Anne of Cleves: A Woman Maligned?
by Peggy M. Baker
Poor Anne of Cleves! Publicly, personally and very graphically maligned by her new husband, Henry VIII, her marriage was then annulled. Whether the annulment itself was a matter for mourning or celebration is, however, open to interpretation!
The ultimate indignity, however, is Anne’s ongoing historical byname: “The Flanders Mare.” A catchy tag, indeed, but one without basis in historical fact.
The “official” story is well documented. Henry VIII, a widower after the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, decided to pursue a diplomatic marriage, taking a foreign bride sight unseen. Although this had long been standard kingly practice, Henry himself had always chosen his wives on the basis of personal attraction.
As a gloriously chivalric 19-year-old king, given to dramatic and sentimental gestures, Henry had swept his widowed sister-in-law, Katherine of Aragon, whom he had known for some eight years, off her feet and onto the throne. Fifteen years later, he would begin a passionate courtship of Anne Boleyn, marrying her after seven tumultuous years. In 1536, only eleven days after Anne had been executed, he married Jane Seymour. His first approaches to Jane had been unsuccessful. Jane piously refused the amorous advances of the then still-married king.
Now, in 1539, Henry was at the mercy of the diplomats and painters. They described his potential new bride as lovely. Henry was intrigued, but cautious enough to send his own court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, to paint Anne’s portrait. Holbein was known for the clarity and truthfulness of his images and Henry’s ambassador to Cleves noted that he had expressed Anne’s image in a very lifelike, realistic manner.
Holbein’s painting, now in the Louvre in France, shows an attractive and serenely confident young woman. Although her attire is noticeably “foreign” and would have seemed odd to English eyes, it does not disguise her tiny waist.
Several contemporary observers began with caustic comments about German fashions, before describing Anne herself as at least moderately attractive. The French ambassador gave two descriptions of Anne. In one, she was tall and slender, and moderately beautiful. The other described her as not beautiful, but vivacious.
The reports were sufficiently enthusiastic. Henry surged forward with his plans. Anne arrived in England at the end of December 1539. She was scheduled, after a short rest from the rigors of the Channel crossing, to make a ceremonial entrance into London, there to meet her husband-to-be.
Henry could not wait.
Imitating the impetuous, romantic gestures that had served him so well in his golden and athletic youth, the now corpulent, balding, limping, 48-year-old king set off to meet his bride. In disguise and therefore minus the dazzle of crown, jewels and luxurious robes, he strode into the rooms of an unsuspecting Anne.
We have no report of Anne’s reactions to the resulting encounter. We can only presume that she was not charmed. From Henry’s point of view, it did not go well at all. He emerged quickly from her chambers, making vague but ominous remarks of discontent and dissatisfaction.
Henry tried to wiggle out of the arrangement, but couldn’t find a solid reason. Diplomacy won. On 6 January 1540, the wedding went ahead.
The next morning, the ever-gallant Henry complained that he had been unable to consummate the union. He had, he said, put his hands on her body and found it obvious, from that superficial encounter, that she was not a virgin. (Really, Henry!?)
In the months ahead, he continued to sometimes sleep in her bed but, beyond kissing her goodnight, made no further sexual approaches.
This proved useful when Henry speedily sought an annulment. He had not only formed a new attachment to the nubile young Katherine Howard but he also no longer needed the Cleves alliance for political gain. Henry was declared a free man on 8 July 1540.
On the basis of this small, pathetic, almost comic story, mountains of conclusions have been drawn and a multitude of unearned insults hurled.
Gilbert Burnet bishop of Salisbury, writing in the late 1600s, was the first to coin the expression “Flanders Mare” for Anne of Cleves. The actual description of Anne as tall and slender (and not from Flanders!) doesn’t stand a chance against this pithy and scurrilous epithet.
