Tuesday 28 January 2014

Anne of Cleves, A Flanders Mare: Part 2

What happened when Henry VIII began to have 'doubts' about his fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves? Why was a terrifying message brought to Anne in the middle of the night? Who did Anne think would 'slay her' when word of her divorce spread?

Find out in part 2 of my series of articles on Anne of Cleves for Royal Central.


Friday 24 January 2014

Bessie Blount: A Bestseller

Bessie Blount is currently listed as a bestseller in The Good Book Guide (Jan/Feb 2014): 'A readable, intelligent account of Bessie Blount, an important mistress of Henry VIII's youth, who bore him an illegitimate son'.

My current academic research relates to the Blount family, so Bessie is a bit of a Tudor favourite of mine! She's a fascinating character and researching her life uncovered many surprises...

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Eahlswith - Queen of Alfred the Great

In light of the current interest in Alfred the Great occasioned by the search for his bones, I thought I would look at his wife, Eahlswith, who is now largely forgotten. Although entirely overshadowed by her husband, the queen played an important role in supporting him, as well as being an influence over her son, Edward the Elder.

Eahlswith was the daughter of Aethelred, known as Mucil, ealdorman of the Gaini. The Gaini was an old tribal group absorbed into the kingdom of Mercia and Mucil was an important figure at the Wessex court, attesting two charters of King Aethelred I in 868. Her maternal lineage was even more impressive and her mother, Eadburgh, was a member of the Mercian royal family. According to Alfred's biographer, Asser, Eahlswith’s mother was a ‘notable woman, who remained for many years after the death of her husband a chaste widow, until her death’.

Alfred married Eahlswith due to her prominent family and royal connections. At the same time as their betrothal in 868 he was also created heir apparent by his elder brother, Ethelred I. At around the same time Ethelred and Alfred received an appeal from their brother-in-law, King Burgred of Mercia, for aid against the Vikings and the marriage was celebrated during this campaign. According to Asser, the ceremony was held in the presence of a number of witnesses and accompanied by feasting that lasted both day and night. It is possible that Eahlswith met her husband for the first time at her wedding and, if this is the case, the omens were not good. Following the feasting Alfred ‘was struck without warning in the presence of the entire gathering by a sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians’. Alfred’s illness continued, on and off, for twenty years.

Alfred became king of Wessex in 871. In accordance with tradition, Eahlswith was never called queen, instead being referred to by the title ‘lady’. In spite of this, she was a prominent figure. During the reign of her son she was referred to as ‘the true lady of the English’. She played no political role during Alfred’s reign and was content to remain in a domestic sphere, accompanying her husband and children into exile in January 878 in order to avoid capture by the Vikings. This was a traumatic time, since the Viking leader, Guthrum, declared that Alfred had abandoned his kingdom and forfeited his crown. He spent the first half of 878 as a fugitive on the Isle of Athelney. From here, Alfred carried out guerrilla attacks on Guthrum, defeating him in battle at Edington later that year.

Eahlswith returned to Wessex with Alfred when he regained his throne. There is little record of her activities during Alfred’s reign and she may have devoted her energies to the church. Certainly, she had the pious example of her own mother to draw upon and Alfred was also deeply religious, founding two religious houses during his reign: Athelney for monks and Shaftesbury Abbey for nuns. That Eahlswith was involved in the foundation of these houses is suggested by the fact that her daughter, Aethelgifu was appointed abbess at Shaftesbury and lived there with other nuns of noble status. Eahlswith’s piety can also be seen after Alfred’s death as she founded the Convent of St Mary at Winchester (known as Nunnaminster) during her widowhood. Asser referred to Eahlswith as Alfred’s ‘excellent wife’, suggesting that she conformed to contemporary ideals of queenly piety.

Eahlswith bore a number of children, with five surviving to adulthood. Aethelflaed, her eldest child, married Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia, succeeding as ruler of Mercia herself after her husband’s death. The couple’s second daughter, Aethelgifu entered the church, whilst the youngest, Aelfthryth, married Count Baldwin II of Flanders. Eahlswith also bore two surviving sons, Edward, who succeeded his father as king and Aethelweard. Eahlswith is likely to have been involved in the education of Edward and Aelfthryth, since they were raised at court.

