Q&A: Heather Darsie on ‘Children of the House of Cleves’

I want to express my utmost thanks to Heather Darsie for agreeing to sit down for a Q&A with Tudor Extra. Heather is a woman who wears many, many hats – she has a Bachelor of Arts in German Languages, a Juris Doctorate, is an acclaimed author, and when she isn’t working, Heather shares her fascinating research with readers of her blog Maidens and Manuscripts (we might recommend the History of Beer Brewing in Germany and the Low Countries!).

We were delighted to pick Heather’s brain on her upcoming book, Children of the House of Cleves, which explores the remarkable lives of Anna of Cleves and her siblings: Sybylla, Wilhelm and Amalia. A family that could at times be described as Machiavellian, at others heroic, often religiously ambiguous, and always unflappably fascinating, Children is the study of a ducal dynasty at the core of 16th century Europe: one that not only brilliantly adapted to the vicissitudes of the Renaissance, but actively sculpted it.

Heather’s research is both rich with analysis and keen on detail. It is also the first book to explore the lives of Anna of Cleves’s siblings, which makes it all the more exciting. Children of the House of Cleves will be published in the United Kingdom on 15th June 2023 and in the US on 12 September 2023. 

Children of the House of Cleves by Heather R. Darsie


Q. Your previous biography Anna, Duchess of Cleves, was published in 2019. What motivated you to continue exploring Anna’s world? Did you know before finishing the book that you wanted to delve further into the story? 

To answer the first part of your question, I didn’t understand why Henry would have spent so much money bringing Anna over from Germany, just to undo the marriage six months later. It didn’t make any sense to me. And also, why would she have stayed on in England after that? When I started researching, I learned a lot more about what was happening in Germany. It started to make a lot more sense when I looked into what her brother was doing: the real reason why Henry couldn’t stay married to Anna, and why she was effectively trapped in England for several years. Writing a second book about Anna and her family wasn’t initially my plan. After I completed the first book, I talked to my publishers about other German people about whom I could write, and I remember learning so much about her elder sister Sybylla, who I thought was a very interesting person. It just made sense to me to write more about her family overall. 

They’re still misty figures, to English-speakers – and maybe even to German speakers – but there’s so much more happening in the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg at this time that it made sense to me to write almost a companion book. I look at these two books as going together, but they’re still independent works. You can read one and get a lot out of it without having to read the other, though I still think they go very well together.

Q. Given that you’d already laid the groundwork with Anna’s biography, did the research and writing process differ for this new book?

Tremendously! That was one of my foolish errors, I was like, “oh, I’ve already written so much about her family, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on this – this is not going to be that hard!” False. I kept learning new things. When I was writing about Anna, there were a lot of documents that were in English. A lot of the material I was able to use about the politics between Anna’s brother Wilhelm, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Henry VIII came from English sources, so that was a bit easier. The source material for the second book was almost entirely in sixteenth-century German and Latin – so that was interesting. I think when people read certain parts of the book it will be very obvious where I was translating from Latin or German because my grammar gets a little… interesting… in those areas. 

Q. Though the matriarch of the House of Cleves, Maria, was a staunch Catholic, the description of your book hints that her children may have held differing beliefs. Can you tell us a bit about Anna and her sibling’s religious leanings?

Yes. Both of Anna’s parents were Catholic, and within the United Duchies they sought to take a via media – middle way – with this religious reform. They didn’t outright ban Lutheranism. Talking specifically about the city of Jülich, there were a lot of students who went from there into Saxony to be taught by Martin Luther. They were banned from proselytizing into Lutheranism, or spreading Lutheran pamphlets, but they weren’t outlawed, if you will, for being Lutheran. You could still be a Lutheran and exist within the United Duchies, you just weren’t supposed to talk about it to anyone. 

Portrait Miniature of Anna of Cleves, 1539, Hans Holbein the Younger

Anna herself was Catholic, as far as we’re aware, there’s nothing to show that she was a Lutheran. However, we do know that her sister Sybylla was a Lutheran. She, of course, marries the elector of Saxony, Johann Friedrich. Johann’s uncle and then his father, who were successive electors, protected Martin Luther from the Holy Roman Emperor. The way I like to think about Sybylla and Johann is that they were the first ‘Lutheran power couple’. There’s very strong evidence that the little sister, Amalia, became a Lutheran. In fact, their brother Wilhelm got pretty annoyed with Amalia at one point because she was pressing her Lutheran views so strongly at court and also on Wilhelm’s daughters. Amalia actually didn’t go to her sister-in-law’s funeral because it was a Catholic ceremony.

What we have to keep in mind, when we’re talking about religion, is that these are also political factions, too. If you’re Catholic, you’re pro-empire; if you’re Lutheran or Protestant, however you want to word it, you’re anti-empire. Wilhelm battled with the Holy Roman Empire – you can read about it in both books – and after his defeat he had to swear to uphold Catholicism. However, periodically, he would do things that were very Lutheran-leaning. It’s difficult to really tell what Wilhelm’s personal beliefs are versus what he had to do. Also, his two sons had to be raised as Catholics, and one of his sons was seen as the beacon of hope for the Counter-Reformation. Wilhelm on paper was officially Catholic, Anna was officially Catholic, and Amalia and Sybylla were officially Lutherans.

