The politically motivated fourth bride of Henry VIII, German princess Anne of Cleves (1515–1557) was one of Henry's few wives to survive him. Their marriage was marred by a lack of attraction on the part of both parties, and was annulled after several months. Anne of Cleves lived out her life in England, where she received the honorary title of King's sister.
Anne of Cleves was born in Dusseldorf on September 22, 1515, to Johann III and Maria von Geldem. Her father ruled the Duchy of Cleves, a small territory in present day northwestern Germany, until his death in 1538, when Anne's brother, Wilhelm, became Duke. Growing up at the court, Anne was not educated in the manner typical of European royalty at the time. In Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII , Karen Lindsey commented that "Anne enjoyed doing needlework, but she was lacking in the range of courtly accomplishments expected of an English noblewoman—playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, and the ability to converse wittily in at least one or two languages besides English." Anne spoke no languages other than German, which would later prove a difficulty in her marriage to an English monarch. Despite these possible failings, Anne was considered a desirable marriage prospect due to her family's political holdings. Anne became betrothed to the Duke of Lorraine, but the engagement contract was formally cancelled and the couple did not marry. This left Anne's family free to seek other marriage prospects.
After the death of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537, the king mourned for some time. However, political necessity demanded he seek a new bride in the late 1530s. Despite being married three times, Henry had only one male heir, who was still in delicate infancy; another wife offered Henry the opportunity to produce at least one additional son. Henry and his advisor, Thomas Cromwell, initially considered a marriage alliance with several other European powers, including France and Denmark. These possibilities did not lead to betrothals, and Cromwell urged Henry to consider a German marriage.
By late 1538, tensions between Protestant England and the Catholic powers of Europe had increased. The Duke of Cleves was Protestant, and the family was allied through marriage to a powerful Lutheran ruler, the Elector of Saxony. This made an alliance with Cleves an attractive one, and in March of 1539, Henry sent envoys to Cleves to arrange a marriage with one of the two as-yet unmarried daughters of the ruling family.
Shortly prior to the arrival of the English envoys, Anne's brother, Wilhelm, had taken control of the duchy following the death of his father. Wilhelm was also Protestant, and welcomed Henry's envoys. However, as noted by Alison Weir in The Six Wives of Henry VIII , Wilhelm "had strong ideas about feminine modesty, and when his sisters were brought in to be introduced to [the English envoys], they were so well covered with 'a monstrous habit and apparel' that the ambassadors could see very little of their faces, let alone their figures." Cromwell sent renowned portrait painter Hans Holbein from England to paint both Anne and her sister, Amelia. Holbein's depiction of Anne presented her in what was presumably the best possible light; court painters at the time typically painted their subjects in a flattering manner.
Some today argue that Holbein did not overly misrepresent Anne. In Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII , David Starkey asserted that "[Holbein's] painting … highlight[s] the woman's gentle, passive character" rather than effectively altering her appearance. Regardless of the accuracy of Anne's portrait, the piece sufficiently pleased Henry, who appeared to be set on marriage negotiations with Cleves for Anne by that time.
When the envoys from Cleves and Saxony arrived to negotiate on Anne's behalf in mid-September of 1539, Cromwell took charge of the marriage negotiations. The greatest potential problem discussed during these negotiations was Anne's previous marriage contract with the Duke of Lorraine. Such a contract typically forbade other possible marriages, but since both Anne and the Duke had been below the age of consent at the time of the contract's inception, the current Cleves envoys maintained that the Lorraine contract did not carry the force of law. Since the English government hoped to complete the marriage between Anne and Henry, they accepted this explanation. The talks passed quickly, and on October 4, 1539, a marriage treaty between England and Cleves was signed.
The marriage negotiations completed, Anne now needed to travel to England herself to meet her soon-to-be groom. Travel arrangements were debated before Anne's route was determined, overland from Cleves to Calais on the northern coast of France, and then across the English Channel to Dover and on to London. Because of Anne's status as a future royal bride, her traveling party was extensive, with 263 attendants and 226 horses. The party's progress was slow, and excited much interest along the way. Having left Cleves in mid-November, Anne did not arrive in Calais until December 11, averaging a little over five miles a day. At Calais, the party was stalled by poor weather. Between her arrival on December 11 and a delayed departure for England on December 27, Anne spent time learning Henry's favorite card games and presumably working on her practically non-existent English.
After crossing the Channel accompanied by 50 royal ships, Anne endured an unpleasant winter journey from Dover. En route to London, Anne was to stop at Canterbury, Sittingbourne, and Rochester. The party arrived at Rochester on New Year's Eve, 1539, with the intent of arriving in London on January 3. Henry, however, had other plans. Having heard so much about his new bride, he determined to surprise her at Rochester.
