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Episode 121: Alison Weir on Anne of Cleves

In episode 121 of the Renaissance English History Podcast I chat with the lovely Alison Weir, making her fourth appearance on the show, about Anne of Cleves and her new fiction book. We dispel some myths around looks, children, and more.

Buy Alison's new book on Amazon here:
Amazon US (available May 14)
Amazon UK

And from the Tudor Fair shop:

The Anne of Cleves "Best Life" tshirt

Anne of Cleves Best Life Shirt


Or the Anne of Cleves Portrait Charm Bracelet


Anne of Cleves bracelet


Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast a part of the Agora podcast Network. I'm your host Heather Teysko, and I'm a Storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it's a pathway to understanding who we are our place in the universe and be more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is episode 121 and it is an interview with

Alison Weir. This is her fourth time on the show and she is here talking about her new book Anne of Kleve, the Princess in the Portrait. before that though. I just want to make a very exciting announcement. I have received permission from the venue where Tudorcon is happening to film and stream the entire weekend. So for those of you who really want to come to Tudorcon, but you can't make it to Pennsylvania, I now have a digital Ticket available and you can check that out and learn more at Englandcast.com/tudorcon2019.

To get you to  Tudorcon so you can attend virtually all the talks will be streamed. It will all be monitored. So you can ask questions live. The parties will be streamed with hosts and special interview is just for the streaming attendees and you even get a swag bag. So check it out Englandcast.com/tudorcon2019. Now, let me introduce you to Alison Weir

Allison Weir is the top selling female historian and fifth best-selling historian overall in the United Kingdom and is sold over 2.7 million books worldwide. She's published 18 history books including her most recent non-fiction book Queens of the Conquest, the first in her England’s Medieval Queens Quartet. Allison has also published several historical novels including Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth. Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets is Allison, where's 9th published novel and her fourth in the Six Tudor Queens series about the wives of Henry VIII, which was launched in 2016 to great acclaim. The first three books in series. Catherine of Aragon the true Queen; Anne Boleyn a king's Obsession and Jane Seymour the Haunted Queen were all Sunday Times Best Sellers Allison is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in an honorary life patron of Historic Royal palaces.

Alison Weir, Thank you so much for being here on my podcast for the 4th time. I'm just so thrilled to have you.


Alison: It’s lovely to be back, Heather.  


Heather: You start off right off the bat with an interesting theory about Anna right in chapter one and I don't want to have to give away too much for people who haven't read it. But it kind of speaks to the idea that we have heard, of this kind of innocent person. Talk to me about your research with that, and kind of what led to that.



Something Henry VIII said that gave me my storyline because he kept insisting that Anna wasn’t wasn't a virgin on their wedding night.  And it wasn’t just something he said once, he said it to anyone who would listen. He said he felt her breasts, and her belly and that by those and other tokens, the looseness of them, she should be no virgin.


And I wonder what Henry meant, because everyone said it was just Henry trying to wriggle out of the marriage. But that’s not grounds - finding your bride isn’t a virgin isn’t grounds to annul a marriage. I did wonder if Henry was telling the truth. He’d been married three times. He’d fathered about 15 children. I think he would have known the difference between a female body that had born children and one that hadn’t. And it set me wondering. It might be doing a huge injustice to Anna because there other things that could have caused slackness, or rapid weight loss. A lot of brides lose a lot of weight before their weddings.  And if you were going to leave your contacts in your family for good. And you’re going to marry a man like Henry VIII, the stress I would think would be astronomical. And so, she could have lost that weight through stress. We don’t know for certain.


I pondered for a long while where to go with this theory but because this was fiction, I’d be a lot more cautious writing this as history. But even so, there are sources that could be corroborative. Sources to her character. I don’t think she was quite the innocent that traditionally she’s been thought to be.



Right and you kind of touched on that in a couple of places later on even after she was single this. There were rumors that she was indulging a bit too much and not alcoholic beverages. And yeah.



And that she became free with her favors when she did. That comes from her former secretary, and the Imperial Ambassador Chapuys reports the conversation he had with the secretary. This is about a year and a half after she was divorced. It was clear that both of them were aware that this was well-known this information.



interesting,  and then you also kind of hinted that the very famous conversation that she has with the ladies about how he comes in and kisses me goodnight, and then he…



Very strange conversation. A month later her Chamberlain who had dealings with her couldn’t understand what she was saying. And yet in the ladies’ statement she was fluent. She could have been speaking through an interpreter, but they were clearly briefed to get Anne to admit that her marriage hadn’t been consummated because that was a grounds for annulment. But it was a very strange conversation.