It’s definitely not as cut-and-dry as some people’s perceptions of them.

No, definitely not. I think a lot of people believe – or at least it was believed for a long time – the reason why Thomas Cromwell thought Anna would make such a good spouse for Henry is that Anna was herself a Reformist or a Protestant-leaning, and that’s not true. What he was actually looking at was finding a way into the Protestant league, or the league of Schmalkald, which her brother-in-law Johann Friedrich the Elector of Saxony had founded. That was seen as a sort of defensive league against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. So by Henry marrying Anna, he was hoping to backdoor into this league, but unfortunately the Elector never took a shine to Henry and never allowed him into the league.

Q. One of the most common misconceptions about Anna’s upbringing is that the Duchy of Cleves was isolated from Europe, and that she was plucked from a remote land, with few connections to the rest of the continent. Your books, however, reposition the House of Cleves as being at the heart of Renaissance Europe, with ties to the Holy Roman Empire, France, and England. To what extent did Cleves’ European connections contribute to Anna’s eventual role as Queen of England?

Engraving of Wilhelm of Jülich-Cleves-Berg

I’m a bit biased, I will say that! I think she was certainly a very important potential bride. For Anna specifically, it’s unique that she had the opportunity to marry up as high as she did into society, because normally Anna, and her elder sister Sybylla, would have married down a social rank, not up. The territory they possessed was within the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, so if they were able to control all that and the rivers and the goings-on within the United Duchies, it would have made it very difficult for the Empire to go against them. You’re also looking at a territory that was part of the Hanseatic trading league; they also manufactured stoneware items there, they’re on the Rhine, which was a major river within Germany – and still is. This wasn’t some tiny little Duchy in the middle of nowhere. The whole territory was pretty darn important, and rather sizable given the time period.

It’s surprising how often you come across that misconception. Anna is portrayed as something of a country mouse, who essentially came from nowhere. But that doesn’t come close to the full picture.

No, not at all. It’s very easy to say that, especially when it takes so much work to look into a different culture and gain an understanding of that culture.

Q. One of the most exciting elements of your book, I think, is the exploration of Anna’s sister, Sybylla, who became Electress consort through her marriage to the electoral Prince of Saxony. For readers who may not be acquainted with Sybylla, could you give us a brief overview of her life and provide a glimpse of what we can anticipate learning about her in your work?

Sybylla is the older sister. She was born in 1512, so she’s about three years older than Anna. She married the Prince of Saxony in 1527, so she got married quite young compared to Anna and their brother Wilhelm. She moves to Saxony in the 1520s and goes on to have a very successful career as a wife – in the sense that she had three sons who survived to adulthood. She did have a loving relationship with her husband; they did respect each other, they did care about each other. Sybylla was devoutly Lutheran. Her religion is reflected in her letters – she’s frequently calling upon God to help her and her family. She quotes scriptures, and I find this to be a bit different from other letters I’ve read from the time period because of how often she does this. It’s in every letter that she’s invoking God or calling out to God and asking for God’s blessing, things along those lines. She enjoyed hunting. 

Sibylle von Cleve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1526

I think she was a feisty and courageous woman, and if you’ve read the first book, you might know why, but you’ll definitely know why if you read the second one! Those are some of the reasons why I really liked her. She could also be very forthright when she communicated with her husband.

Q. During your research for this book, did you come across any new, surprising, or thought-provoking discoveries that you hadn’t known when writing Anna’s biography?

Yes! I don’t spend a lot of time talking about Anna’s marriage to Henry VIII, or her time in England, but there is new information in the book about her relationship with Henry that I think readers will be interested to consume. What I liked about this book was spending more time learning about her family; learning about little sister Amalia, who is kind of hidden. She’s still a shadowy figure, just because she never left home, and there’s not much about her other than these little anecdotes about how she irritated her brother. 

A portrait drawing of a woman, possibly Amalia of Cleves, by Hans Holbein

I also liked learning about why the United Duchies fell. They fell because they ran out of heirs, basically. There’s the German Thirty Years’ War that kicked off in 1618, and in the Eastern theater you had the last Emperor from a specific line who didn’t have any legitimate children, and in the west you have a succession crisis because all of Wilhelm of Cleves’ male children have died, and they didn’t have any children of their own. So, the United Duchies that Anna grew up in, and that she knew, were gone by 1609. It was neat to follow that and see more of how Wilhelm was able to rule and administer the duchies. He died in about 1592, and lived into his seventies – pretty good for modern times, really good for back then. He was able to rule for a very long time, I’d say even by the standards of today.

Q. Most of us know by now that all six of Henry’s wives were descended from royalty. Can you elaborate a bit on Anna and her sibling’s royal descent and how that impacted their prospects?

