Sunday, September 22, 2013

Birthday Girl: Unlucky in Love

We reach rather further than usual back into the mists of history to salute today's birthday girl - all the way back, in fact, to 1515, when the girl so resplendently adorned here in Mr. Holbein's fine portrait came into the world in, of all places, Düsseldorf.

She's known to us (and, of late, to fans of perfervid television drama) as Anne of Cleves, although she signed herself Anna and might just as easily be called Anna LaMarck, of Jülich-Cleves-Berg-Mark-Ravensberg. Anne of Cleves is certainly a shade more elegant, not to mention simpler.  It's almost definitely preferable to her married name - in a run of ill-luck, she still manages to stand out for the singular ill-fortune of her brief foray at being one of the six Mrs. Tudors.

Given that she was rejected by Henry VIII on the grounds of her supposedly appalling looks, her portraits always come as a surprise.  To modern eyes, when compared to pudding-faced Catherine of Aragon or (if the one iffy portrait is to be believed), sly, weasely Anne Boleyn (the English queen who - again, based on that one portrait - possibly most resembled the one who centuries later never actually got the crown, Wallis Simpson), she seems quite attractive.  Not really a looker, perhaps (and North German hygiene reportedly left much to be desired, even by Tudor standards), but comely enough.  Today she might be the sort of woman who works for a non-profit, has three cats (not four, that would be crazy), and collects whatever brand of figurine is currently most collectible.

I admire Anne of Cleves, I think, for her equanimity, which shines through in her portrait by Mr. Holbein.  It's a characteristic that carried her through not only the disastrous six months of her marriage, but onward for another 17 years, during which she led a generally quite contented life as a kind of extra royal aunt.  She survived not only her marriage, but her husband and all of her rivals, on into the reign of her daughter-in-law, Mary I.  She didn't make old bones and so missed out on all the Elizabethan fun that followed, but even so, of all the Tudor women she may well have had the most congenial of lives, a placid round of moves from town palace to country house and gossiping with her ladies, with occasional trips to court as an excuse to drag out her finery and show off a little.  She must have known, in her Flanders gowns and outlandish headgear (not mention her nose, rather more prominent than admitted to by Mr. H.) that people laughed at her.  What did she care?  She wasn't living in Düsseldorf, and that may well have been more than enough to keep her satisfied.


  1. He apparently cared for her a lot, regardless of never having fancied her - she was titled "the King's Beloved Sister" and stuck around through his last two marriages. She's also the only wife of Henry VIII to be buried in Westminster Abbey, which is quite something... Jx

    1. That's right - I'd forgotten that she was at the Abbey. I paid her a visit when I went there first, yonks ago. Hard to find, but definitely there. I was really going to see Elizabeth I and Mary, QofS, and there she was. Mary I is there, too, tucked into Elizabeth's tomb, so it's sort of old home week for them. Forever.

  2. She seems like the lucky one. Plus, she looks like one of the secondary characters in a Barbara Pym book, some neighbor or coworker or nun tarted up for some ill-advised fancy dress party. Your description of the non-profit, collectible collectin' cat lover seems very Pymsy, too.

  3. I think that she may very well have been the luckiest of all the wives. He barely touched her, and we have remind ourselves that Henry, when young, was not a heart throb. So he imported her, the Flanders Mare, and upon seeing what she was, got rid of her by giving her a country house and, as you pointed out, trotted her out. But she was more than just a mistake, she became a valued counselor of court. And once she learned English, she and Henry actually enjoyed each others company finding that they shared similar sense of humor. Ad she got to keep her head.

  4. To me she always seemed the most level headed of the wives.

    Catherine of Aragon was so steeped in religious dogma she became her own worst enemy, living in genteel poverty subsisting on day old bread and the like instead of accepting her situation matter of factly and probably being treated very well because of it.

    Anne Boleyn played so many sides it was only a matter of time before she got crossed up. She loved intrigue too much it seems, mixed with a viperish temper and of course her bad luck, or so it seemed at the time, to not produce an acceptable heir.

    Jane Seymour is always presented as rather a weak sister, pallid and retiring and that may have been so but she was cunning enough to usurp Anne's place and exacerbate an already bad situation and snatch the crown for herself.

    Catherine Howard was a promiscuous nitwit who listened to some really bad advice and paid dearly for it. To be fair the poor little strumpet was merely a pawn of her ambitious relations. That Howard/Boleyn crowd was quite a ruthless and conscienceless lot.

    Katherine Parr apparently was a wise and understanding woman and was able to placate Henry and was kind to the kiddies but was still foolish enough to fall for one of those bad news Seymour men choosing to ignore the fact that he had hot pants for her step daughter.

    Anne of Cleves on the other hand accepted her situation, probably glad to be out of Flanders with a sizable property settlement, to mere mortals a huge one that included several castles and extensive lands, the king's goodwill and an exalted title. There never seems to have been any other emotional involvement with a man but considering how perilous those where back then among the royal set it was surely the wisest decision.