A Trip to Cleves by Nina von Ow [Short Story]

Today’s post excites me just as much as the first. It’s the first official short story! Not only that, it’s about Hans Holbein – someone I personally feel is often briefly mentioned in stories. Never a protagonist. I’m happy that today’s post highlights his importance in Tudor England, and Henry VIII.

A word from the author, Nina von Ow:

“I got interested in the Tudors because of all the excellent historical novels about that period that were published when I was growing up in the 1970ies by the likes of Norah Lofts and Jean Plaidy and Margaret Campbell Barnes. I especially loved Barnes’s book “My Lady of Cleves” and her version of the portrait session between Hans Holbein and Anne of Cleves. What also makes this such an interesting moment in Tudor history for me is what happened after. Many readers will know that when King Henry VIII actually met Anne of Cleves, he was bitterly disappointed with her looks and, even though they ended up having an amicable relationship, their marriage lasted only a short time.”


A Trip to Cleves:

Hans Holbein Paints the Portrait of Princess Anne

            Hans Holbein, court painter to King Henry VIII of England, arrived in the Duchy of Cleves on a foggy August afternoon in the year 1538. He was there to paint the portrait of Princess Anne who lived in a castle on the banks of the Rhein River that he could now barely see. King Henry was considering her for his next wife, and the envoy negotiating the proceedings, Nicholas Wotton, greeted Hans:

“Our apologies but you may have made this trip for nought! The young Duke of Cleves suddenly refuses to have his sister painted except by his own court painter. We are waiting for a reply from his majesty.”

Hans struggled with the mud and his bags full of brushes and paints while Nicholas chattered on. Nothing could possibly surprise him anymore after a year and a half of traveling in Europe, painting portraits of the king’s prospective brides. What about Princess Christina in Brussels whom he’d only had three hours to paint? Three hours! And King Henry had demanded a full-length portrait. It was times like this when he had to remind himself how grateful he was to receive a regular salary.

The envoy showed Hans to his room at the Inn of the Eight Lilies, and, as Hans unpacked his materials, the time alone gave him pause to think.


            Yes, he was grateful for his career so far and his ability to adapt. He’d learned from his father, also Hans Holbein, also an artist. It wasn’t enough simply to have artistic talent and skill, Papa had explained as they painted a church altar in Augsburg, beautiful Augsburg, where Hans the younger was born. Tastes could change, Papa advised, times certainly changed as well.

That was why Hans had then traveled to Basel with his brother Ambrosius. Because the churches no longer had money for hand painted altars. In Basel they both found work as illustrators, carving woodcuts for the books that were rolling off the printing presses. Thanks to old Gutenberg up in Mainz, books were easier to print and popular, and they required good illustrations.


            The next morning Hans smelled grilled bacon and dashed out to buy a Flammkuchen, bacon-topped flat bread, from the street brazier below his window. He also learned that the Duke of Cleves was willing to grant a portrait sitting after all.

“But,” Nicholas warned, “I’ll have to be in the room and make sure you paint a proper portrait. Duke William’s courtiers will be there as well.”

Hans stuffed his hands in the pockets of his doublet, annoyed that they were trembling. His portraiture expertise was known throughout Europe. His quick and precise sketches, reducing the sitter’s physiognomy to its bare essentials, were unmatched. His painting technique was equally skilled for he could then pounce his sketch, transfer it with prick marks, onto the parchment or canvas he intended to paint. Hans had been successfully portraying King Henry’s whole court for years. Why was he nervous now?

Because King Henry’s matrimonial predicament depended on his every brushstroke? Because Thomas More and Anne Boleyn had been beheaded for so-called treason to the king? Lord Cromwell had made it clear when he’d pulled Hans into the privy council room before this

trip to Cleves that wouldn’t it be nice if the painting were as attractive as possible because a marriage with the Princess there would be an excellent political match for the king.


            Hans bowed to Princess Anne. A pair of brown eyes blinked back at him. He saw right then that she was made from a different mold, not like the ladies at King Henry’s court. She did not embellish her face in any way and she was also wearing outmoded clothing. It was a difficult situation!

He took a deep breath and thought of his father. An artist should always be adaptable, yes. And Hans could now add his own caveat: an artist must also be a diplomat. If he created a false portrait right now, the king would be angry. And an angry king was especially dangerous. Yet if he painted exactly what was before him….

