Good stories are often repeated. I am obviously very fond of this truism because it is the basis of my latest book. And as far as rumors go…. this one is just too tantalizing not to repeat.
This rumor surrounds the enigmatic Christina of Milan and her public rebuff of Henry VIII when he was seeking her hand in marriage. Christina is shown here demurely averting our gaze in a panting completed by Holbein in 1538. The painting was reportedly an accurate portrayal of her famed beauty despite first-hand accounts of a browner complexion.
At first glance, it’s hard to believe that the sweet, dimple-faced, 16 year old in the painting would dare to snidely insult the King of England. Yet, her slightly upturned smile seems to reveal a sardonic wit beneath the surface of her dutiful morning attire. This dry wit is most appropriately illustrated in Christina’s rumored response to becoming Henry’s wife that if she had two heads, “one should be at the King of England's disposal.” SLAM! Oh no she didn’t.
No, really… she did not.
The true story behind Christina and Henry’s proposed marriage doesn’t quite read like a Jennifer Aniston tabloid diss on Angelina Jolie. In fact, Christina of Milan may have been quite enamored with the idea of being the next Tudor rose. For one, queen of England was a big step up from a Duchess.
The only contemporary accounts of Christina's attitude toward Henry point to a sort of bemused curiosity and a submissive acceptance of her fate. When her attendant, Gran Battista Ferrari returned from his visit to England, Christina questioned him about Henry VIII. Their conversation was interrupted by a summons to supper, but she continued to question Ferrari afterwards. For someone supposedly repelled by the thought of marrying Henry, she was definitely curious. Later, Wriothesley asked Christina what she thought of Henry and she responded that she believed him to be a “noble prince” and that she would comply with the wishes of her uncle, Emperor, Charles V.
Some historians have argued that the length of time that Christina sat for Holbein (only three hours) is proof of her disinterest, but Holbein never took more than three to four hours to complete his sketches and then finished his paintings from these sketches. Such was also the case with the infamous portrait of Anne of Cleves later to become Henry’s 4th wife.
The real impediment to the marriage was not Christina’s lack of attraction to Henry, but the fact that Henry was attempting to dip his big, fat toe into his ex wife’s family gene pool. Christina of Milan just happened to be the great-niece of Catherine of Aragon thereby putting her in the forbidden degrees of affinity. The only way to marry Christina would have been for Henry to get a papal dispensation from Pope Paul III. Unfortunately, Paul was not about to give Henry any more free passes to marry. In fact, he actually went out his way to block the marriage by reissuing his trusty papal bull excommunicating Henry. And since Charles V had grown pretty chummy with the Pope he was not about to let his niece marry someone the Pope had publicly denied important sacraments…like the sacrament of marriage.
Henry was left with no other choice, but to marry someone outside of his family. Thus, he was stuck with Anne of Cleves – a story for another day.
Rumors that Christina was blatantly opposed to the marriage were floating around in the 16th century, but the two-headed comment was not recorded until the 17th century. Although Christina never had the gumption to make the famed remark, we can always find truth in every fiction. The rumor is an accurate reflection of the 16th century world attitude toward Henry seeking a 4th wife. Most people thought he did need a wife with two heads.
Warnicke, Retha M. The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press, 2000
Fraser, Antoinia. The Six wives of Henry VIII, New York, NY: Vintage, 1993.