Alfred and Eahlswith were married for over thirty years. Alfred died in 899 and, in his Will, paid Eahlswith the tribute of leaving her three estates and a share of £400 to be divided between her and her daughters. She often visited her son’s court and witnessed a charter in 901. She died on 5 December 902 and was buried in the New Minster at Winchester beside her husband.

You can find out more about Eahlswith and the other Anglo-Saxon (and later) queens in my book, England's Queens: The Biography (Amberley, 2011).

Margaret Beaufort Audiobook

My book, Margaret Beaufort, has just been released as an audiobook. It sounds great and I am looking forward to listening to the whole book.

Margaret was one of the most important women of the late medieval/early Tudor period. It was through her that her son, Henry VII, claimed the throne. She also kept his hopes of the throne alive through years of exile. Find out more and listen to a sample at:



Wednesday 15 January 2014

Henry VIII's Last Portrait

Longleat's portrait of Henry VIII, which was long thought to be a copy, has now been shown to be contemporary to the Tudor king. The wood in the painting has been dated to 1529 and this, coupled with an inscription dating it to 1544, suggests that it may well be the last portrait that Henry sat for. It's a fascinating discovery. I was asked to comment on it for the article in the Daily Mail below:


Monday 13 January 2014

The Reeds Oatlands: A Tudor Marriage Settlement

I have an article published in the new volume of the journal, Surrey History (vol XII, 2013), which is printed by the Surrey Archaeological Society.

The article, which is called 'The Reeds of Oatlands: A Tudor Marriage Settlement', considers the marriage arranged between the gentlewoman, Isabel Blount of Kinlet (the younger sister of the famous Bessie Blount) and the goldsmith, William Reed of Oatlands in Surrey. Although of lower social status that his bride, William Reed, who was a widower and twice the bride's age, was very wealthy. As the nephew and heir of the prosperous goldsmith, Sir Bartholomew Reed, it had been hoped that he would take over the family business. William, however, wanted to be a gentleman and quickly expelled from the goldsmith's company.

William made his home at his uncle's manor at Oatlands, which was so splendid that Henry VIII ultimately acquired it. He already had an heir when he sought marriage to Isabel but, in spite of this, his wealth and connections made him a good match. Due to William's age, the marriage settlement was tightly drafted to ensure that Isabel and her future children were protected when he died. In addition, William promised to pay for the wedding food and, even, the bride's wedding dress!

The marrriage settlement - which is a rare survival - provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the upper middle class in Henrician England.

Isabel Blount from her parents' tomb

Saturday 11 January 2014

Anne of Cleves, A Flanders Mare: Part 1

In keeping with this month's Anne of Cleves theme, my guest post was published today on Royal Central. It's part 1 of a two part review of Anne's life. In the sources Anne, who was the luckiest of Henry VIII's wives, comes across as very human and likeable. She was certainly a lot shrewder than usually acknowledged. She had to be to survive marriage to Europe's most notorious husband.


Friday 10 January 2014

The Creation of Anne Boleyn

I received a copy of Susan Bordo's The Creation of Anne Boleyn today, for which I contributed a jacket quote.

It's a fascinating book and one that I highly recommend. Susan Bordo looks both at Anne Boleyn's life and her 'afterlife' in popular culture. I found the later chapters, which focussed on how Anne has been portayed in popular culture the most fascinating - it's a great read!

The book actually reminded me of another book that I recently read (and which I have reviewed for a forthcoming issue of Women's History Magazine). This was the reissue of Marina Warner's Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. Like Bordo, Warner seeks to understand both the life of her subject and the way that she has been portayed and understood in the centuries that followed.

