Monday, October 13, 2008

My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes

The Absorbing Story of Henry VIII's Fourth Queen, Her Secret Love, Her Power-Hungry Husband, and the Country That Ruled Them All

"At long last Anne of Cleves gets her day as a noble and highminded heroine in the lists of historical fiction!"

My Lady of Cleves reveals the mesmerizing story of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife, one of the rare women who matched wits successfully with the fiery king and lived to tell the tale.

Written by world-renowned historical novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes, My Lady of Cleves gives readers an intimate portrait of the warm, unpretentious princess who never expected to become Queen of England. Knowing the king's ravenous desire for a son, and aware of the disastrous consequences of not bearing an heir, Anne of Cleves bravely took on the duty of weathering the Tudor King's temper, whims, arrogance, and irresponsible passions - and won the hearts of his subjects in the process.

A treat for readers of Tudor fiction and those fascinated by the complex relationships of Henry VIII and his wives, My Lady of Cleves leads readers into a world of high drama and courtly elegance.

"Turns a brilliant light on one of the lustiest and one of the most dramatic periods of English history."

Having read Brief Gaudy Hour earlier this year, I was really pleased when I was offered an ARC copy of My Lady of Cleves. There is so much written about the various Tudors, but it was an added bonus that this book was about one of the lesser written about Tudor wives - Anne of Cleves.

I have to say that from the moment I read the inscription, I was hooked in this book. It was originally published in 1946 and the dedication reads:

To The courage and endurance of all women who lost the men they loved in the fight for freedom.

Now whilst this dedication isn't really about the book itself, it resonated with me as it reminded me that when this book was written the world was a different place. WWII had just ended, and for many around the world were dealing with the loss of loved ones (including the author herself). In the UK, there was heavy rationing, and I could almost imagine being a reader at that time who managed to forget about the hardships of real life and get lost, for a few hours at least, in Tudor times, at the court of Henry VIII, as he searched for a new wife.

The book opens with Henry VII trying to decide which of the princesses of Europe would be the lucky girl to marry him. And what a catch! By this time in his life he was, shall we say, larger than he had been, he had health issues, and he was shopping for his fourth wife, albeit for political purposes mainly. Yes, he was a king, but it is fair to say that there was a known risk in marrying Henry.

When he sends his messengers to the duchy of Cleves, accompanying them is court painter Hans Holbein. His role is to paint miniatures of the two eligible princesses, and send them back to England so that Henry can choose which of them is the more attractive. Henry chooses Anne based on the portrait painted by Holbein, a man who plays a big role in Anne's life for a number of reasons.

For Anne, this journey to her new life as Queen of England is very strange. She is unaccustomed to the ways of the brash English, and she is aware that her family is very much depending on her to do her duty. On the journey, she gets to see the sea for the first time, and is terrified that she has to cross in a storm. In some ways it is an easier storm to face than that she faces at the court, where there is very little in the way of introduction to the ways of the Court, and plenty of criticisms of the way that she dresses, she acts, her lack of dancing skills etc.

The initial meeting between the betrothed couple is a disaster. Anne is naive to the ways of the Court, the petty jealousies, the jockeying for positions, and soon it becomes clear that Henry is displeased with his choice of bride.

For Anne, where being divorced could very well be a source of shame and unhappiness, she must learn a way to make her own life, her own happiness, and she shows her true strengths. We also get an insider's view at court as Anne witnesses the heady and tumultuous times as Katherine Howard rose to be Henry's wife, albeit for a very short time, and gradually coming to her own kind of special relationship with the ailing king.

Reading through the pages of this book, Anne is bought to life, and is portrayed as a capable woman, who loves strongly, who takes a bad situation and turns it in such a way as to emerge from the disaster that was her marriage to Henry with both her head and body intact, and a happy and fulfilled life.

The writing by this author stands the test of time, and did not feel aged in any way. There were nuances of humour and depth throughout the text. I liked the Hans Holbein storyline very much. It gave some reasons as to why the main players in the drama acted in some of the ways that they did, and gives this book a point of difference from some other books that, however briefly, told some of Anne of Cleves life story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more from this author.

Special thanks to Sourcebooks for the ARC.


  1. I really liked My Lady of Cleves too - such an interesting woman!

  2. I just put this one in The WL. Just finished reading The Six Wives of Henry VIII and wouldn't mind reading a bit more about Anne of Cleves.

  3. Wonderful review Marg! This one is on my TBR.