Tuesday, 6 January 2015

6 January 1540: The Wedding of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves

Above: Henry VIII of England (left) and his wife, Anne of Cleves (right).

On Tuesday 6 January 1540, King Henry VIII of England married for the fourth time, to Anne of Cleves, in the Queen's Closet at Greenwich Palace, the king's favourite residence. The king was dressed in a gown of cloth of gold that was embroidered with great flowers of silver and banded with black fur, a coat of crimson satin slashed and embroidered and fastened with diamonds, and a rich collar of gold about his neck. 

Henry's twenty-four year old bride was attired in a gown of cloth of gold embroidered with large flowers of great Orient pearls, in the Dutch fashion, with a round skirt and no train. Her long fair hair hung loose to symbolise her virginity, and she wore a coronet of gold upon her head that was set with precious stones and trefoils that resembled bunches of rosemary. Anne also wore a costly necklace and matching belt around her waist.

Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleves has traditionally been seen as the culmination of his minister Thomas Cromwell's drive to achieve an alliance with a Protestant power, in which Cromwell sought to steer England's religion in an increasingly radical path. At the time of the wedding negotiations, the Catholic superpowers France and Spain were united against England. However, some historians have called this into question, and have stressed the personal role played by Henry himself. Of his six wives, Anne of Cleves was second only to his first consort Katherine of Aragon in her lineage and breeding. She was excellently connected and marriage to her brought the promise of assured prestige for England. Marriage to Anne, as with marriage to Katherine of Aragon, established England's influence and standing on an international level in a manner that did not apply to the king's marriages with English subjects. 

Famously, Henry disliked his fourth wife on sight, when they met at Rochester in December 1539. Following early modern protocol, in which monarchs traditionally greeted foreign-born consorts in disguise, Henry dressed in disguise and rode to meet Anne. The story goes that, unaware of the king's love of disguises and drama, Anne failed to see that this aged man in strange clothing was, in fact, her proposed husband. She afforded him a cold reception when he attempted to embrace her. Taken aback, the king later removed his costume and appeared before Anne, welcoming her to England, and she sank to her knees 'with most gracious and loving countenance and behaviour'. But the damage had been done. Henry appears to have been revolted, disgusted and - worst of all - profoundly humiliated. The king famously declared: "I see nothing in this woman as men report of her, and I marvel that wise men would make such report as they have done!" He knew, however, that he had to marry Anne both to save face and to avoid angering and humiliating the Duke of Cleves, and duly wed her on 6 January. He pointedly told his lords: "My lords, if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do what I must do this day for any earthly thing".

Above: Anne was reportedly popular among her English subjects.

Whether Anne was aware of her husband's displeasure is impossible to tell. Traditionally, she has been unfairly depicted as something of a country bumpkin, a bland, dull and dim German girl who lacked courtly graces, played no musical instruments and, perhaps most surprisingly, knew nothing of sex. She has also sometimes been credited as being a Lutheran whose religious views bordered on heresy, but it seems, in fact, that her religion was entirely traditional in its Catholic leanings. In fact, Anne's beauty and charm were reported by many observers. The chronicler Edward Hall commented on Anne's 'goodly...stature' and 'womanly...countenance' while, after meeting her, William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton, praised Anne's 'excellent beauty, such as I well perceive to be no less than was reported'. If anything, it appears to have been Anne's fashion sense and style of clothing that caused bemusement and concern. Lady Browne, who supervised the new queen's maids of honour, was dismayed with the clothes worn by Anne, while Charles Marillac, the French ambassador, rather spitefully claimed that Anne's dress made her look older than thirty.

Historians have puzzled over why it was that Henry VIII rejected Anne. They have tended to believe that it was her physical ugliness that was the problem, thus validating the notion of her being a 'Flanders mare' (although this infamous label actually only came into existence in the eighteenth-century and was never used by Henry VIII to describe his wife). Retha Warnicke convincingly suggested, however, that psychological factors were at play. Henry believed that his wife was precontracted to the duke of Lorraine, and the knowledge that his wife had been promised to another could have inhibited him from consummating the match. Henry loudly voiced his concern about Anne's 'loose breasts and other tokens', for which 'I can have none appetite'. Maidens were believed to be flat-chested and small-breasted. Anne's body, in Henry's eyes, signified that she was not a virgin.

Although the new queen was not liked by her husband, she appears to have been respected, liked and even loved by her subjects. The French ambassador was to report, following the annulment of her marriage in the summer of 1540, that the English people were saddened to hear that she would no longer be their queen, for they esteemed her as 'one of the most sweet, gracious and humane queens they have had, and they greatly desire her to continue their queen'. As it turned out, Anne actually enjoyed the best fate of all Henry's six wives, becoming his 'sister' and enjoying a wealthy settlement that entitled her to a life of luxury. All of this, however, was way off in the future. When Anne of Cleves married Henry VIII on 6 January 1540 and became Queen of England, she could not have known of her husband's distaste for her, resulting in the annulment of her marriage and the loss of her queenship only six months later.

1 comment:

  1. It is a pity the marriage didn't last, apart from anything else both Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr might have had happier lives if it had. Anne made the best of things, but she wasn't happy to be annulled, and after Catherine Howard was executed, she hoped to be reinstated as Queen.