The historian and novelist Alison Weir is two-thirds of the way through her Six Tudor Queens series of novels about Henry VIII’s wives. The fourth, Anna of Kleve, is published on 2 May, 2019. Historia spoke to Alison Weir, our guest writer this month, about her new book and her writing life.
How challenging is it to find a fresh take on the lives of these women we probably think we know a fair bit about?
I don’t see it as a challenge; it all depends on what my research turns up. There may not be a fresh take on every queen, although, so far, I have – unexpectedly – found new aspects to each of them. Writing each novel solely from that particular queen’s point of view is a new approach and allows for a different telling of the story.
You’ve also written about these Tudor queens in a composite biography, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. In what ways do you find the process of writing historical fiction different from writing biography?
It’s very different. With history, you can only discover or infer so much from the contemporary sources. With fiction, you can use your imagination to fill in the gaps, explain people’s motives and reasoning, or even make up storylines. However, I feel strongly that what a historical novelist invents should be credible within the context of what is known about the subject.
Do you see yourself primarily as a historian or a writer of fiction?
As a historian. My passion is for research. But I love writing both. It’s bringing a subject to life that I enjoy, in whatever way I do it.
How do you get inside the head of such different characters as Henry’s six queens?
By doing so much research over decades, reading their letters and getting to know them – as far as we ever can at this distance in time. Equipped with that, it is easier to imagine how they would have regarded events, responded emotionally to them, and acted. Sometimes, this presents challenges.
For example, we have a wealth of letters written by Katherine of Aragon, revealing her thoughts, feelings, joys and fears; reading them, you come close to her and get a fair idea of what she was like. But with Anne Boleyn, there are very few surviving letters, and much of what was written about her was hostile, so, in many ways, she is unknowable. Therefore, everyone has their own take on her. The challenge for me is staying true to these real historical figures and doing them justice.
We’re used to thinking of Henry’s fourth wife as Anne of Cleves. Why did you choose the German form of her name?
The book is written from her point of view and so we need to see the world as she saw it. She was brought up in Kleve and saw herself primarily as a princess of that duchy. She would have thought of it by its German name, not the Anglicised form, Cleves – or even Cleveland, as we sometimes find in Tudor sources. I want readers to see her as she saw herself.
Anna is perhaps the least-known of Henry’s wives. She kept her head – in more ways than one – but faded from popular imagination after that. What new information did you uncover about her while researching your book?
A lot. Many people say that she was the luckiest of Henry VIII’s wives, but that was only true for as long as Henry lived. He was a true friend to her and really came to like her. After his death, her situation deteriorated rapidly. She was always short of money. The houses she loved were taken from her. She came to be associated with a ruthless and ambitious man and, ultimately, this led to her being implicated in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554. I think it cost her the friendship of Mary I.
I have some new speculative theories about her, which underpin the novel. A remark Henry VIII made after their wedding night set me thinking and gave me one storyline. I looked again at the evidence that she bore a child after their divorce, in the light of a comment made by her former secretary to an ambassador and other pointers, which led me to believe that assumptions have been made about Anna that no one has challenged.
Looking at contemporary portraits of Anna, it’s hard to think that Henry found her so unattractive that he couldn’t consummate the marriage. What really went wrong?
England’s ambassador in Kleve said that Holbein’s portrait of Anna was a good likeness, but it was painted face-on and did not show the long nose that appears in other portraits.
Even Henry later admitted that Anna wasn’t bad looking, although he complained she was not as she had been described to him; but he took against her from the first, and that was probably because she had what he called ’displeasant airs’. A fastidious man, he was probably put off by her body odour. That might have been discreetly rectified, but he may have been further put off by what he discovered on their wedding night…
Which we’ll have to read the book to find out! But how did Anna manage to survive the King’s displeasure?
She never complained. She complied with everything he asked her to do. When the matter of an annulment was raised, frightened though she was, she agreed without protest to an inquiry. In fact, she was so amenable to being divorced that Henry, who had been anticipating opposition and scenes – it had taken him seven years to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon – became suspicious, fearing Anna would complain to the Duke of Kleve or change her mind. But she never wavered. Quite cheerfully, of her own accord, she gave him back her wedding ring.
What did you find was the trickiest part of writing Anna of Kleve?
The passages set in Kleve, because that part of Anna’s life is not well documented. Fortunately, I studied German at school – some of my original research was done in German – so that helped. I wrote what I knew would be controversial storylines in some trepidation, not sure if they would be convincing, although I’ve since had feedback from editors and historian friends that they are.
What did you enjoy most about writing the book?
Working with the new research and theories, knowing that I was telling a new story.
How would you sum Anna up for Historia readers?
A charming, well-intentioned young woman catapulted to prominence with a big secret to keep.
And who is your favourite out of the six queens?
Katherine of Aragon, for her steadfast principles and her integrity. I named my daughter after her.
Alison Weir has published 23 titles and sold more than 2.7 million books. She is now working on two concurrent series of books: Six Tudor Queens, comprising six novels on the wives of Henry VIII, and England’s Medieval Queens, a quartet of historical works of non-fiction.
Alison is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an honorary life patron of Historic Royal Palaces, patron of the Thames Valley History Festival and patron of Anne of Cleves’ House, Lewes.
Anna of Kleve by Alison Weir is published on 2 May, 2019.
There’s a chance to win a signed superproof copy of Anna of Kleve in Historia’s giveaway. Go to our competition page to enter. Closes on 30 April.