Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Flanders Mare: Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s Fourth Wife

by Lauren Gilbert

         The life of the Henry VIII and his marital struggles has been a source of fascination to most people interested in history.   (It’s like a train wreck; even if you don’t want to look, you just can’t help yourself.)  I have always felt a great deal of interest in, and sympathy for, Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife.
         Anne of Cleves is frequently dismissed with few words.  Her personal appearance has been dismissed as unattractive, a “great Flanders mare” who was too repulsive to touch.   Because she did not speak English, and was not educated in the music and literature so popular at Henry’s court, Anne is frequently considered not particularly intelligent.  Some views show her as of little prestige or import.  Her time as queen is often considered a blip between tragedies.   There is considerably more to Anne of Cleves than a serio-comic figure shunted off to the side.
         Anne of Cleves was born September 22, 1515 in Dusseldorf, Cleves, Germany.  Her mother was Marie of Julich and her Father John III, Duke of Cleves.  Anne actually comes of very prestigious stock:  she was descended from Edward I of England and had connections to Louis XII of France and the Dukes of Burgundy.  (Only Catherine of Aragon had a better pedigree among Henry’s wives.)  John III and his family were in fact Catholic.  He was influenced by Erasmus and had moderate views for reform.  Anne of Cleves was not a Lutheran.  She was unofficially betrothed at the age of 12 to Francois, the heir of the Duke of Lorraine, but the betrothal was never formally announced, and eventually it was considered cancelled.  She was raised as was customary in her German homeland.  She spoke only German, and her upbringing was focused more on domestic skills than intellectual attainments.  However, it is known that she could read and write, and there is no indication that she was unintelligent or uneducated.
         After Jane Seymour’s death, when Henry did decide to look for a wife, he started what amounted to a royal beauty pageant.  After being rebuked by the king of France when he refused to get a group of suitable candidates together in Calais so Henry could look them over, Henry was forced to settle for portraits.  The lovely portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the portraits considered. 

