This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Anne of Cleves has gone down in history as the ugly wife. Henry VIII was so revolted when he first clapped eyes on her that he immediately instructed his lawyers to get him out of the marriage. Thereafter, his poor, spurned fourth queen retreated quietly into obscurity to hide her face from the world, while Henry joyfully married the infinitely more desirable Catherine Howard.
Anne, who was born 500 years ago, was Henry’s wife for just six months, making her the shortest reigning of all his queens. And so she has been dismissed as little more than a blip in the history of England’s most-married monarch.
The true story of Henry VIII’s fourth wife is entirely different to this humiliating fiction. Anne may not have been to the king’s liking, but how she responded proves that she was far from being the hapless victim of legend. In fact, she can justifiably claim to have been the most successful of all Henry’s wives.
Anne, daughter of the late Duke of Juliers-Cleves, Johann III, and sister of his successor, Wilhelm, had first been mooted as a potential wife for the English king in the closing weeks of 1537, soon after the death of his beloved third wife, Jane Seymour. Anne was then 22 years of age, and had already been used as a pawn in the international marriage market when she had been betrothed to François, heir to the duchy of Lorraine, in 1527. This had come to nothing, leaving her free to marry elsewhere.
John Hutton, ambassador to Mary of Hungary, who had originally made the suggestion, admitted he had heard no great praise of her beauty. Such a recommendation hardly motivated Henry to pursue the scheme any further, and it was not until early 1539 that the idea was resurrected. This time Henry gave it more credence because he desperately needed new allies.
His two great rivals, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and French king Francis I, had forged a treaty, and to make matters worse, a short while later Pope Paul III had reissued the bull of excommunication against the English king. Although the then Duke of Juliers-Cleves, Johann (Anne’s father) was no Protestant, he – like Henry – had expelled papal authority from his domain. An alliance with Cleves would therefore provide a major boost to the Reformation in England, and it was for this reason that Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, championed it so enthusiastically.
In March 1539, Henry finally agreed that negotiations could begin. Cromwell was quick to relay reports of Anne’s beauty, assuring his sovereign: “Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body… she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon.” But Henry was taking no chances. He dispatched the renowned portrait painter Hans Holbein to Cleves so that he could see what he was letting himself in for.
The king was delighted with the result. Holbein’s portrait showed a pretty young woman with fair hair, a doll-like face, delicate eyes, mouth and chin, and a demure, maidenly expression. The match was confirmed and a treaty was signed on 4 October 1539. A few weeks later, Anne embarked upon her journey to England.
“I like her not!”
On New Year’s Eve, Anne arrived at a stormy, windswept Rochester Castle in Kent. The next day, in true chivalric tradition, Henry hastened to greet her in disguise. He was horrified with what he saw. “I like her not! I like her not!” he shouted at Cromwell when the meeting was over. It seemed that Anne had been rather flattered by her portrait. In contrast to the petite stature of Henry’s first three wives, she was tall, big-boned and strong-featured. Her face was dominated by a large nose that had been cleverly disguised by the angle of Holbein’s portrait, and her skin was pitted with the marks of smallpox.
To be fair to Anne, however, until Henry expressed such a strong aversion towards her, there had been no other disparaging accounts of her appearance. The famous nickname of ‘Flanders Mare’ was only coined by Bishop Gilbert Burnet in the late 17th century. Most of the contemporary accounts before her marriage had been complimentary. Even Henry was forced to admit that she was “well and semelye [seemly]”. But the fact that she nevertheless repelled him ensured that Anne would henceforth be known as the ‘ugly wife’.
History has thus served a great injustice on Anne, particularly as her betrothed could hardly have been described as an attractive prospect himself by the time of their marriage. Incapacitated by an ulcerated jousting wound in his leg, Henry’s girth had increased at an alarming rate. When he became king he had been a trim 32 inches around the waist; by the time he met Anne of Cleves it was closer to 52 inches.
A contemporary depiction reveals the king as a grotesque figure. His beady eyes and tiny, pursed mouth are almost lost in the layers of flesh which surround them. He appears to have no neck, and his enormous frame extends beyond the reaches of the canvas. “The king was so stout that such a man has never been seen,” reported a visitor to court. “Three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet.” On balance, Anne had far more reason for complaint than her prospective husband.
However abhorrent his new bride might be to Henry, there was no going back. It would have caused a major diplomatic incident if he had reneged on the treaty, and England could ill-afford to lose allies. The wedding duly took place on 6 January 1540, and the king now had to do his duty by consummating it.
Thanks to the events that happened afterwards, a detailed account of the wedding night exists among the records of Henry’s reign. The king had run his hands all over his new wife’s body, which had so repelled him that he had found himself incapable of doing any more.
