The wedding of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, 6th January 1540

6 January 2011

Anne of Cleves. Photo: Musée Louvre.

Poor old Anne of Cleves, probably the least talked about of Henry VIII’s six wives. In popular imagining we have Catherine of Aragon, the pious one; Anne Boleyn, the glamorous one; Jane Seymour, the gentle one; Anne of Cleves, the ugly one; Catherine Howard, the slutty one and finally Catherine Parr, the er one who looked after his bad leg. It’s sad really as they were all so much more complicated than their handy little labels suggest. In fact I think that in some cases (I always think of Jane Seymour as being an arch schemer as opposed to a gentle maiden) they are totally false.

After Jane Semour’s death as a result of providing Henry with his much longed for heir, the Prince Edward, the mourning King remained single for rather longer than usual – around eighteen months before he started thinking about taking another wife. After being repudiated by the beautious Christina of Denmark, his choice fell on the two sisters of the Duke of Cleves. Now, even Henry VIII couldn’t marry both at the same time so Holbein was despatched to their brother’s court to paint them so that the King could choose between them.

Some debate rages about this painting. Okay, maybe not precisely ‘rages’, more simmers. You see, Holbein’s Anne was clearly very pretty indeed with lovely pale skin, fine eyes and a gentle smile. However, according to Henry and his cronies, the reality was very very different, plus he told everyone that she smelt, which was extraordinarily rude, I think, even by sixteenth century standards.

Sybilla of Cleves, Lucas Cranach, 1526. Photo: Schlossmuseum, Weimar.

However, who is this beauty? It’s Sybille, Anne’s eldest sister, who was already married to the Duke of Saxony so out of the question for Henry VIII. In fact, it was reported back to Henry that his prospective bride was even more lovely than the Duchess of Saxony. THE PLOT THICKENS, HUH?

Anyway, Henry was thrilled by Holbein’s painting of Anne and negotiations for their marriage immediately went ahead. We don’t know what Anne thought about the whole thing, but judging by her later behaviour once she was installed in England, I think she was probably quite content to be leaving Saxony, although rather terrified by the prospect of Henry VIII himself, who was not quite the great catch that he thought himself to be.

Anne of Cleves, Hans Holbein. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Chapuys tells the story of her arrival in England:

This year on St John’s Day, 27 Dec, Lady Anne, daughter of the Duke of Cleves in Germany, landed at Dover at 5 o’clock at night, and there was honorably received by the Duke of Suffolk and other great lords, and so lodged in the castle.  And on the following Monday she rode to Canterbury where she was honorably received by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other great men, and lodged at the king’s palace at St Austin’s, and there highly feasted.  On Tuesday she came to Sittingbourne.

On New Year’s Eve the Duke of Norfolk with other knights and the barons of the exchequer received her grace on the heath, two miles beyond Rochester, and so brought her to the abbey of Rochester where she stayed that night and all New Years Day.  And on New Years Day in the afternoon the king’s grace with five of his privy chamber, being disguised with mottled cloaks with hoods so that they should not be recognized, came secretly to Rochester, and so went up into the chamber where the said Lady Anne was looking out of a window to see the bull-baiting which was going on in the courtyard, and suddenly he embraced and kissed her, and showed here a token which the King had sent her for New Year’s gift, and she being abashed and not knowing who it was thanked him, and so he spoke with her.  But she regarded him little, but always looked out the window…. and when the King saw that she took so little notice of his coming he went into another chamber and took off his cloak and came in again in a coat of purple velvet.  And when the lords and knights saw his grace they did him reverence…. and then her grace humbled herself lowly to the king’s majesty, and his grace saluted her again, and they talked together lovingly, and afterwards he took her by the hand and led her to another chamber where their graces amused themselves that night and on Friday until the afternoon.

…So she came to Greenwich that night, and was received as queen.  And the next day, being Sunday, the king’s grace kept a great court at Greenwich, where his grace with the queen offered at mass, richly dressed.  And on Twelfth Night, which was Tuesday, the king’s majesty was married to the said queen Anne solemnly, in her closet at Greenwich, and his grace and she went publicly in procession that day, she having a rich coronet of stone and pearls set with rosemary on her hair, and a gown of rich cloth of silver, richly hung with stones and pearls, with all her ladies and gentlewomen following her, which was a goodly sight to behold.’

Oops. Awkward. Whatever Henry thought of his bride’s appearance, he was probably not best pleased by her totally ignoring him when he came, full of romantic excitement, to visit her, having presumably not been forewarned about Henry’s rather childish pleasure in dressing up and then having people pretend not to recognise him but in a good way – think more ‘Why, who could this handsome stranger POSSIBLY be?’ than ‘Urgh, who let the fat old tramp in?’. You get the picture. ‘She is not so fair as has been reported,’ he raged to Cromwell and his friends, probably more furious about Anne’s lack of interest in him than anything else. He was keen to avoid the wedding but it proved impossible to break the betrothal without massively offending Anne’s brother.

