Top critical review
Started with a mad fantasy about teen Anna - promptly hit harsh with wrongly clustered characters
24 May 2019
Alison Weir conjures up a highly irritating, fictional picture of Anna with alleged new insights and evidences along the historical lines - but due to a hidden leak of relevant historical local knowledge, the barge immediately strands on the striking cliff of swan knight Lohengrin's castle in Cleve
Alison Weir, rightly praised and popular by readers and critics, moves on slippery ice in flat Clevesland and gets into an avoidable role. What went wrong with Alison Weir's fictional narrative from the beginning of the first part with five chapters called "Princess of Kleve" (pp. 3-82)? The review primarily refers to the contents of the first part of the fictional narrative and concentrates on the non-fictional, supposedly historically transmitted contents of the narrative.
First of all, the publisher is to blame for the fact that the hardcover book has neither a table of contents nor an index. Little reader-friendly! The reader must arrange the voluminous history novel (511 pp) himself: two simplified genealogical sheets, five parts with 30 chapters (pp 3-485), 'Author's Note' (pp 487-496), 'Dramatis Personae' (pp 497-504); 'Timeline' (pp 505-508) and finally 'Reading Group Questions' (pp 509-511). That's it - with differently weighted narrative spaces, but without specific source data!
Thematically the question arises why Alison calls Anna "of Kleve" (book front cover) or "von Kleve" (see p 487)? Since times of the legend of the swan knight Helias Grail the spelling was "Cleve" - beginning of the 8th century and continuing until the beginning of the 1930s . And rightly Alison quotes Anna by herself as "daughter of Cleves" - "Cleve", and not the modernized "Kleve". But that's just a petitesse of questions.
Unfortunately, the huge collection of more than 200 characters ("Dramatis Personae", pp 497-504) in Alison's story, more than 50 of them from everywhere around "Kleve" (actually Cleve-Mark-Ravenstein and Jülich-Berg-Ravensberg) make it difficult for readers to access their otherwise stylishly told and uniquely staged fiction. Many characters are allegedly called "von Kleve" (see pp 497-504). This is only true in quite few cases. An example: Anna's parents Johann and Maria were never 'Duke and Duchess of Kleve'. Maria was the heiress of Jülich-Berg, so 'Duchess of Jülich-Berg'. Johann III called 'the Peaceful' became in 1511 'Duke of Jülich-Berg" and in 1521 Duke of the 'United Duchies of Cleve-Jülich-Berg', the 'County of Mark', the 'Dominion of Ravenstein'/Meuse and the 'County of Ravensberg'/Westphalia.
Right at the beginning of the novel, the author gets caught in the pitfalls of the genealogy of the local gentry. Alison Weir probably relied too much on the secondary sources listed below, which were actually first-class. But also these English and American authors have occasionally been in the labyrinth and thicket not only of the nearly 70 illegitimate children of Duke Johann I and Johann II. Especially difficult to untangle is the widely branched and influential 'von Wylich-Clan' in 'Clevesland' alias 'Duchy of Cleve'. High risk for drowning..!
Alison Weir rightly praises in her 'Author's Note' (pp 487-496) her facts and ideas contributors from among her respected colleagues of English and American historians (p. 495) who have systematically explored Anna's non-fictional life in outstanding scientific studies over the past 20 years. A brand new biographical book about Anna's life - written by a young, female US citizen, multilingual qualified hobby historian and brilliantly researched on the basis of primary sources - must inevitably has been overlooked because it was published at the same time (April 2019) in England.
The master data sheet is supposed to create the historically correct basis for the narrative. That was a thorough mistake in Adolf's line! The highly simplified and partly false master data sheet "Kleve - House of La Marck" soil the real historical background of the story from the very beginning. The presented Adolf is definitely not Johann I's son born in wedlock, but actually his illegitimately born son of the same name. This is tricky real life! The use of primary sources would have revealed the serious faux pas and saved inconvenience.
