Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Seven Surprising Facts About Anne of Cleves

by Nancy Bilyeau

Everyone thinks they know the story of the fourth wife of Henry VIII.  Anne of Cleves was the German princess whom he married for diplomatic reasons, but when the widower first set eyes on his 24-year-old bride-to-be, he was repulsed.

With great reluctance, Henry went through with the wedding, but after six months he’d managed to get an annulment and the unconsummated marriage was no more. Although Anne of Cleves had behaved impeccably as queen, she accepted her new status as “sister” and lived a quiet, comfortable existence in England until 1557, when she became the last of the wives of King Henry VIII to die.

And so Anne has either been treated as a punchline in the serio-comic saga of Henry VIII’s wives or someone who was smart enough to agree to a divorce, trading in an obese tyrant for a rich settlement. But the life of the queen is more complex than the stereotypes would have you believe.

1.) Anne’s father was a Renaissance thinker.  The assumption is that Anne of Cleves grew up in a backward German duchy. But her father, Duke John, was a patron of Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance scholar. 

The Cleves court was fair, with low taxes for its citizens. And the duke made great efforts to steer a calm course through the religious uproar engulfing Germany in the 1520s and 1530s, earning the name John the Peaceful. He died in 1538, so his must have been the greatest influence on Anne, rather than her more bellicose brother, William.  In Germany, highborn ladies were not expected to sing or play musical instruments, but Anne would have been exposed to the moderate political ideals espoused by William the Peaceful.

 2.) Anne was born a Catholic and died a Catholic. Her mother, Princess Maria of Julich-Berg, had traditional religious values and brought up her daughters as Catholics, no matter what Martin Luther said. Their brother, Duke William, was an avowed Protestant, and the family seems to have moved in that direction when he succeeded to his father’s title.

Anne of Cleves was accommodating when it came to religion. She did not hesitate to follow the lead of her husband Henry VIII, who was head of the Church of England. But in 1553, when her step-daughter Mary took the throne, she asked that Anne become a Catholic. Anne agreed. When she was dying, she requested that she have “the suffrages of the holy church according to the Catholic faith.”

Duke William

3.) Her brother had a marriage that wasn’t consummated either.  
Duke William was not as interested in peace as his father. What he wanted more than anything else was to add Guelders to his country—but the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had other ideas. William took the bold step of a French marriage so that France would support him should it come to war.

His bride was Jeanne D’Albret, the daughter of Marguerite of Angouleme and niece of King Francis. The “high-spirited” Jeanne was only 12 and did not want to marry William. She was whipped by her family and physically carried to the altar by the Constable of France.  But when Charles V took hold of Guelders, France did nothing to help William. The four-year-old marriage was annulled—it had never been consummated. Her next husband was Antoine de Bourbon, whom she loved. Their son would one day become Henry IV, king of France.

Holbein's portrait of Amelia of Cleves.
4.) Hans Holbein painted her accurately. The question of Anne’s appearance continues to baffle modern minds. In portraits she looks attractive, certainly prettier than Jane Seymour.  A French ambassador who saw her said she was “of middling beauty and of very assured and resolute countenance.”

It is still unclear how hard Thomas Cromwell pushed for this marriage, but certainly he was not stupid enough to trick his volatile king into wedding someone hideous. The famous Hans Holbein was told to paint truthful portraits of Anne and her sister Amelia. After looking at them, Henry VIII chose Anne. Later the king blamed people for overpraising her beauty but he did not blame or punish Holbein.

5.) Henry VIII never called her a “Flanders Mare.” The English king’s attitude toward his fourth wife was very unusual for a 16th century monarch. Royal marriages sealed diplomatic alliances, and queens were expected to be pious and gracious, not sexy.

Henry wanted more than anything to send Anne home and not marry her, which would have devastated the young woman. He was only prevented from such cruelty by the (temporary) need for this foreign alliance. But while he fumed to his councilors and friends, he did not publicly ridicule her appearance. The report that Henry VIII cried loudly that she was a “Flanders mare” is not based on contemporary documents.

6.) Anne of Cleves  wanted to remarry Henry VIII. After the king’s fifth wife, young Catherine Howard, was divorced and then executed for adultery, Anne wanted to be queen again. Her brother, William, asked his ambassador to pursue her reinstatement. But Henry said no. When he took a sixth wife, the widow Catherine Parr, Anne felt humiliated and received medical treatment for melancholy. Her name came up as a possible wife for various men, including Thomas Seymour, but nothing came of it. She never remarried or left England.

7.) Anne is the only one of Henry’s wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Henry himself is buried at Windsor with Jane Seymour, but Anne is interred in the same structure as Edward the Confessor and most of the Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart rulers. In her will she remembered all of her servants, and bequeathed her best jewels to the stepdaughters she loved, Mary and Elizabeth.


Read Nancy Bilyeau's newsletter for more links to more nonfiction stories about history and for first look at new short stories, giveaways, and upcoming novels. Nancy's spy novel set in the 18th century, The Blue, was a finalist for the People's Choice Book Award in 2020. To subscribe to the monthly newsletter, sign up here.

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical mystery trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England and published in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick for 2012 and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award.

Anne of Cleves is a character in The Chalice and the third book in the trilogy, The Tapestry, which was published by Simon & Schuster in March 2015. The Tapestry is a finalist for the RWA Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense.

To learn more about Nancy's books, go to www.nancybilyeau.com


  1. Such colorful facts to fill in the little I knew about Anne. Thanks!

  2. fascinating...we never hear this side of the story!

  3. This is lovely. I have always had empathy for Anne of Cleves. I was suprised when I learned that Holbein had also sought to paint Marie de Guise's sisters Louise and Renee on the same European wife shopping tour" but the Guise sisters were kept hidden away. I did not know that she left her jewels to Mary and Elizabeth.

  4. This is lovely. I have always had empathy for Anne of Cleves. I was suprised when I learned that Holbein had also sought to paint Marie de Guise's sisters Louise and Renee on the same European wife shopping tour" but the Guise sisters were kept hidden away. I did not know that she left her jewels to Mary and Elizabeth.

  5. She was one smart cookie to have survived a marriage to Henry VIII.

    1. And she wanted to remarry him. I try to remember daily the gift of unanswered prayers

  6. I've read various "takes" on how/why Henry disliked Anne of Cleves, but of his six wives, she certainly came out better than any of those he loved to death. Would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall if she ever discussed her royal hubs with a trusted girlfriend.

    1. I think it was because she wounded his pride--badly. When Henry went to meet Anne for the first time, he decided to play one of his pranks.

      Katharine of Aragon had always played along and pretended not to recognize him when he came to her rooms dressed as a highwayman and demanded to dance with the queen. He seems to have thought it would be romantic to play the same joke with Anne, but no one had told her the fat, roughly-dressed oaf who barged into her room and tried to kiss her was the king.

      She, naturally, was repulsed, and turned away to ignore him in favor of watching the bear-baiting outside her window. For the first time, Henry might have seen disgust on a woman's face. For him, that had to be a very jarring experience. He was not a man used to rejection, or at seeing the naked truth on a courtier's face.

      Once she realized who he was, Anne was very contrite and gracious, but the damage had already been done. Henry may have decided if his new wife was repulsed by him, he was going to be repulsed by HER.

      Cromwell seems to have worked hard to convince him to go through with the union instead of taking the extraordinarily step of rejecting her and risking a major diplomatic crisis, or war. Cromwell probably thought, reasonably enough, that Henry could grow to like her once he got over his pique. After all, there was nothing wrong with her. She was pretty enough, well-mannered, and had all the requisite queenly virtues. She was also very intelligent, but no one knew that yet. (Henry might have counted that as a strike against her, if he had!)

      But Cromwell underestimated the depth of the wound to Henry's pride. It may have been why Henry couldn' consummate the union, remembering that look of repulsion on her face. He decided she was nasty, anyway. Her breasts were droopy and she smelled bad. (As if Henry, with his infected leg, smelled like a rose garden himself!) One wonders what poor Anne must have thought, being pawed briefly, then rejected. When her maids told her "there must be more" in order for her to give Henry his "spare" she said she was glad she didn't know anything more, which probably gives us a clue into her emotional state at the time.