In an age where the 'feminisation' of history has been criticised, I take the view that there is considerably more to be said about the lives of women in the medieval and early modern era. Books such as Bordo's and Warner's help illuminate both the lives of these important women and also assist us in understanding how they are perceived in popular culture. Claims of  the 'feminisation of history' are effectively just another stage in the way that such powerful women still manage to stir emotions - and debate - today.

Anne Boleyn, depicted without the trappings of queenship

Monday 6 January 2014

6 January 1540 - Wedding Bells

Anne of Cleves woke early on 6 January 1540, allowing herself to be helped by her ladies as she prepared for the most important day of her life - her wedding day. She had brought a magnificent trousseau of clothes and jewels with her to England and, although she had already worn many in the days preceding the ceremony, she had saved the best until last.

As her thoughts turned to the ceremony, her attendants carefully dressed her in a gown of rich cloth of gold, embroidered with a design of large flowers, set with pearls. As with her other clothes, the dress was made in the German style, with a full round skirt. Her attendants also combed her long blond hair, which she wore down. Only maidens and queens wore their hair uncovered in Tudor England. She also wore a gold coronet, set with sparkling stones, as well as other jewels 'of great value and estimation'. She looked like a queen, but the thought of marriage to her filled her bridegroom with dread.

Henry VIII dressed equally richly for his fourth wedding day, wearing an outfit designed to complement his bride's and made of cloth of gold and embroidered with silver flowers. His coat, which was of crimson satin was adorned with diamonds, sparkling against the rich jewelled collar around his neck. Henry usually loved finery, but his heart was not in dressing that day, with his friend, Sir Anthony Browne, commenting that the king 'prepared himself so slackly to go to the chapel to make solemnisation', as could be seen in his 'countenance, fashion and behaviour'. Henry, who usually entered into his marriages with high hopes for the future, was despondent.

The Earl of Essex had been appointed to lead Anne to the church and she waited quietly with her ladies for his arrival. Unfortunately, he was late and Henry, resigned to the ceremony, dismissively sent Cromwell to lead the princess into the church instead. Cromwell was less than enthusiastic at finding himself associated with the king's hated bride, but did as he was bid, handing Anne over to the Earl of Essex as soon as he put in an appearance When the minister returned to the king, Henry declared 'my lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm I would not do that I must do this fay for none earthly thing'. He then stalked out of the chamber, heading towards the chapel.

Henry reached the gallery outside the chapel at around 8am and paused to wait for Anne to arrive. Anne, with 'most demure countenance and sad behaviour' allowed her fiance to lead her into the church where Archbishop Cranmer performed the ceremony. As she was declared Henry's fourth wife and queen of England, the king slipped a ring onto her finger, inscribed with the words 'God send me well to keep'. Following the ceremony, the couple walked hand in hand to the king's private chapel, where they heard mass together. They then parted, in order to prepare for the rest of the day.

At around 9am Henry came again to his new queen, leading her once more to mass. The couple were then able to dine together, before Anne changed her clothes, unusually choosing 'a gown like a man's gown' made of tissue and with long furred sleeves. She recycled a jewelled cap that she had worn a few days ago - an act of thrift that was noticed by observers. With her ladies dressed in similar fashion, the queen of England went once again to the chapel for Evensong, accompanied again by the king. The couple then supped together before enjoying banquets, masques and other entertainments late into the evening.

Anne behaved like a queen throughout her wedding day, speaking pleasantly enough with her new husband through interpreters.Henry always showed himself kind and solicitous to Anne, never showing his private feelings, but she must have found the day overwhelming.

That evening the couple were ceremonially put to bed together, finding themselves alone together for the first time. For Anne, who knew only limited English and was entirely inexperienced, the experience must have been bewildering. Henry appears to have made the best of the situation, later telling Cromwell that he 'felt her belly and her breasts'. However, he liked the naked Anne even less than he liked his wife clothed in her heavy German fashions. In his cursory inspection of his new wife's body, he doubted her virginity, something which 'strake me so o the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to procede any further in other matters'. For Henry, this was all he could manage and he rolled over and went to sleep.