The cause of the error is obvious: Alison Weir - as she herself implicitly explains - seems to have taken over the local characters from a family genealogy with origin of Cleve. The genealogical homepage was made by emigrants from a local gentry family and is actually very authentic. But here (Adolf's origin) and there (Otho's origin) the representations seem questionable or difficult to interpret. Still, the descent of Anna's Otho could have been like that (unknown), who knows?
This ancient knight family (since the 13th century) of the 'von Ossenbroich' ('Ochsenbruch', that means 'wetland for oxen') was settled in the eastern face of the Schwanenburg in the small village of Till. Its former castle no longer exists. In 1539, a daughter of the 'House von Ossenbroich' named 'Gerberge' (* 1500 and married with the 'Hofmeister Johann von Wylich, Herr van Steenhuis') accompanied Anna on her way to England as a gentlewoman. By the way: at Tudorcourt the young and unmarried gentlewomen were called 'Dutch Maiden' and the whole escortfolk 'Cleveslanders'.
The 'wrong' Adolf dominates the relevant branch in the master data sheet. Duke Johann I did indeed have an Adolf as his second born, marital son, who lived from 1461 to 1498 as correctly stated. This Adolf embarked on an ecclesiastical career and throughout his life was a canon in the spiritual pastoral area of the diocese of Liège (part of the Lower Rhine Westphalian Imperial District). Adolf had no wife and no issue.
Johann I., however, had this second son named Adolf, later 'Herr zu Büderich' (part of Wesel), born illegitimately around 1465, whose mother came from the lineage of those 'von der Rosau' in Bienen near Rees (on the right bank of the Rhine in the Duchy of Cleve). Adolf's half brother Duke Johann II called 'de Kindermaker' gave Adolf after his wedding with Alexandrine von Tengnagel as a fief in 1492 the castle Grondstein near Elten (also on the right bank of the Rhine) in the Duchy of Cleve.
Adolf now called himself 'Herr von Grondstein' alias 'zu Büderich'. The couple had two children: Elisabeth and Johann. Their son-in-law Otto von Wylich (abt 1480-1557) is also well documented. Otto was indeed married to Elisabeth von Grondstein; they had five legitimate children. Otto was counsellor of the duke, Drost von Gennep/Meuse and 'Herr van Grubbenvorst' near Venlo/Noord-Limburg.
Otho is said to have been Otto's alleged illegal son. Neither in primary sources nor elsewhere has this been proven so far to be reliable. Who knows the riddle solution? Never mind!
Of course, the author has taken these circumstances for a fictional narrative with love and pain for the couple Anna & Otho and later on much more trouble for them. And what the teenagers did in the winding corridors and niches of Schwanenburg...? What's the matter: cuddling and kissing, but it doesn't make babies...Error: Johann (IV) was born...nine months later at 'Schloss Burg an der Wupper'. Bingo! What a shame...!
But more importantly in real life, Otho plays the most important leading male role - of course except 'His Majesty King Henry VIII' - in the performance alongside Anna. In fact, Otho played a prominent and privileged role in Anna's real life, even though his origins and his life remain in dense fog to this day. Otho was the most faithful follower and companion in Anna's true life in England from 1540 to 1556.
Under not entirely clear circumstances he was expelled from the country forever at the conniving machinations of Anna's cousin 'Franz II, Graf von Waldeck-Eisenberg', her godmother's youngest son, and her not much beloved, genetic brother Duke 'Wilhelm V' at the end of 1556. A heavy blow for Anna with significant effects... Incidentally, Wilhelm - called 'der Reiche', rich in land assets, but poor in intrinsic values - was known for being extremely domineering, especially towards his biological three sisters and five daughters; however, he cuddled before his mother.
Finally, two particularly remarkable aspects of the narrative which are not comprehensible without taking into account the real history. In Alison Weir's fictional novel we begin to read in the summer of 1530. It's the Duke's family birthday season. Birthdays are scheduled for June, July and August: Anna (* 28 June 1515), Wilhelm (* 28 July 1516) and her mother Duchess Maria (* 03 August 1491).
