Happy Anniversary

Hans Holbein the younger's portrait, 1539

…to Henry VIII and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who married today in 1540. To put it mildly, the marriage was not a success (although it was less of a disaster than Henry’s marriages to Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. At least Anne of Cleves escaped with her head attached.).

See, the trouble was, because this was before cameras or Skype, the only way the king could see his far-off prospective bride (who lived in Cleves, part of modern-day Germany and the Netherlands, where her brother was duke) was to send an artist off to paint a portrait. Hans Holbein the Younger was duly sent to Cleves to paint Anne and her younger sister, Amalia, who was also being considered for Henry’s next victim bride. Holbein was told not to flatter the sisters, but it seems the artist might have taken a few liberties. When Henry saw his future wife for the first time, he was polite to her, but complained to his friends that “She is nothing so far as she hath been reported.”

Unfortunately for Henry, it was too late to back out of the marriage, and the wedding took place at the bizarrely named Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, London. The marriage was never consummated; Henry told Thomas Cromwell that he “liked her before not well, but now [he] like[s] her much worse.” Anne was unsophisticated and fairly uneducated, even for that time, and she was said to have personal hygiene issues which must have been really bad to attract notice during a period when hardly anyone bathed more than a handful of times a year. Toward the end of June, Anne was told to leave the court, and on July 9 the marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation and due to her childhood engagement to a French prince.

Anne received a generous settlement that included Richmond Palace and, kind of horribly, Hever Castle, the former home of Anne Boleyn. Anne and Henry actually became very good friends after the annulment, and she was referred to as the King’s Beloved Sister. As a thanks for not making the annulment a difficult one, she was invited to court frequently and Henry accorded her precedence over all the other ladies of the land, save his own wife and daughters. After Henry’s death, Anne attended the coronation of Mary I, but remained primarily a private gentlewoman, attending to her estates in the country. She died on 16 July 1557, possibly of cancer, and was buried at Westminster Abbey, the only one of Henry’s wives to be buried there.

Although Anne got off easily, Thomas Cromwell, the man who brokered the marriage, did not. Cromwell pushed for the match because he hoped that marrying Henry to a Protestant princess would put the English Reformation back on track, after the Six Articles somewhat derailed it by reaffirming traditional Catholic doctrine on several key issues. Henry’s disappointment in his bride was directed full blast at Cromwell, and Cromwell’s enemies, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, fed Henry’s anger. Cromwell was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London on 10 June 1540 and was executed on Tower Hill on 28 July, the same day Henry married Katherine Howard (hell of a wedding gift). Cromwell’s head was set on a spike on London Bridge.

As often happens with rash and insane decisions, Henry came to regret Cromwell’s execution, and in the months to come, he accused his ministers of bringing Cromwell’s downfall about by false charges. Because nothing was ever Henry’s fault.

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