REVIEW: Anne of Cleves Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife by Sarah-Beth Watkins
Anne of Cleves left her homeland in 1539 to marry the king of England. She was not brought up to be a queen, yet out of many possible choices she was the bride Henry VIII chose as his fourth wife. But, from their first meeting the king decided he liked her not and sought an immediate divorce. After just six months their marriage was annulled, leaving Anne one of the wealthiest women in England. This is the story of Anne’s marriage to Henry, how the daughter of Cleves survived him and her life afterwards.
Dear Ms. Watkins,
Personally I’ve always felt that Anne of Cleves had a lucky escape being the second “divorced” one in the old rhyme about Henry’s wives. She might not have the modern notoriety of Anne Boleyn, the tragedy of Catherine of Aragon or Jane Seymour, the “what was she thinking?” idiocy/naiveté of Katherine Howard. But she outlived all her fellow wives with some adroit political moves in a time and place that paid the dividend of life to those with fancy footwork.
Poor Anne has gotten a bad rap over the years. Raised by her devout Catholic mother who never imagined Anne would marry so well, Anne wasn’t educated to be a King’s wife. She spoke only German and was from a quiet and sober court quite unlike the lively English one. The shifting European politics and power plays by Henry (England), Charles (Spain) and Francis (France) raised her father’s western German lands to prominence as a possible ally. Once Henry needed another wife after the death of Jane Seymour, Anne’s name was (distantly) on the list along with her younger sister.
There were other potential brides Henry whom wanted more including two who famously turned him down. Marie de Guise (mother of Mary Queen of Scots) supposedly stated that though she was tall, she had a slender neck while Christina of Milan might or might not have said that if she had two necks, she’d be more willing to consider Henry’s offer. Francis declined to have any other French women trotted over to Calais for Henry to inspect – the French ambassador (sarcastically one presumes) questioned whether Henry would then wish to sleep with the women before making his choice. That ended that.
Painters and courtiers were dispatched to Cleves to suss out the beauty of the sisters but reported that they wore heavy headdresses that obscured the view. When the Englishmen complained, they were pointedly asked if seeing the sisters naked would help. That ended that. But with choices narrowing and Europe watching (the reports of various foreign ambassadors to England make interesting and amusing reading), Henry picked Anne based on the famous Holbein portrait and negotiations began. Marriage contract signed, off went Anne and an enormous retinue at the cracking pace of 5 miles a day. Her arrival in England, so eagerly anticipated by Henry, precipitated his surprise visit. It was not a meet cute.
One thing in Henry’s favor is that he probably never referred to Anne as a “Flanders mare” and he did pull out the stops to regally introduce her to the people of England with gobs of pomp and circumstance. He was not best pleased with her though and almost immediately – even before the wedding – was hot to find some way to escape the marriage. Trusty Cromwell, who got him Anne Boleyn and foisted this Anne on him, was now in the hot seat. Lots of “it was his fault” finger pointing ensued. Henry dared not insult Anne – and thereby her brother, Henry’s ally – by spurning her but soon Anne and the rest of the world realized that Henry’s interest had been caught by another.
Poor Anne knew quite well the fate of the wives Henry didn’t want anymore and when questioned as to whether she’d agree to a divorce and be able to live quite well in England as the King’s “beloved sister,” chose the better part of valor and signed off. She then hastened to assure her family that she was very happy and would stay where she was regardless of whether there were spies in her household who reported to Henry on her. News of Cromwell’s execution reminded Anne of the fate of those who displeased the King.
She then had a good seat to watch the disaster Katherine Howard made of her marriage. Anne happily remained on sidelines and helped quash any rumors or efforts to marry her off to Henry again (one imagines she shuddered even as she forced a pleasant smile). No, she’d escaped and was living nicely on the various properties Henry had granted her and he always made up any household financial deficiencies. Let Katherine Parr deal with grumpy Henry and his ulcerous leg while learning to hold her tongue about the King’s religion.
Life under Henry’s son wasn’t quite as pleasant with property switches and rental arrears but the Lady of Cleves lived well and – best of all – for a woman of the age had autonomy and control. Still her moments of fear weren’t behind her as despite sharing a religion with Mary Tudor, Anne dropped in favor when it was thought she might have helped foster the revolt against the new Queen which landed Princess Elizabeth in the Tower. Exonerated, she lived quietly after attending Mary’s coronation and in her will, showed herself to be a friend of both Tudor sisters as well as a caring employer concerned that her servants receive the bequests of her will.
This is a compact, non-fiction biography with oodles of footnotes and quotes of first hand source material. One can only say that the spelling of the English language was quite fluid at the time. Anne might not be modern-sexy but she was a survivor and negotiated her way through perilous times when many others fell afoul of the politics or religious twists and turns. She made a life for herself which she mainly controlled. I’d say she did pretty well. B
Want to learn more of the era?
Dressing like a Tudor lady – included lots of layers and pins.
Check out the tapestriesyou would have seen at Hampton Court Palace during Henry’s reign.