I don’t know that it did. I think it was more territorial disputes, within what we think of as Germany today. For example, Sybylla married the Elector of Saxony because, if you go back far enough, the Electors of Saxony married someone from Jülich and Berg, and so they had a claim to that territory. To solidify the claim it made sense to marry Sybylla. The same thing happened with earlier marital negotiations for Anna and her brother Wilhelm – they were trying to marry into a family that would inherit this territory of Guelders, over which we know Wilhelm and the Holy Roman Emperor were struggling to try and solidify their claim there. If you go back far enough, again, there are some familial ties there. 

I think for Wilhelm, he was probably the more attractive marital candidate of all the children, because he’s the heir to everything, and he was able to use his bachelorhood as a bit of a bargaining chip with the Holy Roman Empire, until of course he lost his war. I don’t know that their connections to royalty in the sense of genetics really did much for them, but it is interesting. It would have been interesting to see what Anna could have done with that – she just never got the chance.

Q. What other misconceptions do you think plague the lives of the children of Cleves? Do any stand out as particularly flawed or misleading?

The one thing I come up against, rather often, is the belief that Anna was sheltered and thus had an inferior education, compared to women in the British Isles and perhaps also in France. I think that it shows humanity’s continued ignorance of culture, and that ‘different culture’ means bad. Anna’s education and that of her sisters’ was very different from that of an English princess; their education also had a very different purpose from that of an English princess. Because of that we have to keep in mind that, even today, if we look at the American educational system, or the English educational system, or the German educational system, they’re all different, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. 

Anna, Duchess of Cleves by Heather R. Darsie

Another thing that’s interesting is that a lot of people will say, “Anna kept her head, she wasn’t decapitated.” And while I can certainly appreciate that Anna might have been afraid of that happening, given Henry’s track record, we have to keep in mind that had Henry decided to behead either Catherine of Aragon or Anna of Cleves, that would’ve been a major international incident. We have to notice the two queens of his that do wind up beheaded were both subjects of his. Other than that, just that Anna was ugly. She wasn’t. If we use the evidence of our eyes, she’s a pretty enough lady. If we look at the actual annulment papers, Henry never called her ugly; he just said he wasn’t attracted to her, so he could use that as part of the reason for saying they never consummate the marriage. 

There’s a big difference between having a marriage annulled versus a divorce. He technically never divorced any of his wives. He just had the marriage annulled.

Do you still see the term ‘Flanders Mare’ floating around?

I have not, no. The only thing I really see is the alleged incident that happened when they first met at Rochester. The only documentation for that was created for the annulment proceeding. Most of this didn’t exist until June of 1540 when they were getting ready for the annulment. 

Q. I saw in an interview with QueenAnneBoleyn.com that you made a comparison between Anna and Henry’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon – which I was very intrigued by! Do you think there are any other parallels to be drawn between Anna’s siblings and historic figures? 

I haven’t given that much thought to it. When I think about what happened to Catherine of Aragon, when she was abandoned in England after Prince Arthur died, and what happened to Anna… I wonder if Henry had a bit more compassion for Anna, as a foreign princess, trapped in a foreign country, after watching what happened to Catherine when they were younger. Other than that, I’d have to really think about comparisons for Wilhelm to other princes in Germany. I’m sure they’re there, because these are people who are fighting against the Emperor, either overtly through war, or passively through trying to pass laws or adopting Lutheranism, but I’d have to think about it.

Q. Lastly, what key insights or takeaways do you hope readers will gain from reading your work?

As a bit of a warning, there are a lot of names, and dates, and German names, and place names in there – I did include a table of important persons and a timeline at the beginning of the book to make it a little easier to digest. Just keep in mind that Germany is different from England, they did things a bit differently. It’s absolutely fascinating, the parallels – or the attempted parallels – between the German and the English Reformations, so I think this book should be interesting to someone who either wants to know more about Anna’s family or to someone who is interested in learning more about what was happening during the German Reformation. So, just keep an open mind and think about the context of the times!

With your background in German, and everything you’ve done so far, it’s all incredibly impressive. And, of course, your records are something of a mountain to conquer – so I’m sure people will be interested to know your thoughts on them! I didn’t know so much of it would be in Latin.

There were a couple of really interesting parts that were in Latin. Anna had two nephews through her brother Wilhelm, the heirs to the United Duchies. The older one went to Rome, where he contracted smallpox. And what’s fascinating about that is, because he was in Rome, and because he was who he was, there was a record kept of the progression of his illness and of how they treated him. I’m sure there are other examples of how smallpox was treated, but I just found this to be completely fascinating – partially because while I was writing on it, we were going through our own pandemic. I’d never really seen such a detailed record of sixteenth-century medicine and also what it was like to have this illness. Her younger nephew, also through her brother Wilhelm, had to endure an exorcism. That record was in a mixture of German and Latin.

I just think that’s great. I know that Anna is going through a bit of a Renaissance right now, on social media. People are really interested in learning more about her, so I’m sure this will be very well-received!

Thank you! I hope so. I hope people like it and I hope that it helps explain a bit more why Anna was an important princess.

About the Author

Heather R. Darsie works as an attorney in the US. Along with her Juris Doctorate she has a BA in German and is working toward a Masters. She is the author of Anna, Duchess of Cleves.

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