Whenever I have the opportunity of visiting Le Louvre, Amongst other favourites I always go to see again Holbein's superb portrait of Anne of Cleves. In my view, and in spite of the surprisingly negative opinions of others one sometimes reads regarding this work, it's one of his best.
As Holbein was an outstanding artist, colourist and draughtsman, it must have been a good likeness, but he chose this symmetrical frontal pose, as it was most likely the only effective way of portraying Anne in the most appealing manner. For when one closely looks at the portrait, it's apparent that a three quarter view or an Italian renaissance profile view would be less to her- and thus also to the portrait's- credit.
Anne of Cleves was in fact Thomas Cromwell's choice bride for Henry VIII, as England needed Protestant, or even Lutheran allies at that time, to ward off the threat posed by the new alliance between the Catholic French, Spanish and Italian who were determined to repress 'Protestant heresies'.
Hans Holbein the Younger, also of German origin, seems to have been very much aware of the importance of this proposed marriage in order to have invested his talent to such a degree in this particular portrait, and probably just as much in the lesser known portrait, now lost, of Anne's younger sister, Amelia.
More than two years had passed since the sad death of Jane Seymour, not long after giving birth by caesarean to the much longed for but fragile son, Prince Edward of Wales. For this, as well as Henry's sincere devotion to her, Jane Seymour was the only queen of his reign to be buried in St George's chapel, Windsor. It was also Henry's granted wish, to be buried alongside her.
Henry VIII was probably enchanted by Holbein's portrait, but in addition there were several reports sent to Henry's right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, regarding the beauty of Anne of Cleves. 'Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady (Anne) as well for the face as for the whole body, above all ladies excellent,' wrote Christopher Mont. Anne's brother, the Duke William, stated that Anne's looks would get her a good husband. Cromwell himself, who had persuaded Henry of the importance of this alliance, conveyed the verdict that Anne surpassed the beauty of the Duchess of Milan (a particular favourite of Henry's) 'as the golden sun did the silvery moon'.
Such praise contrasted starkly with John Hutton's observation to Cromwell in 1537- 'The Duke of Cleves hath a daughter, but I hear no great praise either of her personage nor beauty'.
Whatever negative reports Henry may have had access to, he seemed to have been fully taken by Holbein's portrait. So eager was he to see her when she finally arrived at Rochester by New Year's Eve, that although their first meeting had been set for the 3rd January, 1540, he arrived at Rochester Abbey in disguise with five members of his Privy Chamber on New Year's day. He had come 'to nourish love', but he didn't stay very long to nourish anything, leaving as soon as decency permitted. He didn't even bother to give her the gifts of furs which he had brought for her, deciding that she didn't merit them.
Not only was Anne plain, dull and poorly educated, but her German maids of honour gave an even worse impression by their peculiar attire, all dressed identically in a ghastly fashion which made them look graceless, dour and more as if they belonged to some curious sect, than if they were maids of honour to the future queen of England.
Despite Henry's legendary appetite, Anne aroused nothing in him and made no effort to try. The king tried to get out of marrying her on the basis of her pre-contract of marriage to the Duke of Lorraine's son, but the Privy Council waved all such legal problems that could prevent the marriage from going ahead.
For Henry 'it was a great yoke to enter into.' Just before the wedding he informed Cromwell, 'If it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.'
Following the marriage Henry shared the same bed with her for only a few nights, but it was hopeless. 'For by her breasts and belly she should be no maid, which when I felt them struck me so to the heart that I had neither will nor courage for the rest.'
Anne was timid, frigid and terrified of the giant lying beside her. The marriage therefore was never consummated, and Henry referred to her as 'the Flanders Mare', which naturally was scathing irony, for the Flanders brood-mares of his stables were far more vivacious and receptive.
The king was already looking elsewhere, and one of Anne's maids caught his eye. It was Catherine Howard.
Henry wanted a divorce in any case, and Cromwell who had arranged the marriage, had to arrange the divorce. Thomas Cromwell was already being 'convincingly' accused of heresy by others eager to oust him to procure some of his powers, for he was the King's supreme administrator in most affairs.
After having received through Cromwell the documents he needed to annul the marriage, his loyal servant was sent to the block. Henry had been so shocked by the accusations against Cromwell that he did nothing to save him. Perhaps his ordeal with Anne made him feel less indulgent towards him, although later he was to admit that Cromwell 'was the best servant he ever had'. Ironically before he was executed, Cromwell admitted his faith to Catholicism.
Anne fully accepted the divorce without any problem. Henry was so relieved that he made sure that his 'adopted sister' had everything she needed to continue to enjoy a comfortable life. She was assigned to the Manor of Bletchingley in Richmond with a generous income of £500.
She transformed Richmond into a modest Rhenish principality. She could have gone back to Cleves, but no doubt preferred the comfort and the prestigious position of 'precedence over all the ladies of England, after the queen (Catherine Howard whom Henry married the day Cromwell was executed) and the King's daughters.'
Anne seemed to blossom somewhat more than she ever did during her short reign as queen, and she lived on quite contentedly for another seventeen years. She is buried in an obscure grave somewhere in Westminster Abbey.
Cromwell's accomplished administration was to influence Henry into leaving strict instructions regarding future management of the realm. Accordingly it should be handled by several regents instead of too few. Although such instructions weren't fully respected after Henry's death in 1547, (due to the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset) they could be still be regarded as additional, scattered seeds leading to Parliament. He had, after all, even if it were for selfish, illusive but 'national interests', divorced from Papal absolutism. This too paved the way to Parliament, more religious tolerance, and thus an earlier birth of British democracy, whilst on the continent, monarchial absolutism continued to reign until the end of the eighteenth century.
One of Cromwell's impossible tasks was the handling of royal finances, which, with Henry and his court was akin to trying to swim against a torrent.
To give some idea, here is an account of a full dinner menu of 1533.
First course. Salads of damsons, artichokes, cabbage lettuces, purslane and cucumber served with cold dishes of stewed sparrows, carp, capon in lemon, larded pheasants, duck, gulls, brews, forced rabbit, pasty of venison from fallow deer and pear pasty.
Second course. Hot stork, gannet, heron, pullets, quail, partridge, fresh sturgeon, pasty of venison from red deer, chickens baked in caudle and fritters.
Third course. Jelly, blancmange, apples with pistachios, pears with carraway, filberts, scraped cheese with sugar, clotted cream with sugar, quince pie, marchpane. To be finished with wafers and hippocras- a Tudor spiced wine similar to port.
And this, compared with special Embassy banquets at Whitehall, wouldn't be considered as particularly lavish.
(No reproduction does justice to Holbien's portrait of Anne of Cleves. One only has to see the luminosity of the original to appreciate this).
Text © Mirino. Main source among others- Henry VIII and his Court (Neville Williams) with grateful thanks. Portrait of Anne of Cleves, c. 1539, by Hans Holbein the younger (1498-1543) Oil and tempera on parchment mounted on canvas, 65 x 48 cm. Le Louvre, Paris. (Wikimedia Commons, with thanks). November, 2011