On this day in history Henry VIII annulled his marriage to Anna of Cleves, a woman who is often remembered for the horrible nickname he gave her – The Great Flanders Mare. Henry’s side of the story was that she wasn’t pretty enough, but the reality is she just busted his ego up something fierce. As I said in the book:
“Although his bride-to-be was considered by all who met her, with few exceptions, to be an attractive woman, Anna was ill equipped to enthrall the King. Her upbringing had been very strict, and as a result she did not have any abilities that would keep Henry entertained. Henry adored music, singing, dancing, hunting, and playing card games. Anna was proficient in none of these things. She was unfamiliar with the rules of courtly love so she did not know the proper behavior expected of a lady by her noble lover …
Anna was standing at her window, watching the bull-baiting on New Year’s Day with ostensible enjoyment, when something happened that altered the whole course of her life. A group of six men, ‘disguised’ in matching cloaks and hoods made of multi-colored patches, burst into the room, much to the consternation of Anna and her ladies. One of the men grabbed Anna and kissed her, claiming that he and his fellows had come on behalf of the King, and gave her a token of the King’s affection. Anna was “abashed, not knowing who it was, thanked him, and so he communed with her; but she regarded him but little but always looked out of the window on the bull-baiting” (Warnicke, 2000:130-131). Unfortunately for Anna, this odd-acting messenger in whom she clearly had no interest was her prospective bridegroom, Henry VIII.
Henry had tried to make a romantic gesture and it had gone badly awry … What if in an unguarded moment she had revealed, through some quick expression on her face, that she was appalled by the idea of marrying the hulking and foul-smelling man announcing himself as the King? … once Henry had met Anna of Cleves he decided she was a “Great Flanders Mare” and he wanted nothing more to do with her.”
In sum, Henry thought he was still young and handsome and when he met Anna her reaction showed him the truth; without a crown he wasn’t hot any more. So what is the best way to call sour grapes? To tell the world she is ugly and you don’t want her. Moreover, since women’s value has often been correlated with their physical appeal, to tell her she was unattractive was to tell her she was worthless.
I’d like to say that kind of behavior has stopped, but nope. Recently a 14 year old girl named Carleigh O’Connell discovered that some “witty” person had made a very ugly comment in graffiti about her body, specifically about the size of her butt. So she responded in a manner that I personally would describe as epic: “She snapped a photo while posing proudly with the graffiti.”
Good for her. I wish Anna of Cleves could have done the same. As it is, here is Holbein’s portrait of her, which is as close to a photo as they could get:
You go girl.