In July 1540 Anne of Cleves – the fourth wife of Henry VIII – went from being queen of England back to Anne, the Daughter of Cleves, with alarming speed. Life as an ex-queen of England was very nearly uncharted territory, but, for Anne, who was only twenty-five, her life stretched ahead of her.
When Anne wrote to her brother, to inform him of the end of her marriage, she finished by saying that ‘I purpose to lead my life in this Realm’. In reality, as she was aware, she did not have a choice. Henry VIII was not prepared to risk her repudiating the annulment once she was safely out of his reach and her generous divorce settlement, which included two palaces, only applied while she remained in his kingdom.
Anne had been strictly brought up in Cleves and may not, in any event, have relished a return home to her mother, particularly given her anomalous position as a divorcee. Instead, she decided to enjoy herself in England. She remained at Richmond, which was granted to her for life, until the end of the year, wearing ‘new dresses every day’ and appearing ‘as joyous as ever’, something which confounded her contemporaries. The French ambassador, for one, considered that Anne’s conduct ‘argues either prudent dissimulation or stupid forgetfulness of what should so closely touch her heart’. Perhaps she simply tried to make the best of the situation and, as a wealthy and independent woman, her situation was hardly tragic.
If Anne had any concerns about how she would be viewed following her divorce, these were soon abated. Internationally, sympathy lay with her. Her brother-in-law, John Frederick of Saxony, on hearing of the divorce, broke the Schmalkaldic League’s alliance with England. He always rebuffed attempts to re-establish friendship with Henry, whom he referred to as that ‘crazy man’. Francis I of France, on being informed that Henry had doubts about the validity of his marriage, asked incredulously ‘what, with the matrimony made with the queen that now is?’ On being informed that this was the case, he simply sighed and became quiet. It seemed that Henry VIII could never settle with a wife.
Henry had, in fact, already lined up a fifth wife before he ended his marriage to Anne. His choice fell on one of Anne’s maids, ‘that young girl Catherine’. On 28 July 1540 Henry married the teenaged Catherine Howard at Oatlands Palace, at least showing Anne the decency of coming in person to Richmond Palace to inform her himself. Anne and Catherine actually got on rather well. When Anne visited court for New Year 1541 – as an honoured guest – the pair gave each other gifts and danced together.
While Anne was treated well by Henry, she was very far from free. Members of her household were spying on her, something of which she was aware. She particularly resented young Wymond Carew, her English interpreter, who complained that the ex-queen was ‘bent to do me displeasure’. This was hardly surprising, given the fact that he had reported to the king that she was not passing on letters from her brother for censorship. When Catherine Howard was arrested for adultery towards the end of 1541, Anne also found herself uncomfortably in the spotlight. Rumours that she had borne a child reached the king and she was subjected to an investigation by the council.
Anne and Henry also found that they got along better after their divorce. Anne, who, at the time of the annulment had privately declared herself to be Henry’s true wife, hoped for a reconciliation. When Catherine Howard was beheaded in February 1542, William of Cleves petitioned the king to take back his sister, to no avail. Anne was personally highly offended when Henry married his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, a woman that she considered inferior to herself in beauty. Nonetheless, Henry and Anne rubbed along well together for the last years of his life, with the king personally paying many of her expenses as inflation lowered her income.
When Henry VIII died in January 1547, Anne’s political significance came to an end. Edward VI’s council had no reason to pay her debts or increase her pension, since it no longer affected anyone if she claimed to have been validly married to Henry. Instead, Edward VI’s council looked greedily at her property, confiscating first Bletchingley Palace and then Richmond and exchanging them for less favourable residences. Anne had evidently not kept Richmond in as good a state of repair as she might have done, but, as she complained, ‘everything is so costly here’. Inflation effectively wiped out the value of her pension, forcing her to battle the council for money to live on.
Matters improved for Anne in 1553 when her former stepdaughter, Mary, came to the throne. Anne and Mary were the same age and friends, with the former queen well treated at court. She attended Mary’s coronation that autumn, riding in the first carriage after the queen, which she shared with Princess Elizabeth.
She had always been fond of Henry VIII’s younger daughter, spending time with her after her divorce. This association caused Anne to lose favour with Mary as rapidly as she had achieved it, with the queen holding both Elizabeth and Anne under suspicion following Wyatt’s Rebellion in February 1554. There is no evidence that Anne was involved, but she no longer found herself quite so welcome at court. This proved to be the final straw for the former queen and she took steps to try to annul her divorce legally, something which would have allowed her a widow’s dower and the freedom to return to Cleves. She was, however, unsuccessful, remaining in England for the remainder of her life.
Anne of Cleves spent her last years in retirement. She was staying at the royal manor of Chelsea in 1557 when she made her Will, leaving bequests to Henry VIII’s daughters and her servants and friends. She died on 15 July 1557 – aged only forty-one. The last survivor of Henry VIII’s six wives was given a royal funeral in Westminster Abbey.
Anne of Cleves – fourth wife of Henry VIII – was queen of England for only six brief months, but she was the luckiest of all Henry VIII’s wives. You can read more about her in my book, Anne of Cleves: Henry VII’s Discarded Bride (Amberley, 2009)
Photo credit: Anne of Cleves (author’s own collection)