Anne of Cleves: Facts, Information, Biography & Portraits

‘My Lord, if it were not to satisfy the world, and My Realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.’
Henry VIII to Cromwell on his wedding day to Anne of Cleves

Miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger

Miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger

Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of King Henry VIII; it was a very brief marriage, to the astonishment of all observers but the relief of both spouses. Henry infamously referred to his bride as a ‘Flanders mare’ and told courtiers and ambassadors that he could not perform his husbandly duties because of Anne’s appearance. Anne’s reaction to Henry’s physical charms was not recorded, but she agreed to an annulment very quickly and remained in England for the rest of her life. Henry was grateful for her cooperation and granted her a generous income and several homes, including Hever Castle. Anne enjoyed an independent lifestyle denied most women, often visiting Henry’s court as an honored guest. Her fondness for English ale and gambling were her only vices. Along with her successor as Henry’s wife, Catherine Howard, Anne remains a mysterious figure about whom too little is known. Had she and Henry remained married and had children, the course of English history might have changed dramatically. But the mysteries of physical attraction denied Anne her place on the throne, ended the brilliant career of Thomas Cromwell, and thrust the king into the arms of his ill-fated fifth queen, Catherine Howard.

‘So she came to Greenwich that night, and was received as queen. And the next day, being Sunday, the king’s grace kept a great court at Greenwich, where his grace with the queen offered at mass, richly dressed. And on Twelfth Night, which was Tuesday, the king’s majesty was married to the said queen Anne solemnly, in her closet at Greenwich, and his grace and she went publicly in procession that day, she having a rich coronet of stone and pearls set with rosemary on her hair, and a gown of rich cloth of silver, richly hung with stones and pearls, with all her ladies and gentlewomen following her, which was a goodly sight to behold.’ Anne of Cleves marries King Henry VIII, 1540


Anne of Cleves was Henry VIII’s fourth wife, though not his first choice for the role by far. His ambassadors searched out all the eligible heiresses of Europe and discovered their king had a very nasty marital reputation. The beautiful Christina of Milan was told of the king’s interest and wittily replied that if she had two heads she would risk it, but she had only one; Marie de Guise, who would later wed his nephew the King of Scots, replied much the same. The tragic tale of his second queen, Anne Boleyn, had kept European gossips busy for three years now.
The king’s poor and disrespectful treatment of his first wife (he was rumored to have bullied Katharine of Aragon to an unhappy death) and the quick end of his third (in his desperation for a healthy male heir, the king was rumored to have ordered Jane Seymour cut open, mangled and killed) only contributed to his low reputation.

One wouldn’t think a king would have too difficult a time finding a wife, but Henry VIII – who defied his contemporaries in so many other ways – did so in this respect as well.

In the end, it was religion which brought Anne of Cleves to England.

Henry had sought out Catholic princesses like Marie de Guise and his fifth wife would be a Catholic as well. Despite the Henrician ‘reformation’, England and its monarch remained a Catholic nation, albeit one in which supreme authority resided within the king rather than the pope. But Henry’s influential advisor, Thomas Cromwell, wanted England to ally herself with a Protestant nation that also rejected papal authority. Cromwell recognized the inexorable Catholic decline which was only just beginning to occur; the king’s assumption of supreme authority had merely been the first and most spectacular opening shot in a new religious war. Raised to be a churchman until his brother’s untimely death and deeply interested in theological debate, Henry VIII didn’t appreciate the Pandora’s Box of change he had opened. Cromwell, younger and more philosophically attuned to the attitudes of the rising middle class, did appreciate it. And he approved of it. The marriage to Anne of Cleves would openly ally England with a Protestant duchy, thus making the ‘reformation’ even more settled.

Henry VIII’s previous two marriages had been love matches; he had been quite independent in choosing women of his own court to marry. But this fourth marriage was necessarily a more diplomatic endeavor. In this, the king returned to the traditional role of kings searching for brides; he also understood that, since the Act of Supremacy in 1534, England stood dangerously isolated amongst the Catholic powers of Spain and France.

There was a gap of over two years between Jane Seymour’s death in October 1537 and Anne of Cleves’s arrival in England in late December 1539. Romantics believe the king waited such a long while to marry again because he loved Jane so much. Whether he loved her or not is beside the point, though there is ample evidence that he did. Henry actually waited so long (and he did so quite impatiently) because marriage negotiations took an unexpectedly long time. He actually sent out instructions regarding the search for a new wife barely a month after Jane’s death.

But the French princesses would not assemble for his perusal; they also made it clear they preferred other suitors. Likewise, other heiresses of Europe, some of which (like Christina of Milan) were related through tangled Hapsburg bloodlines to the king’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon, avoided the English ambassadors. And always, busy with his paperwork and contacts throughout Europe, Cromwell sought to arrange a Protestant alliance.

