The fourth wife of Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves, is not well noted in history. She was a stranger in a strange land, a bride of an unconsummated marriage. At least she kept her head.
Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. So goes the mnemonic for remembering the six wives of Henry VIII who reigned from 1509 until his death in 1547. The fates of Henry’s first three wives is well known, but the fourth, Anne of Cleves, much less so. Henry famously disliked the look of his German bride and the marriage was unconsummated. Anne has been dismissed as insignificant because her marriage to the king and thus her position as queen of England lasted a mere six months.
So what happened?
After the death of Queen Jane Seymour, mother of Henry VIII’s only son, the king was keen to get back in the saddle and beget more children. Henry had a strong romantic streak and had always chosen his brides (and mistresses) for himself, maintaining that a real love match guaranteed a successful marriage—one that produced plenty of children, particularly sons. He wanted a beautiful wife and dispatched ambassadors to Europe to find a suitable candidate. It’s safe to say his reputation preceded him, and princesses were understandably reluctant to agree to a union with a king whose marital record thus far was rather notorious.
Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief adviser, was keen for Henry to make a politically expedient marriage. Concerned that the 1538 alliance between Catholic nations France and Spain would put reformist England at risk, he began a campaign to convince Henry that marriage to Anne of Cleves would be not only a perfect romantic match but also politically prudent. Cromwell praised Anne’s modesty and gentility, and when Henry saw a portrait of her by respected artist Hans Holbein, he agreed to the union.
Henry loved the thrill of the chase and decided to surprise his bride-to-be as she made her way to London. Traveling with a group of masked retainers, Henry came forward and kissed her telling her how much the king looked forward to the marriage. He had the romantic notion that a girl who truly loved him would see straight through his disguise, but Anne was a modest young woman horrified and embarrassed that a stranger would be so forward. She had no idea she’d just rejected the king himself.
Henry was furious. How could he now marry this woman when she didn’t have the wherewithal to realize who he was? He wasn’t attracted to her, didn’t understand her ways, and, worse, she couldn’t even speak English. Henry demanded that he be released from the betrothal, but it was too late. If the wedding didn’t go ahead, Henry risked Germany becoming another enemy.
The wedding took place on January 6, 1540. The couple slept in the same bed for a few nights but Anne remained a virgin. Henry is said to have “found her body in such sort disordered and indisposed to excite and provoke any lust.” Historians tend to agree that by this stage Henry was impotent and saved face by blaming Anne’s so-called unattractiveness for his failure to consummate their union. Anne reportedly told her lady-in-waiting that her husband had kissed her and held her hand and thus she was truly married. Perhaps this was naivety on her part—did she really have no understanding of sexual intercourse? Or perhaps she simply didn’t want to embarrass the king. In many ways, the whole wedding night debacle may have been something of a relief for Anne, a shy girl of 24 partnered with an overweight, bloated, foul-tempered man twice her age.
Anne has been dismissed as insignificant because her marriage to the king and thus her position as queen of England lasted a mere six months. … So what happened?
Naturally, Henry was deeply unhappy with the whole situation. Angry with Cromwell for orchestrating this miserable union, Henry had him arrested for treason. In July 1540, Cromwell was beheaded, a decision Henry regretted for the rest of his life.
But what was to be done about Anne? Only a few months into their marriage, Henry sent her to Richmond Palace so he could be free to pursue the spirited and ill-fated Catherine Howard, a young girl much more to his liking than the serious and modest Anne. He wanted to investigate Anne’s previous betrothal to the Duke of Lorraine hoping for a contractual loophole that would render the marriage invalid without causing diplomatic ructions.
It couldn’t have been an easy time for Anne. A stranger in a strange land, she was well aware of what had happened to Anne Boleyn, tried on trumped-up charges and executed in 1536. She was also well aware of Henry’s dalliance with her lady-in-waiting Catherine Howard. Anne feared that having earned the king’s displeasure she’d surely be sentenced to death.
Luck, however, was on her side. Henry was eager to settle the matter quickly. Based on the non-consummation and the fact that she’d been promised in marriage to another man before her betrothal to Henry, the marriage was formally annulled. Anne wisely agreed to the annulment, signing the document “Anne, daughter of Cleves,” thus indicating to the king that she wouldn’t make a fuss by referring to herself as queen of England. Her sensible response had the unexpected result of putting her in Henry’s good books and from the date of the annulment—July 9, 1540—until her death in 1557, she was known as the king’s “Right Entirely Beloved Sister.” Henry gave her a substantial pension, gifts of jewels, expensive clothing, and a number of properties including Hever Castle, once home to Anne Boleyn’s family. As well, in an unprecedented move for the capricious king, Henry announced that apart from his next wife and daughters, she had a higher status than all other noble women in the country.
And thus Anne of Cleves left the main stage. Henry insisted she stay in England, a shrewd move designed to keep her from returning to Cleves and incurring hostility against England. This clearly suited Anne, who knew that if she went home she’d be married off to someone else to further her brother’s political ambitions. She had sense enough to know that England was the place to be. She quickly learned the language and embraced English customs. After the divorce, Anne lived the rest of her life quietly but not without influence. What’s more, she was accepted at court and became a true friend to her ex-husband. Wealthy and single, she enjoyed the king’s protection. She maintained close relationships with Henry’s children, even sharing a carriage with Princess Elizabeth at the coronation of Mary Tudor in 1553. In her will, she left her jewelry to her former step-daughters Mary and Elizabeth.
When she died in 1557 at the age of 41, Anne had outlived not only Henry but also his last wife Catherine Parr. The only one of Henry VIII’s wives to be interred in Westminster Abbey, Anne of Cleves was also perhaps the luckiest of them all.