The Flanders Mare: Anne of Cleves

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Poor Anne of Cleves, relegated to history as “the ugly one.” Her marriage to Henry VIII is now viewed as a short blip in-between the domestic dramas of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and the scandal of Katherine Howard’s (presumed) adultery and execution. In fact, this fourth marriage of the King’s was important for what it signified – a foreign alliance arranged in the midst of frightening religious factionalism in the English government. The demise of their union – it would last roughly six months – also saw the downfall of the infamous Thomas Cromwell, risen up by the Boleyn family a decade before.

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What Henry VIII Wanted From Women

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The simplest answer as to what Henry wanted from women may be the most obvious: a son. But a rational response to desiring and not receiving a legitimate male heir, even in the 16th century, wasn’t to form your own religion or behead your wife. Furthermore, Henry went through three more wives after his son, the future Edward VI, was born in 1537. Clearly “a son” wasn’t the only factor at play in Henry’s motivations for taking and discarding wives. So, what was going on?

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The Case of Katherine Howard

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While Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn loom the largest of Henry VIII’s wives, all six women have provided controversy and prompted debate centuries after their deaths. Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, is no exception. Married to the King on July 28, 1540 and executed on February 13, 1542, her reign was brief but littered with misinformation and its legacy shaped by evolving views of female sexuality and abuse.

Katherine first joined court and met Henry in 1539 when she became a lady-in-waiting to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. At that point, Henry had been a widower for two years following the death of Jane Seymour, and his marriage was masterminded by his councilor, Thomas Cromwell, who was determined to find another queen consort who would complement the Protestant Church of England and the ongoing dissolution of the monasteries. Unfortunately for Cromwell, Anne failed to please Henry and he instead fell for the adolescent Katherine Howard, niece to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and cousin of his deceased second wife, Anne Boleyn.

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