During all of these negotiations, one must not forget the king’s own views regarding his future wife. Henry was used to making his own decisions about the women in his life; he had high standards for female beauty and insisted his next wife be physically attractive. To that end, he told his ambassadors that no official overtures be made to certain ladies until he had approved of their looks. ‘The thing touches me too near,’ said the king, which was true enough but not the sort of thing kings were supposed to say. After all, he was not merely a man but a monarch; he was not supposed to marry for himself alone.

The ambassadors were often placed in embarrassing positions, commissioning portraits and sending back detailed descriptions of pock marks and hairstyles. Finally, the choices were narrowed down to four serious contenders – Marie de Guise, the widow of the duc de Longueville, was tall, beautiful and already proven in childbirth. As mentioned earlier, she chose the Scottish king James V. Henry then looked to her younger sister, but she also became otherwise engaged. Then there was the beautiful and intelligent Christina of Milan, just sixteen and one of the most sought-after heiresses of her generation. But the king of England was three times her age, fat and with a cruel reputation; she allowed herself to be painted by Holbein but did nothing to solve the problem of her being a great-niece of Katharine of Aragon. This impediment of affinity was a nice way to avoid the king of England.

The year of 1538 passed with no alliance. Henry had intended to use his fourth marriage as a balance between France and the Hapsburg empire. But it now seemed as if those two enemies might join forces against him in defense of the papal supremacy.

Suddenly Cromwell’s moment had arrived. The fourth serious contender was the sister of the duke of Cleves. The duke was not a Protestant himself but was allied through marriage with Saxony and the league of Lutheran princes; he was also at odds with the Hapsburg emperor Charles V over the duchy of Gelderland. The duchy of Cleves might one day rival the Netherlands in terms of trade and strategic advantage. The king was persuaded to send his favorite court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, to the German duchy. There he painted both Anne and her sister Amelia. Henry, who by this time was wearying of the endless rounds of negotiations (and whom Cromwell feared would soon turn to another English noblewoman), was interested in Anne. Negotiations began in earnest.

Anne was 24 years old, and had spent most of her life at the ducal court of Dusseldorf. She was well-educated in domestic skills but she was neither intellectual or flirtatious, both qualities the king admired. She had no musical skills, and music was one of Henry’s passions, and no interest in books. On the trip to England, her escort (perhaps sensing disaster ahead) tried to teach her the king’s favorite card games but Anne found them hopeless. It was not her fault, nor that of Henry VIII, but she was raised in a different country and, as things turned out, was not given time to acclimatize herself before the king rejected her.

Holbein's betrothal portrait of Anne of Cleves

Holbein’s betrothal portrait of Anne of Cleves

The issue of the betrothal portrait is the most fascinating part of this story. Holbein was a man of vast talent; his best portraits are simply astounding, beautifully composed and possessing great psychological insight. Look at the infamous portrait of Anne of Cleves to the left; it is clear that Holbein was more fascinated with the embroidery of her gown than with Anne’s personality. Her eyes are downcast and her features lost beneath the ornate trappings of her dress and hood.

There has long been a rumor that Henry was so enraged with the work, believing that Holbein had deliberately duped him with a false portrait, that he fired the painter. But that is not true. At the time, there were a few remarks that she did not look as well as the portrait asserted, but this was not unlikely – she had arrived in England after a long journey, perhaps the sea air did not agree with her skin? Or perhaps nervousness over the impending marriage caused a change in her complexion. We cannot know. But we do know that Henry’s ambassadors, only too aware of their master’s wishes, allowed the portrait to be sent as a fair likeness of Anne. Would they have dared to mislead their monarch in such a way? It’s not likely. Even Henry himself did not make much of the supposed difference between the painted and real Anne, aside from a comment to Cromwell that she was ‘nothing so fair as she had been reported.’ Often expectations can be idealistic, and that was possibly the case with Henry. Holbein continued to receive commissions from the English aristocracy before dying of plague in London in 1543.

What actually happened to drive Anne and Henry apart was a simple matter of attraction. Almost five hundred years later, we still don’t understand why certain people are physically attracted to each other; it simply happens. And it didn’t happen with Anne and Henry; in fact, quite the opposite occurred and the king was repulsed by her. Anne’s feelings on the matter are not known but Henry was no longer the strong, athletic king of years past; various injuries had reduced his exercise but not his appetite. He was increasingly obese and subject to its attendant problems.

