Saturday, 3 August 2013

The woman who unwittingly changed British history

History is full of ifs and buts.  If, if, if....the nagging wonder of what might have happened if just one thing had been slightly different.  But, but, but...but for a tiny moment, what might have been?  So how about this if?  If one woman, born today in 1491, had been slightly more interested in song, dance and storytelling might the whole history of England have been different?

Henry VIII's life and reign might have been very different if a woman born on this day in 1491 had been slightly jollier

Maria of Julich-Berg.  Not a name that trips off the tongue first thing in answer to the question of which woman influenced the history of the English crown.  She was born in Julich in northern Gremany, the only daughter of the area's ruler.  Duke Wilhelm IV had been married to wife number two for ten years by the time baby Maria arrived and unless his latest Duchess, Sybille, produced a son their little girl would be the last of his line.  By the time Maria was five it was clear no boy would arrive and Duke Wilhelm negotiated a treaty with his neighbour, the Duke of Cleves.  Julich would become part of a bigger duchy on Wilhelm's death and Maria would marry John, the heir of the Duke of Cleves.

 John II, Duke of Cleves presumably looked slightly happier when he finalized the deal to unify his country with Julich-Berg and leave his son and heir a far wealthier man than he had been

Maria and John married in 1510 and on Wilhelm's death in 1511, John took his title.  By the time John II of Cleves died ten years later, making little John duke of a big area now known as Julich-Cleves-Berg, Maria had had four children and was heavily involved in how they were being brought up.  And that's where the 'if' comes in.

John III, Duke of Cleves, ruled a sizeable part of northern Europe and that made his three daughters very valuable on the royal marriage market

If Maria had approved of educating girls, if Maria had thought it a good idea to train her daughters in the courtly pursuits of song, dance and flirting then might England never have known Mary I and Elizabeth I as queen regnants?  The thing was Maria really didn't approve of girls getting an education.  She was a strict mother and teaching her girls how to charm, how to play musical instruments and sing wasn't on the list.  At all.  Instead, the three girls were taught to cook, to sew and to weave.  And while that was fine while they attended her at the court of Cleves, once daddy opened up negotiations for their marriages the problems began. 

Six Dukes of Cleves including the great grandfather, grandfather and father of Anne, fourth of the six wives of Henry VIII
While Maria was still medieval in her plans for her girls, the Cleves clan were on the up and looking to the future.  In 1539, Duke John started talking to Henry VIII's advisers about marrying one of his daughters to the king.  Henry was now a widower - his last wife, Jane Seymour, had died in childbirth two years earlier and of course both Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon were dead too.  For about the only time in his reign, the monarch's marital record was back to scratch and his counselors wanted to make the most of this relatively peaceful time to make a good match abroad that would help both king and country.  Duke John had two unmarried daughters, Amalia and Anne, and the Tudor court was ready to admit one of them.
Sybille of Cleves was the eldest daughter of the duchess who didn't do dancing but luckily for her, she was already married by the time Henry VIII came looking for a new wife
Even with the King of England knocking on the door offering a wedding ring, Maria didn't see the point in changing course.  She allowed a court painter to make an image of her two unmarried girls but that was the only concession to a possible crown that she offered.  Cooking and cleaning remained on the curriculum and while Henry studied the two portraits, their two subjects continued their rather fusty way of life, little knowing the consequences.
The famous portrait of Anne of Cleves which won her the hand of Henry VIII and cost his adviser, Thomas Cromwell, his head. 
Henry, of course, chose Anne and at the end of 1539 she packed up her rather unfashionable clothes and her sewing and recipe books and sailed for England to become its queen. The king had a two year old son but he needed more boys to secure his dynasty.  This 24 year old bride was to provide a Duke of York and plenty more besides.  But it was loathing on first sight for the 47 year old king and every second spent in the company of his fourth queen made matters worse.
As well as being flattered by the portrait sent to woo a king, Anne was a fish out of water in Henrys high spirited and cultured court.  Whereas the first of his queens called Anne had been lively, quick witted, interested in music and courtly romance, this second one stared at it all in bemusement and could barely understand what was being said to her, let alone set the room alight with sparkling conversation.  And while Henry may have been steering clear of another woman who might challenge him as much as Mistress Boleyn had, he wanted something more than Anne.  Antonia Fraser argues that Anne of Cleves lack of learning was a major factor in her being divorced less than six months after her marriage.
Anne of Cleves - she was very monochrome in comparison to the women who had entranced Henry
Other historians point out that among the young women lined up to be ladies in waiting to the new queen and in situ for her arrival in England was Catherine Howard.  It's not clear whether Henry had laid eyes on her before Anne stepped off her ship or whether the fateful meeting came soon afterwards but Catherine was in the king's sphere and his heart within weeks of his fourth queen landing in England.  This merry monarch had taken on a Church and an Empire to be rid of one royal wife so as he could marry a commoner from the Howard family and it may be that once he'd seen Catherine nothing was going to stop him doing the same again if he had to.
Catherine Howard - Henry may already have fallen for her charms by the time he first saw
Anne of Cleves
If Henry had already fallen for Catherine then there was little that Anne could do to win him over.  But there's also little doubt that had this fourth queen been slightly more accomplished at court she might have been able to manipulate the situation more to her own advantage. As it was, Anne won few friends in her short stint as queen.  And while that may be because the fickle world of Tudor politics meant no one was ready to side with a woman who was clearly not in the king's favour, her lack of learning and inability to charm and lead the singing and dancing made her a laughing stock from the very beginning.  If she had been just a little more sophisticated it might have been much harder to throw her over.  All Anne needed was one son and the whole course of English history might have been different.
But ifs and buts count for nothing. As it was, Maria saw her second daughter become queen of England before being relegated to the role of King's Sister.  But that was a wealthy job in itself and Anne lived comfortably in England and outlived her king by ten years.  Which is, of course, more than can be said for Catherine Howard who was dead within two years of marriage.  Anne of Cleves may have failed to please her king and failed to provide an heir but she succeeded where all but one of his other wives failed.  She survived her husband.

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