The following morning, he told Cromwell that he found Anne even more abhorrent than when he had first beheld her, bemoaning: “She is nothing fair, and have very evil smells about her.” He went on to claim that there had been certain “tokens” to suggest that she was no maid, not least “the looseness of her breasts”, which he had apparently examined closely. As a result, he confided to a manservant, his bride was “indisposed to excite and provoke any lust” in him and he “could never be stirred to know her carnally”. He had therefore “left her as good a maid as I found her”.
For her part, Anne gave every appearance of joy in her new husband. But despite Henry’s claims, she was clearly a virgin and had no idea what was involved in consummation. When the marriage was but a few days old, she confided to her attendants that she believed she might be pregnant, telling them: “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?” The Countess of Rutland retorted: “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York.”
Henry’s inability to consummate the marriage has been traditionally assigned to his revulsion at his new bride. But it is at least equally possible that he was impotent. He was nearly twice his young bride’s age and had become increasingly immobile in recent years. There had been no talk of a mistress for some time. This was not the sort of thing that he would have wished to be publicly known. Kings, even more than ordinary men, prided themselves on their sexual potency: it was, after all, vital for the continuation of their dynasty. Henry was a little too eager to boast to his physician, Dr Butts, that although he could not bring himself to have sex with Anne, he had had “two wet dreams”.
The happy couple?
To the outside world, everything was as it should be. Anne wrote to her family, assuring them that she was very happy with her husband. Meanwhile, Henry made sure that he appeared in public with his new queen as often as could be expected. A few days after the wedding, a celebratory tournament was held in Greenwich. The contemporary chronicler Edward Hall recorded the event and praised the new queen so effusively that nobody would guess there was anything amiss. “She was appareiled after the English fashion, with a French hood, which so set forth her beauty and good visage, that every creature rejoiced to behold her.”
But Anne lacked the courtly refinements that her new husband was used to. The education of noble ladies in Cleves was very different to England. Being accomplished at music, dancing and languages was seen as trivial – “an occasion of lightness” – and ladies were instead taught the more useful skills of needlework and household management. The English ambassador to Cleves described Anne as being of “lowly and gentle conditions”, and noted that “she occupieth her time most with the needle”. No matter how affable and eager to please the new queen was, her awkwardness rendered her an embarrassment in the sophisticated world of the Tudor court.
There was another reason why Henry was desperate to be rid of his fourth wife. By the spring of 1540, he had fallen madly in love with Catherine Howard, a pretty young lady-in-waiting in his wife’s household.
This spurred him into action. Pressure was brought to bear on Thomas Cromwell, who had been arrested for treason and was now obliged to give evidence from the Tower in support of the annulment.
On 24 June Anne was ordered by the council to remove herself from court and go to Richmond Palace. A short while later, Anne learned that her marriage to the English king had been called into question because Henry was concerned about her prior betrothal to the Duke of Lorraine, and had therefore refrained from consummating the union.
An ecclesiastical inquiry was duly commissioned, and a delegation of councillors arrived at Richmond in early July to seek Anne’s co-operation. Shocked by this sudden turn of events, Anne fainted. When she had sufficiently recovered herself, she steadfastly refused to give her consent to the inquiry.
Before long, though, perhaps fearing a similar fate to Catherine of Aragon or, worse still, Anne Boleyn, Anne resolved to take a pragmatic approach. The marriage was duly declared illegal on 9 July, and the annulment was confirmed by parliament three days later. Anne wrote a letter of submission to the king, referring to “your majesty’s clean and pure living with me”, and offering herself up as his “most humble servant”.
Anne was to be richly rewarded for her compliance. She was given possession of Richmond Palace and Bletchingly Manor for life, together with a considerable annual income. This was further boosted by her right to keep all of her royal jewels, plate and goods in order to furnish her new properties. Moreover, she was to be accorded an exalted status as the king’s ‘sister’, taking precedence over all of his subjects, with the exception of his children and any future wife that he might take.
Henry later granted her some additional manors, including Hever Castle, the former home of Anne Boleyn. This was to become her principal residence, and she lived very comfortably there on the fringes of public life. It says much for Anne’s strength of character that she managed to accept and adapt to her new life with dignity.
Henry and Catherine Howard were married at Oatlands Palace in Surrey on 28 July 1540. But the king’s joy was short-lived. Catherine was a flighty and flirtatious girl, some 32 years younger than her husband, and she soon began an illicit affair with Thomas Culpepper, a gentleman of the privy chamber. When her adultery was discovered, she went to the block in February 1542.
