Henry VIII became engaged to Anna of Cleves on September 4, 1539. The union was a failure, but Anna was lucky, inasmuch as the king annulled their marriage without demanding her head for it. The man who had promoted Anna’s marriage to the king of England, however, was not so fortunate. Thomas Cromwell was executed on July 28, 1540. Prior to his death, Cromwell managed to perform one last service for the king, in order to guarantee that Henry obtained his much-desired annulment. The former chief minister wrote a long letter detailing everything he remembered about the marriage and why it should be rendered void. At the bottom of the letter he wrote the personal plea, “Most gracious prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!” Sadly, the king who had once assiduously sought a way to avoid executing the duke of Buckingham for much greater crimes no longer had any mercy.
Although Henry’s behavior towards Anna of Cleves could be explained by his narcissism and a lack of sexual chemistry between the betrothed couple, the king’s retaliation against Cromwell for orchestrating the match is impossible to explain rationally. Cromwell’s execution was ordered impulsively, as a result of the paranoid conviction that any injury done to him must be deliberate and because of frustrated pique that required an outlet. Henry no longer seemed capable of understanding the consequences of his rash actions. Like a small child crying for a toy broken in the heat of a temper-tantrum, a short time after Cromwell’s death Henry wanted him back again. He raged against his councilors and Cromwell’s former enemies, blaming them for having forced him to kill Cromwell over “light pretexts”, and accused them of costing him “the most faithful servant he had ever had”. If the theory that Henry had McLeod syndrome is correct, that would explain his paranoia and disconnect from reality. If not, then Henry was simply a spoiled, monstrous, tyrant. I prefer to believe, for the sake of the young man he once was, that the king was ill.
Cromwell paid the ultimate price for Henry and Anna’s dismal marriage, but — except for the fact she has been historically slandered as the Great Flanders Mare — Anna herself got a bargain. She became the king’s ‘sister’ and she flourished in her adopted land. Anna was able to indulge herself in all manner of innocent pleasures so often denied her in the austere court of the duke of Cleves, including lovely garments and musical entertainments, without the penalty of a glowering husband to dampen her enthusiasms. The French ambassador, perhaps amazed at how happy Anna was to be so ignominiously dismissed and dethroned, wrote that Henry’s ex-wife was “as joyous as ever”, and that she “wears new dresses every day, each more wonderful than the last. She passes all her time in sports and recreations”.
Good for you, Anna. Good for you.