This is the part six in my series examining the lives of the women in Henry VIII’s life. Click here for previous essays from the series.
Note: As we’re now veering into the repeating names of Henry’s wives, I’ll be referring to the women known as Anne of Cleves by her German name, Anna, to avoid confusion with her predecessor Anne Boleyn.
The very fact that Henry VIII had six different wives makes it tempting to catalogue each by their closest stereotype: Katherine of Aragon as the frigid religious fanatic, Anne Boleyn as the witch/temptress, Jane Seymour as the inoffensive, boring one. Not so coincidentally, these were also the narratives promoted by Henry and his entourage following the dissolution of each marriage. The same thing happens again with Anne of Cleves, whose legacy of “the ugly/uneducated one who grossed out even Henry, a revolting mass of human flesh” is what’s most often known about her brief tenure as Mrs. Henry VIII. Anna’s story, falling right between the way more dramatic tales of the other Katherines and Annes, is bonkers and ridiculous, and more importantly? A nice respite from the litany of horror that are the tales of the other five. So let’s do it!
Anna’s parents were the Duke of Cleves and the Duchess of Julich-Berg, two nobles whose marriage had united Cleves with Julich and Berg, joining three formerly separate principalities into the duchy of Cleves. Anna, born on September 22, 1515, was her parents’ second child and second daughter. When Anna was 11, she was betrothed to the similarly-aged son of the Duke of nearby Lorraine; the betrothal was cancelled 1535. Three years later, her father died and the Dukedom was passed on to her younger brother, William. William practiced the Protestant Lutheran faith, but the rest of the family followed their mother’s Roman Catholicism. The main selling point of Anna as a possible match for the newly single English King was that, under the rule of William, Cleves was butting heads with the Holy Roman Emperor — making them an ideal ally for England. A marriage would help solidify this connection… or so they thought.
Here’s the thing: Henry VIII mourned for nearly three years after the death of Jane Seymour. For a guy who previously always had a back-up ready in case a relationship ended, this lengthy period of bachelorhood was unusual. And for a King with two daughters and one very young, sickly son, it was becoming increasingly problematic. Henry himself was obviously obsessed with having sons and continuing on his Tudor family legacy, but so were like everyone else around him. The usual warring factions were each supporting a different young woman for him to marry, and Anna was the pick of Henry’s trusted chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (you may be familiar with him as the main character of the book and miniseries Wolf Hall).
Henry had known all three of his previous wives before he married them, so the prospect of a sight-unseen arranged marriage was entirely new to him. Just to be sure he knew what he was getting into, the artist Hans Holbein the Younger was sent to Cleves to paint portraits of the two possible new wives who lived there: Anna, and her younger sister Amalia. Just laying some foreshadowing, Henry specifically told Holbein to paint both portraits accurately; not to flatter either woman, but to do like the painting version of a #nofilter photograph. Do you see where this is going? I think you do.
Long story short, Henry preferred Anna’s looks to Amalia and, combined with Cromwell’s description of her as being gentle, virtuous and docile, agreed to marry her. Cromwell, I think, knew what he was doing. He had seen how happy Henry was with the submissive, inoffensive Jane, and also how his dramatic marriage to the opinionated Anne Boleyn had nearly brought the country to ruin. The bit he was potentially neglecting the importance of was education. Katherine and Anne had both been extremely well educated, and even Jane Seymour had a level of cultural sophistication that Anna did not possess. In fact, Anna had received literally zero formal education and was raised away from the skuduggery and scheming of a royal court. Oh and also she couldn’t read or write in English. Holbein’s portrait is similar to others painted of her throughout her life, showing heavy-lidded eyes in a heart-shaped face, her facial expression one of a sort of serene bemusement.
Anna, a lifelong Catholic, converted to Anglicanism immediately upon arriving in England. She had been told that her first meeting with her future husband would be once she arrived in London; Henry, unfortuately, had different plans. Bear in mind that in 1540, Anna was 25 and Henry was a hard lived 49. In his grief over Jane’s death, he had become morbidly obese, which exacerbated his old jousting leg wound, which could never be permanently treated and which festered and ulcerated. I’m not sure if it was at this time but in this general time period, he grew so large that he had to be moved with the help of “mechanical inventions” and was covered with pus-filled boils, Do you have that image in your mind? OK, now imagine yourself to be 25-year-old, sheltered Anna, hanging out in some sort of manor en route to meet her future husband. And imagine that, while sitting at a window, someone who looks like the above description of Henry strolls in wearing a mask and doesn’t say who he is. This pus-covered person embraces and kisses you, handing over a gift he says is from the King.
You may react like Anna apparently did, being frozen with embarrassment at this repulsive stranger’s weirdo behaviour, finally trying to ignore him by looking back out the window. The gross man leaves, and then returns without the mask and explains that SURPRISE! He’s the King, your future husband! Like: can you even imagine. And this all happened. There are records. Henry was engaging in standard crazypants courtly romantic love behaviour, but a) Anna wasn’t familiar with this tradition and b) he was twice her age and grotesque. So we’ve now got two people potentially judging one another very shrewdly based on appearance. One of them is a delusional and narcissistic King; the other is a mostly-powerless, naive young woman. Guess who gets the upper hand??
The thing is, after this catastrophically humiliating “meet cute,” Henry instantly tried to cancel their betrothal. Cromwell and his other advisors talked him out of this, because there was no way to do that without destroying the vital alliance with Cleves. And so, the engaged couple had their first official meeting two days after the Incident of the Mask, where Anna was welcomed with a grand reception. Notably, everyone other than Henry wrote that she was lovely in both appearance and personality. Already, Henry was laying track for his “she’s so ugly I can’t get it up” alibi, stating that he had been misled by both Holbein’s portrait and Cromwell’s reference. Still, there was no way out of this and, two more days later, the two were married in what I’m sure was The Wedding Event Of The Season (* not really). Like Henry’s other wives/Queens before her, Anna selected a motto at this time: “God send me well to keep.”
