EP 004: I Like Her Not!

What did Henry VIII do to turn his wife into his sister? And, more importantly, why did nobody point out how totally bonkers that was? Today we’re turning to some of the many things (mostly untrue) that have been said about the infamous Flanders Mare.

For anyone who isn’t completely obsessed with this period of history, Anne of Cleves is a relatively obscure figure. Which is interesting, because she was a queen of England, and not Dark Ages, Alfred the Great, funny haircuts era-England, but Henry the VIII, Cromwell, funny haircuts, era-England. That more people don’t know more about her isn’t entirely unsurprising – there are far fewer books and films devoted her than to some of the others, and she was married to the king for only six months. In normal circumstances, that might be considered an abysmal failure of a marriage, but the married life of one of history’s most notorious serial husbands (or serial killers – let’s circle back to that) isn’t exactly normal circumstances. And if you’re marrying this guy, the measure of success isn’t how willing he’s going to be to squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom or stay off the punch at the office Christmas party. At the moment of this marriage the odds stand thus: 1/3 chance – left to die alone and unloved; 1/3 chance – left to alone and badly loved; and 1/3 chance – brutally murdered for something you definitely didn’t do and something else you probably didn’t do. So none of the outcomes look great. And in light of that, with the benefit of rather a lot of hindsight, and the freedom to discuss the monarchy without being beheaded, Anne may actually have been the most successful of all six of the wives

She didn’t get off to a good start though, even by the standards of the day. Henry VIII  famously stormed out of their first meeting and declared “I like her not,” and then proceeded to tell Thomas Cromwell to get him out of the marriage come hell or high water. Unfortunately neither of those things came, and Cromwell’s head was neatly removed from his shoulders and put in a box, from which Henry no doubt assumed he would find it less convenient to meddle in his love life.

But those famous words ‘I like her not’ are not actually the beginning of the story, but the end of a different one. Let’s set the scene: Henry the 8th has buried three wives already. Actually, he didn’t bother burying the first two, because he’d gone off them by then. His first wife, Catherine, got the chuck for not giving him a son – although she did in fact have three sons, none of whom survived. He then developed a burning passion for Anne Boleyn, for whom he toppled the Roman Catholic church in England and wrote some rather dreadful poetry. But it turned out, as it so often does, that all the things that made Anne Boleyn a firecracker of a love interest grated him in a wife which, of course, was entirely her fault. Also, she had (unforgivably) chosen to give him a daughter instead of a son, so he had her head cut off just to show how cross he was. The next day, he got engaged to Jane Seymour, who was everything that Anne Boleyn had not been – fair, plain, quiet, and not given to throwing things at him when he had affairs with her friends. She did give him a son, and then had the good sense to pop off of this mortal coil before he had the chance to publicly humiliate her any more than he already had. He mourned her thoroughly and wholeheartedly for about a month, at which point he started wondering whether he hadn’t better set his mind to getting another wife. You know, for the children.

Now the interesting thing about Anne of Cleves was that she was the first of Henry’s wives that he hadn’t actually chosen himself. He had volunteered to marry Catherine because he liked the idea of himself sweeping in to rescue her out of her poverty and widowhood (and probably liked the idea of getting one over his big, dead brother, who had married her first). He pursued Anne for years, and then went after Jane. But by the time he got around to his 4th marriage, the burning necessity of a son was a little less urgent, although he was quite keen on having a back up, and the problem of political alliances was looming. Anne of Cleves was suggested as a bargaining chip to make an ally of the Duke of Cleves, in case the English were attacked by their Roman Catholic neighbours. Hans Holbein, already a celebrated artist, was dispatched promptly to paint a picture of the 25 year old Anne, and came back with a rather charming portrait of a pretty and demure looking young lady. Henry liked it so much that he agreed to marry her, and she was told to pack her bags.

