Okay. It’s Day 4 of Henry VIII Week, and he’s sort of looking like a big ol’ douche. I mean he kicked his first very kind and loving wife out of the palace to die a lonely death because he wanted to bang a smart, sexy hottie who couldn’t give him a male heir and was subsequently and swiftly beheaded, and he concurrently banged a very quiet and nice lady who gave him his heir and then died (probably because he sort of let her die). That was a very long sentence with a lot of adverbs, and I’m sorry if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. Because like Matt Weiner does every summer Sunday, I’m about to complicate a character REAL fucking hard. And that character is our ever-growing ginger king with an insatiable libido, Henry VIII.
Let’s set the scene. It’s 1537, and sweet Jane Seymour has kicked the bucket, but little Edward VI is doing okay and that’s all Henry can really ask for. And he’s like “Hey, let me take a little break from the whole ‘wife’ thing. I need some ME time. I know, I’m going to get some monasteries and images of saints destroyed, and maybe burn some more Catholics or go golfing with my BFF Charles Brandon or something.” Because I believe that dear JAF might have forgotten to mention that Jane Seymour was VERY sympathetic to the Catholic cause. I mean she was a Protestant in name, but she became close with Mary, Henry’s uber-Catholic eldest daughter and tried to get her more rights in court. She also asked him to pardon the men involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace. What is it about Henry VIII that makes me digress so much? I don’t know. There’s just too many fun facts.
Anyway, Henry spends a couple of years living the single life, burning down beautiful examples of Gothic architecture and banging chambermaids. In 1540, his advisers are thinking that it’s time to get this guy back in the marital saddle. Because if royal history has taught us anything, it’s that one boy-child isn’t enough. You need an heir and a spare. But this time, Henry didn’t have Wife #4 on deck in the palace somewhere. Rest easy, people. His chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, had it all figured out. It was a total PR move. Where’s the most Protestant place in the world? Germany! Who are the most eligible ladies in Deutschland? Anne and Amelia of Cleves, docile young German noblewomen sisters!
So Henry’s not really into the whole wife thing. He’s enjoying his time hunting and burning people. But he knows it’s probably a good idea, so he tells Cromwell to have his favorite court painter, Hans Holbein, go do portraits of the sisters and then bring them back to jolly old England, at which point Henry would make a decision based on their appearance. Much like a fleshy customer at any American chain restaurant where the menus are 80% food porn, 20% words.
Hans Holbein – that sounds German, doesn’t it? Yeah, it sure fucking does. Anne and her li’l sis weren’t exactly models. And Hans might have given Anne (Amelia’s portrait disappeared/doesn’t matter in this story) higher cheekbones and lighter hair and a daintier mouth than she actually had. But he was just being a fucking patriot. He wanted some German blood in the English court, so he did what he had to do. Henry was like “Yeah, okay. I can deal with that,” upon seeing the portrait of Anne, and girlfriend was spirited away to the English port of Rochester faster than you can say “blind marriages ALWAYS work out!”
Remember when I said that I was going to complicate the character that we’ve LAID (get it?!) out for Henry? Well forget I said that for this part.
Anne stepped off the boat and Henry said “AW HELL NO.” A seventeenth-century historian later misquoted him as calling Anne a “Flanders mare,” and that name sort of stuck forever. Meaning she looked like a horse. Henry was NOT into it. He felt duped by Hans Holbein. I don’t want to say that he thought she was repulsive, but I mean, he didn’t have sex with her. And this guy would have sex with ANYTHING that had a vagina, soooo. Yeah, apparently she was a butterface. Or a Carson Palmer, as my high school history teacher would say (nice uniform, ugly helmet).
Not only that, but Anne was a classy, classy bitch. She was very modest, quiet (mostly because she didn’t speak English), gentle, and docile. Like a sweet lady librarian. Except she didn’t read books all that much. Anyway, what I’m getting at is that she was everything a sixteenth-century noblewoman should be, but she looked a little bit like a man. Man of Cleves.
But Henry went through with the wedding anyway because an alliance with the Germans was a BFD. And to make English Protestantism more legitimate. The two lovebirds got hitched in January 1540, and Anne converted to Anglicanism as expected. They didn’t bone on their wedding night (or ever), and the next day Henry told Cromwell, “I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.”
By June, Henry was so over it. Anne was removed from court and told that her husband wanted to reconsider their marriage. And when you’re the King of England, “reconsider” means “get the fuck out of.” So it was annulled on July 6, 1540, on their six-month anniversary. He wanted out, I get it. But couldn’t he have waited one more day? I mean that’s just a douche move.
BUT this is where the character complication comes in! Henry fucking SHOWERED her with parting gifts. Like a reverse prenup. She got THREE CASTLES. One of which was the former Boleyn estate. PRECEDENCE OVER EVERY WOMAN IN ENGLAND. Except his future wives and daughters, but still. That’s a nice-ass settlement. She was an honorary member of his family for the rest of her life, and was known as “the King’s Sister.” Which seems a little weird. But she was just very close with Mary, Elizabeth, Edward, and even Henry. So much so that she never returned to Germany. For funsies, let’s compare her fate to say, I don’t know, Anne Boleyn’s:
Anne of Cleves: so many castles, so much land, lifelong court status, precedence over everyone, close relationships with the royal family 4eva.
Anne Boleyn: a French swordsman rather than an English executioner cut her head off.
So as you can see, even though he didn’t want to hit that, Henry really loved Anne of Cleves. And I’m not saying that because he gave her a lot of material shit. I’m saying that because she was the ONLY woman given that much access to his personal life that he wasn’t banging, and she had that access until she died well after he did. I really think that he respected her and just wanted to keep her around. I mean, which of his slampieces were getting this much respect? None. None of them.
I guess when it came to the ladies, Henry VIII either gave his dick or his honor, but never both.