The “Flanders Mare” gibe, having taken on a life of its own, is still repeated today as if it were a contemporary description. Some twentieth-century histories have piled on even more gratuitous, unfounded and disparaging adjectives – frumpy, pockmarked and repulsive (Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty).
Other modern histories have pounced on uncomplimentary comments made about Anne’s inability to speak English or play a musical instrument. Henry was, in fact, informed of Anne’s deficiencies in these regards before he agreed to the marriage.
His ambassador, Nicholas Wotton, wrote that, while Anne could read and write German, she knew no other languages. He also pointed out, however, that she was intelligent and would have no problem learning English.
Wotton also explained Anne’s inability to sing or play an instrument, by saying that in Germany it was not thought suitable for great ladies to be learned in music. We know that the German courts included musicians. It was presumably the personal production, and not the appreciation, of music by aristocratic women that was frowned upon.
From these reports and from the nasty tittle-tattle of the Tudor court, however, giant and unsupported leaps have been made. It has been sometimes said that Anne received a provincial upbringing, where singing and reading were ignored in favor of cooking and household chores. Her mother is often faulted. She is described as a traditional Catholic who did not believe in educating her daughters (unlike the supposedly more advanced English), or even as a “German hausfrau.”
All the noblewomen of Europe, of course, were at that time traditional Catholics. Far from being a “hausfrau,” Anne’s mother, Marie of Julich-Berg, was descended from a long line of German princesses (not to mention, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Hugh Capet of France and William the Conqueror). Her parents’ wedding had been attended by the Archduke of Austria, the Duke of Burgundy, the Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony, and the Margrave of Baden. Marie left Julich-Berg in 1509 at age 10, when she married John of Cleves.
John, who succeeded to his father’s title of Duke of Cleves in 1521, was an admirer and active proponent of Erasmus, who advocated education for women (at some level, at least). Far from discouraging or limiting his daughters’ opportunities, John and Marie probably provided an upbringing for their girls similar to that provided for Mary Tudor by her parents Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (who had also been unacquainted with English when she arrived from Spain).
The few glimpses we have into the lives of the “daughters of Cleves” reflect well on their upbringing. Anne’s younger sister Amalia, far from being deficient in reading or music, actually either wrote or commissioned a songbook!
And we can briefly catch sight of Anne’s older sister Sibylle as a girl, in a portrait painted when she was 14. Her parents chose (or, at least, agreed to) Lucas Cranach the Elder – a prestigious and sophisticated choice, indeed!
A court painter known for his support of the Protestant Reformation (one of his most iconic portraits is of Martin Luther), Cranach also liked to paint naked Eves and Venuses. Two of Cranach’s Venuses are particularly memorable, their vast expanses of luscious creamy skin emphasized by their startling-large pinwheel hats.
In her portrait, Sibylle is (of course!) fully dressed in the vivid German style, with luxuriously flowing wavy unbound hair, accessorized with a large bobbing feather attached to a wreath, tilted rakishly over one eye. A beautiful, alert girl, she grew into a woman possessing the brains and political savvy to occasionally serve as her husband’s regent.
There is every reason to believe that Anne was yet another bright and cultured “Daughter of Cleves.”
Anne of Cleves is now being reassessed by a new generation of biographers. They are slower to jump to conclusions based on the jibes of an English court that specialized in gossip (and disapproved of foreigners).
They also place less trust in the abusive remarks of a single, disappointed, angry man. Henry was indeed a king, but a king notorious for both his outsized ego and for his bad judgment in and about women! And not even Henry described Anne as a “Flanders Mare.”
That particular crude and pointed insult has, nevertheless, lasted for centuries. It may take further centuries to die! After all, why let the truth stand in the way of a good story? At least Anne herself never suffered the humiliation of being known as a “Flanders Mare.” And perhaps her inability to speak English shielded her from the court’s unkind critique of her clothing and upbringing.
We can only applaud as, once released from her marriage to a less-than-appreciative husband, Anne plunged with zest into her new role as the king’s “sister,” and as an attractive and independent woman.