Just good friends
Speculation began at once about who would be the king’s next wife. Among the potential candidates was Anne of Cleves. She had been careful to remain on good terms with Henry after their annulment, and had shown no signs of resentment at being so humiliatingly rejected. She had been a regular visitor to court and had also received several visits from her former husband, which by all accounts had been very convivial. The pair had exchanged New Year’s gifts in 1542. But the king made no indication of wishing to revive their union, and although Anne was rumoured to be bitterly disappointed when he married his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, this may have been just for show.
By that time, Anne was comfortably ensconced at Hever with all the riches and honours of being a queen, but none of the disadvantages of being married to the ageing, bloated and increasingly tyrannical king. She remained there for the rest of her days, outliving her estranged husband, who died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward, his nine-year-old son.
Edward’s accession prompted a decline in Anne’s status. The new king’s council viewed her as an irrelevance, not to mention a drain on their resources, and confiscated two of the manors that Henry had given her. Forever the pragmatist, Anne resolved to make the most of the life that she had left. She established her house at Hever as a lively social centre – a kind of miniature court, where she could receive esteemed guests from across the kingdom, notably Princess Elizabeth, who doted upon her. Through these guests, she kept abreast of events at court, and solicited invitations to visit it herself.
The archetypal ‘merry widow’ (or divorcee), Anne also outlived Henry’s son, Edward, who died after just six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his elder half-sister Mary, with whom Anne was still on good terms. She and Elizabeth were accorded the place of honour at Mary’s lavish coronation. The two women shared an open chariot which was richly arrayed with crimson velvet and “cloth of silver”. Anne and her younger stepdaughter were also given new dresses made from a similarly rich silver material, and in the procession to Westminster Abbey they walked together directly behind the new queen.
But neither Anne nor Elizabeth would long enjoy Mary’s favour. Their reformist religious views set them at odds with the new conservative Catholic regime, and there were soon rumours that the two women were conspiring against the queen. These were almost certainly untrue: Anne was far too sensible to take such a risk and had no grudge against Mary. Fortunately, Mary retained enough of her former affection for Anne not to act against her.
With characteristic discretion, Anne left court soon after Mary’s accession, resolved to live out her days quietly at Hever and Chelsea – another manor left to her by Henry. It was while staying at the latter that Anne died on 16 July 1557, after a short illness. Although she was only 41 years of age, she had outlived each of Henry VIII’s five other wives – and had had a happier ending than any of them.
It is a testament to her sensible and cheerful nature that she had managed to stay in everybody’s good graces throughout those turbulent times. Even her dogmatic stepdaughter Mary, who sent hundreds of reformists to the flames, held Anne in such esteem that she ordered the full pomp and ceremony of a royal funeral at Westminster Abbey.
It was a lesson that was not lost on her younger stepdaughter, Elizabeth: to succeed in the dangerous and volatile world of the Tudor court, one must be guided by pragmatism, not principle.
Friends and rivals
Anne of Cleves won over three fellow Tudor queens, yet the failure of her marriage proved lethal for a king’s chief minister
Anne of Cleves was about the same age as her eldest stepdaughter, Mary, and the two struck up an apparently warm friendship. It is an indication of how likeable Anne was that Mary overcame her natural aversion to reformers and refused to listen to the rumours that Anne was conspiring against her when she became queen.
The skittish young Catherine was among the ladies appointed to serve Anne when she arrived in England in December 1539. Anne was fully aware that Catherine had caught her husband’s eye and although she complained to the Duke of Juliers-Cleves’s ambassador, she soon became reconciled to the situation, gracefully ceding victory to her rival. To show that there were no hard feelings, she even danced with Catherine after the latter had become queen.
Arranging the king’s disastrous fourth marriage was the beginning of the end for his chief minister. Cromwell had championed Anne enthusiastically, aware that the marriage would cement his religious reforms. After her first disastrous meeting with Henry, Cromwell urged Anne to “behave in a way which might please the king” – in short, she should ‘excite lust’ in her new husband. But it was all in vain and Henry had Cromwell executed a few days after the marriage was annulled.
Anne cherished an abiding affection for Henry’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth. She once claimed that “to have had [Elizabeth] for her daughter would have been [a] greater happiness to her than being queen”. Perhaps the two women were initially united by a shared sense of rejection at the hands of the king, but theirs was also a meeting of minds because both were of the reformist faith. The princess undoubtedly learned a great deal from her stepmother, particularly the art of pragmatism, which would become the keynote of her own queenship.
Tracy Borman is a historian and bestselling author. To find out more, visit www.tracyborman.co.uk. You can also follow Tracy on Twitter @BormanTracy.