Case Study 33: The Six Wives of Henry VIII–“Anne of Cleves”

Original Airdate: January 22nd, 1971 on BBC

The ill-starred marriages of 16th century English king Henry VIII have long been a subject of fascination for the reading and viewing public. Shakespeare made his life into a play. Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory have climbed the bestseller charts on the back of these stories, and both of those books have been filmed, one for theaters and one for television. Jonathan Rhys Meyers played an ahistorically sexy Henry in a soapy cable drama. Even Homer Simpson has taken on the role. Hell, even this show requires a hefty disambiguation page on good old Wikipedia, since it also lends its title to a movie, a documentary, two books and a prog rock album.

Henry’s pivotal role in British history doesn’t quite explain the appeal, partially because Henry is as much an international symbol as anything else. Our cultural image of Henry–regardless of the historical record–makes him synonymous with monarchy: tyrannical, bloated, lustful, larger than life…unless it’s telling a story about a heroic statesman. In particular, second wife Anne Boleyn captures an equal share of the public imagination–whether as an interfering historical villainess or a kickass heroine with agency in an era where society did everything possible to prevent the creation of kickass heroines with agency depending on who does the telling. To some extent, Henry and Boleyn are both ciphers onto which we can project our fantasies and desires about England’s history and the history of royalty more generally.

Tonight, we examine the story of the less popular Anne. Wives is of some significance in its own right–though originally televised in America on CBS, it was a key component of the first season of Masterpiece Theater, and it merited a sequel, the equally popular Elizabeth R. It also spawned the aforementioned feature film of the same name.


  • Robust characterization. I’m not sure if the historical source material makes this easier or more difficult, but as I discussed in my review of Marco Polo, my concerns about fidelity to the historical record are limited provided the creators refrain from getting egregiously lazy. As it stands, Wives really brings its central characters to life. Henry (Keith Mitchell) is alternatingly callow and foxy. He’s plausibly a canny leader and an overgrown child. If you know anything about Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale, True As A Turtle,) it’s probably that she’s the queen that Henry deemed unfuckable. This is particularly rich if you’ve ever seen their portraits. I chose that second portrait carefully, as the more famous portrait by Hans Holbein (James Mellor, Marat/Sade) is a subject of controversy. You see, Henry prefigured the deceptions of online dating by hundreds of years, for he claimed that he was hoodwinked by a fraudulently sexy painting of his new wife. Again, Hale is much more attractive than Mellor, but the show lends some credence to the theory of the comely portrait, as chief minister and master manipulator Thomas Cromwell (Wolfe Morris, The Abominable Snowman) nudges Holbein in the right direction. In any case, the first meeting between the newly minted husband and wife has gone down in the annals of bad first date history. You see, Henry had the bright idea to surprise Anne by showing up to meet her in disguise. We only have second-hand accounts of what happened next–only Henry and Anne know the real truth–but Wives puts its own unique spin on events. Anne is perfectly receptive of the man she thinks is a mere messenger for the king and Henry is not initially put off, but when he gleefully throws off his robes to reveal his splendid royal garments, the look on Anne’s face is one of unmistakable disgust. Soon, Henry flees to Cromwell to make his famous pronouncement: “I LIKE HER NOT.” The show has us believe that Henry’s famed disgust only manifested itself because he was stinging with rejection. It’s a great scene, deftly executed, and it’s not even the most excruciatingly awkward moment in the episode–that would be the wedding night, where Anne is even more horrified by the prospect of being slowly crushed by the royal personage. She finds a way to preserve the dignity of everyone involved, and it’s genius–but more about that below. Any discussion of the characterization at hand in this show must address Anne herself. Hale does a simply exquisite job here and she adds depth and richness to an already quite well-written Anne. Anne’s personality is decidedly happy-go-lucky–we first see her laughing gaily despite being soaked in dog piss–but it doesn’t sacrifice any range. She’s chastened by the miserable gravity of her situation, but she’s hardly defeated by it. She takes great pleasure in cultivating kindly relations with Henry’s children and her handmaids. She has the best line in the episode when she dismisses the religious schemes of Cromwell and Robert Barnes (Robert James, Jane Eyre) by telling them their priorities are misplaced: “I would rather comfort a shamed child than save a dozen churches.” Most brilliantly, Anne spends a good deal of time in the early running worrying about how she’s ill-suited to be queen–she doesn’t know dances or fashion or manners. Her passion is politics.
  • Scheming. Speaking of which, you know I love a good scheme. Cromwell’s angle here–because of course he has an angle–is to protect the throne in the event of an anti-Protestant alliance among Catholics in France and the Holy Roman Empire. In the event of a holy war, Henry’s name would be near the top of the list due to his prominent break with the Catholic Church as chronicled earlier in Wives. Anne was a great choice as a bride for Henry because she was part of the royal family of what’s called the Schmalkaldic League, or as the show calls it, the League of the Protestant Princes, since “Schmalkaldic” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. On the eve of their wedding night, Anne makes a last-ditch attempt to distract the lusty king by telling him that the ruler of Hesse, a key member of the League, was about to break away and that by refraining from consummating the marriage Henry could keep his options open. Henry sees the wisdom in this plan. The other major piece of scheming at hand is against Cromwell. The Duke of Norfolk (Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who) and his allies resented the rise of the working class Cromwell and rightly saw him as a threat to the nobility, so they framed him for the charge of conspiring with Barnes and others to further the cause of Lutheranism in England. But this isn’t Cromwell’s story. It’s Anne’s, and therefore…
  • Telling a story about history & politics through the lens of a marriage. There’s a scene I loved very near the end of the episode–Anne brilliantly convinces Henry to grant her a divorce and allow her to remain close to the court as his beloved “sister”–after all, she doesn’t want to go back to the provinces to get married off again by her unsympathetic brother (William Maxwell) and she wants to be able to continue spending time with the king’s children. This means that she won’t be able to serve as a pawn in Cromwell’s scheme for a Europe-wide Protestant alliance. She tearfully notifies the Archbishop (Bernard Hepton, Secret Army) that she can’t help Cromwell, only to be told that, oh yeah, Cromwell and Barnes have already been executed. Dying ignominiously offscreen is a startlingly anti-climactic end to Cromwell’s story, but it does allow for an appealingly tight focus on Anne.


  • Keith Mitchell. I was somewhat surprised that Mitchell won an Emmy for this role. It’s not that he’s terrible–he nails the king’s bearing and presence–but the voice he puts on for this role is so hammy and over-the-top that it’s really quite off-putting. Not to mention annoying–it’s this sniveling whine, and while it does reinforce the theme of the King being a giant shitty baby, it’s hard to believe that any viewer would take him seriously.

Motivation: Power. I’m not just talking about Cromwell and Norfolk’s tangle over who will have the king’s ear. This is also a story about Anne trying to find her footing in an unenviable position in a strange and foreign land–and how she ultimately comes out on top despite it all. Relative to Anne Boleyn, anyway.

Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. This is a compelling version of the story of Anne of Cleves, but there are newer and flashier versions out there. If you like historical dramas, check this one out but keep your options open.

NEXT TIME: I’ll be writing about a very different unhappy marriage as I cover Married…With Children.

Case Study 33: The Six Wives of Henry VIII–“Anne of Cleves”