Perhaps Anna sat impatiently by her window and looked from Schwanenburg Castle over the cliff towards the southwest of the Rheinaue with the expectation that her relatives would finally arrive. A feast had been prepared for Anna's 15th birthday... The Schwanenburg is all over the summer in a happy birthday mood!
Anna was demonstrably born on the day before St Peter and Paul, on 28 June 1515, and not on 22 September 1515 and probably not in Düsseldorf either. Why not there? Düsseldorf Castle had been burnt down 23 December 1510 and remained in ruins for many, many years. Of all three main residences in Cleve-Jülich-Berg, only the Schwanenburg was in good order and habitable. The Jülich ancestral castle of Maria von Jülich-Berg, 'Schloss Hambach', was also a fire ruin in 1515. Today of all days, the day of the Light Festival, the patron saint of the doorkeepers (St. Lucia), the doorkeepers had celebrated well and had not protected the Hambach Castle. On 13 December 1512 it was ablazing ... What an irony of fate...
The godmother of little Anna - nicknamed 'Klein Anneken' by Master Konrad Heresbach, tutor to prince Wilhelm - was 'Anna von Cleve' (* 1495), the only sister born in wedlock of her father Johann III. The newborn girl Anna was probably christened in the collegiate church ("Stiftskirche St Mariä Himmelfahrt") in the face of Schwanenburg Castle. Anna was named after her maternal grand-grandmother, Electoress Anna of Saxony (1437-1512), who died just three years before little Anna's birth. By the way, since 1416 all legitimate princesses and princes (over all 23, four generations) of the Herzoghof von Cleve were born in the Swan Castle.
And of course Anna's beloved godmother Anna, Countess 'von Waldeck-Eisenberg', could have come with her children to celebrate her godchild's birthday. The Countess's youngest child, Anna's favourite cousin 'Fränzchen', only four years old, is also there. This earl's son 'Franz II' will later play an important role in Anna's real life and Alison's fictional narrative...
And the real hit is missing and the scoop is off: on this day is also the birthday of Henry VIII (* 28 June 1491 Greenwich). Same birth day as Anna and same birth year as Maria von Jülich-Berg. And thus exactly 24 full years of life over the years of Henry's fourth bride Anna ... in spe... But we don't read anything about these amazing and may be (un-)fortunate coincidences of life ...not at all...
The narrative would have had a great model also for the year 1540, 28 June: Fictional invitation to a giant party of the royal court on the banks of the Thames. The royal couple Anna oo Henry VIII invites courtiers and folk to the event of the year 1540 "Double Birthday of King and Queen"...! To the disappointment of the realm the coronation ceremony had already fallen into the water... Unique event... in the truest sense of the word...!
But no, that wouldn't work at all, because Anna was sent the day before (see Timeline, p 507) to Richmond-"exile" - at that time purposefully against Anna faked "plague alarm" for London, actually nonsense - and the Privy Council was brooding over the divorce agreement...Soon everything would be over...!
And the tracks of Anna's real life and Alison's narrative run into the year 1539: the portrait event for Anna & Amalia (nicknamed "Emily") with Hans Holbein in August! The Master Painter of King Henry VIII, 'Hans Holbein the Younger', travelled to the home region of the Duke's family, to paint portraits of the two princesses.
Previously there had been a debate about who of the local Master Painters could paint the princesses, 'Meister Wertinger' or 'Meister Cranach' as Alison Weir writes (p 57) was real. 'Meister Wertinger' from Landshut/Bavaria seems to have been confused with 'Meister Barthel Bruyn the Elder' or his workshop from Cologne. At this time Bruyn or his workshop presumably painted three surviving portraits of Anna. Wertinger probably never received an inquiry or an order from the Duke.