The following morning, Anne of Cleves woke for her first full day as queen of England, but she was Henry's wife in name only. Over the following months, the king took steps to try to consummate the marriage without success. As the political situation in England began to shift away from an alliance with Cleves, it was only a matter of time before Henry took steps to end his fourth marriage.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this countdown to Anne of Cleves' arrival in England. Look out for the countdown to her divorce which will begin in June 2014...

Sunday 5 January 2014

5 January 1540 - The Eve of a Wedding

Anne of Cleves was still at Greenwich on 5 January 1540, waiting for her marriage to Henry VIII. She was entirely unaware of the king’s desperate attempts to end their engagement, attending mass with Henry in public.

On 5 January Henry finally bowed to the inevitable, allowing plans for the marriage to go ahead. As a precursor to this, he signed three documents, granting Anne estates as part of her dower – lands that were intended to provide her with her income as queen. The total value was nearly 700 marks, something which ensured that the princess was generously provided for.

Anne spent the days before her wedding acquainting herself with her household officers and ladies. An appointment to the queen’s household was a coveted one, with the Earl of Rutland holding the chief office of chamberlain. She also employed a chancellor, master of horse, secretary and receiver general, as well as her own surveyor, auditor, attorney and solicitor. In order to attend to her daily needs, Anne had a cupbearer, ushers, servers and her own sergeant at arms, as well as clerks and a chaplain.

She relied on interpreters to speak to these figures, with two household members - Mistress Gilmyn, who had been sent by Henry to Germany to teach his bride some English, and a young gentleman, Wymond Carew - taking this role. Anne would learn English quickly, but the Earl of Rutland still required an interpreter to understand her in July. Due to the language barrier, Anne was able to show herself amiable and gracious to her household members, but was not able to establish real relationships with them, relying on Mother Lowe, who had come with her from Germany to manage her maids, for advice and support.

On the evening of 5 January Anne was informed that her marriage would take place the next day, causing a frenzy of activity in her household. Henry VIII also spent an anxious evening. When his friend, Sir Anthony Browne, came to him that evening, the king, who was ‘nothing pleasantly disposed’, once again commented ‘that he had a great yoke to enter into’.

Anne of Cleves also had much to be nervous about. As she retired to bed on 5 January 1540, she was hours away from becoming the fourth wife of Europe’s most notorious – and dangerous – husband.

Anne's signature. She was literate, but far from the type of educated woman that usually attracted Henry VIII

Saturday 4 January 2014

4 January 1540 - Henry VIII's Neck in a Yoke

Anne’s marriage had originally been scheduled for 4 January 1540, the day after her reception at Greenwich. However, Henry VIII was determined not to go through with the ceremony unless he absolutely had to.

In the morning of 4 January, Thomas Cromwell went to wait upon the king at court. Cromwell was hopeful, based on Henry’s show of chivalry towards Anne, that his master’s feelings had changed. The king, however, was adamant, declaring to Cromwell ‘my lord is it not as I told you? Say what they will, she is nothing so fair as hath been reported, howbeit she is well and seemly’. Cromwell jumped upon Henry’s slight praise for Anne, agreeing ‘By my faith Sir ye say truth’ before adding that she had a queenly manner. Cromwell was, however, forced to admit that the princess was not the beauty that Henry had been promised.

Henry had already instructed Cromwell to gather his council in order to attempt to find a way out of the marriage and they met the night of Anne’s reception. As a child, Anne had been betrothed to Francis of Lorraine and this was jumped upon by the councillors, who summoned the two ambassadors from Cleves, demanding that they produce documents to show that the betrothal had been correctly brought to an end. The ambassadors, who had witnessed Anne’s joyous reception only hours earlier, were baffled, but asked to be given until the next morning to make their answer.

