I have always been somewhat obsessed with King Henry VIII and his wives. It is such a fascinating period in history and it really is amazing how one man’s desire for a male heir changed the course of a country’s history and even their religion. I fell in love with this period in time mostly through Philippa Gregory’s novels and have always thought that Anne of Cleves, though only married to Henry for six months, won (if it can be considered a contest). She doesn’t get much fanfair, and we don’t have nearly as much information about her as we do of say Anne Boleyn, but she ended up outliving Henry and all of his previous and later wives. She lived out her days known as, “The King’s Beloved Sister,” and according to record, never actually had to consummate the marriage. What. A. Queen. So here’s a little story about the beginning of their end.
It is said a portrait is worth a thousand words. A thousand words. Is a thousand words enough to define a person? To capture their true essence and reveal the inner workings of their soul? Is a thousand words enough with which to fall in love? Surely the number should be higher? The portraits required should be numerous? And what a responsibility to hang on the artist. The stress of the job must burn one out before they are halfway to four and twenty. But the King of England was in need of another wife, so Anne’s picture was painted, packed, and shipped to the English Monarch.
Portraits of both Anne and her sister had been requested, as the King enjoyed options, and a simple alliance of families was all that was needed. Portrait-sitting was a tiresome activity and Anne had enjoyed making faces at her sister behind the artists’ back to pass the time. She had studied her likeness in her reflection and compared it to the finished portrait. Sure, the oil imitation held a shadow of her smile, and hinted at the crinkle around her eyes, but it really only captured a single facet of who she was. Tipping and angling her face in her looking glass, she shifted through a myriad of Annes. Each singular and unique until another expression took its place. She could only hope, as she inspected her oil likeness for signs of variation, that the artist captured the Anne that would be most pleasing to the King.
When his portrait arrived, she could not help but wonder which versions had been omitted in favor of the captured colossus presented to her household. While her portrait had been sent as a question, his had been sent as a statement. It declared: “Here is your husband.” In preparation, she curtseyed with head bowed under the portrait’s cold eye when she passed it in the hall.
Her portrait was selected, and her sister brushed an expression of excitement on her own features for Anne’s benefit. Just like her painting, she was packed up and shipped to England. Her stomach rolling, breath shallow, and palms clammy, she did what she was bid without complaint.
Maybe Painted Anne had been just as nervous? After all, she had been locked in the dark and propelled across bumpy roads and a tumultuous sea only to be unwrapped in a foreign land and gawked at by foreign people. Although, Painted Anne’s duty had been simple: accurately represent the real Anne of Cleves. She did not have to worry about pleasing the King, adopting the English customs, or learning to speak their tongue. She did not even have to consider what it meant to be the fourth wife of a King who changed his country’s religion for a divorce. A King who, when that was not enough, relieved his second wife’s neck of the burden of her head. No, Painted Anne could sit quietly and let events fall as they may. Not a single crease to blemish her smooth brow.
Meanwhile, the Real Anne tore through several kerchiefs during her shipment. Twisting and knotting her worries into the embroidered fabric until the stitched monogram warped beyond recognition. She had no way to prepare for what was expected of her, and no frame of reference to guide her. Her first betrothal had never amounted to anything more than a few sweet verses of proclaimed love she still kept within the pages of her bible. But, when given the choice between herself and her sister, the King had chosen her. Surely that was promising? Was it possible to love someone from their portrait?
She was unpacked in an English tower. Her things put in their proper place while she floated about, unsure where to land. The English spoke quickly and took her silence for agreement– or at least for a lack of protest.
Finally, they seated her in a chair by the window. The courtyard below was a flurry of activity as a number of small dogs took it in turns to attack a tethered bull. The men and women around her cheered and clapped as the little dog darted at the poor beast. Coin changed hands, goblets were refilled, and a new dog was introduced to the fray. Anne mirrored the reactions of those around her. She fell into their rhythm and made sure to smile at those who made eye contact with her.
A knock at the door interrupted the spectacle. Her companions exchanged knowing looks and eyed her with excitement. She rose. The door opened. A drunk in a thread-bare cloak stumbled in.
“Happy New Year,” he slurred in broken German; the first words she had understood all afternoon.
“A gift from the King of England,” he said, a roguish glint in his eye. She stood very still and he lunged at her. Clasping her tightly and smothering her mouth with his, he forced a small token into her fist as he drew back. His eyes were hungry and he looked at her expectantly.
She tasted the remnants of stale ale and onions on her lips, felt the blood rush to her cheeks, and heard a ringing in her ears. The room turned to look at her. Dozens of eyes alive with Schadenfreude fixed upon her flushed face and wet lips. The bull bellowed in the courtyard below. Still the drunk waited. She squeezed the token in her hand as though to reduce it to dust. Breathing sharply through her nose, she felt a smile lift the corners of her eggshell mouth.
“My thanks to his majesty,” she responded in barely a whisper. As though moving through mud, she lowered herself in a curtsey, then sank into her seat. She forced her gaze to return to the bull baiting below.
His next attempts at conversation were lost to her ears. The drunk’s blundered German, rather than setting her at ease, opened an ache for home within her heart so profound it was all she could do to remain upright, eyes fixed on the bull. The little dogs nipped and yipped at the stoic creature far below. It snorted and lowered its deadly horns in a challenge.
After a time, the drunk retreated. The door clicked shut and the room was silent but for the sounds from the courtyard below. No one approached the painted figure in the window.
A knock came again. She turned, dreading a similar visitor. The door opened and the drunk reappeared, transformed. As if by magic, he now was adorned with jewels and wore a coat of deep purple velvet. A man heralded his entrance and Anne picked out the words, “His Majesty, the King of England, King Henry the Eighth.”
The room erupted in applause, and the King beamed with arms outstretched. Anne hurried to clap with the others, all the while feeling a pit form in her stomach. From far below, the bull bellowed again. It strained against its rope as the dogs circled closer, teeth bared. The crowd jeered.
She caught the King’s eye and noticed a deep crease upon his royal brow as he regarded her. Piecing her smile back together, she received her fiancé warmly. This time, determined to show that his presence thrilled rather than offended. That his breath was sweet, his German fluent, and his touch welcome. He explained the rules of bull-baiting to her as though to a child, and he ensured she was presented with a fine selection of sweetmeats. All the while, the same thought ran through her mind: The royal painter is a liar.
A selection of the many portraits made of King Henry VIII across his reign. Main source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Henry_VIII
Source for Bull-Baiting image: https://canineheritage.weebly.com/bull-baiting.html
Source for Anne of Cleves image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_of_Cleves