Book Review: Anna Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister by Heather R. Darsie

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Anna Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister is the first book from author Heather R. Darsie and has been well-received since it was published as a hardback in 2019. Amberley publishing has now released this new format paperback copy, packed with primary research and illustrations so that the book can reach a wider audience.

With the wives of Henry VIII an ever-popular subject, books on the six women can sometimes blend into the background and tend to say a lot of the same things. This work by Darsie, however, aims to show Anna of Cleves in a completely different light and offers background and context to her often brushed-over life story.

Whereas previous works on Anna of Cleves focus on her brief marriage to Henry VIII of England and her apparent bad looks, this book delves into her actual life as a Duchess in the Holy Roman Empire as part of a very important family. We see how Anna von der Mark (her actual name!) was raised, learn about her family history and see how her family weathered the storm of the Protestant Reformation as they were stuck between Lutheranism and Catholicism. Readers are given insight into day to day life in the era and the wider events and wars surrounding both Anna in the Holy Roman Empire and Henry VIII in England. There are some sections of the book where it veers off-topic and feels as though you are reading a biography on Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, but there are reasons for this, and if you persist through it you will have gained greater context on Anna’s life and background.

The writing of this book was clearly a labour of love; it has been thoroughly researched and uses many primary resources to back up different sections. The author has a background in law and is fluent in a number of languages which has given her the ability to research archives that others may have missed. Towards the end of the book, it does feel like Anna has been a little lost as chapters on the decline of the Cleves family and politics take over, but this other information is not exactly irrelevant. It would have been nice to hear more of Anna’s later life, though I believe this issue is a lack of evidence rather than a fault of the author. It is, however, touching to read of the relationship between Anna and her family and friends in later years and sad to read how her brother was reluctant to help her return to the United Duchies, leaving her stranded in England. Finally, it was interesting to learn more of Anna’s closeness with her stepdaughters; the later queens Mary I and Elizabeth I and how she often advised and influenced them and how she left her finest jewels to them in her will.

Anna Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister is a wonderful book, well-researched and very well written. Any fan of Tudor history will enjoy reading this, but it also offers a deep-dive into the history of the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation which may give people wider knowledge on the period and open up new areas of interest to readers. So many of the books on Henry VIII and his wives are very one-dimensional and repetitive, and this one certainly isn’t. I will advise that you keep referring back to the family trees provided when reading through the chapters and that some sections of the book do become quite confusing if not overwhelming. The confusion comes from the history of many wars, nations, and families discussed, however, and not poor writing.

Anna Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister by Heather R. Darsie is available now in the US and the UK.

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