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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Much needed revisionism for Anne of Cleves

I have long been fascinated by Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne (or more correctly, Anna) of Cleves. The famous Holbein portrait, which captivated the fat middle-aged king, hangs in my dining room much to J's chagrin.

Most people know the story: enthralled by the portrait, Henry agreed to marry Anna, a German princess, without ever having seen her. She came over to England in a long journey, was rapturously received by the public, and then rejected by Henry for being ugly, smelly and dull witted, as told by various historians.

I have always pondered though on the fact that Anna stayed in England, was given several palaces and continued to dine with Henry. In those times of political skullduggery and intrigue she must have had great skills of tact and diplomacy.

When Henry abruptly divorced her, she wasn't sent home but as his "sister" was given lavish homes including Hever, which belonged to one of her predecessors Ann Boleyn. She made sure she didn't offend Henry by sending him a sweet note after the divorce which flattered him to think she actually loved him.

Anna became an expert cook and gardener, befriending Henry's two daughters Mary and Elizabeth. She even graciously received Katherine Howard, the foolish teenage girl who followed her, and became a confidante and friend of Henry.

She was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, not hidden away, as befits a queen. And she remained, along with Katherine of Aragon, the only queen of Henry's that the English people loved.

So I was thrilled to read a book by one of my favourite writers, Mavis Cheek, who explores Anna's life and the injustices served upon her by the mostly misogynistic
male historians, one of whom saddled her with the description "Flanders Mare".

As Cheek recounts in the novel Amenable Women, partly spoken by Anna, she had been very positively described and received by dozens of courtiers and ambassadors before she was rejected by Henry. She very quickly learnt English and some of the skills needed at court as she travelled over to England. She was equally as repulsed by Henry as he appears to have been by her. He was vastly obese by this stage and had a suppurating leg. A far cry from the Henry served up by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors.

The Holbein portrait of Anna is one of the most marvellous pictures, full of hidden language and signs. It is far more evocative to me than the portrait of the Mona Lisa which only draws our eye because she is missing her eyebrows.

I hope that future historians will start to get the story right as far as Anna of Cleves is concerned. She was the great survivor, the queen who kept her head despite displeasing the king, and who went on to win the hearts of many. Sadly she died at 40, but as Cheek's novel explains, she was honoured 40 years later by the elderly Queen Elizabeth. A wonderful read.

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