On this day (9th July) in 1540, the marriage between Henry VIII of England and Anna, the elder Princess of Cleves, was formally and legally annulled. Anne has gone down through history as the one who made the great escape, as well as a lot of other things much less flattering. So today, the ‘anniversary’ of Anne’s freedom, I thought I’d take a minute to debunk some of the more popular myths surrounding Henry’s most fortunate Queen-consort.
Anne the munter
Apparently fat and pock-marked, with a face like a horse and unpleasant body odour, the previously potent Henry couldn’t get it up for his new wife. However, he is the only person who seems to think that Anne was ugly. Although the famous Holbein portrait was probably a little flattering (look at how he flattered Henry himself in portraiture!), surely Holbein wouldn’t dare to deviate quite so far from the truth? Besides, people who knew Anne remarked that the portrait was a good likeness!
What is more likely is that the aging, leg ulcer-suffering Henry found himself unmanned when bedded with a young, foreign, frightened stranger and it was far easier to take it out on her than let people think that their king was impotent. Perhaps she wasn’t his type, perhaps she did suffer from a bit of B.O – but that doesn’t mean she was a hag!
And Henry never, ever called her “a Flanders mare” – that’s a 17th century invention.
Anne the slag
Henry flat out refused to believe Anne was even a virgin. Crossly he told his advisors the morning after the wedding night: “I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse. For I have felt her belly and her breast, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid… [The thought of] which struck me so to the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters… I have left her as good a maid as I found her.”
Of course Anne was a virgin. In fact, she had been protected a little too well, as it’s clear she had absolutely NO idea what intercourse actually was. She thought that because Henry slept beside her and gave her a kiss goodnight and one in the morning, that that was enough to get her pregnant. One of her ladies had to frankly tell her: “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York.”
Anne the foreign frump
We’re a bit closer to the truth, now. I’m not saying Anne was a frump as such, but she came dressed in fashions alien to what the English court was used to and didn’t understand the way that the game was played. Henry valued wit and education in women, but Anne had received no formal teaching. He liked his women to flirt and flatter him, but Anne was solemn and docile – and besides, spoke barely any English.
Anne was the first and only stranger that Henry married. He had known Katherine of Aragon as a boy, when she had been married to and widowed from his elder brother Arthur. Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – as well as his mistresses – he had hand-picked from his own court. It seems Henry was a bit of a romantic, and preferred being ‘friends first’.
A lot of the tension stems from Anne and Henry’s first meeting. Anne was making her way from Dover to London, when Henry decided he would waylay her at Rochester. In disguise, he and his companions entered her room unannounced, whereupon Henry boldly grabbed his fiancée and kissed her on the mouth. Had poor Anne grown up in Henry’s court she would have known that this was a tradition of courtly love, and something Henry had loved to do with his past wives. As it was, Anne just thought she was being accosted, and shoved the fat old man off her, swearing in German and calling for help. To say it bruised Henry’s ego is putting it mildly.
Anne the survivor
Anne did survive Henry – quite literally – and his son Edward too, living to see Mary I being crowned. After the annulment, Henry settled riches and property on her like there was no tomorrow, probably relived that she was taking it so well and he wasn’t going to have to lop off her head or go to war with the German states to get rid of her.
She was given the title “the King’s most beloved sister”, which made her the foremost woman in the land, just behind whoever Henry was married to at the time, and his two daughters. Not a bad state of affairs.