Now, unlike Katherine and Anne, we don’t have Anna’s diaries or writings to back up what was going on from her point of view at this time. It is very clear that she and Henry did not consummate their marriage on their wedding night; even Henry freely admitted he was unable to become aroused, because — YET AGAIN — “did they or did they not have sex” became a cornerstone of the dissolution of this marriage. Of course, as per Henry, this was totally 100% not his fault, but rather the fault of Anna, who he claimed to be so physically repulsive that his penis I guess shrank away in terror? Not at all to do with his aforementioned age, weight, gout, pus-filled sores, etc., or any medical issue on his part. And the thing is, it’s entirely possible that Anna also didn’t know what sex was because she had been raised in a very sheltered environment with little education.
A month after the uneventful wedding night, Anna is recorded as having lovingly described her husband’s affection as follows: “When he comes to bed he kisseth me, and he taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me ‘Good night, sweetheart’; and in the morning kisseth me and biddeth ‘Farewell, darling.'” Her companion at the time responded, “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a duke of York, which all this realm most desireth.” At least publicly, she was carrying on apparently content with her new life as the English Queen. Behind the scenes, Henry already had the wheels in motion to end their marriage. Perhaps due to Anna still not being entirely fluent in the English language, she couldn’t have understood the gossip swirling around that a) Henry was desperate to get rid of her and b) he had fallen for her lady-in-waiting, the teenaged Catherine Howard.
On June 24th, just over five months after their wedding, Anna was commanded to leave court. On July 6th, she received her first official notice that Henry was “reconsidering” their marriage based on, and yes this is true, how unattractive he found her. This is the same King who fought for seven years to annul his first marriage based on the Bible and the law; he was on his fourth wife now and I guess was just over it. If the “removed from court/having a third party explain he was dumping her” was a remix of the Katherine of Aragon situation, Henry began dabbling in the way he treated Anne Boleyn, starting to spread rumours that Anna was promiscuous, and had not been a virgin when she married him. How would you know Henry? You never had sex with her, you loathsome pus-covered narcissistic asshole.
But here’s where Anna’s story takes on its own amazing twist. Henry demanded that she consent to an annulment and… she agreed. Unable to take out his rage* (*at his own impotence and grossness) on a woman, as he’d been able to when both Katherine and Anne fought back against him, the King turned on Cromwell, arresting him for treason. Basically, the treason of describing a lovely young woman as a lovely young woman to an unstable, megalomaniacal has-been. Her inadvertent connection to Cromwell’s downfall is one of the things Anna had in common with her predecessor Anne Boleyn, whose actions had also tangentially led to the execution of one of Henry’s previous trusted advisors. Anna and Henry’s marriage was officially annulled on July 9. Nineteen days later, Henry married his fifth wife, Anna’s former lady-in-waiting Catherine Howard AND also Cromwell was executed.
Now, we’re in unchartered territory here for Anne. Katherine lived out the rest of her days in exile; Anne was beheaded; Jane died of birth complications. Anna was still alive, still 25 years old, still healthy and not disgraced. Henry, grateful that she stepped aside so obligingly, gave her a very generous settlement that included numerous properties (one of which is now known as Anne of Cleves house in Lewes, Sussex, and I’m dying to go and visit it). She was given the official title of King’s Beloved Sister, and joined with Henry and Catherine and his children at family events. Seriously, she and Henry became great friends (???) and he decreed that she should be treated as the most important woman in England other than his current wife and daughters.
So Anna basically lived an amazing single lady life among her many properties, winning the affection of her various servants and also of the English people. When Henry found himself in want of a new wife two years later (we’ll get into why that is later on), Anna’s family suggested that Henry marry her again. Wouldn’t it have been so amazing if he did? I mean, he didn’t, but this is an interesting Sliding Doors moment. Anyway, Henry himself died, a pile of Jabba The Hutt-looking pus-filled goo in 1547, seven years after his brief marriage to Anna. His children continued to treat Anna as a respected honorary member of their family and she was known to be particularly close to Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth. When her former stepdaughter, now Queen Mary I, was wed to King Philip of Spain in 1553, Anna and Elizabeth took part in the coronation procession. To honour the new Queen, Anna converted back to Catholicism.
In 1554, Elizabeth was implicated in a Protestant rebellion (more on that when I write about Elizabeth; it’s quite the story). Anna’s longstanding friendship with Elizabeth caused Queen Mary to suspect her, too; and so Anna was never invited to royal court again. Anna fell ill, likely of cancer, in 1557 and passed away shortly before her forty-second birthday, on July 16th. In her will, she requested that Queen Mary and Lady Elizabeth look after her servants, entreating them to employ them in their households. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, the only one of Henry’s wives to be laid to rest there. Her epitaph there reads:
ANNE OF CLEVES
QUEEN OF ENGLAND
BORN 1515 * DIED 1557
Like Jane Seymour before her, there aren’t many works written just about Anne of Cleves. Some of the works about her are Ann Of Cleves: Fourth Wife of Henry VIII by Mary Saaler, and Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride by Elizabeth Norton. Anna’s story is often combined with that of her successor, Catherine Howard, as in The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory and The Queen’s Mistake by Diana Haeger. Her portrait, which is arguably more famous than the woman at this point, is the focus of the novel Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek.
She’s even less portrayed on-screen than she is written about. Anna appears in most filmic treatments of Henry’s wives, generally popping up in a comic relief role, as in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), or as a Special Guest Star in a handful of episodes of The Tudors.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter