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I’ve been on a documentary kick again. Some of you might think. “Kimberly, didn’t you already go through a twelve-step group for this addiction?” Back off. I can quit any time I want. My current fixation is Tudor England, and I discovered an unlikely hero: Anne of Cleves.

Everyone chorus together now – “Who?”


Anne of Cleves, as painted by Hans Holbein. Picture found on tudorhistory.org. Accurate? Only Henry VIII says no.

If you know who she is, you get a cookie, but I won’t judge you if you don’t. Anne of Cleves was married to Henry VIII in 1540. That sentence works, by the way, whether you’re talking about the wedding itself or the entire marriage. Their union lasted six months and three days. It was the 16th century equivalent of Britney Spears marrying Jason Allen Alexander for a weekend. All anyone can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Honestly, Anne and Henry made a good fit on paper. (So did Britney and Jason, in a way. They were childhood friends and had dated before.) Henry had just lost Wife #3. The engagement planned when Anne was eleven had been called off before her twentieth birthday. Neither of them had a lot of options. Since all three of his previous wives were dead, one because he had her beheaded, Henry found himself short of convenient marriage prospects. (“If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal,” Christina of Denmark allegedly said. If she didn’t actually say it, I’m sure she thought it, and I’m sure she wasn’t alone.) At twenty-five, Anne had aged out of her prime bride years. Plus, Anne’s brother, the Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, had political leanings similar to Henry, and both identified as Protestant. It made sense.

Growing up, I’d heard of Anne. I thought of her as the ugly duckling of Henry’s wives. Poor Anne, the one who repulsed Henry on sight, who got kicked to the curb after six months. Turns out, as usual, there is more to the story, and Anne doesn’t need my pity or anyone else’s, thanks.

The story I heard went something like this: to get Anne married off, the leader of her country had Hans Holbein paint her picture, and told him to make her look better than she did in real life. Holbein painted a miniature and gave it to Henry. (Why he painted a miniature, I don’t know. I have to imagine, if the Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg (good thing they didn’t have to put that on a postage stamp) had some kind of dowry or influence to give Henry along with his sister, he could afford enough paint for something life-size.) Henry looks at the picture and says, “Yeah, I’d tap that.” Anne arrives at Henry’s court and looks nothing like her picture. Horrified Henry decides to suck it up – “My Lord, if it were not to satisfy the world, and My Realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing,” he is supposed to have said to one of his buddies – but after six months, the poor man just can’t do it anymore, and sends her packing. Having seen her, no one in the court blames him for this.

I have a picture in my head of Henry calling in the court fixer, who walks into Anne’s room in the middle of the night and explains that her luck has run out. She holds her head high and says, “It was always a long shot.”

In every study of the Bible or Shakespeare, you’ll hear the same thing: you have to look at the material in context. Some context, as well as some missing details, and the story sounds very different. See, the version I heard is missing a crucial detail. We are told that Henry was repulsed by Anne, but nowhere in the story do we hear what Anne thought of Henry.

Why would that matter in the 16th century, you might wonder? Good question. Smart you, for asking it. Have another cookie.


Henry VIII in 1536, part of a mural painted by Hans Holbein. You’ll see a lot of variations on this portrait, because the original was destroyed in a fire in the 17th century. We know about it because of copies people painted of it later. This one was painted by a Holbein devotee around 1530. I found it in the Google Art Project.

In this case, it matters quite a bit. Henry had the nifty idea that he would approach Anne without telling her who he was. According to an account by the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapys, the king and a few of his buddies wore hoods over their faces and showed up at the abbey of Rochester where Anne and her party had stopped en route to meeting him. Without introducing himself, Henry walked up to Anne, kissed her and gave her a gift. Instead of recognizing her true love and falling at his feet, Anne took him for a pushy servant. After a perfunctory show of appreciation, she went back to watching something she’d seen out the window before he showed up and interrupted her. After this incident, Henry declared, “I like her not!” and started to say she was ugly.

Of course, Henry. You ran up and kissed her because the sight of her turned your stomach? Right. And I don’t drive a Tesla because I’m waiting for something more aerodynamic. Come on. Truth is, you didn’t like Anne for the same reason I don’t go talk to the Tesla credit department: because it feels lousy to be turned down. Sure, she showed great deference and appreciation as soon as someone said, “Um, your grace, that’s the king you just snubbed,” and she realized that you had power and money and there was something in it for her, but I understand why that didn’t help. If the Tesla credit manager found out I have nice legs and a great rack and said I could have an interest-free loan if I made sure there was something in it for him, I wouldn’t be thrilled either. We have our standards.

I can’t blame Anne for not falling at his feet. Henry was a looker in his younger years, everyone agrees on that. Six feet two inches tall, athletic body, glowing skin. But at this point, in his mid-forties, Henry’s prime was only visible in the rear view mirror. You might think I’m talking about the weight he put on, but I don’t think that was the deal breaker. To me, the festering leg sore that never healed (and according to some, smelled) and the personality that could turn on you faster than a hummingbird could beat its wings would have presented much bigger turn-offs. Not his fault, perhaps. He took a bad fall from a horse, hurting his leg and possibly suffering some brain damage in the process. All accounts confirm he was never the same person after that. But you can’t blame Anne for thinking, “What the hell did I just get myself into?”

After six months of wedded less-than-bliss, they split up. Despite what I thought, Anne didn’t go home to Big Brother. Important thing to remember here – high-born women of this era represent a political bargaining chip to the leaders of their homeland. While they don’t usually get a say in who they marry, they do have one advantage: you don’t publicly insult them. Had Henry insisted Anne skedaddle back to Jülich-Cleves-Berg, he’d have to kiss good-bye any hope of trade with or political support from that country. Disrespect to Anne would be interpreted as taking a shot at the entire place. Catherine of Aragon was also a political asset, and yes, he did end up confining her to a castle, but they’d been married for seventeen years before Henry tried to ditch her, and he spent another seven years trying to come up with a legitimate way out, which he never actually found. He had to create a new religion for his entire country before he could declare their marriage annulled. By contrast, Anne Boleyn, daughter of an English earl, got beheaded on most likely trumped up charges two months after he took up with Jane Seymour, the woman who would become his third wife.

With his marriage to Anne of Cleves so fresh in everyone’s mind, Henry had to tread carefully. He declared that their marriage could be annulled because it had never actually been consummated. (Evidence says this could well be true, but given the smelly leg sore and all, Anne might’ve wanted it that way.) Even so, with him offering proof that the lack of sexual congress wasn’t because he was impotent (TOO MUCH INFORMATION, HENRY!), he didn’t manufacture evidence of misbehavior on her part. His whole defense lay in her unattractiveness, for which, by the way, there is no evidence except Henry’s comments. In fact, there are accounts that other people saw Holbein’s portrait and thought it a fair likeness.

At the end of the day, Anne agreed to a settlement that included several estates, a yearly allowance of £4,000 (over $3,000,000 in today’s money) and would be known as “the King’s sister,” granting her status above all women in England except the queen.

Before, I used to think of Anne as the poor soul that got dumped and was only married to Henry for six months. All of a sudden, she looks like the shrewd woman who secured land, money and a degree of independence for herself, and only had to be married to Henry for six months.

Perspective. It matters.

How many other things in life change materially when we look at them from a different angle? I begin to think age and information are scopes on the kaleidoscope of life. They help us to focus our vision. Not all details will necessarily agree with each other. Tough break, folks. A degree of interpretation is required in all aspects of life. Remembering that keeps me from judging myself or anyone else too wise or too foolish.

Is the  pathetic view or the liberated view the more accurate one of Anne? I can’t say for sure. Given the standards of society, then and now, Anne probably had to deal with a certain degree of judgment and shame for having been passed over. Evidently, they tried to find someone else for her to marry afterwards, but no one could quite figure out whether that should be allowed. (A topic no one ever discussed about Henry, probably because people were too fond of having their heads attached to their necks.) She even suggested to Henry that they get remarried after he beheaded his next wife. He wasn’t interested. But I wonder if many women of Henry’s court didn’t envy her. She had her own household and the means to keep it up. She evidently had a reasonably cordial relationship with Henry, after a fashion. She was welcome at court, and when she asked to visit with his daughter Elizabeth on occasion, Henry agreed. She left jewelry to both his daughters in her will. Best of all, she outlived Henry by ten years. Only his last wife, Catherine Parr, joined her in that accomplishment, and Anne outlived her, too.

This weekend, a friend of mine got married. I bemoaned wearing the same dress to a wedding that I’d worn to another friend’s wedding ten years earlier. “Does it still fit?” my friend Joule asked me. Yes, it did. She smiled. “If you bought something ten years ago and it still fits now, that is cause for celebration, not shame.”

Perspective: perhaps the world’s most valuable commodity. If you’ve run out, don’t worry. Anne of Cleves can always lend you some.

Kimberly looks forward to finding out what perspective she gets from driving the Tesla.

CORRECTION: I previously listed two out of three of Henry VIII’s wives as dead when he married Anne in 1540, since Catherine of Aragon was only banished after her annulment, not killed. Finally thinking to double check that info, I’ve updated the reference. By 1540, all three previous wives were dead. Catherine died of cancer in 1536, three years after Henry officially dispensed with her. True, she probably died without any help from Henry, but I think Catherine would take issue with being listed as alive simply because her corpse still had the head attached. By 1540, she and Henry occupied separate spiritual planes. While Catherine might have chosen that she live and Henry shuffle off this mortal coil, I have to imagine she liked the separate part, so I will pay proper respect to it. -ke

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