There were other reasons for the king to look askance at this new bride. The foreign crisis which had caused Cromwell to seek an alliance with the Protestant duchy had passed; France and Spain had returned to their old enmity. England was no longer threatened by the Catholic powers. Also, the dispute over Gelderland had become more serious and Henry was not eager to fight the suddenly genial Spanish in defense of Anne’s brother. These issues were clear in mid-autumn 1539 but the marriage negotiations continued. By that point, they had a momentum of their own. A proxy marriage occurred and Anne left her home in late November. She reached Calais on 11 December; during the journey, she was addressed as Queen of England and treated accordingly. For a fortnight she waited at Calais until the weather settled. On 27 December she set out for Deal; it was a stormy crossing. It was on the first day of 1540 that the king, so impatient to see his new bride, entered her rooms in disguise. The scene was recorded by the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys:

And on New Years Day in the afternoon the king’s grace with five of his privy chamber, being disguised with mottled cloaks with hoods so that they should not be recognized, came secretly to Rochester, and so went up into the chamber where the said Lady Anne was looking out of a window to see the bull-baiting which was going on in the courtyard, and suddenly he embraced and kissed her, and showed here a token which the king had sent her for New Year’s gift, and she being abashed and not knowing who it was thanked him, and so he spoke with her. But she regarded him little, but always looked out the window…. and when the king saw that she took so little notice of his coming he went into another chamber and took off his cloak and came in again in a coat of purple velvet. And when the lords and knights saw his grace they did him reverence…. and then her grace humbled herself lowly to the king’s majesty, and his grace saluted her again, and they talked together lovingly, and afterwards he took her by the hand and led her to another chamber where their graces amused themselves that night and on Friday until the afternoon.

You can read the entire account at Primary Sources.

Henry had so far managed to conceal his dislike of Anne. There is reason to believe it was not an immediate revulsion; it was only after their wedding night, which the king declared he could not consummate, that word spread of his physical distaste. When Cromwell asked him the next morning, ‘How liked you the Queen?’, Henry replied, ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.’

On Twelfth Night (6 January), they were married in the ‘Queen’s Closet’ at Greenwich Palace, where Henry had also married his last bride. But the king was already looking for ways out. The very day of the ceremony, he told Cromwell, ‘My Lord, if it were not to satisfy the world, and my Realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.’ These were ominous words.

It is also possible that around this time, the king met Catherine Howard, cousin of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and now destined to be lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves when her Flemish attendants were dismissed. There is no doubt he felt an instant attraction to the lively, curvaceous Catherine.

Henry’s nobility, which had long chafed against the power and influence of Cromwell (much as they had against Wolsey), welcomed this opportunity to discredit him. The minister had pushed the king into the Cleves marriage, they reminded Henry gleefully. The king’s wrath turned against his former friend and Cromwell was executed on 28 July 1540, a decision Henry almost instantly regretted.

And so four things pushed Henry towards an annulment – his dislike of Anne, foreign policy changes, his attraction to Catherine Howard, and his courtiers’ hatred of Cromwell.

In the few days between the first meeting and the wedding, Cromwell and the king had found a potential way out, though the ceremony continued as planned. In the mid-1530s, Anne had briefly been engaged to Francis, duke of Lorraine. The English had not explored the issue too much, merely asking the government of Cleves if negotiations had ended. Now they looked more closely, with the king waiting impatiently for the right response. They suddenly discovered there was no dispensation from the precontract; Anne was still officially betrothed to Francis.

The ambassadors from Cleves were not unaware of Henry’s intent. They struggled to find the right documents but, on 26 February 1540, all they could produce was a report in their archives which stated that negotiations with Lorraine ‘were not going to take their natural course.’ No actual papers of dispensation could be produced since they did not exist. Thus Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was legally invalid from the start.

This is one of the more ironic moments in Henry’s checkered marital career. For once, his decision to end a marriage was legally valid and acceptable to all.

Meanwhile, the king made certain comments regarding Anne’s body and virtue which reveal him in a less than gentlemanly light. He told Anthony Denny, a member of the Privy Chamber, that she had ‘breasts so slack and other parts of body in such sort that [he] somewhat suspected her virginity.’ He further told his court physicians of the ‘hanging of her breasts and looseness of her flesh.’ Clearly, consummation of the marriage would not occur. The king bravely slept in the same bed at least every other night, yet he reported a month later that Anne ‘was still as good a Maid…. as ever her Mother bare her.’ This contradiction – she was not a virgin, yet was – was never mentioned.

What did Anne think of all this controversy?

Luckily for her, she had only a small knowledge of English and even less knowledge of the physical relationship between a man and wife. Her English ladies were astounded by her innocence. ‘When he [Henry] comes to bed, he kisses me and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me ‘Goodnight, sweetheart,’ and in the morning, kisses me, and biddeth me, ‘Farewell, darling.’ Is this not enough?’ asked Anne. No, she was told emphatically, it most certainly was not.

