Come on, is there anybody out there who doesn’t enjoy a royal wedding?
I’m tempted to answer: “the bride” to that particular question.
Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not denigrating the looks and charms of the Windsor boys. I’m sure Kate and Meghan are very happy. But I do wonder how they’d feel if, instead of bagging a Windsor, they had been picked to be the bride of Henry VIII (1491-1547).
Not the youthful, flat-stomached, dreamy-eyed Jonathan Rhys Meyers version either: the real thing, the midlife crisis version with the fifty-four-inch waste and the dripping leg ulcer.
Forgive the graphic detail. Divorces are always messy and far too much always comes out in public. For proof of this look no further than Henry’s fourth marriage. Anne of Cleves was the lucky lady and it’s her home town that I’ve come to today.
Cleves is only a couple of hours from where I live, perched on the last hill in Germany before you hit the flat plains of the Netherlands. There’s not much of the old town left but the castle is still there, gazing out into Holland.
A lot has happened to the town since Anne’s time; it was almost totally destroyed in the last war. They haven’t quite forgotten her here though, you can still see her portrait in a couple of shop windows. She is still the town’s most famous daughter after all, and if she’s talked about at all then they’re rather proud of her.
The school version of the story of Henry and Anne reflects less than half of the truth, mainly because much of the graphic detail is left out to shield young ears. It does neither Anne nor Henry justice because it leaves out the more human elements of the affair. I’ve been here a few times and I’ve often wondered what really happened.
The portraits you see in the windows are copies of that portrait, the one so cleverly crafted by Hans Holbein that a swooning Henry went weak at the knees and sent for Anne by return of post.
The rest, as they say, is history –or something like it. When she arrived, so we are told, the king was so repulsed by the ugly reality of what he saw that he got his divorce lawyers on the case before the ink was dry on the marriage contract.
Something doesn’t quite tessellate here. When you’re working for Henry VIII, just how do you deceive him and not lose your head? Holbein didn’t even lose his job. Could it be — I’ve always wondered — that Anne actually looked much more like her portrait than we thought?
Looking at the picture they have her up by the castle she looks very pretty. A delicate smile, softly-rounded cheeks, eyes which give nothing away. She looks placid, serene even, the sort of girl you could quite easily put on a pedestal.
Many who saw her thought the same. Independent witnesses spoke of her beauty, and almost everyone who met her was taken in by her charm. Hard to say then why Henry did not share their view.
There’s much to indicate that she just wasn’t his type. We know that she neither sang nor played a musical instrument, seen as unladylike in her native land but a sign of education and breeding in England. The king by contrast was a keen musician.
She was also tall and slim. To Henry, who probably stood at least six feet tall, her height might not have been a problem. Her figure on the other hand may have touched a raw nerve with a man increasingly preoccupied by complexes.
In an age obsessed with physical perfection he was fat and he knew it. Deluded as he often was, he was no fool. As the years went by, he grew increasingly frustrated that his weight and ill-health precluded him from taking part in the sports he had enjoyed as a youth.
“I am big in person” he once proclaimed “I have need of a big wife”. Anne could hardly have been expected to fit the bill.
I’ve also often wondered what Anne thought about all this. We know comparatively little about her but I like to think that she saw it as a big adventure. Her journey to England was packed with new thrills: fireworks, cheering crowds (Anne had until then rarely been seen in public), a ride on a ship.
She spoke no English and was probably unaware of the intrigue around her. Henry, though turned off from the very first sight of her, played his part like the perfect gentleman. Despite his misgivings, he went through with the wedding, not least because he had no choice –and for several months Anne probably had not the slightest idea that anything was wrong.
The illusion was shattered by her ladies in waiting, whose curiosity got the better of them during an evening’s highly inappropriate girl talk.
Anne described their bedtime routine. She told proudly of what a gentleman her husband was, that he would come to her chamber, kiss her goodnight and then go to sleep.
The comments drew puzzled looks on the faces of the ladies present and were inevitably followed by yet more indiscreet questions. It took a long explanation of the facts of life to make clear to Anne that much more than a good night kiss was expected of a royal bride.
All the while, Henry’s lawyers were on the case. A technicality was found which got Henry off the hook, provided he could prove that nothing more than a kiss had been exchanged between the pair.
I’ll spare you the worst of it to protect the privacy of those involved. Ladies-in-waiting were produced, as were a couple of particularly graphic testimonies from Henry’s doctor.
