Artists of Northern Europe, Interviews, Royal Portraits, Subjects for discussion, Symbols and emblems

An Interview with Heather Darsie: Author of Anna Duchess of Cleves, The King’s Beloved Sister.

Mell.  Heather, welcome.  As an art historian, I am interested in the various portraits of Anna and the iconography used by the family.  I remember when we both attended the 500th anniversary celebratory conference of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and you disappeared for a morning. What were you doing while I was listening to the President of St John’s College talk about college architecture?

Heather: In September 2017, I had the distinct honour of visiting St John’s College, Oxford for a private viewing of the portrait which they hold depicting Anna of Cleves.  I was tremendously nervous when I entered the private study where the portrait hangs. St Johns 002IMG_4896

Finally I was face to face with another portrait of Anna, other than the Holbein, which I had seen previously in Paris.

Bruyn the elder, Bartholomaeus, 1493-1555; Anne of Cleves
Anna, Duchess of Cleves: St John’s College, University of Oxford.


Mell: Your book cover is a completely different portrait of Anna to the one most people know.  I am intrigued as to how you found it.

Heather: At St John’s I was kindly given a binder of research, telling me more about the posthumous portrait of Anna which St John’s holds.

Specifically, I was looking at an article from 1992 and was struck by an image of Anna right below the well-known Hans Holbein the Younger portrait held by the Louvre. This second portrait was beautiful, but its present whereabouts, at least as recently as 1992 and probably still in 2017, was unknown. I read the caption below the portrait and learned that it was last sold at auction by Christie’s of London in 1930.  Committing that information to memory, after the conference I went back to the United States and began my hunt.

After several communications with Christie’s auction house and a library, I was directed to the Rosenbach Museum of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By Jove, they had the portrait of Anna, which has been safely hanging in a back area for decades. I called the Rosenbach and held my breath.

An intelligent, energetic woman returned my call. It was late November 2017. She confirmed that yes, they had the portrait; yes, I could use it for my book; and yes, I may make an appointment to view it in person. I excitedly called my research supporter and travel buddy, BJ Maley and told him that we were going to meet the ‘new’, or rather ‘lost’ portrait of the Duchess of Cleves.

In December 2017 we chose to go the first weekend in February 2018. When we picked the weekend to go, the American football team, the Philadelphia Eagles had not made it to the Super Bowl yet.   However, within a couple of months the Eagles had made it through the play off games so when we arrived in the city on Super Bowl weekend, the city was electric with energy and optimism, which reflected my own.

Our appointment was set for Friday, 2 February, at 1:00PM. We took a very late flight to Philadelphia the night before and were settled in the hotel by 1:00 AM. That Friday morning we visited Independence Hall and its surrounding campus. The last time I was there, I must have been no older than three years. The weather was crisp, a light snow was falling but not sticking, and it was still warm enough to walk around outside without a thick proper winter coat. I did my best to remember what the air felt like and the snow looked like.

Outside the Rosenbach
Heather outside the Rosenbach Museum in February 2018.

We finally arrived at the museum and were brought into the back part of the museum to view the portrait of Anna. The Rosenbach staff kindly helped me sift through their notes and information.  No photograph will ever do it justice. I used my magnifying glass to examine the brush strokes and intricate details of her feature, her dress and her fetching cap.  I finally felt I had a true understanding of what Anna looked like.

Interacting 2

Anna was simply gorgeous.

Anna of Cleves
Anna, Duchess of Cleves (1539): Anon.  Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia, USA.

Mell: To return, briefly to the St John’s portrait, where your adventure to find the fabulous portrait seen on the cover of your book begins, Anna is wearing[3] a similar dress as in the cover image, which I shall call the Rosenbach. 

In both the Rosenbach and St John’s College portraits Anna holds a small bunch of dianthus, which suggests this was a betrothal portrait.  The St John’s portrait shows what may be a pomegranate on the ledge in front of her.  Do you have any thoughts as to why?

Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 11.04.27
Detail of St John’s College portrait. Is this a pomegranate?

