Category Archives: History

Anne of Cleves: Henry’s Most Surprising Wife

The (in)famous portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein

Anne of Cleves, Hans Holbein

The last decade or so has seen some very challenging re-examinations and reinterpretations of some of the wives of Henry VIII, most notably Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. However, our picture (literally at times) of Anne of Cleves, short-live wife number four, has remained static and flawed.

Anne of Cleves appears on the English scene after the longest gap in Henry’s matrimonial career a full two years, three and a half months. Prior to this, Henry was last single thirty years before. Her predecessors were an indomitable Spanish princess, a sexy and ambitious French-styled Englishwoman, and the woman who finally produced the longed-for son. Henry, who harboured chivalrous, romantic ideas had high, perhaps unrealistic, hopes for wife number four.

1. She was pretty

Anne may forever be “the ugly one” to those looking at Henry’s marriages. Henry reported that she was so unattractive and her “body in such disorder” that he was unable to force himself to consummate the marriage.

Henry VIII in his forties, Hans Holbein

Henry VIII, Hans Holbein

However, what do other sources say? Our primary source is Holbein’s portrait which now hangs in the Louvre. There are two things to bear in mind when looking at this painting. Firstly, Holbein tended to be (sometimes brutally) frank in his portraits. The notion that all the portraits of the period were all flattery doesn’t stand up to challenge. Have a look at these paintings by Holbein of Henry and Jane Seymour. These are honest depictions, not soft-focused sycophancy. The second is, simply, that’s she has a pretty face which her unusual dress and headwear distract from. It’s certainly not a face one would expect anyone to be horrified by.

One of the few contemporary likenesses of Jane Seymour (Hans Holbein)

Jane Seymour, Hans Holbein

Anne’s journey to England was slow. Her brother the duke of Cleves insisted she travel over land and not by sea (as Henry impatiently wanted). As she travelled, there were many occasions for Englishmen to see her on her way. Several of them reported their impressions of her back to their countrymen. All of their reports were flattering. We must, of course, consider that no one is likely to have written that she was ugly, even if they thought it, but it’s quite another thing to be fulsome in your praise of someone’s attractiveness to someone who would see for themselves in a few weeks if you were disingenuous. Letters never likely to have been seen by Henry described her as pretty.

The real disadvantage Anne of Cleves had were her odd German clothes. The English court trailed some way behind the French court for sophisticated fashions (which Anne Boleyn had used to her advantage 15 years earlier), but German clothes were considered very unflattering. However, this problem which have quickly been solved with the purchase of some new gowns, and Henry was rarely loath to indulge his queens. It seems more likely that the myth of her unattractiveness had its roots in Henry’s unrealistic expectations and his impotence, which we know courtiers had gossiped about since George Boleyn’s trial in 1536, if not before.

2. She was a Catholic

People often assume that because the Cleves marriage was designed to ally Henry with the Schmalkaldic League of German Protestant lords, that Anne must have been Protestant. In fact, she was traditionally Catholic in her beliefs and through this formed a close bond with her step-daughter Mary. This continued long after her marriage was dissolved.

3. She outlived Henry and all his other wives

Katherine Parr is famed as the wife who survived. However the seconded divorcee also outlived her one-time husband. Not only that, she outlived both Katherine Parr and Edward VI. She died a little over a year before Mary and so never saw the bloody excesses of the end of her reign, or the accession of Henry’s second bastard daughter, Elizabeth.

4. She was shrewd

Although reports stated that she was distraught when she learned that Henry was to divorce her, she quickly regained her composure. She adopted a more pragmatic approach to her situation when she realised that Henry would not be dissuaded, . She negotiated the terms of her divorce. Fearing her brother would kill her if she want to returned to Cleves she set about securing herself a place in England. She became the king’s beloved sister and received from him a household and properties (including the former Boleyn family seat, Hever Castle though she never lived there).

Perhaps she knew of Catherine of Aragon’s fruitless intransigence and learned a lesson there, or perhaps she was simply a more practical person. Either way, Anne of Cleves left her marriage in a far better state than any of her three predecessors did.

5. The most successful wife?

It’s difficult to gauge Henry’s wives in terms of success. How would we measure it? Probably not in Henry’s terms (were we able to adequately assess them, beyond producing a son). Here are my suggestions.

Sons: Both Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour gave birth to living sons, but only Jane’s son Edward survived infancy. Jane was the most successful in this respect, but this must be tempered by the fact that doing so cost her her life.

Time served: Catherine of Aragon was successful in terms of the sheer longevity of her marriage to Henry. She clung on for almost 24 years. No other wife lasted more than four years (the closest was Katherine Parr at around three and a half).

Katherine Parr by an unknown artist

Katherine Parr, unknown artist

Survival: Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr both outlived Henry. Katherine, however, had a position at court after Henry’s death as the dowager queen. She was guardian to Elizabeth and had good relationships with all of her royal step-children. However, she jeopardised all of that in her unsanctioned and uncharacteristically hasty and ill-advised marriage to Thomas Seymour only a few months after Henry’s death (though one might note here that there was a longer gap here than Henry himself typically left between spouses!). This, her fourth marriage and the only one she made for love, was marked by betrayal and scandal. Katherine died of childbed fever the following year.