The request for proof of Anne’s broken betrothal was an unusual one. The time to make such enquiries was during the negotiations, not on the eve of the wedding itself. However, the ambassadors returned early the next day. Although appearing ‘as men much perplexed’, they were adamant that ‘a revocation was made, and that they were but spousals’. Both Anne and Francis had been children at the time that their betrothal was made and when it was broken, something which meant that it was not binding on the parties. It had, in fact, been dropped so long ago that the necessary documents no longer existed, although the ambassadors were prepared to swear to remain as hostages in England until sufficient proof could be brought from Cleves.

The ambassadors’ oaths almost closed the door to Henry’s escape route and Cromwell rushed to speak to the king, using the backstairs of the palace to avoid being seen. As the minister would have predicted, Henry was furious, declaring ‘I am not well handled’, before ranting that, if it were not ‘that she is come so far into my realm and the great preparations that my states and people hath made for her and for feat of making a ruffle in the world that is the mean to drive her brother into the hands of the emperor and the French king’ he would refuse to marry her.

Henry was not quite ready to entirely admit defeat, summoning his council again after dinner. They deliberated for some time, aware that their master was desperate to avoid the match. Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Durham agreed that, in the event that Anne and Francis had been betrothed, a renunciation from either party was required to break the engagement legally. This was Henry’s last hope and he stalked out of the council chamber ordering his ministers to ask Anne to give a verbal renunciation of any betrothal before notaries.

He cannot have had high hopes that she would refuse, and he was right. Confused, but anxious to please, Anne swore her renunciation. This time trembling, Cromwell brought the news to Henry, who answered furiously ‘is there none other remedy but that I must needs against my will put my neck in the yoke’. The minister, usually so self-assured and composed, had nothing to say, quietly leaving the king alone to fret about his impending marriage to Anne of Cleves.

Thomas Cromwell. Unfortunately for him, he was widely considered to be 'a special counsellor of the match'

Friday 3 January 2014

Facebook and Twitter

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3 January 1540 - A Royal Reception

Anne woke at Dartford on 3 January 1540, aware that she was finally to be officially received by the king in his capital.

To everyone’s relief, the weather on 3 January was fair, although the ground at Blackheath, where the reception was to take place, must have been damp and muddy after a week of rain. Near the foot of Shooter’s Hill at Blackheath a rich pavilion of cloth of gold had been pitched, along with several other smaller tents. In each, there was a welcome fire, with the air perfumed to allow an appropriate place for Anne to rest and change her clothes.

Anne’s official reception was intended to be a grand spectacle. In a line from the tents to the gates of the park at Greenwich the trees and bushes had been cut down in order to allow a crowd to assemble.

Anne arrived at 12pm, accompanied by one hundred horses, ridden by her countrymen, as well as the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other dignitaries that had met her on the route. They came slowly down the hill towards to pavilions, where Anne was met by the Earl of Rutland, who had been appointed to head her English household, as well as other high ranking officials. She was then presented to her new officers and household in a Latin oration made by her almoner, to which her brother’s ambassador made a good answer.

Once she had met her officers, Anne met the ladies who would staff her household. These were led by the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, as well as his daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Richmond and the Countesses of Rutland and Hertford. In total, fifteen women were present to greet her, with Anne finally stepping out of her chariot – the same one that she had set out in from Cleves – to give the women thanks and welcome each of them with a kiss. After her officers had each bowed low and kissed her hand she was finally allowed into the comfort of her pavilion, to warm herself.

For Anne, this was the end of her long journey. After some time, she was informed that the king had arrived and she emerged, dressed in a rich dress of cloth of gold, with a round skirt in the German fashion. On her head, she wore a cowl and round cap set with pearls. Her hair was modestly covered with black velvet and, around her neck, she wore chains decorated with costly stones. She was dressed richly, like a queen – but to the English observers her clothes appeared ungainly and old-fashioned. She mounted a horse trapped out in finery and rode to officially meet her future husband.

Henry had set out with his own train of gentlemen from Greenwich Palace as soon as he heard that Anne had reached the pavilion. Like Anne, he was mounted and, in spite of his infirmities, he looked magnificent in purple velvet. For all his private misgivings, Henry needed the alliance with Anne’s brother and he was determined to put on a show and, as the couple rode out to each other, he greeted Anne with ‘a most loving countenance’. The couple embraced, to the satisfaction of the assembled multitude, before Henry led his bride through the lane of people to the sound of drums, trumpets and cheers.