Heather: I do have thoughts, but further research is certainly needed. If the St John’s portrait is indeed from the 1560s or 1570s, this could have been some sort of visual symbol for the family support for the Habsburgs specifically and/or the Holy Roman Empire generally. The pomegranate was not only a symbol of the Spanish royal house, but also of the Habsburgs.  Dürer’s portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I shows him holding a pomegranate.  Anna’s maternal grandfather and to a lesser extent, her father, maintained relationships with Maximilian I and his successor, Charles V. The second wife of Anna’s brother Wilhelm was the niece of Charles V and daughter of Ferdinand I, Maria of Austria. Beyond that, I could not say.

Mell: With regard to the background information of the Rosenbach portrait.  Can you tell me, who were the Rosenbach brothers?  Were they refugees from Nazi Germany?

Heather: As far as I know, the Rosenbach brothers were born in Philadelphia in the late 19thcentury. I must say that I am dismayed by this question; there is so much more to German history than the horrors of World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust. Turning back to the Rosenbach brothers, the Rosenbach Museum was created from the collections of the Rosenbach brothers, rare book and antiquities dealers. They were born in Philadelphia, USA in the late 19thcentury and Dr Abraham Simon Rosenbach attended the University of Pennsylvania. The brothers, upon their passing, left their property to form the Rosenbach Museum.

Mell: I hope you are not offended by this question, but in view of the discovery in Vienna some years ago, of a stash of Nazi looted art I am aware that people would immediately jump to the wrong conclusion, so I wished to clarify that neither the Rosenbach brothers, nor this portrait were refugees from 1930s Europe.

To return to the comparison of the various portraits of Anna.  Past historians have described Anna as being ugly and was given the soubriquet of “The Flanders Mare”.  Henry’s ambassadors had been shown portraits of both Anna and her sister Amalia and portraits of the two girls were sent to England for Henry VIII’s delectation.  Famously Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) was sent to Cleves to paint Anna’s portrait. 

Anna, Duchess of Cleves (1539): Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543).  Louvre, Paris.

Looking at both the Rosenbach and the Holbein portraits it is very apparent that Anna was a very pretty woman, so why do you think the whole myth of her being ugly came about?

Heather: Within my book is a much more detailed explanation, and because of that I admit that I am going to play a little coy here. However, briefly, when Anna first came to England, both the Imperial and French ambassadors reported her as being less attractive, but they were never physically close to her. This was enough to start the rumour on the Continent that she was unattractive. After the annulment, the French ambassador was quick enough to praise her beauty. There were political reasons within England for describing Henry as finding Anna unattractive to him, but not necessarily unattractive in general.

Mell:  On the Holbein and St John’s portraits you spotted embroidery that says, “A Bon Fine,” on the front part of Anna’s head-dress.  Do you have any thoughts about the meaning of this phrase?  

A Buone Fine
Detail of the Holbein portrait.
Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 11.18.04
Detail of St John’s College portrait where the embroidery is clearer

HeatherAnna’s family claims their ancient lineage from the Orsini. I did look into possible explanations for “A Bon Fine” beyond the meaning of “To a Good End,” and found a tenuous connection to Piedmont, if I remember correctly. However, I did not find any strong connections and would suggest that further research is needed.

What is significant is that the forehead cloth bearing “A Bon Fine” is found in both the Louvre and St John’s portraits and also in a portrait of an Unknown Woman held by Trinity College, Cambridge. If I remember correctly, the Trinity portrait was purchased in Germany in the 19th century because the purchaser mistakenly thought that “A Bon Fine” was “Anne Boleyn.”

Trinity College portrait - Anna maybe
Unknown Woman, c1539.  Anon.  Trinity College, Cambridge.

Upon further review, the mistaken identity was discovered. The identity of the woman in Trinity College, Cambridge is still unknown. I do not believe this woman is Anna.

Mell: Anna must have made quite an impact on the Tudor court because her outfits were very different from those worn in England.  Do you think her wardrobe being so different from what English women were wearing was used as part of the propaganda to vilify her? 

Heather: No. She adopted the French style of dress popular at the English court fairly early on in her marriage to Henry. To my recollection, there are no discussions of her fashion choice after the annulment.

