 1 July 2019 in the United States. Heather is an apprentice bowyer, who also enjoys knitting. She holds a BA in German languages and literature, as well as Juris Doctorate. For more information about Heather, do visit her website at Maidens and Manuscripts. A valued contributor to Queenanneboleyn.com, also enjoy her content here at the website.