Further Alison Weir writes that the event happened in an alleged "Schloss Düren" (p 57). There never was a castle in Düren, and not "Wilhelm's hunting lodge in the high lands of the duchy of Jülich". Anna's famous & notorious painting by Hans Holbein was made around 10 August 1539 in the moated castle 'Wasserschloss Burgau' in Niederau near Düren. Why there?
For about thirty years the Duke's family had lived mainly in the private domicile 'Schloss Burg an der Wupper' in the Duchy of Berg ('Bergisches Land'). The chancellery of the United Duchy was in the main residence Düsseldorf Castle. In August 1539 Schloss Burg was the mourning house of the family, because Duke Johann III was died in his Düsseldorf office in February. And the residence Schwanenburg Cleve was too remote and hard to reach for the English delegation. Therefore, the event could have been scheduled in the Duchy of Jülich.
The Duke's residence and Wilhelm's hunting lodge there was 'Schloss Hambach' in Niederzier near Jülich and Düren, which was after the fire of 1512 renovated long before 1539 and stood in new splendour (until to destruction by imperial troops in October 1542). Mother Maria could have decided for some good reasons, not to let this action be carried out here among the many courtiers. Much too busy and exposed to curious glances!
The 'von Elmpt' family, who was close friends with Maria von Jülich-Berg, had provided its secluded and hidden Castle Burgau (fiefdom) for this important event. Furthermore the Duchess's closest friend 'Sibylle Sophie von Nesselrode' alias 'Lady Keteler' was related to a second co-owner family of the Burgau Castle. Lady Keteler, whose family home was located near Schloss Burg, led the bridal escort to London at the end of 1539. Lady Keteler was Anna's chief Great Lady on her wedding day January 6, 1540.
The reader wonders: doesn't the author know all these facts? Or why these misorientations?
Alison Weir gives away these special chances to make history come alive with actually new evidences based on matters of facts and finally to correct Anna's date of birth and more other historical facts little known so far. The narrative is far too fixated for example on the love affair with consequences and neglect great narrative material along the lines of history, which would have been ideal. Fishing for sensational fantasies first - to guarantee bestselling??
But one big point has to be credited to the author. Alison Weir tries to eradicate - hopefully once and for all time - Anna's image of a 'Flanders Mare' - the greatest nonsense ever told about Anna posthumously over centuries. Very big point!
On the other hand, the narrative of the historical novel threatens new hardship for the image of the true, non-fictional Anna. In this relationship, the most irritating component is the following subjunctive, but disconcerting human image hidden in the eyes and words of Alison Weir:
"...It is hard to imagine she would have had the opportunity, having been broughtup strictly near her mother's elbo...Yet her innocence could have made her vulnerable to the attentions of some amorous male, possibly one of her many cousins (who might have been regarded as safe company), who seized his opportunity and took advantage of her. She may have been a willing partner: she was, after all, the granddaughter of the libidinous and prolific Kindermacher, and there would later be talk of her being fond of wine and indulding in other excesses, and gossip about secret pregnancies...I did fear that speculating along these lines might be doing a grat injustice to Anna., but as I re-researched her story further, I found evidence that could be seen as corroborative..." (p 489).
Freely adapted from the proverb: "Like grandfather like granddaughter"... And an alcoholic on top of that...
(Anna "...a drunkard?", see p 58). What's that supposed to achieve...? In any case, such platitudes cannot fight prejudices right now, rather fire them...!
Flirts, love affairs and humid-happy celebrations are granted Anna in honour - but character assassinations would be unacceptable! We're not on Kitty's novel alias Katheryne Howard..!
But finally for rehabilitation of Anna's unimpeachable reputation, as the front inner jacket of the book puts it:
"... A charming, spirited woman, she was loved by all who knew her - and even, ultimately, by the King who rejected her." Right, please rapturous applause!
But you'd better read about the 'Queen of Secrets' yourself - it's always worth it! Judge yourself in the jungle of non-fiction and fiction, rumors, speculations, alleged new evidences, facts and "fake news"... Modern times!