Anne of Cleaves has a historically bad rap, this is in no small part because she will forever be remembered as Henry VIIIs ‘ugly’ wife; ‘the Flanders Mare’. Which seems pretty bullshit:
A) have you seen Henry VIII????
B) why are we still putting a woman’s entire worth on how fuckable Henry VIII found her?
Anne was an incredibly amazing and accomplished woman, she was smart, shrewd and is far and away the wife I’d most like to have a pint with (sorry Anne B)
Anne grew up the awkward middle child, both on Europes political stage and at home.
Princess to a small and only occasionally useful duchy, Anne was told that the only thing she would ever achieve was to be a good-ish wife.
Her older sister was a famous beauty who was soon married off, her younger sister was also beautiful and witty, her older brother was an arsehole, but a semi-successful one…and Anne was just there, under the family thumb, getting on with her wife studies and waiting to be told what to do and where to go.
Sadly for Anne, Her family decided the best place for her was on the arm of this ass hat
Henry VIII was on the hunt for wife number 4. With one wife divorced and essentially exiled, one beheaded and one dead, his dating profile wasn’t great. So it’s unsurprising that Europes princesses weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to marry this obese ageing megalomaniac.
But that wasn’t an issue for Annes family!
Anne and her younger sister had portraits taken and sent to Henry (sort of like ye olde Tinder)
Henry was immediately taken with Annes portrait and the description of her. Sure enough, Anne was picked to be Henrys bride and her passage to England was set.
For her part, Anne was thrilled. Finally she’d get away from her oppressive family and get to live her own life!
But there were issues. For one, Anne couldn’t actually speak English, which is a bit of a worry when you’re off to go be Queen of England. She also didn’t know anything about music or dancing, which were Henrys favourite past times. Plus she hadn’t actually been raised to be a Queen.
Sure, she was a Princess and yes she’d been raised to be the best darn wife she could be…but she was princess of a tiny duchy and only ever expected to marry a Duke or maybe a low level Prince. Being Queen of one of the worlds biggest powers was a different thing entirely!
But Anne wasn’t a quitter. She spent the long journey to England trying to pick up the language and customs and learned games that Henry liked. She was aiming to wow!
And then she got there….
Henry was both a tyrant and a romantic, a combination that basically guarantees dickery.
True to dick form, he decided to don a disguise to meet his new bride, sure that their love would be so strong, she would immediately see through the rouse and leap into his arms.
Obviously this didn’t happen…
Instead Anne patiently ignored the overweight sweaty man as he pawed at her and tried to get her attention. She was waiting to meet the King and neither wanted to engage with or offend this new unwanted admirer.
And then the guy kissed her and Anne stepped back in shock. Because, well you would. This was too much for Henry. He threw off his disguise and stormed out the room, leaving a confused Anne in his wake.
The damage was done, the marriage was in ruins before it even began.
Still though, the Henry and Anne had to tie knot! The wedding was set, Henry well versed in what to do and well…it would have been embarrassing not to.
So in 1540 Anne and Henry were married.
But the pair didn’t consummate the union.
Rumours soon spread that Anne didn’t actually know what sex was. She told her ladies that she had ‘laid’ with the King and thought she might be pregnant – despite openly acknowledging that the two had just kissed.
This is where the question comes in:
Was Anne smart or just super naive?
Look, cards on the table – yes it is likely that Anne wasn’t, er…as well versed in sexual conduct as she should have been.
She came from a strict and religious upbringing and it is very likely that her mum neglected to tell her about the birds and the bees as much as she should have done, especially considering her daughter was being shipped off to go make babies.
This aside though, I reckon Anne was pretty bloody on it!
Anne knew that her marriage was heading for the rocks. She understood that this was a very dangerous situation and that if not careful she would possibly be dead or ruined in a few months time.
So Anne played the game. She learnt from past players mistakes (she wouldn’t argue back or push for reform and change like Anne B and Catherine. Though she shared a lot of their personality traits (determined, spirited and vocal) Anne worked hard to play this down for the volatile King Henry.
During her short reign as Queen, Anne of Cleves implemented no major changes.
This will be the only time I ever say this, but…doing absolutely nothing was the best thing she could have done!
Being docile and impassive guaranteed her survival. Perhaps that’s not making any inspirational posters, but it’s true and it worked…
That’s not to say Anne didn’t occasionally show her true self. Once when discussing Henrys daughter Mary and her marriage prospects, Anne was (gasp) open and frank in her opinions.
This didn’t go down well and soon Henry was loudly complaining about Anne’s stubborn and wilful nature.
After this incident Anne made sure to double down on her docile rouse and soon She looked on track to escape this marriage with her head. Win! But that wasn’t the only thing she wanted.
Anne wanted independence
Anne hadn’t known independence before coming to England. She had been strictly under her Mum and brothers control.
She had thought that marrying the King of England would be the shot at independence that she had longed for…but instead she’d become a shadow of herself as she tried to appease a tyrannical super dick.
With this marriage coming to a close, Annes future was up in the air.
The English court was soon full of gossip, Would Henry find her anouther husband? Would she live the rest of her days as a nun? Perhaps she’d be sent back to her family?
Not on Anne’s watch! She had no intention of once more living under anyone else’s rule.
Anne was determined to finally be an independent woman.
Though she was expecting it, Anne was still devastated when she was told Henry wanted a divorce. There was a lot on the line and suddenly everything felt very real.
But she quickly regained composure and determined to not repeat Catherine of Aragons mistakes, Anne complied with all of Henrys wishes.
However she was resolute on staying in England. She had started to realise the full level of her disgrace should she return to Cleves and genuinely feared that her brother may kill her in retaliation for her failure as a wife.
Shit was very real and time was running out.
Henry demanded Anne send him her written agreement to his offer of a divorce. But Anne needed more time to think and make sure she was completely safe…so she refused Henry Vlll. Steadfast that she would only speak to the King in person.
It was a big gamble, but it paid off. The marriage was annulled (saving Anne from divorce and offering her a little bit of dignity) she also received a generous lifelong yearly pension and the new title of ‘Kings Sister’; her status at English court would be higher than any other lady.
With her place in English court locked down, Anne made one more brave decision.
She decided not to get married.
This was – to put it mildly – a fucking ballsy move.
In Tudor England an unmarried woman was a cause for pity, a divorced and unmarried woman was a cause for pity, scorn and a side of ‘what’s her problem?’
But Anne didn’t care what anyone thought, she wanted her independence. So she ignored the whispers and wore her new title of ‘kings sister’ with humor and grace.
She visited court regularly and became a popular and beloved figure. She was given land and property, where she set up a home for herself and spent the next 17 years living the life she chose.
Finally, Anne was free.
This was really interesting, how can I find out more? Now, I’ve never found a book on Anne that truly digs deep and does her the historic justice she deserves. But I live in hope, Josephine Wilkinson did an incredible -and waaaay overdue – book on Katherine Howard last year, so maybe one day we’ll get the Anne C book of our dreams.
Until that day, I’d suggest reading Six Wives by Alison Weir. It’s a great place to start getting more in depth looks at all of Henry Vllls wives.