The less familiar ‘Love Story’ between Anne of Cleaves and Henry VIII – that didn’t start well at Rochester – New Year 1539/1540.
Fake News? Some dramatists and storytellers like to portray the relationship between Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII as a disaster. Certainly their relationship had a very rocky start – but once divorced Henry heaped gifts upon her, titled her “the King’s Beloved Sister”, used her as a confidant – and they may even have become lovers. The fact that Henry decided to have investigated one of the rumours that Anne was pregnant by him suggests he regarded it as a possibility! Such was Anne’s disappointment when Henry chose to marry Catherine Parr in 1543, and not to remarry her, she withdrew from Court and sought help for melancholy.
Before commencing the story let’s ‘slaughter’ the “Mare of Flanders”; there is no contemporary evidence that Henry ever called Anne of Cleves by that name – indeed she wasn’t even from Flanders and Henry would have known that because of the political nature of the treaty with Cleves. This unflattering description of Anne was apparently first made by Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, who wrote in his 1679 book that Henry “swore they had brought over a Flanders mare to him”. As this was written some 130 years after Henry’s death and after all who witnessed the meeting would have died, there was no one to challenge this description.
Certainly Henry claimed to have found Anne unattractive. As the need for protestant ally had passed by the time they met could it be that he was so cross about the circumstances of the marriage that he was bound to find fault? I wonder also whether he rather hoped that she would have been amenable to having sex with him before the marriage, as he seems to have travelled ‘with expectations’ when he rode to Rochester to meet her for the first time.
Anne of Cleves would have almost certainly not been the flirtatious nymph that, judging by his previous and subsequent choices of women, Henry favoured. Henry also accused Anne of being ‘no maiden’. Could it be that Anne was larger busted than the younger girls that Henry had had affairs with? Could it be that when he compared the younger women/girls with the older women/mothers, with whom he had had relations, he assumed that a larger bust came with having had children?
By comparison Anne Boleyn was well aware of the ways of the world – and used her feminine skills to good affect – and Catherine Howard (16 / 17 years old) who Henry married almost immediately after the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, was young, pretty, vivacious and flirtatious. Anne of Cleaves was certainly the ‘chalk between two cheeses’!
We can’t know what Henry really felt about Anne as the circumstances of their pairing were complex and scribes at the time may well have ‘sexed-up’ their accounts to support a particular argument. However, those who travelled with Anne of Cleves to England, found her charming.
Context: Following the break with Rome and the slight that would have been felt by the Spanish as a consequence of Henry forcing a divorce upon the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, there was a serious risk – encouraged by the Pope – of the French and Spanish joining forces against England. Such was the threat Henry instigated the building a number of forts in 1538 along the south coast, to deter any potential invasion. In Kent these included the forts at Winchelsea, Sandgate, Walmer and Deal.
In order to avert a war tremendous efforts were made by Thomas Cromwell to find a protestant bride for Henry in order to secure a protestant ally. Arrangements were finally agreed with Cleve for Ann, daughter of John III, to marry Henry VIII. However before the marriage – but to late to change arrangements – the threat of an invasion by France had receded. I’ve read somewhere that this was indicated to Henry when Frances I of France sent Henry a Christmas gift of pate. Regardless of the ‘how’ Henry was aware, before the nuptials of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, that a treaty was no longer necessary to avert an invasion – but it was to late as the couple had already been married – by proxy.
Married by Proxy: No princess or indeed prince, in their right mind would risk leaving the safety of their country without a ‘contract of employment’. Once the treaty had been agreed between England and Cleves a proxy marriage was therefore undertaken as part of ‘sealing the deal’. No details of the proxy marriage with Anne have been found but it could have been similar to the ceremony that was conducted when Henry married-off his sister, Mary, to Louis XII of France.
Mary’s proxy marriage involved a ceremony conducted in the Great Hall of Greenwich with King Henry and Catherine of Aragon in attendance. After the exchange of vows between Mary and Louis’s representative, the representative placed a ring on Mary’s right hand, gave her a kiss and signed the marriage agreement. Immediately afterwards Mary changed into her nightdress and lay down on a bed. With one of his legs bared to his thigh Louis’s agent reclined beside her and touch her body in a symbolic consummation of the marriage. From that point Mary and Louis were marriage bar the actual nuptials.