Anne of Cleves, however, secured a generous settlement from Henry. For the rest of Henry’s reign, she regularly visited court, even getting on well with her former husband. She never remarried (though whether that is a success or not I leave for you to decide!) and seems to have lived a contented and full life in England. She reputedly loved feasting and entertaining at her home at Richmond Palace.

Certainly, her life after her marriage seems to have been a happy one, which cannot be said for Katherine Parr. I would, therefore, posit that Anne of Cleves was the most successful of all the wives of Henry VIII*.

*Well, perhaps a dead heat with Katherine Parr as she had some particularly notable achievements too!

Blog Boosting

I’m planning on boosting the blog much more this year, not least with more frequent posts. I’m a little less busy this year (well, the next six months anyway!) so I’d like to spend some more time on the blog because I really enjoy it and people have said some very kind things about it the last year or so. I’m going to be much more focused on history this year and have several ideas for things I’d like to do with the blog and beyond. Although I don’t blog about writing, I blog about what I write about and I have been thinking of jumping on the Kindle bandwagon by self-publishing some short historical non-fiction at some point, in the first half of the year if possible..

I also thought I’d join Rachael Harrie of Rach Writes in her Fourth Writers’ Platform-Building Campaign.

Rachael’s campaigns have been going for a wee while now and all the participants seem to have had a great, and productive, time. If you’re interested in joining in, registration is open until 15 Feb and is really easy- just follow the link.

14 October Anniversaries

14 October is a bit of a hotspot for historical anniversaries, many of which are connected to an infamous (or otherwise interesting) lady.

In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. William’s wife Matilda of Flanders is the subject of Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror, a new book by Tracy Borman. (In fact, Matilda is not really infamous at all but was rather pious and good, however her granddaughter was the Empress Matilda who was the first woman to claim the English throne and ended up fighting a bitter twenty year civil war with her cousin Stephen over it.)

Death of King Harold, Bayeux Tapestry

The Battle of Hastings, which took place between the Norman and English armies, took place on Seniac Hill, around six miles away from the Hastings town of Battle. If you are fascinated by history and enjoy learning about infamous women throughout history, why not make yourself drink, sit at your computer and play games like Party Poker while you read through the important historic events which took place on 14 October. Did you known that Empress Matilda was betrothed to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor at the age of seven? One year later she was crowned Queen of Romans and in 1114, at the age of 12, she married the 28 year old Emperor at Mainz.

Other important 14 October events include:

In 1322, Robert the Bruce’s Scots forces routed Edward II’s English army at the Battle of Old Byland. Isabella of France, Edward’s wife, would later lead an invasion of England and depose him in favour of their son.

In 1499, Claude of France was born. I wrote a bit about her here.

In 1586, the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots began.

In 1793, the trial of Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal began.

Trial of Marie Antoinette

Mary Tudor, the French Queen

On 9 October 1514, the 18-year-old English princess Mary married the 52-year-old king of France, Louis XII, at Abbeville in great pomp and ceremony.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France

Louis had been married twice before. First, to the pious Joan (later canonised by the Catholic church) and secondly to Anne of Brittany who had also been queen to Charles VIII of France. Anne had died in early 1514 leaving only two daughters after no less than 14 pregnancies. Neither of his daughters could inherit the French throne and so Louis sought a third wife to provide him with a male heir.

Mary Tudor was a renowned beauty and her youth made her an attractive marriage prospect for the European nobility. Prior to her marriage to Louis she had been betrothed to Charles of Ghent (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) but it was later repudiated. We know nothing of Mary’s feelings about her betrothal to the king of France. There are stories that she made a deal with her brother, Henry VIII, agreeing to marry Louis without complaint if, after his death, she could marry whomsoever she chose. However, there is no evidence of this bargain.

Mary Tudor and Louis XII

Mary’s tenure as queen of France was short lived. Rumour suggested that in his enthusiasm to sire an heir, Louis wore himself out with his new bride. He died on 1 January 1515 leaving Mary a widow at 18.

It was soon clear that Mary was not pregnant with Louis’s child and so several suggestions of a new husband were forthcoming, including the dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. Henry VIII had other ideas and wanted Mary back in England where he could make plans to marry her off to his own advantage. He sent his close friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, to accompany her back to England.

Mary had her own plans though. Concerned that she would be forced into another unsavoury political marriage or that her reputation would be tarnished by the attentions of the new French king, François I, a notorious womaniser, she decided to take her future into her own hands.

Charles Brandon was a good looking man, an accomplished soldier and prominent courtier. The couple had earlier asked Henry’s permission to marry but were fobbed off with assurances that the king would consider it after an appropriate time had passed since Louis’s death. Doubting her brother’s promises, Mary decided that she would marry Brandon then and there. Brandon was, not unduly, fearful of her brother’s reaction but the beautiful young widow soon prevailed upon him and the two married in France in mid-February. Later, Mary would take the blame for the secret marriage and Brandon apologised to the king, claiming that he had been helpless as he ‘newar sawe woman soo wyepe.’