Anne of Cleves, Studio of Barthel Bruyn the Elder. Photo: St John’s College, Oxford.

The wedding, that neither party was really looking forward to,  therefore went ahead at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, on the 6th January 1540, the feast of Epiphany and last day of the Christmas festivities at court. If Anne had any idea about Henry’s machinations to rid himself of her, she gave no sign although at this time she couldn’t speak English all that well so wouldn’t have been able to talk about it anyway.

However, no expense was spared on the wedding with Henry making his first appearance that morning in cloth of gold trimmed with black fur, teamed with a cloak of crimson velvet spangled all over with enormous diamonds. His blushing bride looked no less splendid in a ‘gown of rich cloth of gold set full of large flowers of great Orient pearl, made after the Dutch fashion’, which was worn with yet more bejewelled accessories, including a gold coronet, which was placed on her long blonde hair.

After a great feast and yet more lavish clothes changes (we are told that Anne’s second wedding dress – yup, who said this was a twentieth first century invention? – was ‘a gown like a man’s furred with rich sables’, which was worn with a magnificent diamond and pearl studded headdress), the couple were escorted with all due ceremony to their marriage bed, which was carved with all manner of phallic symbols and would have been blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, scattered with rose petals and doused with perfume. The perfect place to consummate a royal marriage.

Anne, her new gold wedding ring with ‘God send me well to keep’ engraved on the inside, on her finger was escorted in her fine linen nightdress into the chamber by her new ladies in waiting, which included Catherine Howard, the cousin of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Rochester, the former sister in law of Anne Boleyn.

Still from The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933.

What happened next was the subject of much prurient speculation at court. Henry’s version of events was that he had done his best but that Anne had been insultingly unresponsive and had rolled over and gone to sleep. He complained that her mother had totally failed to prepare her for married life and that she had no concept of what was required of her in bed. Furthermore, while he was trying to arouse some interest, he had found that his new bride smelt bad, had saggy breasts and other such complaints. ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse,’ he muttered to Cromwell the next morning, adding that he left her as virginal as he had found her.

Of course, if Henry had found Anne attractive, he would probably have found her virginity, maidenly modesty and total ignorance about the sexual act enticing and rather alluring. However, as she was not as pretty as he had been led to believe, he merely found it frustrating and rather offensive to his majestic prowess.

As for Anne, poor Anne, we can only imagine how she felt. She didn’t speak much English at this point, was surrounded by smirking, rather hostile strangers in a new country and had been married to an almost forty eight year old (over twenty years her senior) man that she doubtless found not all that appealing either. How horrible too to be as ignorant about sex as Anne was and to find herself in bed with this awful man who insisted on mauling her, probably tutting all the while.

Sketch apparently of Catherine Howard. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

The marriage was to be unsurprisingly short lived. Anne did her best to fit in to court life and impressed everyone with the speed with which she picked up English and also her genuine skill in card games, which probably softened Henry’s dislike quite a bit. However, the royal marriage remained unconsummated, with Anne telling her scandalised ladies that each night the King entered the chamber, kissed her on the forehead then retired to his own room. ‘More must be done if we are to have a Duke of York,’ one of her ladies reminded her as the Queen blushed.

It was only a matter of time before Henry’s eye wandered elsewhere. In fact it had probably already wandered in the direction of Catherine Howard before she escorted his new bride into their bedchamber on their ill fated wedding night. Anne, terrified that she was destined to follow Anne Boleyn to the scaffold, was sent from the court on the 24th of June and the wedding was finally dissolved on the 9th of July due to a pre-contract between Anne and the Duke of Lorraine (the first cousin of Marie de Guise, another of Henry’s prospective brides and who had gone on to marry yet another in the form of the charming Christina of Denmark, who was painted so memorably by Holbein) and also non consummation.

It must have hurt Henry’s immense pride quite a lot to admit that he had not been able to consummate his marriage with Anne and there was much extraneous detail about how he had continued to have rather sexy dreams so therefore there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with HIM. It seems to me as well that all the talk about Anne’s imperfections and lack of attractiveness were also a way of mitigating any unmanly shame that the King may have felt about not having sex with her. If all the blame could be shifted on to her, then that was probably considered far less humiliating for him. It’s a bit like a man nowadays declaring that a woman must be frigid or a lesbian (this once happened to me when I was about thirteen and I had people chanting ‘FRIIIIGIIIIID’ and making jokes about global warming at me for YEARS afterwards so you could say this is a bit of a sore point for me) if she doesn’t fancy him. Sad, petulant and rather pathetic but that’s just Henry VIII all over.

Anne went on to have rather a good life though – she was declared to be the King’s Sister; given a generous pension and lots of manors, including gorgeous Hever Castle, where Anne Boleyn had grown up and was welcomed at court, where she and Henry actually seemed to become great friends in the end – in fact after the demise of his marriage to Catherine Howard, there were even rumours that he and Anne might make another match of it.

I bet she was really relieved when it didn’t happen…

Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Burning Eye.

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