Anne’s ignorance casts a bad light on her mother, Duchess Maria, but it served to protect her feelings in England.

In the end, she ruled as queen for just four months; her last official appearance as the royal consort was during the May Day celebrations. She was never crowned, though even if the king had wished it, he could not have afforded such a ceremony. During those months, the Catholic nobility pushed their advantage against the Protestant Cromwell. The minister was too Lutheran for the king’s taste. Likewise, the Catholics encouraged the flirtations of young Catherine Howard, also a Catholic and the duke of Norfolk’s niece. Too young and ill-educated to be aware of how others used her as a pawn, she happily danced before the king and accepted his gifts. She was granted lands in April and the next month received rich gifts of fabric and jewelry. There is every possibility Catherine consummated her relationship with the king in May. How else can we explain the sudden race to rid himself of Anne?

The investigation into her precontract with Lorraine had been hastily done in January and February but for two months afterwards, the king merely lamented his fate. Parliament even confirmed Anne’s dowry in April. But suddenly in May there was a fierce new determination to annul the marriage; the king was no longer content to complain.

It is possible, and was rumored, that Henry had slept with Catherine and consequently there was a chance she was pregnant. Another male heir was never far from Henry’s mind. He was also deeply in love with his ‘Rose without a Thorn’, a somewhat pathetic attraction between an elderly (the king was almost 49 years old) man and a very young woman.

Engraving of Anne of Cleves, after Holbein

Engraving of Anne of Cleves, after Holbein

And so Anne had to go. She succumbed to the inevitable with surprising grace. Perhaps she was leery of the royal temper, or remembered the king’s marital history, or she simply didn’t care. Henry was very grateful. If she had not cooperated…. He knew, from the example of Katharine of Aragon, what could happen if a queen fought an annulment. He had no desire to alienate Cleves or engage in another lengthy legal and theological dispute. The king declared the marriage had not been consummated and, in any case, it was invalid from the start. Would Anne agree?

She did agree, most readily. She was shocked at first by the news; the king’s representatives visited her at Richmond Palace, where she had gone to escape the threat of plague. They brought an interpreter so there would be no misunderstanding. For her part, Anne quickly grasped the situation. She had no advisers and the king had already executed one wife and harassed another to death. Certainly she enjoyed the role of queen, was more fluent in English and had taken a liking to her new country; even the people cheered her on the occasional public ride between palaces. But did she dare fight Henry? Of course not.

The king’s servants wrote that she was ‘content always with your Majesty’, thus accepting Henry’s judgment, and in her letter of submission she signed herself ‘daughter of Cleves’, not ‘queen of England’. She agreed the marriage had never been consummated and signed all necessary documents. For his part, Henry was now prepared to be generous. Anne was to enjoy precedence over all the ladies in England, except the Queen and the king’s daughters. She was to be known as the king’s ‘good sister’ and received a very nice settlement of manors and estates, some of which belonged to Cromwell. This guaranteed her an income of 3000 pds a year, making her one of the wealthiest women in England. All this depended upon her remaining in England, and this Anne was more than willing to do. ‘The King’s highness whom I cannot have as a husband is nevertheless a most kind, loving and friendly father and brother,’ she wrote to her brother. Why should she return home in ignominy, dependent upon her brother’s generosity, when she could remain in England and live a comfortable, independent life?

Anne was perhaps as content with the arrangement as Henry. She grew to enjoy English ale and gambling; she spent large sums on gowns; she visited with the king’s children and occasionally the king himself. She was heard to remark that she was more attractive than Katharine Parr, to whom the king’s attention turned in 1543. In fact, upon Catherine Howard’s execution in 1542, rumors circulated that perhaps the king would take back his former bride. The French ambassador was suitably impressed with Anne’s handling of a delicate situation, observing that ‘all her affairs could never make her utter a word by which one might suppose that she was discontented.’

These rumors were understandable enough; Anne occupied a nebulous place in English society, unmarried but wealthy and independent. She was not an heiress but still honored as a royal. She answered to no male authority but that of the king, and he did not choose to trouble her. For the rest of her life, rumors spread about her lifestyle. For Anne’s part, she was content and happy and had little reason to be otherwise.

She made her last public appearance at Mary Tudor’s coronation in 1553, riding alongside the Princess Elizabeth. She died in 1557 of a ‘declining illness’ and was buried with appropriate honor at Westminster Abbey. Her will is perhaps most representative of her kindly character. In it, she remembered gifts to everyone who had ever served her, no matter how humble or long ago.

Anne had chosen as her motto ‘God send me well to keep’ and it proved apt, though in a way few could have predicted.

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