          This portrait shows a serene young woman with an attractive oval face, and a tiny waist.  Based on Henry’s disdain, it has frequently been dismissed as “flattering” at best.  However, this does not appear to be a fair assessment.  Other contemporary portraits of Anne exist, and show basically the same features.  A gallery on TudorHistory.org contains other images that coincide with Holbein’s portrait.  You can visit this gallery HERE. 
         There is no doubt that the marriage contract between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves was a political match.  In response to the treaty between the king of France and the Emperor negotiated by Pope Paul III, Cromwell looked for a political counterbalance, and Cleves seemed to fill that bill.  Anne’s sister, Sybille (or Sibylla) was married to John Frederick, the Elector of Saxony and head of the Protestant Confederation of Germany.  John III, Anne’s father, was therefore father-in-law to a powerful Protestant leader; he was also in bad odor with the Emperor himself over the duchy of Gelderland.  The marriage treaty included agreements of mutual defense against the Emperor and offered protection to both England and Cleves.  The religious views in England and Cleves were actually quite compatible, as Henry’s church was still basically Catholic (aside from disavowing papal authority) and John was interested in reform of the existing Catholic Church in Cleves.  These advantages, combined with Holbein’s attractive likeness, tipped the balance.  Henry’s yearning for love and romance did the rest.   The betrothal was formalized October 6, 1539, not long after the portrait was delivered.
         So what happened?  How did Anne of Cleves come to be regarded so poorly?  I believe the whole thing comes down to a pivotal issue: the meeting at Rochester.  After the proxy marriage, Anne of Cleves landed at Dover on December 27, 1539.  She arrived in Rochester January 1, 1540. Henry, in full romantic frenzy, could no longer wait for the ceremonial meeting.  He rushed off to Rochester in disguise to meet Anne.  He was expecting an immediate romantic recognition and a burst of mutual overwhelming passion.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.  When he was taken to meet Anne, apparently his disguise was too good.  She didn’t recognize him, and paid little attention to him until he showed her a token purportedly from the king and then embraced her.  Imagine what she thought about being accosted by an unknown, fat, elderly man.   Henry went off and changed; upon his return, his lords and knights made appropriate obeisance.  Anne finally realized it was him and responded appropriately, but the damage was done.   His romantic bubble burst and his pride was injured, so he became angry and declared “I like her not”.  (She probably wasn't looking her best either.  Travel was quite arduous at the time, and the winter weather can't have helped.)  When they married January 6, 1540 at Greenwich, they retired together, only to discover that he could not consummate it.  That put the seal of doom on this relationship.  Of course, it had to be Anne’s fault.
         At this point, Henry impugned her honor, implying that she repulsed him because he could tell she was not a virgin after feeling her body.  (Yet he later declared that he left her as much a maiden as when her mother bore her.)  He could not accept that he was no longer handsome Prince  Hal, able to make any woman he wanted fall in love at first sight, nor that his body was no longer able to perform as desired.  Therefore, she became the scapegoat.  Not content with deriding her appearance and her honor, he also said she smelled.  All in all, Henry showed himself as a spiteful, angry man, unwilling to take any responsibility, and ready to do whatever it took to get out of the marriage.
         Henry and Anne put a good face on things, and continued to sleep together at least at intervals.  However, the marriage was apparently never successfully consummated.  There is a theory that Anne did not know that her marriage was unconsummated, that she was ignorant of the marriage relationship.  That does not seem reasonable to me.  Henry VIII was not exactly a young woman’s dream at this point.  Between his age, obesity and health issues (including the ulcerated leg) it is very probable that she did not find him attractive either.  The bottom line is that these two people were married, but did not have any spark of attraction between them.  (Is it possible that Henry’s rancor increased because he could tell that Anne did not want him?  A further blow to his ego?  I think so.)
         Meanwhile, the political climate had changed again.  France and Spain were no longer getting along.  Henry did not want to have to provide defense for Cleves in that dispute with the emperor.  The advantages of the alliance with Cleves had dissipated.  When combined with Henry’s new passion for Catherine Howard, the end of the marriage was inevitable.
         Although she was not crowned, Anne did serve as queen in Henry’s court.  By all accounts, she was dignified, tactful, and sympathetic.  She was a kind stepmother to Elizabeth and Edward, and became a friend to Mary Tudor.  In fact, it appears the only documented quarrel she had with  Henry concerned Mary.  She enjoyed, and was apparently very good at, her public role as queen, achieving a level of popularity with the people.  Ironically, she was especially popular with the Protestant subjects, who assumed she was Lutheran and would bring Protestantism to England.  There is every reason to believe that Anne may have become a successful and respected queen of England.  Tutoring in English language and customs had begun when she and Henry were betrothed; it would seem that she was settling in fairly well.  In any case, her role as queen ended almost as soon as it began, annulled by mutual agreement in July of 1540.