You really show the role of Cleves in the foreign-policy kind of world, that’s something that often gets lost.


Yes, that’s true. You need to see her as she saw herself in the European context…


So what can you tell me about her life as a princess in Cleves, and how she would have seen herself in this context?


The Duchy of Cleve was part of the Holy Roman Empire, but it was independent at that time of Anne’s youth, and it had its own army, and it had a great culture. A lot of the Italian culture came up the Rhine. It was a court based on the new learning of Erasmus, it was an enlightened court, they were technically Catholics, but they were very tolerant even of Protestants.


Her mother was a strict Catholic, and she brought her daughters up as a strict catholic. She was brought up we’re told never far from her mother's elbow. Things like dancing and singing and making music were frowned upon for young girls, so it was very suffocating for her.


Heather: And yet, you mentioned Erasmus. Can you tell me, it seems almost a dichotomy that there was this cultural court, and yet she wasn’t able to take part in any of that.


No, because the women were kept quite apart. The princesses, they were encouraged to entertain guests at Table, but usually these guests were chosen for them by their parents.


Heather: Yeah and you show an awkward moment where she wants to entertain people, and they all kind of, in the scene in Calais…


Alison: Yes, she wants to recreate those dinner parties. English ladies didn’t do that, although they had a lot of freedom in other respects. Accomplishments that Henry VIII admired in women, they could dance, sing, and make music, write poetry. And Anna couldn’t do that.


Heather: can you talk to me about her religion, which you touched on that? She was raised a Catholic and that she's often seen because she was German as this Protestant bride, but she wasn't really at all was she?


Alison: It’s easy to see why people have got this impression, but she was brought up a strict Catholic. I don’t think Henry would have married her if she’d been a Protestant. She observed the Catholic faith. Her father had broken with the pope, unlike Henry he’d stayed friendly with the Pope. So there was an affinity with Kleve. We don’t know anything about how Anna coped with England turning Protestant under Edward, but when Mary came to the throne there was a counter reformation, and she would have reverted.

Heather: I also want to talk about obviously her relationship with Henry and how they they became quite good friends afterwards. Sometimes you see them in the in the TV shows like in The Tudors. There's the the idea that maybe they were together, and there are those rumors that they actually had it a child, and yet yeah and what can you what can you tell me about their relationship afterwards? I'm they they didn't have any children.


Alison: I very much doubt that Henry was the father of any children Anna might have had. He was too besotted with Katherine Howard at the time, it was inconceivable.  But the rumors persisted beyond Katherine Howard’s execution, and right up until the end of his reign there was talk that he would take Anna back.

Some strange transformation has taken place with the divorce because they discovered they really liked each other and they became friends. Henry gave her a generous settlement, but the friendship becomes evident because of this is a time of rampant inflation. Prices are doubling in that decade. Anna’s settlement was worth less and less as the years wore on. And Henry supplemented it.


He pays for her officers. He paid out expenses when she was ill. In one account, he wrote, in his own hand, payment expenses for my beloved sister Anna.


This was the relationship. They became friends, and he looked after her.

After his death, things went wrong for her.


Heather: Right because she didn't have his friendship anymore then.


Alison: No, she was sort of like the spare aunt, a stepmother for Edward, who clearly didn’t have much affection for her. She was just a drain on royal resources.



Was it her choice to stay in England afterwards? Because I've also read that it was almost like she was there as a hostage for good behavior, but I don't know how much truth there. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?


Alison: No, I don’t think so at all. I think she was frightened of going home because the alliance had collapsed. Well, it didn’t collapse, there wasn’t any need of it. But she thought it had failed, and she would be blamed for it. And she worried her brother would kill her.


Put yourself in her position. You had a constricted and strict upbringing. Six months of a terrible marriage. And suddenly you’re a rich woman with freedom at your fingertips, great houses to live in and … would you go home?



No, of course not


Alison: I woldn’t.


Heather: just the idea that she was afraid her brother would kill her. Was there any kind of…

What would make her think - did he have a reputation like that?


Alison: As it turned out he was very sympathetic. He said all the right things, he too wanted this alliance to be preserved.

He needed Henry's friendship. But privately he was very nasty about Henry. Not impressed at all as you can imagine.



And the great mystery of her looks and the painting you do hint that Holbein went out of favor a little bit after. I’ve always heard that it’s proof that it was a good likeness because he wasn't punished afterwards and that people thought it was a good likeness. What can you tell me in general about the painting?



