The Flanders Mare – Henry VIII’s Ugly Wife

How do you replace the irreplaceable? This is a burning question for Henry VIII following the death of his beloved Jane Seymour in 1537. She is the woman who has given him the cherished boy he longs for. We know his feelings for her as many years later he is buried beside her rather than any other of his wives. That is not to say that he does not try to move on with his life and it is these attempts to do so that lead him into further trouble.

Eventually after two long, lonely years pass the ruler of England once again finds another bride. Some see this as proof of his love for Jane Seymour. In practice the truth is rather different. He actually begins sending out instructions regarding the search for a new wife barely a month after Jane’s death. Indeed he asks his courtiers and favourite painters to travel to the various European courts and pass judgement for him on the best suitable women for him.

Unfortunately for Henry the stumbling block for him is that his bad marital reputation has spread round Europe. To give but one example when the beautiful Christina of Milan is told of the King’s interest she replies that if she had two heads she would risk it, but she has only one.

Eventually Henry finds a bride due to the efforts of Hans Holbein, probably the most famous of the Tudor court painters. Hans had been sent to the court of the Duke of Cleves in 1539, and subsequently takes portraits of his two sisters: Amelia and Anne. Henry takes a close examination of Holbein’s portrait and decides to have a contract drawn up for his marriage to Anne.

Partly this is based on her ‘looks’ but also because Henry sees it as a strategic means to bolster his power in Europe. Henry is by now anti-Papal authority so in 1539 he looks toward the Duchies and principalities along the Rhine as they are Lutheran and therefore have a similar political outlook to Henry. In the Duke of Cleves he sees an important potential counter balance against France and the Holy Roman Empire should they decide to move against the countries who have thrown off the Papal authority. Hence a marriage with Anne suits Henry’s political aims.

It also appears that she will be a good match as she has a demure and deferential attitude toward authority so when her brother signs a marriage treaty with Henry she duly sails for England despite never having actually met Henry VIII.

Initially both are keen to meet one another. Although he is not at Dover to meet her ship when it docks he does go to see her at Greenwich Palace. However when it comes to their actual meeting the event does not go as well as planned. When Henry first enters the room Anne is staring out of a window gazing upon Greenwich. She does not recognize him so she pays scant attention and continues to stare out of the window. For a man of Henry’s regal stature this is a serious embarrassment and an offence to his ego. After this disastrous encounter Henry announces to those present afterward “I like her not”.

This is only the first of many problems that the mismatched pair will have. Anne is ill at ease with life at the English court especially as she knows little English. Her upbringing in Cleves has concentrated on domestic skills and not the music and literature so popular at Henry’s court. Also contrary to the portrait the rather shallow minded Henry does not find his new bride in any way attractive and is known to have call her the ‘Flanders Mare’. Further barriers emerge when the political climate begins to alter unfavourably. The Duke of Cleves and the Holy Roman Empire begin to make overtures toward war and Henry fears being sucked into an expensive military campaign. Lastly Henry finds himself distracted by the flirtatious and sultry Kathryn Howard who knows much better how to please the King.

Anne is not without some political acumen and intelligence however these traits do not make up for her naivety. When Henry kisses Anne goodnight before leaving her with her maids of honour, she is convinced that she will become pregnant because of this. ‘When he [Henry] comes to bed, he kisses me and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me ‘Goodnight, sweetheart,’ and in the morning, kisses me, and biddeth me, ‘Farewell, darling.’ Is this not enough?’ asks Anne.

The following morning when Cromwell asks him ‘How liked you the Queen?’, Henry replied, ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.’ He told Anthony Denny, a member of the Privy Chamber, that she had ‘breasts so slack and other parts of body in such sort that [he] somewhat suspected her virginity.’ In a similar vein he tells court physicians he is displeased by the ‘hanging of her breasts and looseness of her flesh.’

In the end the clinching factor in these matters is that the King of France and the Emperor go back to their usual state of animosity so Henry decides to press ahead with marriage despite his misgivings. This is all the more odd as only a few days earlier between the first meeting and the wedding, Cromwell and the king find a potential way out. It turns out that in the mid-1530s, Anne had briefly been engaged to Francis, the son of the duke of Lorraine. The English have not explored the issue too much, merely asking the government of Cleves if negotiations have ended. Now they looked more closely, with the king waiting impatiently for the right response. They suddenly discover there is no dispensation from the precontract; Anne is still officially betrothed to Francis. This means that Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is legally invalid from the start.

This is one of the more ironic moments in Henry’s chequered marital career. For once, his desire to end a marriage is legally valid and acceptable to all and yet he feels unable to stop it from happening as he fears the Duke of Cleves becoming an ally of the Emperor.

The marriage itself takes place on 6th January 1540. Such is his loathing for Anne that Henry tells his favourite advisor, Thomas Cromwell on his wedding day ‘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.’

Clearly Henry wants to annul the marriage and Anne is wise enough to know that she will only be making trouble for herself if she tries to thwart him and his desire to marry Catherine Howard, his ‘Rose without a Thorn’. Eventually Henry settles upon trying to use the law by suggesting that she is still engaged, they have not consummated the marriage and that her previous engagement to the son of the Duke of Lorraine has not been properly broken.

There is a long held myth that Hans Holbein deliberately deceived the King into thinking how beautiful she really was but the facts suggest otherwise. In terms of motives there was little to be gained especially given Henry’s proclivity for beheading all who offend him. Indeed Holbein continues to receive commissions from the English aristocracy before dying of plague in London in 1543.

Contrary to the reputation of Henry, after the marriage has been dissolved, Anne and Henry remain on good terms with one another. She is offered and accepts the honorary title of ‘King’s Sister’ and is often invited to court.  clevescene   She is also given property, including Hever Castle, formerly the home of Anne Boleyn. In addition her new lands guarantee her an income of 4000 pounds a year, making her one of the wealthiest women in England. Anne continues to live away from court quietly in the countryside until 1557 and even travels to the King Henry and Catherine Parr’s wedding in addition to attending the coronation of her former step-daughter, Mary I.


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