Everyone knows that Henry VIII had six wives, with the rhyme ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’, recording their largely unenviable fates. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, is a household name, but what of the other Queen Anne – the fourth wife of England’s most married king? Anne of Cleves was married for the shortest amount of time, but survived the longest, nearly living to see Elizabeth I take the throne.
Anne of Cleves is usually dismissed in a few pages, or a chapter, at most, in biographies of Henry and his wives. Her impact on English politics was as brief as her marriage, but as a person she fascinates. Just who was the woman who has unflatteringly gone down in history as Henry VIII’s Flanders Mare?
Anne was the second of the four children born to John, Duke of Cleves and his wife, Maria, the heiress to the Duchy of Juliers. She was born in Dusseldorf on 22 September 1515 and raised under her mother’s strict tutelage with her two sisters, Sibylla and Amelia. Duchess Maria raised her daughters to be wives, with the curriculum focussed on needlework and other traditionally feminine pursuits. Anne could read and write, but she knew no language other than German. She was taught no music, but was clever. She soon learned English when it was decided that her future lay there. Contrary to popular belief, Anne was raised as a Catholic and continued to follow the religion throughout her life.
Anne’s father ruled the small duchies of Cleves-Mark in the lower Rhine valley in an area of modern Germany close to the Dutch border. Her mother’s duchy was bigger, with the marriage of Anne’s parents creating a strategically important state on both sides of the Rhine. Although part of the Holy Roman Empire, Juliers-Cleves was essentially independent. Anne was also closely related to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and the kings of France – she had an impeccably royal lineage.
Anne’s eldest sister, Sibylla, was famed for her beauty and married John Frederick, heir to the Duke of Saxony in 1527. John Frederick became one of the leaders of the newly formed Schmalkaldic League in 1531, which was a Protestant defensive league in opposition to the Emperor. Cleves, as a Catholic duchy, was not a member but, by 1539, when Henry VIII began to look for an allies in Europe, Anne and her younger sister, Amelia, were the best matches that the League could offer.
Henry VIII’s third wife died in childbirth in October 1537 and the search immediately began for a fourth wife. Anne’s name was mentioned early, although she was dismissed since ‘there was no great praise either of her personage or her beauty’. Henry looked again at Cleves, however, when France and the Empire made peace, opening negotiations early in 1539. Although the English ambassadors initially had difficulty in gaining access to Anne, the ambassadors provided favourable reports. Henry’s court painter, Hans Holbein, also travelled to Cleves to paint Anne and her sister, expressing ‘their images very lively’. Everyone agreed that the portrait of Anne was a good likeness.
Anne set out for England in the winter of 1539, finally landing at Dover on 27 December. She pleased those that she met on the journey, showing a willingness to learn the English language and customs. She even asked to be taught a card game that the king liked, so that they could play it together. In spite of appalling weather in England, she agreed to press on for London, rather than waiting at Dover. She had reached Rochester by New Year’s Day when she received a visit from an overweight and rather elderly messenger, who brought the king’s New Year’s gift to her.
New Year’s Day 1540 saw the end of Anne’s marriage, before it had even begun. Unable to wait for Anne’s arrival in London, Henry donned a disguise, in accordance with romantic tradition, to visit his bride in secret. The idea was that, due to the mutual love between the couple, Anne would immediately recognise her fiancé, falling into his arms for a romantic meeting. Unfortunately, no one had told Anne of this tradition and, when the ‘messenger’ arrived, she ignored him, instead gazing out of a window at a bull baiting in the courtyard below.
Henry was disappointed with Anne’s lack of interest in his arrival and tried again, kissing and embracing her as she stood by the window. For Anne, who had been kept cloistered by her mother, this must have been a shock, but she continued to ignore the stranger. Finally, admitting defeat, the king stalked out of the room to change to a coat of purple velvet – the sign that everyone present could recognise him. As those in the room fell to their knees, Anne suddenly realised just who her visitor was, but the damage was done.
That evening, the couple ‘talked together lovingly’ through interpreters, but Henry left the following day as soon as the tide allowed. In the boat he complained ‘I see nothing in this woman as men report of her’. While he probably never muttered that he had been sent a Flanders mare instead of a woman, his brief meeting with Anne was enough for him to decide ‘I like her not’.
Everyone agreed that Holbein’s portrait of Anne – which had pleased the king – was a good likeness, so what went wrong? The portrait shows Anne fully facing the viewer, something which may have hidden a large nose evident when a second portrait of Anne was x-rayed. Similarly, there were reports that she appeared older than expected and, in her outdated German fashions, was badly dressed to English eyes. She was certainly far from ugly, however, with reports a few years later suggesting that she was more beautiful than Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Henry, who was used to choosing his own brides, simply was not attracted to Anne? Alternatively, she is unlikely to have seen a portrait of Henry before she arrived in England and, in 1540, he was well past his prime. Did her look of horror when she suddenly realised just who her visitor was, kill off Henry’s romantic hopes?
In spite of attempts to avoid the marriage, Henry was obliged to put his ‘neck in a yoke’ on 6 January 1540, making Anne his fourth wife. Attempts to consummate the marriage failed and, finally, with the political situation shifting in Europe, Henry finally felt secure enough to bring the marriage to an end. Towards the end of June 1540 she was suddenly sent to Richmond on the pretext of avoiding the plague in London.
No one was fooled and, on 26 June 1540 Anne summoned her brother’s ambassador, Carl Harst, to complain of her treatment. When he attempted to reassure her, she stated, ominously, that she knew what had happened to Henry’s first wife, the discarded Catherine of Aragon. There were already rumours in the city that Henry meant to discard her for a lady in waiting, just as he had done with first wife.
Picture Credit: Anne of Cleves by Han Holbein, the picture that persuaded Henry to choose Anne as his fourth wife. (image from author’s own collection)