They did, that’s true. They can’t really tell - it’s possible to say he didn’t get so many commissions from Henry after that, but it’s not conclusive. There’s no record of Henry complaining that Holbein deceived him. As I say, the English envoy in Kleve thought it was a good likeness. I think what was missing was the chemistry that makes a relationship work. He was dismayed when he saw her, he complained that she was not as she was represented to her. Not as in how she looked, but more in terms of the praise of her that he'd received. And the wedding night cinched this.


Then he started to come out with the complaints that she wasn’t a virgin.


The was delayed for a couple of days because he was trying to get out of it, and when it went ahead, he was asked by Archbishop Cranmer if he knew of any impediments to the marriage, and he said no. He also initiated sexual relations on the wedding night, which suggests that he wanted to consumate the marriage. And I think he felt these tokens that he thought suggested that she wasn’t a virgin, and he said he had neither will nor courage to go further. I think he instinctively saw a way out when it wasn’t.


And you talk about her role in Wyatt's rebellion, and the role of Mary there, her role during Mary's reign. Without giving too much away, I have never heard that about her and you know thought about her role in that so what can you tell me briefly about that?


Alison: In the years after her divorce she came into the orbit of a very unscrupulous man, a dangerous man, Sir Thomas Carbon.

He was originally her stewart at Bletchingly in Surrey. He wanted Bletchingly. He was keeper of the revels at Kent, he was quite a mover and shaker at court. He was involved, he was a closet Protestant, he was involved with Katherine Parr in a secret Protestant plot, and later he came very near to being arrested. Under Edward he did very well because he was a Protetant, but under Mary he was involved in probably every single plot against Mary. Because he was her tenant and they had lots of dealings, Anna became sort of tainted by association.


I don’t believe she was guilty at all. With the aid of Elizabeth, who was in prison after Wyatt, Anna was accused of incited her brother to make war because Henry had divorced her. It’s nonsense because she lived very happily in England for several years.



Interesting. So your book is just fantastic. Like I said, I want to go through here. I had posted in one of my Facebook groups telling people have to be talking to you and asking for questions. Like I normally do. I’ve got a couple of questions some of which we already covered but I do want to read this one to you that somebody posted. Her name is Aditi, and she said this isn't a question, but I would like to thank her I recently finished Isabella queen of England She Wolf of France and it was just amazing. I like the way she differentiated facts and built up myths about the queen. I also appreciate the amount of research. She did as a seventeen-year-old moving to college in a totally different country. I am taking the books authored by her with me as moral support. So I thought you might enjoy hearing that.


That’s lovely, that’s so nice. If you see her, please thank her.



I'm going to write a comment here and tell her to listen to the podcast because I read it to you.


Somebody asks your how long do you spend in research on your historical fiction? And also what's the coolest most interesting thing you've discovered about any of the people you've written about?



I spend years you could say because, I mean the fiction I’m writing now is based on research I did over a long period of time, especially for the non fiction book, much of it unpublished as well. An awful lot.


For the other one, it was discovering various things about Anne Boleyn’s execution, I think. I was finishing researching a book called the Lady in the Tower which was about Anne Boleyn’s fall, and a month before I was delivering the book I found one thing after another, new evidence came up about her execution and buriel, and it was really exciting.



That book stayed with me just the end of the lady in the tower and your graphic descriptions of the beheading.


My editor said he needed a stiff drink after reading it.


Heather: I woke up with nightmares. I finished it before I went to bed.


Alison: It’s all based on truth. Sources everybody quoted from. There was material that had never been used.


Susan says, do we know anything about what her family felt about the divorce? And also did she remain in contact with her family in the following years?


Alison: She did remain in contact with them, yes. And as I said earlier, her brother was diplomatic, but privately he was scathing about Henry. In later years when things did get bad in England because Anna was very poor, after Henry’s death, poverty kicked in, Anna’s brother sent ambassadors to help her out. Made representations to the government, were very supportive.


There are a couple of people asking about her relationships after the divorce, if she could remarry.


Not outside the novel, no.
Remember, for some six years after she married, the rumors kept resurfacing that Henry would take her back. While those rumors were currnet, was any man likely to come forwrard to suggest marriage?


And you also talked in the book about the way the annulment or the divorce was written that it seemed as if he was more at liberty to marry that because the pre-contract they that was part of the reason for the divorce, which meant that the pre-contract still existed for her then in theory.

It was very strange, the contradiction in the actual documentation of the divorce when the Bishops came out and dissolved the marriage, it was said that both parties were free to remarry. There were three grounds for the annulment. One was non-consummation which Henry played down. The other one was the precontract which hadn’t been formally dissolved. The other was that he had not consented to the marriage.


One one hand she’s still married to the  son of the Duke of Lorraine.