         The annulment rested on a precontract issue (Anne’s unofficial betrothal to Francois, for which no documents confirming the cancellation were presented) and the non-consummation.  Anne agreed with the annulment, signed the necessary paperwork, and wrote to her brother indicating her agreement with the situation.  (One can’t help but wonder if Anne’s willingness to agree to the annulment was an unalloyed pleasure to Henry.  Maybe a little struggle to keep him would have soothed his ego!)  However, in exchange for her agreement, Henry gave her a generous settlement, an excellent place at court, and allowed her to maintain her relationship with his children, including Mary Tudor with whom she had a warm friendship.  Ironically, it appears that the new relationship between Anne and Henry became amicable and they enjoyed something of a friendship after all the smoke cleared.  This entire episode speaks well of Anne’s courage, common sense, and tact.  She was, in fact, the only one of Henry’s unwanted wives to get out of marriage comfortably and actually forge a civil relationship with him after the fact.  (Certainly, Thomas Cromwell, the author of her marriage, and others paid the ultimate price.)
           After Henry’s unfortunate marriage to Catherine Howard ended, there were rumors that Anne of Cleves might be brought back as Henry’s queen.  Many of these rumors seemed to have their roots with Anne’s family and supporters.  Nothing indicates a serious desire on Anne of Cleves’ part to remarry Henry.  (One would have to ask if jumping back into that frying pan would have been worth it!) Her financial settlements were contingent upon her staying in England during Henry’s lifetime, so there was no advantage to a return to Cleves.  Later, the possibility was discussed but nothing came to pass.  Anne remained In England, and appears to have made a comfortable life.
          After Henry’s death, Anne’s income suffered due to inflation, and she was not accorded the respect she became accustomed to receiving during Henry’s lifetime after Edward became king.  She and Mary continued their friendship and, after Mary became queen, Anne returned to court and apparently involved herself with Mary’s marriage negotiations (with a different candidate in mind: Archduke Ferdinand, the emperor’s nephew).  The disappointment of many, including Anne, when Mary selected Philip of Spain, combined with the Wyatt Rebellion, caused difficulties for Anne.  Mary suspected her of being a conspirator because of her continued fondness for Elizabeth and her associations with her brother William, now the Duke of Cleves.  Even though there was nothing linking Anne to the conspiracy, no guilt established, Anne’s relationship with Mary suffered a blow.  Although Mary remained polite and corresponded, Anne was not invited back to court.
         In her later years, Anne lived in some obscurity, and experienced continual financial difficulties as her income and support were curtailed and her properties exchanged (often against her will).  She is known to have been in ill health by the end of April 1557.  She made her will July 12, 1557, a generous will leaving bequests to Mary and Elizabeth, her family, and to members of her household past and current.   She also left bequests for the poor.  She died July 15, 1557 at Chelsea Old Manor, having outlived Henry and Catherine Parr.  Queen Mary allowed her full royal honors, including burial in a tomb in Westminster Abbey.
         Henry’s fourth wife clearly suffered from bad press.   His mean and spiteful comments about her looks were clearly the result of his own damaged ego, in my mind, and have colored accounts of her life to her detriment.   As best I can tell, she was an attractive, kind, intelligent young woman, thrust into an impossible situation.  That she got out of it with her head, an income, and a place at court speaks volumes about her. 
Norton, Elizabeth.  ANNE OF CLEVES Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride.  2010: Amberley Publishing, Stroud.
Saaler, Mary.  ANNE OF CLEVES Fourth Wife of Henry VIII.  1995: The Rubicon Press, London.
Starkey, David.  SIX WIVES The Queens of Henry VIII.  2004: Vintage (Random House), London.
Encyclopedia.com  JOHN CANNON. "Anne of Cleves." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. 17 Nov. 2012.  http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Anne_of_Cleves.aspx
EnglishHistory.net  “Anne of Cleves.”  (no author or date posted shown.) http://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/cleves.html
“English Ancestry of the Six Wives, descent from Edward I of England.”  Posted by Golden Aged on  12/14/2011. (Based on Hampton Court pedigrees in stained glass windows.) http://goldenagedregina.blogspot.com/2011/12/english-ancestry-of-six-wives-descent.html
Luminarium.org  “Anne of Cleves (c. 1515-1557).”  Excerpted from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 69.  Luminarium-Encyclopedia Project: England Under the Tudors: Queen Anne of Cleves 1515-1557.  http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/anneofcleves.htm
TudorPlace.com  “About Anne of Cleves.” (no author or date posted shown.) http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/aboutAnneofCleves.htm
TudorHistory.org  “Anne of Cleves.”  (no author or date posted shown.)  http://tudorhistory.org/cleves/     
 Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel.  A member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, she lives in Florida with her husband.  Her next novel is due out later this year.


  1. I especially enjoyed this vignette of Anne of Cleves. While my research has been ancillary to other issues, what little bit of reading has lead me to suspect what you share with us in this enjoyable peace.

  2. I didn't know much about this wife, but surviving a separation from Henry and getting a settlement does seem a singular achievement.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I agree! Anne's my favorite of Henry's wives. She seems to have been a rather good egg, and IMO Henry was a damn fool to dump her. (Although it was undoubtedly a lucky break for her that he did.)

  4. Harry was dangerous and fickel, I think she got the best of the deal.


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