On New Year's Day in 1540, Henry arrived unannounced and disguised at Anne's room in Rochester. She reportedly paid little attention to him until he left and returned again to reveal his true identify. What followed was by most accounts a somewhat awkward meeting. Henry left disappointed by Anne's appearance, claiming she was considerably less attractive than he had been led to believe by both his envoys' descriptions and the likenesses presented to him. Henry accused his advisors of presenting him with "a great Flanders mare," coining a phrase which has become tied to the enduring memory of Anne of Cleves.
Historians today question whether Anne was, in fact, as unattractive as Henry claimed her to be. It seems likely that Henry had built up an unrealistic vision of Anne in his mind, and the relatively uncultured, provincial princess had little hope of living up to his vision. Because Henry first came upon her unannounced and unexpected, she was not mentally or physically attired for the meeting and probably did not come across in a favorable way. Further, since Henry disguised himself, it seems unlikely Anne would have reacted to him in a favorable manner that might have endeared her to the king. By that time in his life, Henry was aging and overweight—probably not the type of suitor a young princess would have welcomed—at least not without knowledge of his political status. Karen Lindsey noted that Anne "can only have been dismayed by her first sight of this gross old man trying to act like an enthusiastic young swain. In the seconds it took to regain her composure, her horror must have been evident." The damage this horror would have done to the king's ego may be the reason for Anne's reputed ugliness rather than any actual physical cause.
The king hastened back to London, seeking a way to break the engagement with Anne before her still-planned arrival for their formal meeting on January 3. Anne's previ- ous marriage arrangements with the Duke of Lorraine were again discussed, and the representatives of Cleves again maintained that they could readily acquire proof that the marriage pre-contract had been properly and formally canceled. The embassy from Cleves convinced the English government of their honesty, and the decision was made to continue with the plans as already made rather than simply delay the inevitable and cause turmoil between England and Cleves.
Anne and Henry met in a grand ceremony at Blackheath, near London, on January 3. The two rode to Henry's palace at Greenwich together, exchanging formal pleasantries and seemingly on good terms. That evening Henry held a grand banquet in Anne's honor, all the while still trying to find a way out of the marriage. The wedding was planned for January 4, but was delayed while the king sought an escape from the contract. None was found, and the couple married on January 6, 1540. Henry was not resigned to the marriage, despite the political alliances that had driven him to pursue the match originally. The morning after the wedding, Henry informed his advisers that Anne's unattractiveness had left him unable to consummate the marriage. Because Henry still needed male heirs, this inability presented a serious problem to the English crown.
Changes in Europe's political alliances complicated the king's lack of interest in his new wife. The forces driving the German alliance shifted; Catholic powers began making political overtures to Henry, and his Protestant wife no longer helped him consolidate his position. As weeks passed, the marriage between Henry and Anne remained unconsummated, and Henry continued to ask his council to investigate Anne's previous marriage arrangements with the Duke of Lorraine as possible grounds for annulling the marriage. In April of 1540, Henry began an affair with Katherine Howard, a young English girl and a relative of Henry's previous wife, Anne Boleyn. The marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves appeared doomed.
By June of 1540, Anne had become aware of Henry's interests in Katherine Howard. Anne had herself admitted that her marriage remained unconsummated, and was presumably unsurprised when the king ordered her to the leave the court for Richmond Palace on June 20. On July 6, Anne was informed of proceedings to annul the marriage; on July 9, those proceedings were completed. Her entire marriage to Henry had lasted barely six months. Anne initially withheld her consent, but Henry offered her an arrangement that would allow her to remain in England under comfortable terms, in exchange for her acceptance of the annulment. Anne had the status of King's sister, use of a number of castles and estates, and a large annual allowance. Anne wrote to her brother, the Duke of Cleves, that she intended to remain in England, and accepted the state of affairs.
Settling into life after her annulment, Anne of Cleves possessed a degree of freedom remarkable for women of her day. Although Anne was technically free to remarry, as her previous marriage had never existed in the eyes of the church or the court, she did not do so. She became friends with her previous stepdaughter, Princess Mary—later Queen—and lived briefly again at court during Mary's reign. The remainder of Anne's life was a pleasant one; she survived Henry as well as his other five wives, dying in London on July 16, 1557. Anne received a royal funeral and was buried in an inconspicuous spot in Westminster Abbey.
Fraser, Antonia, The Wives of Henry VIII , Knopf, 1992.
Lindsey, Karen, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII , Addison-Wesley, 1995.
Starkey, David, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII , HarperCollins, 2003.
Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII , Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.