Tag Archives: Elizabeth I

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!

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!

The Queen Who Survived

Portrait of Catherine Parr, 1545

Portrait of Catherine Parr, 1545

Yesterday marked the 463rd anniversary of Catherine Parr’s death. She was the last of Henry VIII’s wives, although he also predeceased Anne of Cleves. Catherine had been married twice before she became queen in 1542 and married for a fourth time, making her the most married queen of England, only six months after Henry’s death (considered indecently quick at the time).

Her fourth husband was Sir Thomas Seymour, brother to Henry’s third wife Jane. By 1547 she had been dutifully married and widowed three times and now, finally, married where she chose. She was pregnant less than a year after her marriage (although she had no children from previous marriages). Her joy was short-lived, though, as her ambitious husband pursued her step-daughter and charge, Lady Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I). Catherine caught the two in an embrace and banished Elizabeth from her house.

On 30 August 1548, Catherine gave birth to a daughter, named Mary, at Sudeley Castle, a property given to Thomas Seymour by hi nephew Edward VI. Catherine contracted puerpal fever and died only six days after the birth. Thomas was executed for treason a little over six months later, leaving their daughter an orphan. Sadly, Mary disappears from the historical record after her second birthday and it is likely that she too died not long after.

Catherine is buried in he chapel at Sudeley Castle.

Sudeley Chapel

Catherine Parr's tomb in the chapel at Sudeley

Tomb in the chapel at Sudeley

Catherine Parr's tomb at the chapel at Sudeley

Monument closer

On this day…

On 9 August 1588, Elizabeth I gave the following speech to her troops at Tilbury, over looking the Thames. England was braced for invasion as the Spanish Armada approached.

My loving people,

We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

Elizabeth I

Portrait commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada