Thursday, February 17, 2011

Anne of Cleves by Elizabeth Norton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Anne of Cleves was introduced to King Henry VIII (of England) for the first time it must have been an enormous shock and disappointment. Henry, once regarded as the most "handsomest prince in Christendom", was obese, balding and old, and nothing of what Anne, aged 25, would have been expecting. Sent to a strange country where she didn't understand the language or the culture, Anne's marriage to Henry was to create an alliance between England and the German states that at the time was deemed necessary in the event that either France or Spain decided to invade English soil.

As the middle daughter of the Duke of Cleves, Anne's education and upbringing focused on what was considered to be a woman's traditional role and duties. Whilst she was taught to read and write, Anne was not taught music, the arts or politics; however, she was taught to be polite, modest and patient.

This does not mean that Anne was lacking in smarts. In fact, Anne was far more intelligent than what she is often given credit, and in retrospect was probably the most intelligent of all of Henry's wives. When faced with the reality of her failing marriage, Anne was clearly devestated, not because she loved Henry, but instead for the fear and uncertaintly that came with it. Anne was faced with two options: To stand firm and refuse to accept that her marriage to Henry was null and void, or to conform to Henry's wishes, whether she agreed with him or not.

It's not surprising that Anne would have been apprehensive about suffering the same fate as Henry's earlier wives Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn if she refused to agree to an annulment. She was popular with the English people and enjoyed being their Queen, and was also fully aware that the alliance with the German states was important to Henry, who would be looking for a diplomatic way out of their marriage so as to not damage that alliance. Therefore, Henry went on to promise Anne a substantial divorce settlement, which included being adopted as the "King's beloved sister", and being given numerous palaces and properties where she could reside and derive income. Anne readily agreed: This decision, quite possibly, saved her life. Not only did she remain in Henry's high favour, she also suddenly became very independently wealthy. For many, this would have been seen as a far greater prize than the constant uncertainty of being Henry VIII's wife.
However, after Henry's death Anne's good fortune started to fade: The young King and his advisors did not see Anne in the same light as Henry had. Almost overnight she became an unwanted expense and a major nuisance, and as the new King slowly diminished her holdings, her wealth began to disappear and she struggled to meet her household expenses each year. When the young King died and Mary I took throne, Anne returned to court and favour, for a short time at least. However, Mary I was a paranoid Queen and due to Anne's fondness of her sister and rival, Elizabeth, felt that she could not be trusted and was not invited to court after the coronation, nor was she provided with any additional holdings to replace those she had lost during the reign of the young King.
Anne passed away at Chelsea in July 1557, aged 41, having outlived all of Henry's other wives. Although she lived the remaining few years of her life not having enough money to pay all her expenses and being unable to support the lifestyle she had become accustomed to, she kept a much-loved and trusted household, bequeathing most of her remaining possessions to those who served her since her arrival in England. She received a royal funeral and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Elizabeth Norton's biography Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII's Discarded Bride is a reminder of all these facts, yet it fails to produce any new information on Anne's life. A lot of what is written about her life before England and after Henry are facts already known, and there appears to be quite a bit of assumption about Anne's response to the events that were taking place around her.

At the same time, however, Norton's biography reiterates the fact that Anne was not the woman she is often portrayed to be in legend: She was a beautiful, dutiful princess, fully aware of what her position and status entitled her to, and if she expected certain treatment to be shown to her she was not afraid to ask for it. However, overall Anne was a down-to-earth woman who possessed a love of food and cooking, even going so far as to have a kitchen installed in her quarters so she could partake in this hobby at any time. Anne was born and lived her life a Catholic (not a Lutheran as has often been suggested), was thought of fondly by the English people, and received the utmost devotion and care from her servants, a fact that on its own exemplifies the amazing type of woman she was.

Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII's Discarded Bride is a short and sharp biography that covers all the major events in Anne's life, but skims over the areas where information may be lacking. Although failing to provide anything new, this is an easy-to-read historical biography for anyone interested in Tudor England.

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