The Flanders Mare: Anne of Cleves


Poor Anne of Cleves, relegated to history as “the ugly one.” Her marriage to Henry VIII is now viewed as a short blip in-between the domestic dramas of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and the scandal of Katherine Howard’s (presumed) adultery and execution. In fact, this fourth marriage of the King’s was important for what it signified – a foreign alliance arranged in the midst of frightening religious factionalism in the English government. The demise of their union – it would last roughly six months – also saw the downfall of the infamous Thomas Cromwell, risen up by the Boleyn family a decade before.

It’s worth noting that while Anne was a mid-point in Henry’s marital history, these were actually the twilight years of his reign. By 1539, the year the Cleves match was arranged, Henry was 47, squarely “old” by Tudor standards, and had been on the throne for 30 years. His health was poor – he was consistently plagued by an extremely painful ulcer on his leg, likely the result of a prior jousting accident.

And while Anne and her successors had some of the pressure relieved by Jane Seymour’s delivery of a son and heir, they did still have to put up with the fact that Henry was not the most self-aware of men. In fact, he might have been the least. It’s unclear why Henry remained a widower for as long as he did after Jane’s death, but some of it may have come down to the fact that he was not nearly the catch that the thought he was. The tortuous process of divorcing Katherine of Aragon would be enough to put off most women, but the shock of him having marched Anne Boleyn to her death was still fresh. Failed negotiations included Marie de Guise (who went on to marry his nephew, King James V of Scotland) and Christina of Denmark.

It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that Henry was sincerely mourning Jane’s passing, though I’ve shared my thoughts before that his idealization of his third marriage had little to do with the woman herself.

The Cleves marriage was first brought to Henry by Cromwell in 1538, less than a year after Jane’s death. Cromwell had good reason to support a German match – allying with one of their duchies offered support for the Reformed faith, which he had not only championed, but which made up the base of his political power. In that sense Cleves wasn’t quite the ideal – Duke William, Anne’s brother, wasn’t a Lutheran, but his sister, Sybilla, had married the Duke of Saxony and that was a strategic link on the continent.

Amelia of Cleves

The Duke had two younger sisters, Anne and Amelia and so English emissaries were sent to make discreet inquiries into the viability of both women. Cromwell’s friend, Christopher Mont, reported back from the Saxon court on Anne with:

“Every man praiseth the beauty of the said Lady, as well for the face, as for the whole body, above all other ladies excellent.”

By March 1539 direct negotiations with Cleves were underway, however Henry’s request that he be sent portraits so that he could choose between the women were frustrated. English envoys were offered two recent portraits, but the response was that there was no way they could vouch for the accuracy of the images to their king as they had only seen them fleetingly in person. Or, as they put it:

“We had not seen them for to see but a part of their faces, and that under such monstrous habit and apparel, was no sight, neither of the faces nor of their persons.”

The Cleves minister handling the negotiation responded, “What, would you see them naked?”

Another wave of negotiations took place that summer, the envoys once again given instruction to try and snag a portrait, or at least a good look at the sisters. At one point their demand included the rationalization that they should be able to see them because “one of them [was] to be their queen.” Historian David Starkey pointed out in his mammoth history of the six wives that this last point is significant – it suggests that the marriage was all but a done deal at this point, even without a picture. And that’s significant only because of Henry’s later temper tantrum upon meeting Anne in person, saying he felt cheated. He might have, but the alliance had never hinged on Henry finding a portrait pleasing.

Henry VIII in 1540

Eventually the famous Hans Holbein was sent to Cleves and the much-desired portrait was procured. We don’t know what Henry’s reaction to it was, but the negotiations continued on and by all accounts the King had warmed to the idea of a German woman and was actively looking forward to his fourth marriage.

As for the home front, let’s consider how this was viewed in London. The break with Rome had been jammed down the throat of the English only a few years prior, however its most notable immediate implications had been forcing the country to bow to a new line of succession, one that bastardized Princess Mary and declared the heirs of Anne Boleyn’s body legitimate. Her downfall in 1536 and the quick remarriage to Jane Seymour may have changed the Tudor queen and heir, but it did nothing to address the waves of religious reform that had begun in 1534 and were still ongoing.

