On Henry VIII historians and writers have shared so many words. Cultured and refined exponent of the Tudor dynasty as well as a despotic and bloodthirsty sovereign, Henry VIII is mainly remembered for something t which changed the course of events in England and the world: the religious schism which saw the detachment from the Catholic Church of Rome. The King is certainly remembered also for his stormy private life, with his 6 marriages and a endless list of lovers and love children, stormy almost like the one of another man of his time, Ivan the Terrible.

The long series of weddings, celebrated between the 1509 and the 1543 costed the life of 3 partners out of 6 and it unfolded through the divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the decapitation of Anne Boleyn, the death for labour complications of Jane Seymour, the disownment  of Anne of Cleves and the decapitation of Katherine Howard. Only the last wife accompanied, as his wife, the body of Henry, especially since the king was by then tired and ill and Katherine Parr was for him more of a nurse than an actual bride.

Below: Catherine of Aragon in a painting by Joannes Corvus, first wife of Henry VIII

Amongst Henry’s marriages ended up tragically, there is one that stands out for the peculiarity of the relationship between the two, that is the 4th, the one with Anne of Cleves. Strangely enough, one of the reasons of the failure was caused by the court painter Hans Holbein the Young, popular German artist who was living in London to stay away from the Reformation and became court painter at the English court in 1536.

Below: Anne of Cleves painted by Holbein

Sent over in occasion of the wedding of the sovereign, Holbein was asked to paint the Duchess  of Cleves, daughter of John III of Cleves and Princess Maria of Jülich-Berg, Lord and Lady of a place that nowadays belongs to Germany and the Netherlands. In the picture the young girl, preciously dressed as the custom of her land was expecting, was in her prime and her beauty was slightly clouded by the melancholy in her gaze.

Her slender and elegant hands, almost abandoned on her womb, came out from that carmine and gold of her dress.What Henry didn’t know what that the painter that he appreciated so much, had strongly idealised the girl. The final effect was so realistic though that the sovereign was captured and, enthusiastic, accepted straight away to marry her.

Below: the famous Anne Boleyn, 2nd wife of Henry VIII. Died beheaded

Behind the choice there was mainly a political reason: Anne, sister of the Duke of Cleves, Imperial lord, had to secure the alliance  between Germany and England, isolated after the Reformation; as well as Henry VIII was looking for a good looking partner and he he was seeing this in the young girl.

Despite he was 49, almost double the age of the girl and was evidently overweight and far from the heartbreaker appearance he had back in the day, the expectations in terms of women were still high for him. His vain nature read it as a personal attack the fact that she didn’t recognise him when he went to Rochester , in disguise, to welcome her.

The first meeting between the two was apparently ruinous: the young girl knew how to read and write in Dutch, she knew how to sew, embroider and play cards, but her talents did not go any further. She did not know any Latin, English or French, she didn’t play any instrument or sing and the first conversation with the refined English sovereign included only a few words with a thick foreign accent.

Below: Jane Seymour, painded by Hans Holbein. 3rd wife of Henry VIII died due to labour complications

But it was mainly the appearance to leave the King unhappy: utterly different from the sweet look in the painting of Holbein, the young girl that Henry met in Rochester was tall and ungraceful, with her face spoiled by the variola. Retired to his rooms, Henry declared publicly that the appearance of the “Flanders mare” disgusted him and asked his advisors to cancel his promise of marriage  immediately. He said:

If she wasn’t already in England, if it wasn’t for the risk of pushing her brother towards the arms of the King of France or the Emperor, I wound’t want to know anything about marrying that Flanders mare.

All the possible way out the wedding were examined in vain by the English diplomacy, which considered unacceptable the eventuality to send back the betrothed. Therefore, on the 6th of January 1540, a reluctant Henry VIII, in terrible delay and while frowning, was forced to marry Anne of Cleves.

Below: selfpotrait of Hans Holbein the Young

To the courtiers that asked to the King if he found his wife more attractive before or after the first night from the wedding, Henry replied that the proximity to the Flanders had deprived him from any desire of intimacy with her, adding shameful details about her falling breast and her flaccid tummy which did not let them consume the wedding.

Below: Caterina Howard, 5th wife of Henry VIII. Painting by Hans Holbein

The curious couple though kept on sharing the bed for 6 months. In the meantime the King Council, with the official pretext that a previous contract of engagement beterrn Anne and Francis I Duke of Lorraine was valid, cancelled the marriage. Holbein and those who had advised for the union with the foreigner, fell into disgrace.

The one who had the best outcome was the cold Anne

The King, satisfied of her meekness, gave her an income of 4,000 sterling a year, with the right of way on any other dame in England, apart from the property of Richmond Palace and the Hever Castle, once belonged by Anne Boleyn’s family.

Below: Katharine Parr, 6th wife of Henry VIII. Painting by Hans Holbein

After the divorce the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne remained friendly and the ex queen was received to court with care, while establishing nice relationships with the King’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth as well as with the 18 years old Katherine Howard, his ex lady in waiting and new queen, crowned 20 days after the divorce with Anne.

Below: the Castle of Hever, where Anne of Cleves spent her life in the pretty area Tudor- style. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The unfortunate painting of Anne made by Holbein was rapidly taken from Henry VIII and it ended up, in 1671 bought by Louis XIV, the Sun King. Today it can be admired at the Louvre, in the Flemish section.

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