Book Reviews

Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister by Heather Darsie. Published by Amberley 2019

At last an insighful investigation into the political reasons for the Cleves marriage of 1540. Using both English and German prime and secondary sources, Ms Darsie explores why it was that Henry VIII pursued a political alliance through marriage with the Duchy of Cleves. For Tudor fans it is important to remember this is the only one of Henry’s many marriages entered into after the advent of the Protestant Reformation that has an overt political element. We are given an insight into the mindset of both the king and his advisors during a period of religious turbulence within Europe. Despite Henry having broken from the Church of Rome and the various reforms such as the Bible being translated into English, Henry chose to marry a woman who was clearly a Catholic who, in 1557, was the only one of his wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey. This opens up various avenues of thought for even the most superficial reader.

By providing an insight into the education of aristocratic German women we learn that the Cleves daughters were well equipped to be sober administrators of any noble household into which they married. Not for them the frivolous pursuits of music and dancing so beloved of the English and French courts. Ms Darsie’s description of Anna’s education tells us with what was expected from all women destined for a European dynastic marriage. That Anna was neither a musician, skilled dancer nor did she engage in learned debates is documented ad nauseam elsewhere, but this biography highlights how her education rendered her a very capable administrator that enabled her to live as a single woman in a foreign land. Ms Darsie suggests that it is Anna’s example of being able to live as a single woman that may have had a profound influence on her younger stepdaughter who eventually became Elizabeth I. A nice thought, and one which will no doubt be argued for some time.

The one thing I wish had been included are maps of Cleves and the surrounding principalities, duchies, and lands of the various margraves and electors of northern Europe, but thanks to the wonders of the internet it is easy to print one off. It will help a reader understand the importance of Cleves both politically and for trade.

Those who have read books by Alison Weir and Amy Licence that are also published by Amberley, have often made the comment that these popular and prolific authors should make more use of footnotes. This observation has also been made about this latest Amberley publication. I suggest that the lack of footnotes is not the fault of the authors and may be a restriction placed on them by the publisher. If so, then I appeal to Amberley that they review this restriction, but would suggest to all writers that if something is important enough to warrant an extensive footnote then put it in the body of the text.

I see from Ms Darsie’s brief autobiography that not only does she hold a BA in the German language as well as a juris doctorate, she is now pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Early Modern History at the University of Northern Illinois. Her narrative style demonstrates her knowledge of the German language as some of her sentence structures are what might be described as ‘interesting’. This does not distract from the forensic analysis Darsie has made of the surviving English and German prime sources. She has a clear understanding of the political events that were tearing Europe apart during the Protestant Reformation and I hope she will pursue studying this aspect of 16th century history.

Clearly, this biography is going to rattle a few cages. If anyone is expecting a fluffy Disneyfied regurgitation of Tudor propaganda, this book is not for you. The rambling censorious reviewer on Amazon was clearly not expecting a political history, therefore I invite them to write their own biography of this English queen. During their researches they will find that all the aristocratic titles Ms Darsie lists for Anna, Duchess of Cleves, are correct. From their comments it is obvious is that this reviewer has never observed Anna’s signature on the various surviving notarised documents, or, if they have, perhaps they are unable to read the hand.

I will be adding this latest biography to the reading list I give to my students of Tudor history. Well done Heather. I look forward to your next book.

La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor – Her Life in Letters by Sarah Bryson published by Amberley 2018

Sarah Bryson has brought this less well known Tudor princess to life.  Using the surviving letters of Mary Tudor we are drawn into the world of a Tudor princess who was initially used as a political pawn.  The book begins with a description of  Mary’s childhood up to 1515 when she was married off to the aging Louis XII of France by her brother, Henry VIII. Mary departed England from Dover and her brother accompanied her right down to the docks.  Here she extracted a promise from her brother that she be allowed to choose her second husband. Clearly, Louis XII’s health was a matter of international gossip. He was a man in his fifties, but as Ms Bryson tells us, he was riddled with gout and his doctors had put him on a strict diet.

 We are taken through all the events surrounding the royal marriage from Mary’s arrival in France, how the French king ‘chances’ on her entourage as it makes its way to the official meeting place to the marriage ceremony and Mary’s anointing as queen of France.  The descriptions of the celebrations, the jousts, what people wore, how the various days went brings these events to life and will delight all those who love Tudor history.

 Louis died only three months after the marriage and this is when Mary grips the reins of her own destiny.  It is a fact of history that Mary married Charles Brandon, the man Henry VIII had sent to France to negotiate the return of his sister – and the dowry.  It is also known she did this in secret and without the permission of either her brother, or the new king of France – Francis I.  The illicit marriage is thought to have taken place between 31stJanuary and 3rdFebruary, but there is no official record of this service. Ms Bryson has made an indepth study of the resulting exchange of letters from both Mary and Charles to Henry VIII and his right hand man, Thomas Wolsey, written before the couple could leave France and contemplate returning to Englsh soil.

Ms Bryson has quoted all the surviving letters in full providing us with a further insight into the desperate personal tightrope Mary and her new husband had to walk. We can appreciate Wolsey’s role as skilled negotiator between the explosively hot tempered English king and his sister. What motives Wolsey had for taking this stance are not known. As a commoner, rising swiftly in power at the English Court did he decide to tread softly? Officially, Brandon could have lost his head for marrying an English princess (who was also the dowager Queen of France) without permission of his king. We are reminded that Mary, even though she held powerful titles, was only a woman and therefore subject to the will of her male betters. Did Wolsey know Henry VIII had a mind to behead both his friend and his sister? The cool minded Wolsey would have pointed out that to behead a former queen of France would be unwise. Did Wolsey know that Henry had intended to break his promise to his sister and to marry her off to another foreign prince or king in order to create another political alliance? The prime sources have all been examined to demonstrate just how Mary negotiated this political minefield in order for the newlyweds to return to England with minimum reprisals, but there is little analysis as to what the repercussions would have been had Wolsey not intervened.

Charles Brandon had been charged to obtain as much of Mary’s dowry as possible, which included getting an agreement as to what constituted personal gifts and official French crown jewels.  These did not include a book of hours, now in the French archives. Ms Bryson has turned up a lovely gem hidden within the book demonstrating Mary’s relationship with Louis. It is a shame we do not have any idea of whether Mary’s words written in the margin were intended for her husband Louis, perhaps she gave it to her brother. Since the book was of such a personal nature she must have had the book with her after Louis’ death, therefore did she write these words and give it to Charles when they were married? Did the book come to England? Was it a gift for Henry? Since this book is now in the Biblioteque Municipale de Lyons, it either stayed in France when Mary left with Charles, or was taken there much later by an English Catholic refugee. We are left to speculate about this the fate of this particular manuscript.

Mary’s married life with Charles Brandon is examined and we learn how Mary continued to write letters throughout her life.  From these we are given an insight into their life together and how she was much loved by the people of Suffolk.  We learn she did not support her brother in seeking a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and that she thoroughly disiked Anne Boleyn, but there is no consideration given to Mary’s opinions or even possible influence on the wider political stage.

This is a book for the enthusiast who sees the people who populate Tudor history as characters in a Disney theme park.