Wednesday, May 30, 2007

History Quickie: Anne of Cleves a dog?

OK, zeppo has come up with an idea that squeezed a post out of me, since as I told him, writing about the newest Bushie depredations just depresses me and causes my iced chai to boil in my hand. So let’s hang out with the Ren-Cen crew some 465 years back - that dim time before even Bose informercials....

Was Anne of Cleves really ugly? As the comic centerpiece of the mostly-tragic story of Henry VIII’s wives (repudiated, murdered or sacrificed, the lot of them), the princess from the Germanic backwater country has always been a welcome respite. After all, how can you lose with the first pre-nup encounter between Henry VIII — aging but still both a monster of vanity and a monster full stop — and the awkward, tongue-tied, blowsy Fraulein who quite possibly suffered from body odor? It’s got all the elements voyeurs love: disappointed desire, dumb and unattractive foreigners who can’t even speak English, and the promise of grisly retribution. (Luckily for Anne, it was Thomas Cromwell, the promoter of her marriage, who took the bullet — er, axe.)

Except that all the existing visual evidence seems to say the story’s wrong. Holbein’s famous portrait of Anne (top portrait) shows a woman quite pleasant to modern eyes. A little more stolid than Britney or Paris, to be sure, but easy on the eyes despite the wacky headdress that the English of Henry’s day found equally “monstrous.” There’s a miniature of Anne that’s much the same, and a later portrait (bottom portrait) that shows her — still apparently obdurate about wearing those unflattering upholstered fishbowls — looking a bit more medieval, but that may be more a reflection of the painter’s lesser skills than of any unseemly angularity on Anne’s part.

So why was Henry — who had commissioned Holbein to paint her portrait in lieu of a personal inspection, and who pronounced himself altogether satisfied with the result — so deeply disappointed when he first saw his soon-to-be bedfellow in the flesh? Here we enter the slippery realm of sexual attraction. Anne simply didn’t stir Henry to passion — and Henry was a man notoriously demanding about being stirred. He was both sensualist and sentimentalist; he could love a woman of limited beauty (and none of his wives — except perhaps Catherine Howard, for whom we have no undisputed portrait — was a knockout even by Tudor standards) if she was a princess in need of rescue (Katherine of Aragon), a female deer “wild for to hold” (Anne Boleyn) who could be tamed to nibble from his hand, or a country virgin (Jane Seymour) waiting patiently for her lusty squire.

Anne of Cleves, despite the sentimental appeal of being a foreigner cast completely upon Henry’s mercy, just didn’t have that mysterious IT that would immediately electrify a fifty-something king in need of larger and larger jolts to his expanding frame. Nor was Henry inclined to invest the time in discovering any particular graces in Anne; he’d never been especially endowed with patience, and may even by this time have spotted the dainty Kathryn Howard. In his savage disappointment, Henry struck out with the first weapons at hand: insults about Anne’s appearance.

Was Anne awkward? Probably, at least at that disastrous initial meeting. Tongue-tied? Very likely, in a language she had yet to master. But the other adjectives that still cling to Anne originated in the main in the mouth of her vocal spouse-to-be (and soon equally vocal husband, whose disclosures about his wife’s “disordered” body probably gave pleasure to an age almost as gossipy as ours). More objective observers never echoed his commentary.

You have to wonder, though of course no one had the nerve to ask her: what did the lady think of her bloated, cranky, ulcerated-leg-ridden husband?

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