Anne charmed the crowds with her queenly manner and, as they reached the palace itself, the couple dismounted and embraced. The king then welcomed the princess warmly, before leading her into the hall. He took her personally to the queen’s apartments, before leaving her to settle in.

Henry’s reception of Anne had been more than gallant and few present can have realised his private feelings. The chronicler, Edward Hall, a visitor to the court but also an outsider, was entirely taken in by the spectacle, recording ‘O what a sight was this to see so goodly a prince and so noble a king to ride with so fair a lady of so goodly a stature and so womanly a countenance’. It was soon clear at court, however, that the king’s dislike of his bride continued. 

The site of Greenwich Palace. The Tudor buildings unfortunately do not survive.

Thursday 2 January 2014

2 January 1540 - A Flanders Mare

Anne and Henry communicated through an interpreter and the young woman can have noticed nothing amiss in her first meeting with Henry. She woke on Friday 2 January 1540 at Rochester, with the pair continuing to make each other’s acquaintance that morning. That afternoon, as soon as the tide had turned, Henry rode to Gravesend in order to return to Greenwich by water.

While, to outsiders, it appeared that the first meeting between the couple had been reasonably satisfactory, those who knew the king were concerned. Henry himself was unable to bring himself to give Anne her New Year’s gift personally, instead instructing Sir Anthony Browne to pass them to her. In the boat on the way home he was stony faced, complaining loudly that ‘I see nothing in this woman as men report of her; and I marvel that wise men would make such report as they have done’. He questioned Lord Russell, who sat with him, on his own opinion of Anne, before lamenting ‘Alas! Whom should men trust? I promise you I see no such thing in her as hath been showed me of her, and am ashamed, that men have so praised her as they have done, and I like her not’.

Although Henry probably never declared that he had been brought a ‘Flanders Mare’ instead of a woman as later claimed, there is no doubt that he was entirely unhappy with his fiance’s appearance.

Portraits of Anne show her favourably when compared with Henry’s other wives. To modern eyes, she certainly appears more beautiful that the double-chinned Jane Seymour or the long-nosed Catherine Howard – both supposedly the fairest of Henry’s wives. Henry never punished his court painter, Hans Holbein, for the portrait that he sent back from Cleves during the marriage negotiations, suggesting that it was a true likeness. In the portrait, in which Anne was depicted, unusually, facing forwards, she appears reasonably attractive, in heavy German dress. One clue to her appearance may be in the flattering angle of the painting, since another portrait of Anne has been x-rayed to reveal a larger nose that was painted over. This can hardly be the reason for Henry’s abhorrence of his bride however.

Another clue to Anne’s appearance may be found in a dispatch of the French ambassador, in which he declared that she ‘is not so young as was expected, nor so beautiful as everyone affirmed’. He considered that, while Anne carried herself well, she dressed badly and ‘looks about 30 years of age, tall and thin, of medium beauty, and of very assured and resolute countenance’. Since she was twenty-four years old, this may have been a disadvantage, although Henry’s tastes do generally seem to have favoured older women. Anne Boleyn was in her late twenties when she first caught the king’s eye, as was Jane Seymour, while Catherine Parr was past thirty.

Lord Russell, when pressed by Henry, admitted of Anne that ‘he took her not for fair, but to be of a brown complexion’, but so was the beautiful Christina of Denmark who the king had earlier sought to marry and who resembled a former mistress of his. Many men had seen Anne and made favourable reports of her appearance, while when Anne herself later declared that Catherine Parr was ‘inferior to her in beauty’, no-one seems to have disputed this. The Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, agreed, considering that Catherine was ‘by no means so handsome’ as the princess from Cleves.