Mell: You mentioned the Trinity College, Cambridge portrait (above).   Looking at the two portraits on screen, I am immediately struck by subtle differences in the faces of this portrait and the Holbein and Rosenbach portraits.  To my eye there is sufficient resemblance to suggest these two women are related, but there are enough dissimalarities to be two different people. Do you agree, and if so, could this be Anna’s sister, Amalia? 

Heather: I would not be surprised to learn that this woman either had a connection to Anna or was perhaps Anna’s younger sister, Amalia. It could be, or possibly their cousin, Katharina von Hatzfeldwho grew up at the Cleves court with Amalia. Katharina was quite a bit younger than Anna. Given the age of the woman depicted in the Trinity College portrait, it is not very likely that it is Katharina. If I remember correctly, Katharina would have been roughly 10 years old at most when Anna moved to England.

However, it may be impossible ever to identify an image of Anna’s sister, Amalia, without any supporting documentary evidence

 Mell: The Rosenbach background still remains blue after several centuries, which suggests to me that the artist used an expensive blue pigment.  Do you think the use of an expensive pigment suggests this might be the first portrait that was sent to England for Henry to view?

Heather: Yes. Additionally, Anna wore a hat with orient pearl for her first official meeting with Henry.

Detail of the Rosenbach portrait of Anna.

I suspect that might be the same hat she is wearing in the Rosenbach portrait. My theory is that the Rosenbach is three quarter face and Holbein’s portraits of both Christina of Denmark and Anna are front facing so no part of their faces are hidden, so it is possible that Henry sent Holbein to paint their portraits because the king wanted to make sure neither noble women were not hiding massive scars, or squint eyes.

Mell: I saw on Sarah Bryson’s stop on your book tour, you have also tracked down other family portrait of Anna’s family. Clearly the family were aware of the importance of portraits therefore it seems odd that there are no images of her parents.  Do you have any thoughts as to why these might be missing?

Heather: Yes, my best guess is that there were some kept at the Swan Castle in Cleves, which was levelled in World War II by allied bombing.   We know what the ancient castle looked like from the 19th century engraving and painting.  In this engraving you can see how it stood above the River thine, with a water gatehouse.


There is also a massive 19thcentury mural in Schloss Burg in Solingen showing the Jülich-Berg family tree which was probably painted using these portraits as a model.  There is also a mural showing the coat of arms of her parents.

When I visited the re-built Swan Castle in September 2018, it was a shadow of its former self. Visitors were able to go into the tower to see archaeological exhibits relating to the various fossils and dinosaur bones found in that part of Nordrhine-Westfalen. There were some pottery fragments from Anna’s time on display as well. There were fragments of a bronze bell which Anna or her family may have heard ring.

Mell: The Swan Castle sounds incredibly romantic.  How did it get its name?

 Heather: The legend goes that the Swan Knight came to save the Cleves territories for the sole heir, the Duchess-Princess Beatrix, from being grabbed by land hungry neighbours because she was a woman.  So the story goes the knight arrived in Cleves by boat.  His boat sailed down the Rhine and was pulled by a swan, hence his name.

The Swan Knight - 16th c woodcut
16th century woodcut of the Swan Knight

Subsequently, the Swan Knight marries Beatrix, with the one condition that she never asks about his origins. They live very happily having sons, until one day one of the sons asks his father where he came from and immediately the Swan Knight disappeared.  Beatrix died a few months after the disappearance of her husband, but at least there were male heirs to inherit the title and the lands.

The swans, amongst other beasts, could be a reference to the Swan Knight directly relating to Cleves and the Swan Castle. The story of the Swan Knight was known in 16th century England as Knight of the Swan and an original document is in the British Library as part of the Cotton collection.  As far as I am aware this document has not been ditigized so has to be viewed in person.

Opera fans might recognise this story as part of Wagner’s Ring cycle, in particular the story of Lohengrin.  The legend is very old and dates back to the 11th century.

