Why Anne of Cleves is My Favorite Wife of Henry VIII
Anne of Cleves was certainly not the prettiest of Henry’s wives, nor the smartest, the most accomplished, the most devout, the most influential. When she came to England in 1540, she spoke no English, knew no dances, did not play cards or gamble, and was entirely unprepared for the role she had been selected to occupy. Anne was queen for for only six months, the shortest tenure of any of Henry’s wives. In her short reign, she altered nothing, no single aspect of life in England. She did not bear any children by Henry; she would never become a mother. She was not even the longest-lived of the six wives, nor was she the only one to outlive her spouse. She spent the remaining years of her life in peaceful obscurity, and remains known today as little more than the controversial, awkward, and ugly fourth wife, a footnote in Tudor history.
But Anne, for all her perceived shortcomings, retains one superlative: she is by far the most fortunate of Henry’s wives. Though humiliation and indignation might have prompted her to fight for her crown and title, the unfortunate examples of Henry’s previous wives checked Anne before she reacted against her own interests. By gracefully abdicating her marriage and relinquishing her claim to the throne without incident, Anne freed Henry to make yet another match — his fifth— and thus ensured his gratitude for her cooperation. Henry was unused to his wives placating him; the stubbornness of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had conditioned him to expect the worst of women. Anne’s acquiescence and quiet withdrawal earned her almost universal respect and prompted widespread dismay from those who viewed her as a merciful, meritorious queen.
That Anne evaded Henry’s displeasure and kept her head is is enough to call her the luckiest of the six queens. But her further decision to take her destiny into her own hands is yet more proof of her wisdom and courage. Upon the annulment of her marriage, Anne was expected to return to her homeland, and encouraged to do so by her brother, Duke William of Cleves. Rather than return to live a subservient life — and consequently, enter the European marriage market a second time — Anne chose to remain in England. Henry bestowed a number of estates, a generous pension, and eminence over every lady at court (save his future wives) upon Anne, in gratitude for her compliance. This wealth would ensure Anne’s comfort for the remainder of her life in England, but would be forfeit to the crown should she return to Cleves. Faced with dependency and uncertainty if she left, as well as the possibility of yet another unhappy marriage, Anne made the brave (and controversial) decision to remain an unmarried lady of means in her adopted land.
A woman who remained single for her entire life was considered, at the time, a pitiable figure; she had no husband, no sons, no male protection. A woman divorced (or in Anne’s case, annulled) was a sadder case still. She had been publicly humiliated; the dissolution of her marriage was a matter of public speculation and titillation. But Anne’s remarkable optimism and the good humor with which she accepted her new station in life were evident of an attitude well advanced for her time. Rather than slink away from court in shame, Anne reveled in her new title as “King’s Beloved Sister.” She wore expensive and beautiful gowns and glittering jewels. She learned contemporary English dances, how to gamble, and how to play cards. She employed the best musicians and cooks, and her table was renowned. She lived primarily as a private noblewoman, though she did appear at court for holidays and coronations. Since, as a single lady, she had no children of her own, Anne “adopted” Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth, bereft of a mother since Anne Boleyn’s execution four years earlier.
Anne emerged from the trial that could very well have ended her life unscathed, not by the intervention of any savior, but by using her wits and agreeable personality to save her skin. Yet, her joie de vivreand optimism make her so relatable and worthy of emulation. She was a proponent of feminism long before feminism was a concept. And as one of a string of women who experienced unhappy marriages to the same man, Anne was one of only two survivors, and the only one who, by all accounts, lived a happy and fulfilling life. We often hear the poem “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” I would argue that, of the six, Anne of Cleves is the only one who truly lived.