Anne of Cleves, while clearly far from a beauty, appears to have been pleasing enough: tall, dark and older looking than expected, but with a queenly countenance. What then caused Henry’s immediate dislike for his bride? Perhaps it was in the circumstances of their meeting, in which the king, embarrassed by her inability to recognise him, found his romantic illusions shattered. Anne had never seen a picture of the king and her face may have betrayed her dismay at his appearance when she finally realised who the mysterious messenger actually was. Certainly, a near contemporary chronicle – of dubious reliability – claimed that she later referred to Henry’s obesity unfavourably. Henry was also used to choosing his brides for himself and it may simply be that he felt no attraction for her. There was just no chemistry between them.

Unaware of how the visit had gone, Thomas Cromwell sought the king out when he reached Greenwich, asking him how he liked his bride. The minister, who had played such a big part in recommending the match, was horrified to be told that the king found her ‘nothing so well as she was spoken of’. Ominously, he then declared that if he had known before what he knew now, ‘she should not have come within this realm’. The king demanded a remedy, but there was none that Cromwell could think of, declaring that he ‘was very sorry therefore’.

Henry wanted a way out of the marriage, not sympathy. While he discussed matters with his chief minister, the unsuspecting Anne made her way towards Dartford, a town which she would later recall fondly and the last stop before she finally reached Greenwich and her official meeting with the king.

The cover of my biography of Anne includes the portrait prepared by Holbein, which convinced Henry to marry her.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

1 January 1540 - An Unexpected Messenger

1 January 1540 was to be the most significant day of Anne of Cleves’ life, changing the course of her entire future. As an important feast day, it was intended that the princess should spend the day resting at Rochester before continuing her journey. She occupied herself with her attendants, as well as watching sports and other entertainments arranged for her amusement.

Henry VIII had already ordered expensive furs as a New Year’s gift for his bride but, waiting in London, he was impatient to meet her and ‘nourish love’. It was a well-established chivalric tradition for a noble bridegroom to meet his fiancĂ© in disguise, with the expectation that the love that existed between the couple would cause the woman to immediately recognise her beloved and fall into his arms.

Such a tradition did not, in fact, have a happy history in England. Henry’s own great-uncle, the unfortunate Henry VI, had visited his bride disguised as a squire only for the woman to ignore him and keep him humbly on his knees for the entire visit. Henry VIII, however, if he knew this, chose to ignore it. On New Year’s Day, unable to contain himself any longer, he set out from Greenwich with just five attendants, dressed in a marble-coloured cloak and carrying the new queen’s New Year’s gifts.

When Henry arrived at Rochester, Anne was standing at an upstairs window, watching a bull baiting in the courtyard below. On being informed where she was, the king sent in his friend, Sir Anthony Browne, to inform her that he had brought a New Year’s gift from the monarch.

Browne had seen Anne’s portrait and heard reports of her beauty and was surprised to be directed to a room in which none of the ladies present matched the picture that he had ‘conceived in his mind’. Concerned, he asked which was the queen and, when shown, ‘he was never more dismayed in all his life’. His face fell with shock ‘to see the lady so far and unlike that was reported, and of such sort as he thought the king’s highness should not content himself with her’. He returned to Henry with a heavy heart, but did not dare to say anything.

It was now Henry’s turn to enter and, in his disguise as a messenger, he walked over to the young woman at the window. Anne, occupied with the sport in the courtyard below, studiously ignored him, something that caused consternation amongst those who recognised the king. Undaunted, Henry tried again, this time kissing and embracing the princess as she stood by the window.

Such over-familiarity on the part of a messenger shocked Anne, who had been strictly brought up well away from the men of her brother’s court. Uncertain as to what to do, she continued to studiously ignore the elderly and overweight ‘messenger’, keeping her face firmly towards the window. Finally, even Henry had to admit defeat, stalking from the room in order to change into a coat of purple velvet. This was the signal that he could be recognised and, as those about her fell to their knees, the penny dropped. Anne bowed low and the pair ‘talked together lovingly’ all evening. But the damage was already done.

Henry VIII at around the time of his marriage to Anne. His youthful good looks were long gone.