Sunday, 10 August 2014



      The list of those who seriously annoyed Henry VIII and lived to tell the tale would not fill a very tall page. Close to the top would be the name of Anne of Cleves. A mere four years after the execution of that other Anne whom the king disposed of, he found it necessary to wriggle out of his marriage with wife number four. Though distressed, Anne was clever enough to put up no resistance. As a result she was allowed to enjoy an honourable and comfortable retirement from public life.

     But there was a price to be paid: the king's 'good sister' had to live the rest of her days as a prisoner in England. She was forbidden to leave the country or to have any direct contact with her family in the Rhineland duchy of Cleves. Any correspondence had to pass through official censors. Why were such stringent conditions placed on Anne's keeping her head in its accustomed place? What state secrets might she have blabbed if she had been allowed to return to her native land? The answer, I believe, lies not in politics, but in sex (insofar as the two can be separated in royal biographies).
     Henry VIII was not the virulent stud of legend (a legend he was at pains to promote). By 16th century royal standards his womanising was modest (The Emperor Charles V had at least four illegitimate children and several mistresses). Certainly, by 1540, when he entered his fiftieth year, he was an overweight, semi-invalid man with a very limited sex drive, if not actually impotent. It was a truth he refused to face himself and one he concealed from everyone else. Everyone, that is, except his wife. When Henry failed to consummate the marriage he, inevitably, blamed Anne. She was unattractive and she smelled! It was Henry's complaints about her appearance that laid the foundation of the myth Gilbert Burnett embellished a century and a half later when he dubbed Anne, the 'Flanders Mare'. Ravishing beauty she was not but nor was she physically repulsive. The poisonous Lady Rochford and her cronies, seeing which way the wind was blowing, tried to lend support to the king's version of events by putting it about that Anne was so naive that she did not know the facts of life. Unfortunately that canard ran counter to Henry's insistence that, having examined his bedfellow's body, he doubted her virginity!
     Henry's problem was that he could not perform his husbandly role without considerable sexual stimulus (if then) - the sort of encouragement provided by the flighty Catherine Howard, currently being dangled before his lascivious eyes. Such arts were certainly beyond the modest German princess who had been brought up in a very 'proper' home. Thomas Cromwell tried to suggest to her some tricks of the bawdy-house, but to no effect. The end result was that Henry faced the prospect of a long, joyless marriage. Now it was up to his archbishop and his ministers to get him out of the mess, which they obediently did, leaving him to pursue a younger and more vivacious woman.
     Things were not quite so simple for Anne. She had to endure permanent homesickness and learn to live in a land of strangers. Her story could never be told. For why? She knew too much.

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