On this day 480 years ago, Anne of Cleves, queen consort of Henry VIII for just six months, reluctantly consented to a decree drawn up by the convocations of Canterbury and York, which declared her marriage to the king illegal. The grounds were that Henry had refrained from consummation until he ascertained that Anne was legally free to marry and that such proof was not forthcoming. This was a convenient get-out for the Tudor king, who did not want to be drawn into German politics, and who was privately struggling with problems of impotency made worse by an irrational distaste for Anne herself. Within a few days the annulment decree was passed by Parliament and Henry was free to marry someone he found much more alluring, Katherine Howard, the teenager with a tainted history.
Annulment was a convenient get-out for the Tudor king, Henry VIII. – Linda Porter
The speed with which Henry freed himself from his German queen was in stark contrast to the years of wrangling with Rome when he tried to replace Katherine of Aragon with Anne Boleyn. Other monarchs who wanted to end their marriages, whether through personal, political or dynastic reasons, generally had to wait a long time themselves.
One of the most celebrated of these cases was the breakdown of the marriage of King Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Their union ran into difficulties well before the disasters of the Second Crusade in 1147, which exposed Louis’ ineptitude. Relations were not helped by the lack of children, though Eleanor did eventually produce two girls. By this time, she was keen to be free of her husband and the marriage was annulled in March 1152, on the grounds of consanguinity. Eleanor went on to marry Henry II of England. Ironically, she was more closely related to him than she was to her first husband.
Three hundred years later, another French king found his first marriage inconvenient. This was Louis XII whose cousin, Charles VIII, had died childless. Louis XII had been pressured into marrying his cousin, Jeanne, who was disabled and rumoured to be sterile. When he became king, Louis lost no time in trying to get rid of his wife. Despite her frailness, Jeanne defended herself with spirit during the course of unseemly legal battles, full of sensational details about her alleged inability to consummate the marriage. Finally, perhaps overwhelmed by the sheer nastiness of it all, she gave way and took the veil. Pope Alexander VI pronounced the union invalid in 1498. In 1950, Jeanne was canonised.
Anne of Cleves capitulated, settling for a reasonable allowance and several fine manors. – Linda Porter
Another woman who found herself embroiled in marital problems was Henry VIII’s elder sister, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots. Her second marriage, to Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus, did not survive their separation when she fled to England in 1516. Douglas returned to his previous fiancée, Lady Jane Stewart, and began openly living with her while simultaneously helping himself to Margaret’s money. When Margaret announced she wanted an annulment, her brother was shocked by such improper behaviour, even though he was about to embark on a similar course himself. Margaret may not have been surprised as the siblings’ relationship had long been difficult, but she was offended by being called a shame and disgrace to her family. Her marriage was eventually annulled in March, 1527, by Pope Clement VII, on the grounds of Angus’s pre-contract to Lady Jane Stewart.
These events set a precedent for Henry VIII to dispense with inconvenient wives. Anne of Cleves capitulated, settling for a reasonable allowance and several fine manors. If she was sometimes wistful about the crown she had lost, she could have comforted herself with the thought that she had not died in dreary banishment like Katherine or, like Anne Boleyn, lost her head.
Linda Porter is a writer and historian. Her most recent book is Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II.
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