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon


The couple returned apprehensively to England in mid-April and met Henry on 3 May. By that time, the king had calmed down and was, if not pleased, accepting of the marriage. He even attended their public wedding in England on 13 May. Henry’s acceptance of their marriage, Mary was always known at court as “the French Queen” and never as the Duchess of Suffolk (her title as Brandon’s wife).

The couple went on to have four children (Henry, died in childhood; Frances, mother of Lady Jane Grey; Eleanor, who had one surviving child; another Henry who also died in childhood). Despite their reconciliation, Mary and her brother fell out once again, this time on the matter of his marriage. Mary strongly opposed his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. She did little to hide her dislike for his new mistress, Anne Boleyn, who had waited on Mary in France. Mary avoided attending Anne’s coronation feast due to ill health. She died shortly after on 25 June 1533 at the age of 37.

Mary’s actions in determining her own second marriage, in defiance of the king, give a glimpse of a defiant spirit and the desire for self-determination that relatively few women of the period were able to show. I can’t help but imagine that she would have been formidable in old age, and wonder what side she would have taken had she been alive to see her granddaughter, Jane Grey, claim the throne of her niece and Henry’s daughter, Mary I.

Mary Tudor (detail)

Early Modern Carnival!

This month, I’m proud to be hosting the Early Modern Carnivalesque here at Harlots, Harpies and Harridans. Nominations have been filtering in all month, with some really interesting posts for you.

As a huge bibliophile, I was pleased to see a number of bookish posts. Starting off with a pair of posts from Anchora on A1 pages (the page in an Early Modern book before the title page). The first post is fascinating and full of wonderful photographs of early books, including some beautiful engravings and illustrations. In a second post on the subject, Anchora-author Adam G. Hooks has some lovely owner’s marks in the form of notes and underscoring in an early seventeenth century book. The book was written by Robert Cecil (councillor to Elizabeth I and James VI & I) and was written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (1605). This post is also full of photographs, including some excellent examples of secretary hand from the period.

Elizabeth I's secretary hand signature

Over at Wynken de Worde, there’s a fascinating post about the arguments around digitising historic texts. There are some valuable contributions in the comments too so remember to read them! Despite my love for physical books (I am a hobby bookbinder after all), I am definitely on the side of digitisation, even if only for the accessibility. The Wynken de Worde post goes far beyond the accessibility argument and provides a highly convincing case for digitisation.

The next post, from the Folger Shakespeare Library is not only a great account of the wealth of new information old documents can provide but also features some excellent examples of digitised texts (in this case photographic reproductions), as if we needed to add further weight to the argument in favour. The deeds photographed are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and feature some beautiful secretary hand writing.

Some of the submissions took a darker tone, in particular concerning one of the Early Modern period’s favourite forms of popular spectacle: executions. Executed Today has an interesting post on one of Henry VIII’s early executions in 1510 (before he really got into the swing of things!). Henry had acceded the previous year and won himself a big popularity boost by executing Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. Both men were prominent councillors to Henry’s father but were also focuses for popular discontent over the old king’s taxes. Dudley tried to win Henry’s favour by writing a treatise in favour of absolute monarchy, in the hope of a pardon, but was to be disappointed. His son John would go on to become the Duke of Northumberland before meeting the same fate as his father. John’s son Robert Dudley, who became the Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth I’s Master of the Horse and life long favourite.

Execution of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

While poor old Edmund Dudley was beheaded on Tower Hill, our next post, over at The Chirurgeons Apprentice looks at hanging, the preferred method of execution towards the end of the Early Modern period. It features a fascinating account of a public hanging in England in 1726, written by a Frenchman and goes on to look at this rather gruesome method of execution in general.

Finally, we have a look at the Hapsbugs’ unwitting attempts to end their line through in-breeding in this post about Charles II of Spain. The Hasburgs, keen to preserve the purity of their bloodline, had an unfortunate habit of marrying their cousins. This was not immediately problematic but generation after generation, problems started to appear. Charles II (1661-1700) suffered from multiple physical and emotional disabilities which may well have been the result of centuries of inbreeding (Charles’s parents were uncle and niece which made Charles’s father also his great-uncle). His disabilities were obvious from birth and he was not expected to survive. He did and suceeded to the throne but was an ineffective king. He had no children of his own and his death in 1700, a few days short of his 39th birthday, sparked the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).

Charles II of Spain

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of recent Early Modern blogging. The next Carnival is the medieval edition and will be hosted by She-Wolf next month and the next Early Modern edition will be in November at Anchora which has been featured here. Huge thanks to Sharon of Carnivalesque for letting me host this month!

Early Modern Carnivalesque

At the end of this month, I’ll be hosting the September Early Modern Carnival on behalf of Carnivalesque. The carnival is a round up of great blog posts so if you would like to nominate a post, please do so here. You can nominate yourself, or any other blog post you’ve enjoyed that was posted within the last 2 months or so.

To give you an idea, the last carnival was at Pure Medievalry and the most recent Early Modern edition was at Madame Guillotine.

The Battle of Carnival and Lent

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel, 1559