Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book Review: Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII's Discarded Bride by Elizabeth Norton

This is one of the better books by the prolific Ms. Norton.   It is rare to have a stand-alone biography of Henry VIII's fourth Queen, and Ms. Norton does a good job of illuminating Anne of Cleves life from its beginnings in the Duchy of Cleves through the major struggles, most of them financial,she suffered following the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII after only six months of marriage.

Anne of Cleves is stereotypically the Flanders' Mare.    This is a title that is not contemporary having been bestowed on her in the 18th century.    It is true that upon first meeting her Henry VIII's famously said "I like her not."   However, she is not the comically ugly bride that she is frequently portrayed in film (thanks, Elsa Lancaster).   Nor does she simply live happily ever after as the divorced, beheaded, survived rhyme would lead you to believe.  

Anne of Cleves was the wife who survived Henry VIII the longest, living until 1557.   It is that part of the book, from her annulment to her death that is the most fascinating part of Ms. Norton's biography to read.   For she suffered heartache and financial problems for most of the rest of her life.

Anne of Cleves was born in 1515 the second child of John III of Cleves and Maria of Juliers.  Her elder sister, Sybilla would marry John Frederick of Saxony and her sole brother, William, would become Duke of Cleves and end up in a disasterous war with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V during the 1540's.

Anne was proposed as a bride for Francis of Lorraine, but the betrothal was legally dissolved.   This would become an issue when Henry VIII decided he did not want to marry Anne.  Unfortunately for him, the Cleves ambassadors were able to supply proof of the dissolution, thus the King had to fulfill his marriage contract.

How did Anne of Cleves become Queen of England?  Following the death of Queen Jane Seymour, the King and his council looked to a foreign alliance.    There were French candidates, including Marie de Guise who would marry King James V of Scotland and become the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.   There were Imperial candidates, most famously Christina of Milan whose Holbein portrait reveals a charming young woman.     However, France and the Emperor signed a peace treaty in 1539 providing a possible threat to English security.   Thus a possible alliance with a member of the Schmalkaldic League.   While Cleves was not a member of the league, Anne's brother in law, John Frederick of Saxony was, so an alliance with Cleves meant a tie to the League.

While Anne and her younger sister, Amelia were both considered as brides for Henry VIII,  Anne was always the leading candidate as she had inheritance rights if her brother died without issue.   Once the marriage treaty was signed Anne received very favorable dower rights which included payments to her if she wished to return to Cleves as a widow.    This becomes very important to her story.

Most people familiar with Anne's marriage know that the first meeting between Anne and Henry was a complete disaster and that the King failed to consummate the marriage.    Then, once he took Katherine Howard as a mistress in the spring of 1540 getting out of the marriage with Anne became an urgent priority.   Also, the peace between France and the Emperor  did not last and the strategic importance of the alliance with Cleves was no longer valid.    The marriage was annulled on the grounds of nonconsummation, Henry's lack of consent to the marriage and on the basis of the pre-contract with the Duke of  Lorraine.   The document provided by the Ambassadors from Cleves was found to be dubious because it was signed with a seal in the shape of a beer pot.  (seriously)   Anne was not the willing divorcee that she is portrayed in many fictional portrayals.  There are accounts of her fainting when told the news that her marriage might not be valid and that she was terrified that she was going to be arrested.  

However, unlike her predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves did not prolong the proceedings and agreed to a generous settlement with the title of the King's Sister, and was granted precedence at court over everyone except the current Queen, and the King's two daughters.  She was granted Richmond Palace, Bletchingley, Hever Castle, and several other manors including the property in Lewes that is called today the Anne of Cleves house.   She was also forced to write to her brother, William and inform him of the annulment.  

So what happened next?    Anne went through immediate changes to her household, the dismissal of officers appointed to serve her as Queen exchanged for other appointed to serve her as the King's sister.    She attended court at New Year's 1541 exchanging gifts with Henry and Queen Katherine Howard.  Following the arrest and execution she firmly believed that she would become Queen again and it is interesting that a pamphlet, The Remonstrance of Anne of Cleves was published in France claiming that Anne was in despair from the loss of her marriage and contemplating suicide.   Through diplomatic channels the pamphlet was suppressed on the orders of King Francis I, who hinted that he wanted Henry to remarry Anne.    Why?    Francis was in alliance with Anne's brother, William, and they disastrously declared war on the Emperor in 1542.  If Henry had remarried Anne he might have been drawn into that war on the French side.    Guilders was lost, Juliers was destroyed and William was forced to annul his marriage and marry the Emperor's niece, Maria of Austria.

Meanwhile, Anne's household expenses were consistently in arrears.   While he lived, King Henry frequently paid her debts.   This changed in 1547.    With the accession of King Edward VI, Anne's life became one of financial hardship.    Rampant inflation devalued her income.   Her debts went years in arrears despite many pleas to the council for help in paying them.   And she was pressured into exchanging several properties.    She lost Bletchingley to a member of her household, in exchange she received Penthurst which was not advantageous as she already owned the nearby Hever Castle.   Then she surrendered her favorite residence of Richmond to the crown.  She had let the palace fall into such disrepair that the King's council needed to spend more than 2000 pounds to repair it.    And, in 1552 she was required to exchange her lands and manor at Bisham for the property at Westthorpe.

Her fortunes briefly changed when Mary became Queen.   She was given a prominent place in the coronation procession and at the coronation banquet.   But, her return to royal favor only lasted until Wyatt's rebellion when she was suspected of colluding with those who wished to place Elizabeth on the throne.   While Anne was innocent she did not return to court again.    When she died at Chelsea in 1557, Mary gave her a royal funeral and she is the only one of Henry VIII's wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Ms. Norton provides a well-written and researched biography of Anne of Cleves.   It may be difficult for some readers as the 16th century letters and documents do not have their spelling modernized.   This book was published by Amberley Press in 2009.

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