If you want to watch England's King Henry VIII marry his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, you don't have to take a time machine back to the 16th century. All you have to do is drive your automobile to the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville.
For the convenience of spectators, the wedding ceremony will be repeated 17 times during the course of the festival, which runs eight consecutive weekends starting next Saturday.
There should be no shortage of wedding guests -- more than 200,000 visitors attend the festival each year. In fact, the Maryland Renaissance Festival is the second largest of the approximately 30 such fairs in the country, according to artistic director Carolyn Spedden.
Each year's array of entertainment includes mini-plays about the royalty of that era. Festival veterans who have seen Henry marry -- and dispose of -- his previous wives will be primed to follow his marital misadventures with wife No. 4.
Henry fell in love with Anne of Cleves based on a flattering portrait of the German princess painted by Hans Holbein. When she was fetched to England, Henry realized to his dismay that she wasn't very fetching.
"Anne is known to history as 'the ugly one,' but personally I think she's the cutest one of the whole bunch," says Paula Peterka, the actress playing Anne.
A 28-year-old computer systems analyst in Alexandria, Va., Ms. Peterka has the advantage of being able to speak German, the only language Anne knew upon her arrival in England. This being a light-hearted Renaissance fair, however, Ms. Peterka's Anne arrives already knowing two words in English: "Drink beer." A certain Master Berlitz gives her a crash course in the rest of our language.
Also tweaking the historical record a bit is the casting in this production. The real Anne is believed to have been fairly tall, but Ms. Peterka stands only 5-foot-3-inches. The actor portraying Henry, Bill Huttel, is an imposing 6-foot-7-inches tall. When the royal couple stands side by side, audiences in Crownsville will probably acknowledge with laughter that this is a marital mismatch.
Defender of Anne's virtues, Ms. Peterka goes on the offensive in describing Henry: "She was 25 and he was pushing 50 when they married. He's overweight, balding and has ulcerating sores on his legs. He's not quite as athletic and handsome as he once was."
She relates that the marriage was "dissolved on grounds of non-consummation" after only six months. Apparently, Anne had never been told the facts of life, and Henry wasn't interested in explaining them to her. But the king remained on good terms with her after the divorce and referred to her as a "sister," thereby entitling her to property and high rank in England.
Mr. Huttel points to Henry's post-divorce treatment of Anne as an example of a gentler side at odds with the historical image of Henry as an ogre. For the 41-year-old Forestville resident, who works as production manager for the convention centers in Ocean City and Salisbury, this will be the sixth consecutive year he has played Henry at the fair.
He's understandably anxious to present Henry's side of the case. Henry's counselors advised him to make a "marriage of defense" to a German princess to counteract an alliance between France and Spain that did not bode well for England. Politics were behind a marriage that in any event didn't have the right personal chemistry to salvage it.
"I'm still not quite sure why he did not like her," the actor muses. "He called her 'the Flanders mare' and said he could not bear to be near her."
RF Having by now dealt with four of Henry's wives in various festival
playlets, Mr. Huttel is asked if his Henry will be taking his fifth wife next year. He demurs by pointing out that "wife No. 5, Catherine Howard, was 15 when she married him, and the charges of adultery placed against her before her beheading were most likely true. I'm not sure we'll ever get around to her, because we're trying to keep this a family show."
If Henry's track record would have a marriage counselor working overtime, others have had better luck in these festival settings. Ms. Peterka, for instance, met her husband, Larry, at a Renaissance fair-related workshop while both were living in California. In the current production, Larry plays a German envoy accompanying Anne. Poor Larry (the envoy) gets to watch his wife marry another guy over and over again in the weeks ahead.
It's not unusual to find husband-and-wife couples among the entertainers at Renaissance fairs. Nor is it unusual for audience members to get into the act by getting married in 16th-century style. Eight to 10 real marriages take place each year at the
Crownsville event, says office manager C. J. Crowe.