After inventories of the country’s religious houses were conducted by Cromwell and his men, the suppressions began – a period otherwise known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s difficult to fully portray how shocking and terrifying this was for the English, particularly those far removed from London. The Catholic Church had been a consistent presence for centuries and the religious houses not only symbolized hubs of education, but safe havens, particularly for women and children without recourse. For all that these institutions had become corrupted – and many were – they still existed as vital pillars of communities and advocates on behalf of public good.

While we can certainly allow there were sincere reformers in the midst of Henry’s court – those that genuinely sought to create a Church not taking egregious advantage of superstition and fear – it also has to be acknowledged the financial windfall this was for the government. All told, the Church had been the largest landowner in England, Wales and Ireland.

While day-to-day parish activity was little changed for most, forced allegiance to new religious doctrine (however similar) was a large pill to swallow. And for the communities more directly affected by the Dissolution, the sense of injustice was more considerable. This was particularly true in the North, unsurprisingly, which were less inclined to swiftly adopt edicts from the South. The Pilgrimage of Grace, a Yorkshite uprisng that broke out as a result in the autumn of 1536 and lasted until the autumn of 1537, is generally considered the most serious rebellion of Henry’s reign.

Even in London, it’s not as though Catholic sentiment had been eradicated. There were still families with staunch Catholic sympathies, including, for example, the Howards, led by the Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s uncle. The 1530s executions of Henry’s closest ministers were enough to upset any sense of order, not least of which was the famous Sir Thomas More in 1535. Henry had made it clear that even his own family wasn’t immune – his Plantagenet cousins, the Marquess of Exeter and the Countess of Salisbury, were arrested in 1538 (Exeter was immediately executed, while the Countess didn’t see the block until 1541). Henry had known both since childhood and they remained the closest family he had in England. While he never arrested or made a move to execute his daughter, Mary, there were many that feared he would before she submitted, so absolute was his insistence on the establishment of himself as the head of the church.


Jane’s death in 1537 thus created a vacuum in the midst of this since it was taken for granted Henry would marry again. A nice girl from a family sympathetic to the Catholics might offer relief, while a Protestant union might do the opposite. Cromwell, the Reformation’s architect, was obviously in favor of the latter.

And thus we have Anne of Cleves. Anne and her successor, Katherine Howard, were anomalies among Henry’s wives. Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were both exceedingly well-educated, intelligent and possessing a certain sophistication, albeit of a different variety. Even Jane Seymour, bless her heart, had spent nearly a decade at court before her marriage. This second Anne may have possessed a rudimentary education, but Cleves was hardly one of Europe’s cultural epicenters. She was mainly described as obedient, humble and well-behaved, three qualities that may have sounded nice to Henry, but were prone to bore him to tears.

Anne arrived in England on December 11, 1539 and spent the next several days traveling through the country. On New Year’s Day she was in Rochester when six men entered her chamber, disguised in cloaks and hoods. One of them stepped forward, kissed her and then presented her with a gift, telling her it came from Henry. Taken aback, Anne simply thanked the man and reportedly discouraged the blatant flirting in which he tried to engage her. Reportedly, “She regarded him little but always looked out of the window on the bull fighting,” which had been arranged for her entertainment.

The man grew angry, withdrew and re-entered the room without his disguise – it was Henry, of course, and needless to say, this first meeting with his bride hadn’t gone well.

While this game sound juvenile – and it was – it was also a favorite of Henry’s and one he had been playing since adolescence when he forced it on Katherine of Aragon. This was no simple love of dress up and surprises, but rather an elaborate ruse that played to the King’s ego. He was used to being told he was the best, yes, but this game allowed him the delusion that he was the best because he was truly better.

round anne of cleves.jpg
Anne of Cleves

Anne’s response was to immediately stand up and curtsey, but that is the extent of what we know for sure. By some reports, Henry raised Anne up “lovingly” and spoke to her for a length of time privately. By others, clearly disgrunteld, he stayed in her presence for only another few minutes before leaving abruptly. The latter account is the more reliable, having come from Sir Anthony Browne, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber.

