Surprising Facts about Anne of Cleves
thinks they know the story of the fourth wife of Henry VIII. She was
the German princess whom he married for diplomatic reasons, but when
the forty-eight-year-old widower first set eyes on his
twenty-four-year-old bride-to-be, he was repulsed.
great reluctance, Henry went through with the wedding—saying
“I am not well handled”—but
after six months he’d managed to get an annulment, and the
unconsummated marriage was no more. Although Anne 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.
so Anne of Cleves 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 Anne of Cleves is more complex than the
stereotypes would have you believe.
Anne’s father was a Renaissance thinker.
The assumption is that Anne grew up in a backward German duchy, too
awkward and ignorant to impress a monarch who’d once moved a
kingdom for the sophisticated charms of Anne Boleyn. But her father,
Duke John, was a patron of Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance scholar.
Cleves court was liberal and 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, thoughtful political ideals espoused by John the
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.
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.”
Anne’s brother had a marriage that wasn’t consummated either.
William was not as interested in peace as his father. What he wanted
more than anything else was to add Guelders to Cleves—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
bride was Jeanne D’Albret, the daughter of Marguerite of Angouleme
and niece of King Francis. The “high-spirited” Jeanne was only
twelve 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 of Cleves. The four-year-old marriage was annulled—it
had never been consummated. Jeanne’s next husband was Antoine de
Bourbon, whom she loved. Their son would one day become Henry IV,
King of France.
Hans Holbein painted Anne 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 in Cleves said she was “of
middling beauty and of very assured and resolute countenance.”
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. The
portrait captures her true appearance. While we don’t find her
repulsive, Henry did.
Henry VIII never called her a “Flanders Mare.”
The English King’s attitude toward his fourth wife was very unusual
for a sixteenth century monarch. Royal marriages sealed diplomatic
alliances, and queens were expected to be pious and gracious, not
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.
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 of Cleves, 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.
Anne of Cleves is the only one of Henry’s wives to be buried in
Henry himself is buried at Windsor with favorite wife 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.
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