On the other she’s free to remarry. It doesn't make sense.

Technically, the Duke of Lorraine’s son had actually married. The whole point was that when they were precontracted they were children, under the age of consent. Therefore it was assumed that they didn’t have to formally dissolve the betrothal.


You can understand Henry’s concern if someone turned around and said she was married to someone else. That could compromise the English succession.


And his track record wasn’t that great.


Absolutely. He’d look a fool, but it was also security. If Edward VI had died, her child would be in line for the throne. And the someone comes along and says that she wasn’t properly married because she was precontracted to someone else. That could bastardize her child.


Looking at the question of remarriage, there is this, and then the king is certainly, no one is likely to trespass where the king might go.



Here's one that says, did Anne know about Henry's interest in Katherine Howard right from the beginning or how did she discover it. And you show that in the book as well.


That’s fictionalized, but we just don’t know. I think she did know later on. It took her a little while.



Looking forward to reading this book when it's available. That's nice. And somebody said here. where was the comment they were at a talk by you about 6 months ago, and you mentioned you were going to be publishing revised version of the Six Wives. I'd love to know when that will be coming out, really keen to read her new research.

Nobody knows. I’ve researched and rewritten five of the wives now. It’s been greatly expanded. UK non fiction publishers have suggested republishing it as a series of six biographies. Whether that will happen, I don't know when it will happen. It can’t compete with the current book series, so it’s something for the future.

And I need to do more work on it.


These novels are sort of entry projects to use the research I’ve done already in the new series.



Somebody said, how did she get in the mindset of these characters? She's so good at it.

I feel like I'm in the room with them and reading their words, even though I know they've been fictionalized.


Oh that’s lovely to get that kind of feedback. It’s a thing that I lived with them for so long. You do a lot of background research, you find out about the characters as much as you can, and try to imagine how they would feel.  Each of these books being written solely from each Queen’s point of view, so you have to get inside her head.


Do you ever struggle with the shifting when you go from one to the other, like Katherine of Aragon going to Anne Boleyn.


Alison: No, but Anne Boleyn was the biggest challenge and I had to discuss that with my editor. As a historian I take a bit of a dim view of Anne Boleyn. She’s important historically, but she doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person, and I can’t understand why she’s such a heroine to so many people. There are so many issues around her, and the mythology around her. I went back to original sources, and found out some really interesting things about her, but I was worried that I was going to write a book that wasn’t sympathetic to the heroine. My editor said, think about her motives, how she got from A to B, everything from her point of view. And that’s what I’ve done, and it was easier. And my agent said I’d written a really sympathetic novel.

A lot of people don’t like my views on Anne Boleyn. She’s almost a superstore.



There’s also the modern construct of her being a feminist.


Alison: I talked to my friend Sarah Gristwood who did the book Game of Queens, and I said, I don’t see Anne Boleyn as a feminist icon. She said, well, you can see why she was. Anne Boleyn is was at the court of Margaret of Austria, and the Queen of Navarre, and they were eager participants in this feminist debate that was going on in Europe at the time, though not in England. Saying women should have more autonomy and power. Anne was exposed to this very early on and it must have been part of what shaped her.


Back to Anna, there’s a couple more questions here. There's a couple more questions. I want to go through your quickly because I know we're running out of time. This is I almost don't want to mention it. But I feel like if I don't it'll be at the service cuz some people other people might be thinking it too. It's been inferred that she was a lesbian is this true?


Alison: I'm not sure I've ever heard that one and she was also a strict Catholic.


Heather: And here’s someone who met you, and you were lovely and they loved meeting you so there's that going as well as well. I think I if I missed anybody's questions here. I'm so sorry and there's a lot of questions about her looks and her parents which we kind of talked about. So. I think I caught them all here. And if I didn't I apologize, you have to read the book and you'll get answers to them.


Thank you.


Alison: We covered an awful lot.


Heather: We try to get a lot in here. Thank you so much for your your generosity with your time. I know for so many of us, myself included you were our entree into this Tudor world and it's just such a joy to always chat with you.

Thank you so much to Alison Weir for being here on the show. I can't wait until next year to talk to her about her book on Katherine Howard. In the meantime, go by the Anna of Kleve book. It's amazing such a good book. You can get show notes with links and all of the links to buy the book everything like that at Englandcast.com. And also remember to go to englandcast.com/tudorcon2019 to check out your  Tudorcon digital ticket. I cannot wait to see you either in person or virtually at Tudorcon. It’s going to be so much fun. Alright, I'll be back in about 2 weeks. Thank you so much for listening! Bye.