Mell: I see from the various images in your book that the ceiling of St James’s Chapel Royal contains some beautiful coats of arms.  I have heard one professor suggest this ceiling was a celebration of Henry’s marriage to the other Anne, but clearly the only reason for his conclusion has to be the presence of the initials H & A. Could you explain the iconography of these coats of arms and the relevance of their presence in this chapel?

Heather: Anna of Cleve’s coat of arms appears three times on the ceiling of the St James’s Chapel Royal; once at the very front of the altar, and then another time on the walls as you face the altar.

Additionally, there are visual references to Berg, Cleve, Gulick and Juliers (the archaic and French spellings of Jülich), and other areas that  were part of the United Duchies, and written in a language that Anna would understand. Additionally, the year “1540” is in several areas of the ceiling, along with intertwined “H & A”s. It is absolutely beautiful, and I am honored that I was permitted to have an image of the ceiling in my biography.

Most interestingly, Anna’s coats of arms appear to have the Lion of Guelders included in them. Thomas Cromwell, who commissioned the ceiling, knew of Anna’s brother Wilhelm’s full title, which included Jülich, Cleves and Berg, together with the disputed Imperial territory of Guelders. It is perhaps a testament to Cromwell’s lack of understanding of political issues within the Holy Roman Empire that led to the inclusion of the Guelders iconography.

Mell: Heather, this has been a fascinating insight into your Sherlock Holmes like investigation of Anna’s life and family and the European politics of the period.  I very much appreciate your finding both a ‘new’ portrait and a new perspective of Anna for the world to admire.

Thank you, Heather, and congratulations on such a fabulous piece of research.  I, for one, now have a completely different view of Anna, Duchess of Cleves.  Your book will certainly provide future generations of Tudor history lovers with a greater insight into the life and upbringing of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anna, Duchess of Cleves; and thank you also for having the patience to answer my questions.

Finally, dear Reader, in Heather we have someone who has had the courage and skills to broaden research regarding Anna, Duchess of Cleves into the surviving foreign sources and has provided us with a completely fresh view of the duchess who became known as The King’s Beloved Sister. To know more about Anna and to see more images, Heather’s book will be published in the UK on Monday 15th April and 1st July in the U.S. It is available for pre-order from now if you are living the U.S. and cannot wait until July.  

Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 11.32.14







7 thoughts on “An Interview with Heather Darsie: Author of Anna Duchess of Cleves, The King’s Beloved Sister.”

  1. I have never heard Anne of Cleves referred to as “duchess of Cleves” before. I had previously assumed the title of “duchess” referred to the woman who had married the Duke of Cleves?


    1. Thank you for you very much for your comment Richard, you are not alone in thinking this. Heather’s research demonstrates how different the way titles are held in different countries. I came across this concept some years ago when I met someone who told me she was an Austrian countess. Since I knew this woman as a simple Mrs etc., I was curious and learnt that in parts of Europe if you are born with a title you never lose the right to use it. So yes, Anna continued to use her original title after the marriage to Henry was anulled. Have you read Heather’s bio of the Duchess? If not, then you will find Heather’s use of German archival sources throws a different perspective as to why Henry divorced Anna and provides a reason as to why the king continued to have a friendship with Anna to the point he referred to her as his ‘beloved sister’. Best wishes, Mell


  2. I found Heather’s biography a fascinating read. I now have a better grasp of the European context of the whole affair. Also, fascinating for me was to compare and contrast Henry’s known activities, priorities and predicaments compared to today’s internal and international stresses. Wonderful to understand how “The North” has always been seen as a burden by a London-centric Nation.


    1. Sorry for the delay in replying Alan, and thank you for taking tim to comment. It is much appreciated.

      Heather has done a terrific job re-aligning our understanding of Anna’s place in history. For me this research also underscores the requirement for historians to have another language, other than Latin, since Heather’s first degree was German. She is working on another book where she has used surviving German archival records and i’m looking forward to reading that one.

      I totally agree with your comment about The North being a burden on what is a London-centric nation, or should that be government? My maternal grandparents originally came from Newcastle before moving south in the 1920s. ‘London’ seems to have forgotten that it was the industrial North that was the powerhouse of Victorian industrial Britain.

      Heather is definitely one to watch.

      Best wishes



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