      I think her "melancholy" at being rejected by Henry after he killed Katheryn Howard for not being a virgin was mostly a flattering ploy to protect herself. I don't believe any woman with a brain would have WANTED to be Henry's wife at that point. (Poor Kateryn Parr had no choice when his attention turned to her. Rejecting the king could be a very risky proposition.) And so Anne had her brother ask about her being re-instated, knowing Henry was unlikely to say yes and then pretending to be heartbroken when he said no. It pleased him and flattered his ego, allowing her to stay in England under his protection as his "sister," rather than be sold in another dynastic marriage, or forced to wed one of his courtiers. His real sisters didn't fare so well!

    2. To my mind it would have been easy for William to change sisters selling the idea that Anne was Amelia to Hans that painter and therefore ridding himself of the older less good looking sister. He could then do a deal with a rich Duke for his other sister. It was recorded that William court was sparsely furnished and Anne was show only with a veil whilst her sister was full faced. Maybe it was the elder girl that arrived in England. From day one Henry was heard to be unhappy with his proposed bride. Then The bread crumbs in the bed sheets and the farting at table may well have been a plot. Her wish fora pension solved all matters and she was given a house and servants too. I think she was a clever agent and a nice person acting for her life. All Europe knew Henry of England as a head hunter even William is Germany she came fully aware of the danger ahead and acted well to win. The Royal bull then forced my ancestor into marriage but she survived the ordeal.

    3. Henry would never have dis-valued Anne for her intelligence. He valued learning and intelligence in the women of his household, his mother sister and daughters were all very smart and educated and it was expected of high born women. It was one of the things he prized in Anne Boleyn. If he'd let himself get to know Anne of Cleves that trait would've made quite a difference

    4. William was devoted to Anne and she basically managed the household. She was hardly unwanted by her brother

    5. Anne was the elder and Amelia the younger and I doubt William used deceit as it could have meant war. Anne was intelligent and proved it, gracious and her appearance had nothing to do with Henry's rejection. He wanted Christine of Milan and he had too high expectations. They didn't get on and Henry couldn't do it. He fell in love with Katherine Howard while married to Anne and he didn't want to go on with the wedding. She didn't fart at table and she didn't have poor manners. Cleves was only part of the territory ruled by her brother and she was a Catholic raised so by her mother.

  7. I , also, think she looked prettier in her portrait, than a few of Henry's other wives.

  8. I think too much speculation concerning Henry's rejection of Anna is unprofitable; rather, I prefer to take Henry at his word: he simply did not find Anna to his particular taste. Notwithstanding, I'm convinced Henry did come to appreciate Anna, lest he certainly would not have bestowed property to her so generously merely because she did not contest the annulment, nor would Anna have ever been invited back to court. Moreover, Henry seems to have held Anna in particular regard even though time came when doing so was no longer necessary for political reasons. Also, that Anne would provide for Mary and Elizabeth in her will suggests a somewhat closer relationship to Henry and his issue than is otherwise documented.

  9. The very fact that Anne of Cleves was very very fond of Henry's daughters , Mary and Elizabeth, and that she bequethed her prized jewels to them both, confirms that Anne , after coming to England , had become totally involved with life at the Tudor court; given a chance , she would have loved to remarry Henry, after he became a widower ( ! ! )
    Even after the annulment , Anne was invited often to Court particularly for Christmas and New Year, and was loved and respected by all..

  10. I reccomend Margaret Campbell Barnes' novel, "My Lady of Cleves," for an enjoyable fictional portrait.

    Have also read, somewhere else, that Anne's one request of Henry after the annulment settlement, was that Elizabeth be allowed to visit her at Richmond from time to time, because "I so wish I had been her mother." No idea if it's true, but seems in character.

  11. I like Anne of CLeves. She is an amazing woman

  12. I think I read Amelia refused to be considered
    it is said she was in love and committed to a commoner

  13. Anne of Cleves was intelligent, had good common sense, was very much involved with her step children, became close friends with Henry after her marriage was annulled and very rich. She was charming and kind and compassionate. She took up music, cards, dancing, hunting and was a regular visitor at Court. She is the only Queen of Henry Viii buried in Westminster Abbey at the cost of her friend and step daughter, Queen Mary I

  14. It is CRAZY how much her picture looks like the actress who played Mary in the series Tutors

  15. I recommend reading My Lady of Cleves by, Margaret Campbell Barnes. It is a very interesting take on Anne of Cleves ...even suggests that Anne fell in "love or fatuation" with Hans Holbein during the time he visited Cleves to paint her portrait.


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