The tribunal granted a divorce and it seems that everyone was happy. Anne didn’t seem too distressed that she was no longer married to a man twice her age and three times her weight with a dripping leg.
Her mood was doubtless sweetened by a big fat payout. Three castles plus three thousand pounds a year which, as it turns out, bought a hell of a lot of dresses. Henry, in the meantime, with two messy separations behind him, couldn’t believe that he had got off so lightly.
She became one of the richest women in England, amassing a fortune which, because she never gave wedlock a second chance, she was at liberty to spend foolishly. She enjoyed life in the country, grew to like English ale, developed a passion for fashion and became pretty sharp at cards, a game taught to her by the matchmakers to help her please the king.
It’s tempting to say that she had the shirt off his back — but that would imply enmity between the two. In reality they remained friends for life and until Henry’s death the court gossips speculated that he might even take her back. She never returned to Germany.
It’s tempting to try to imagine her up there in the tower of Cleves castle and to wonder what she must have been thinking before she left home for the last time. The Swan Castle no less, with its shining white walls. There’s romance of a sort in there, I swear there is.
Unfortunately reality is a romance killer. She was actually born fifty miles down the road in Düsseldorf and never lived here. Doubtless she spent a few nights here and got her mail sent here but she was actually brought up quite a way from here in Solingen.
Bummer. Fortunately I have a plan B.
Having failed to track down a queen of England I decide instead to track down a queen of Scotland. It shouldn’t actually be that difficult.
Westwards of the Duchy of Cleves lies the Duchy of Guelders, equally powerful in the late middle ages. Nowadays getting there involves crossing out of Germany and into the Netherlands. I have my bike and a map and set out to do just that.
It’s not an easy bit of navigation: You have to leave the main road and ride down country lanes which don’t quite tessellate at the border. The route winds down half-hidden paths and through a forest and after about ten miles I come out in Holland. I know this because I am no longer the lone cyclist
Another hour or so along the river Maas takes us to the town of Grave (if you’re pronouncing it correctly then it should sound as if you’re clearing your throat), a pretty little town with its back hunched up against the water’s edge, known among other things as the birthplace of Mary of Guelders.
I wish I could tell you more about her but we know so very little. Born in 1434, she was distantly related to Anne — and had even less luck with portraits. Only one survives, a stylised early modern affair which appears to show her playing hard to get with her husband, James II of Scotland.
Her biography is as sketchy as her portrait but it smacks of a life well lived. Married to James Stewart when she was fifteen, the original Mary Stewart managed to compact enough material for an entire soap opera into a life which ended when she was just thirty years old.
In contrast to Anne, she would not have seen marrying the King of Scots as going up in the world. On the contrary, this was a coup for James to be allowed to marry the Duke of Burgundy’s great-niece.
Status notwithstanding, the marriage was a success. James wasn’t exactly a catch; he had a violent temper and a fascination for guns but together they sired seven children and she went to great lengths to honour his memory after his premature end.
His fascination for artillery pieces would have deeply worried a modern bride; he even received a cannon as a wedding present. Ultimately this brought about his untimely demise when in 1460 one of his guns exploded during the siege of an English castle.
Roadrunner style mishaps like this are a recurring theme in Scottish medieval history and the immediate consequence was one which had become depressingly familiar: The new king was an eight-year-old.
Mary took the unusual step of acting as regent, skillfully guiding Scotland around the Wars Of The Roses before she died in Edinburgh, causes unknown.
You won’t learn anything more about her in Grave but it’s a nice town nonetheless. It hasn’t really grown much outside the old city walls and, although it’s a hundred and fifty miles inland, it feels like a harbour town as the wind blows in from the river.
You could almost be in the east of England looking at the tightly packed townhouses and the market square. The weather turns grey at the very thought of the comparison so I pop into the market tavern. De Gouden Leeuw it’s called –the Golden Lion.
A couple of dark beers later I head for home. Predictably, the ride back takes much longer than the way there and I am depressed and hungry.
As an expedition this has been a total failure. All but the bare bones of these two remarkable lives must remain forever in the imagination. When I get back to Cleves it takes a good couple of beers to cheer me up.
I take one more look at Anne before I get onto the train. We’ll never know exactly what she looked like, or thought like; but after a hard day’s fact finding I’m happy to let my imagination do the heavy lifting.
I look at her once again: Placid is the word alright. Strong and uncomplicated, a good-time girl who didn’t let life get her down. I expect a lot of men would go for her if she were alive today. I would, I think. Yes, definitely.
That said, I expect she’s probably had enough of British men for one lifetime.