“You will have the rest of the morning for sketching,” intoned the young Duke of Cleves.  “If I approve, you will return this afternoon to finish.”

The room was packed with onlookers: the chancellor, several courtiers, Lucas Cranach, the Duke’s court painter, the British envoy, and, of course, the princess and her maidservants.    The princess giggled awkwardly. Hans could tell that she spoke little English, and he felt sorry for her. He put her at ease with a few words of German and started to sketch, all the while his mind spinning, trying to balance what he saw with what might be.

The princess told him how much she disliked her stuffy clothing and head dress and then ordered her maidservants to bring in her pet parrot. Hans added him to a sketch, but then decided to keep the portrait simple and show the princess from the front. He was thinking about his new role as a diplomat and knew that he had to tread a fine line. He could not anger the king by making Anne into something she was not, but she was pleasing in many ways and charming too.

At noon, he passed the parchment sketches to the chancellor, and stepped outside onto the balcony for a rest. He doubted very much that the King and this princess would get along, but he would keep his thoughts to himself. It was the best he could do to practice his craft well, for it truly was not up to him how this ended. He was the court painter, doing his job.

Hans was summoned back in the afternoon. The Duke gave him a curt nod of approval, but insisted that Lucas Cranach be present for the afternoon painting session. “That will be all,” he added coldly, “Our court leaves for Düsseldorf tomorrow morning early, so you will have to finish this painting without the princess. Herr Cranach will loan you some of his panels of costume study so you can get the details of our fine apparel.”


            The portrait that King Henry saw only a few days later, was of a modest woman, eyes slightly downcast in a pale face. She did not invite, nor give the illusion of energy or movement like the portrait of Princess Christina, the one that Hans had painted in Brussels, the one Henry kept in his private chambers and would keep until his death.

Holbein had seemingly lavished all of his attention on the elaborate dress, impeccably presented in reds and golds.  The King admired the richness and the Tudor green background. He wished those fine brown eyes would meet his own and wondered what she was thinking. It was fine workmanship indeed. Henry felt well pleased with the matter and went to sign the marriage contract that afternoon.


Portrait-Of-Henry-VIII-1536 Self-Portrait-1542-43

I'm a lover of all things Tudor, and historical - fiction or fact. My aim is to bring together writers of all calibers to share their work with like minded people!

4 thoughts on “A Trip to Cleves by Nina von Ow [Short Story]

  1. Hi Melissa,

    Thanks so much for the opportunity. You did a great job!!! It’s funny but now it is starting to feel weird to me to have used the pseudonym. I didn’t expect that. I truly hope that you get on a roll with this great project and hope to write some more pieces for you.

    All my best,



    • Thank you for sending this to me! Its so funny, after I set up this posting, I pulled out the book I’m currently reading and saw the other books by the author in the back. One is about Holbein! Weird how those things happen, haha

      Thanks again for sending it in, and feel free to send in more 🙂


  2. Great story! Anne of Cleves is my favorite wife. I often wonder what Henry found so objectionable about her, as the portrait is really lovely. There must have been enormous pressure on Holbein and Cromwell as well. Dangerous times.

  3. This short story certainly has a different and very interesting theme. Little has been written about the painting of a portrait, whether factual or fictional, so Nina von Ow’s glimpse into the sitting whereby Hans Holbein the Younger produced the painting of Princess Anne of Cleves, which convinced Henry VIII to sign the marriage document, gives an insight into that event.

    I like the way Holbein’s dilemma was highlighted – painting Anne as she actually looked, or depicting her as more attractive? Either action could incur the wrath or Henry VIII, before he met her, or after if he was impressed by the painting. Hans was very well aware of Henry’s track record for beheading and so picked up his brush with some trepidation.

    This short story encapsulates so much of the day Holbein arrived in Cleves, and the following day which he spent with Anne for the portrait. The number of people in the room during the sitting must have been off-putting for Hans but his professional approach gave him success and even though we know that Henry was disappointed when he set eyes on his young bride, and their marriage didn’t last, at least he wasn’t so displeased with the portrait as to take drastic measures against artist and sitter.

    I definitely liked this unusual approach to the Tudor period and hope Nina von Ow will write similar short stories for us to enjoy on here.

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