Unfortunately, Henry (despite his track record) was a bit of a romantic. He was obsessed with the stories and songs touting the traditions of courtly love, and the idea of an arms-length political marriage to someone he’d never met didn’t quite do it for him. Even more unfortunately, one of these stories had the remedy for just such an occasion – the man would disguise himself, usually as servant, and present himself to his arranged bride, who would be so overcome by love at first sight that she would immediately see through the disguise, recognize her one true love, and probably through in a nice swoon for good measure.  

If you’re thinking – good grief, this man is supposed to be intelligent enough to run a country, how can he go in for such utter bilge – well, you’re not wrong. But this game had been played throughout the fancier (and sillier) courts throughout Europe for many years. The women were usually forewarned, but if they weren’t, the recognized the king anyway, because, you know, they lived in the same palace. Now let’s not draw in any generalizations from this, but the German nobility didn’t go in for this sort of idiocy. And Anne of Cleves had never seen the King before.

What she had seen was a portrait of the king in his prime – young, tall, muscular, and extremely handsome. She’d also heard all thee reports of him as ‘the handsomest prince in Christendom.’ Whether that was ever true is up for debate, but it certainly was not true now. Henry had suffered a jousting injury that left him with constantly infected ulcers. To avoid blood poisoning, these had to be kept open almost all the time and drained frequently, which was obviously excruciating, but also meant that everywhere he went he took the odor of rotting flesh with him. It also meant that he certainly was not the athlete he’d once prided himself on being. He coped with the stress of this by eating and drinking himself into a stupor as often as possible, shouting at people, chopping off heads, and being generally unpleasant. By the time of his marriage to the second Anne, he was all but unrecognizable as the prince he had once been. Regrettably, nobody close to him was brave enough to mention this, and he seems not have noticed his expanding waistline and dwindling appeal. In his mind and his imagination, he was still the man of 22 that everyone loved and no-one could resist.

All this is to say that Henry decided to dress up as a servant with a bunch of his mates and surprise her en route to London, expecting that she would fall instantly in love with him and then faint with joy at the thought of the upcoming marriage. Anne did no such thing. For one thing, she had been fully briefed in the matter of good behaviour in her new county, with particular stress no doubt laid on the small matter of what happened to women who offended the English King. For another, the aging, fat man attempting to grope her bore absolutely no resemblance to the man she’d been told to expect. She treated him with cool politeness when he was introduced, and then spurned his advances when he tried to grab her for a cheeky snog. In very mature fashion, Henry stormed off in a strop and had a quick wardrobe change. When he came back, he not only looked like the king, but someone had whispered the rules of the game to Anne, who fell to her knees and apparently made a very pretty speech. But the damage was done. Henry had been humiliated publicly. More than that, he had been forced to gaze into the mirror of Anne’s reaction – probably the only person to have given him an honest account of himself since he became free with the chopping block.

He left her rooms proclaiming those famous words “I like her not,” and proceeded to tell the rest of Europe that she was too ugly for him to consummate the marriage. To his credit, he wasn’t actually the one to call her ‘the Flanders mare’ – that name only came about in the 17th Century – but he did bemoan a variety of her body parts publicly enough for it to completely humiliate her. He suggested that Holbein’s portrait had been painted to flatter her, and that there was nothing about her looks or mind or personality that could induce him to make her his wife.

So at this point, you might be wondering why on earth anyone in their right mind would describe this marriage as success, and It certainly wasn’t as great love stories go. But Anne – whatever Henry may have told the world – was shrewd enough to take a good deal when she saw one. So when Henry asked to annul the marriage and offered to make her his ‘beloved sister’ instead, she took the deal. As the King’s sister, she was given an extremely generous allowance, a house, and the freedom to live alone. She outlived him, and all of his other wives. No man could risk offending the king to marry her, so it may have been a lonely life, but it was at least free from the control of a husband, a father, or a brother, which was no small thing for a woman of that time.

And for all that he ‘liked her not’, the King developed a rather sweet friendship with Anne. She developed a taste for English beer and remained friends with all of his children. And, for the record, nobody but Henry ever called her ugly, and for all Hans Holbein was accused of exaggerating her looks, he was allowed to keep his paintbrush (and his head). Which just goes to show.

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