Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: Five Wives of Henry VIII

Anne of Cleves

Today I met Anne of Cleves at Hampton Court Palace. She was dressed in the costume of the English Court of the 1540s rather than the traditional robes of a high born lady from the ducal court at Cleves. I had gone straight over to her when I had spied her in Fountain Court from the one of the upper windows in the Georgian Apartments. I wanted to take a photograph of her attire close up. The other Tudor women I had seen were moving too fast to capture successfully but Anne was engaged in watching Will Somers, the King’s jester, as he entertained the crowd with his stilt walking and fire breathing.

I asked Anne a few questions. I put my foot in it by inquiring whether she was Queen Catherine Howard. She said no, she was the Lady Anne of Cleves. I then asked what she had bought the King for Christmas and she said two horses. And what had he given her? It seems nothing as yet but she thought he might be giving her some dogs later. I asked whether she was divorced or whether her marriage had been annulled. She said it was the latter because of a pre-contract she had had with the Duke of Lorraine which rendered her marriage to Henry void. It also meant that she could not marry again as the same marital obstacle would exist.

I enquired about her native country of  Cleves. She said her demotion from Queen of England to the King’s sister had displeased her brother the Duke and she was too ashamed ever to return home. However she had the solace of being given the palaces of Richmond and Bletchingley to live in by King Henry and there was talk she might even be granted Anne Boleyn’s childhood home at Hever.

I asked Anne about precedence now that she was no longer queen but the King’s ‘sister’. She said that after the King and Queen Catherine, and the king’s son and heir, Prince Edward  and Archbishop Cranmer, she took precedence at court. The king’s two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary had been declared illegitimate, otherwise they would have taken precedence over her. Anne of Cleves declared it very strange that her former maid of honour should now take precedence  over her and such a situation would never arise at any other European Court. Tellingly, she said the only woman at court who refused to acknowledge her was Lady Rochford , the widow of George Boleyn, who had been executed along with his sister Anne at the Tower of London. I noted sagely that Lady Rochford was in league with Catherine Howard and that she would get her comeuppance in the end. Anne of Cleves declared that the lady in question was quite mad.

Somehow we got on to the subject of the king’s death and Anne began to explain what would happen in such an eventuality. I hastily pointed out that of course the king would never die and Anne quickly agreed that it would be treason to even discuss such a matter. We touched on the subject of portraiture. Anne bemoaned the fact that she was not very good looking and that paintings had overly flattered her. I said that Hans Holbein, incidentally one of my favourite artists, had seen her inner beauty and had reflected that. In the meantime would she object to my taking a picture of her with one of these new fangled digital cameras. After I had snapped her an American woman asked me to take a photograph of her and Anne of Cleves together. I obliged. The American woman boasted she was a direct descendant of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and Hampton Court was like coming home. Given that Anne’s only child had died barren and Henry's own children had all died without issue I was curious as to how her family had arrived at such an improbable conclusion. It seems her family are convinced that they are descended through Mary Boleyn’s son Henry by her first husband William Carey. The fact that Henry VIII had been Mary’s lover further convinced them that William’s son was actually Henry’s. Anne of Cleves quietly disabused her of this fancy, pointing out that if William Carey’s son had indeed been Henry’s, it is very likely that he would have publicly acknowledged him just as he had Bessie Blount’s son. The more so since it would have given further credence to the idea that the failure to produce sons was due to  Henry’s wives and not from any deficiency on the king's part. Perhaps feeling sorry for the American woman’s crushed hopes, Anne of Cleves pointed out that the Boleyns were related to a royal house predating the Tudors and therefore the American woman could claim a royal lineage from that. I did not add that the way certain medieval monarchs comported themselves a great many English people could equally claim that they were descended from English kings.

Anne of Cleves then said she had to dash off and change into her ducal costume for the pageant to be held in the Great Hall and insisted that I come along later to join in the festivities which I readily agreed to do. I really should have told Anne of Cleves that in a recent poll more people knew her name than that of the flighty Catherine Howard. I later saw Anne if Cleves changed into her second costume as she hurried up a flight of stairs to the Great Hall. "Hello,"  she hailed me cheerily in passing.
Will Somers, Court Jester of Henry VIII
By the time I had finished talking to Anne of Cleves I noticed Will Somers, Henry VIII's court jester, was packing up his fire eating equipment and stilts. I asked him whether he had ever been to Eltham Palace when Cardinal Wolsey, Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII had been in residence. He said if it was him it was many years ago, 2001 to be precise. Back then I had an interesting discourse with Katherine of Aragon, who struck me as being rather sweet.The Partridge's younger brother, for whom I have acted as a kind of Florence Nightingale on more than one occasion, gave me a copy of Giles Tremlett's biography of Catherine of Aragon for Christmas. I have already heard a radio serialisation of the book and look forward to reading it. The previous Christmas, the Partridge gave me a copy of Hilary Mantel's Man Booker winning novel "Wolf Hall" about Henry's erstwhile chief minister Thomas Cromwell, whose political downfall was triggered by Henry's ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves which Cromwell had actively promoted. I must get around to reading it if only to see whether the author mentions Sir Ralph Sadleir, whose extant mansion in Hackney, Sutton House, I have visited on a number of occasions, this being the first time in three years that I have not attended the annual carol service held there. On the subject of novels about Tudors, I hold firm to the belief that Ford Maddox Ford, who wrote a trilogy of books about Katherine Howard starting with "The Fifth Queen," was born in the house next door to mine.

Catherine Howard and Anne of Cleves

Catherine Howard and Henry VIII
I saw Katherine Parr at Hampton Court last year when she celebrated the 500th anniversary of King Henry VIII's accession to the throne. Anne Boleyn is always a great crowd-pleaser at Hampton Court. This year Catherine Howard greeted Anne of Cleves in the Great Hall and then sat with her husband to watch a small masque presented by the children visiting the palace that day with their families, before leading the rest of the court and onlookers in some Tudor dances, one of which I recall from my time at Eltham Palace as being the Brawle.

When Anne Boleyn had presided over festivities Sir Thomas Moore had chided me for taking photographs. Today I could not see any signs prohibiting photography. Indeed, earlier when the King had eaten in public the meal prepared for him by the royal cooks in the Tudor kitchens, more of which anon,  no-one complained when visitors snapped him as they filed past.

As well as Henry, I have seen his daughter, Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers and the Stuart king James I and his queen at Hampton Court. One queen I have never seen and would always go out of my way to avoid is that pasty faced hypocritical little miss, Jane Seymour. 

I almost forgot to mention that the Lady Anne very graciously commented on how much she liked my faux-fur hat. She is now officially one of my favourite wives of Henry VIII, second only to her incomparable namesake. The picture of me wearing the aforementioned piece of millinery  was not taken at Hampton Court Palace but at my beloved Kenwood House a few days earlier, taken by my very own Hans Holbein, the Partridge.

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