Ann probably went through a similar ceremony and therefore travelled to England as Queen, and no doubt supported by a large entourage. The trip to England was slow and eventful but not for recounting here.
Henry liked to abide by the chivalric code that provided ‘rules’ for knightly conduct. One chivalric custom was for the king, wearing plain clothes, to meet his bride on the road whilst she travelled to meet him for the first time. She would be expected not to recognise him – but then to be horrified that she had slighted her husband when he returns in his kingly robes.
Now to the Rochester ‘chapter’ of the story:
Anne eventually arrived in Rochester on 31 December 1539. She was met at Rainham Down and escorted to the Bishop’s Palace which stood south of Rochester cathedral. This was somewhat surprising as it had been rumoured that Anne would refuse to come to England until all abbeys had been pulled down – and although the Priory of St. Andrew’s, Rochester, was to be shortly dissolved it was still Catholic.
The following report of Henry’s meeting with Anne is based on the recording by Charles Wriothesley, Officer of Arms who it is assumed from his position and the content of his writing was present when Henry meet Anne for the first time.
“… and on New Year’s Day, at afternoon the king’s grace, with five of his privy chamber, being disguised with cloaks of marble with hoods, that they should not be known, came privately to Rochester, and so went up to the chamber where the said Lady Anne looked out at a window to see bull baiting ….”
The story continues that Henry in his ‘plain clothes’ approached Anne, kissed her and offered a token that the king had sent her as a New Year’s gift. Not knowing who he was Anne thanked him for the gift and returned to watch the bull baiting. All well so far. Henry then left the room and returned wearing a cloak of purple velvet. It was only when she saw others in the room bowing to Henry that she broke away from watching the bull baiting and curtsied before Henry who in turn saluted her.
Despite the widely held view that the meeting did not go well Charles Wriothesley – who we believe was present – suggests it did not go badly. He reported they talked together lovingly and took her by the hand and led her into another room where they conversed that night and until Friday afternoon. [If this occurred it would have been via an interpreter as niether could speak the other’s language.]
So where did they meet?
Anne was a committed reformer and it seems surprising that she would enter an unreformed abbey. However as history later tells us, she was very much a pragmatist who was able to make the best of many difficult situations. As her journey to England – particularly in the crossing the channel – had been long and very uncomfortable it would be quite understandable if she chose to stay in the most comfortable lodgings – wherever they may be. It has been reported that the king had rooms in the Bishop’s Palace and these would have been comfortable. Further evidence for this is that these rooms were not destroyed when the priory was ‘dissolved’, as Henry needed somewhere comfortable to stay whilst travelling to or through Kent.
This then raises the question as the whether the location was suitable for bull baiting. It is possible of course that Anne was staying somewhere other than where she was being entertained. It is difficult to imagine bull baiting happening in the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace however the palace – at this time was located in the area of Southgate in the precinct – not in St. Margarets Street where the current palace is located.
My guess would be that bull baiting would have taken place near a pub – particularly as it generally took place in a constructed ‘bull ring’ and involved gambling. There as a pub near to the priory that we know today as the Coopers Arms. This pub is reputed to be the oldest in Kent and was there – probably as part of the priory – when Anne stayed in Rochester.
Assuming that Anne would not have wanted to move far from the priory, and the supposition that bull-baiting was most likely to take place near a pub, we have two contenders for where Anne was watching the spectacle when Henry approached her. First the Bishop’s Palace – where there would have undoubtedly been space between the palace and the pub for a bull to be baited. The second is Old Hall in Boley Hill. Only a part of it remains today, but what remains is the east wing of a much larger house where Elizabeth I stayed for a night.The property was therefore likely to have been ‘fit for a queen’, and location-wise it is also close to the Coopers Arms.
One pays their money and makes your choice between these two possibilities. I’m not so convinced by the suggestion that the first meeting between Anne and Henry took place in Rochester Castle. Certainly there was more of it then than now, but would the accommodation have been suitable? I rather like the ‘fit’ with the Old Hall but as Henry apparently had chambers in the Bishop’s Palace he may well have preferred to have offered that to Anne.
What is certain no document is likely to be uncovered giving a map reference or postal code for where they met. But it was at Rochester that the personal relation relationship between Anne and Henry began. A relationship that may not have started well but ended much improved.
Main source of historical information: The Marrying of Anne of Cleaves – Royal protocol in Tudor England. Retha M. Warnicke. 2000.