So, what went wrong? Well, first and foremost, that Anne didn’t giggle and blush at the sight of Henry, or at least recognize him as king, was quite the ding to the male ego. And secondly, Henry quickly proclaimed that he didn’t find her that attractive anyway. The extent that the second was a result of the first is anyone’s guess, but I think it’s a safe bet.

Almost immediately Henry turned to his right-hand man, Cromwell, and asked him how he could get out of the marriage. But Anne wasn’t some daughter of a knight, she was the Duke of Cleves’ sister. There was no backing out and this, simply put, was the beginning of Cromwell’s downfall.

The wedding was meant to take place on January 4, 1540, but Henry postponed it, desperately urging his councilors to find him a way out of it. The entire situation has a distinct ring of ridiculousness to it. By royal standards, the middle-aged Henry was acting like a child. Princes, much less kings, had been marrying women they didn’t find attractive for the benefit of alliances for centuries. Hell, his subjects did it with regularity. God knows, his bride-to-be was in the same situation.

But Cromwell couldn’t find him a way out and when Anne was prompted to swear before Council that she was free of all legal impediments (such as a pre-contract with another man), she did so readily. Henry’s response to Cromwell, which likely struck fear into his heart, was:

“Is there none other remedy but that I must needs, against my will, put my neck in the yoke?”

On the way to the wedding ceremony on January 6th, Henry reiterated himself:

“If it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.”

Just a tad dramatic, then.

As for the wedding night, well, in true Tudor fashion, the  matter is highly debatable. In yet another conversation with Cromwell the morning after, Henry stated:

“Surely, as ye know, I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse. For I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid.”

Now, before we go on, let’s address this point, because this wasn’t obscure pettiness on Henry’s part. As discussed in an earlier post, this statement may have stemmed from a belief that a true maid’s stomach and bust were naturally small. To quote myself, if I may:

“To a certain extent it’s understandable that virginity could, to Tudor eyes, seem tied to a woman’s physical size, if for no other reason than once a woman married she usually began going through multiple pregnancies, a process that, obviously, enlarged both her stomach and bust. While less is known of Jane Seymour’s physical appearance, we do know that Katherine of Aragon’s pregnancies took a significant physical toll on her and that Anne Boleyn was almost unfashionably thin – this perception may very well have complemented Henry’s experience with women. And age plays a role here as well, with many women marrying as adolescents they were, quite literally, not fully grown at the time they were ‘maids.'”

Almost immediately after speaking with Cromwell, Henry went to his physicians and told them that he had failed to consummate the marriage. On their advice, he slept away from Anne on the second night, but shared her bed on the third and fourth night. Still, he maintained, he found himself unable to perform – the implication, of course, being that her profound lack of virginity failed to inspire.

Yet lest this be twisted as a condemnation of Henry’s virility, the reports of the entire fiascto were quick to note the King hadn’t lost his ability, God help us all.

It’s possible that Anne, having grown up in the sheltered court of Cleves, simply didn’t know enough to know anything was wrong. It’s also possible she was playing dumb to stay safe. The below captures a conversation with her ladies-in-waiting, but bear in mind the simple fact that this is recorded is indicative of how deeply politcal even the queen’s private chambers were – that these women had been ordered to find out what was going on in the royal bedchamber from Anne’s point of view.

In response to Anne swearing that she wasn’t pregnant:

Lady: How is it possible for your Grace to know that and lie every night with the King?

Anne: I know it well I am not.

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford: By Our Lady, I think your Grace is a maid still indeed.

Anne: How can I be a maid and sleep every night with the King?

Jane: There must be more to it than that.

Anne: Why, when he comes to bed, he kisses me and taketh me by the hand and biddeth me, ‘Goodnight, sweetheart;’ and in the morning kisses me and biddeth me, ‘Farewell, darling.’ Is this not enough?

Lady: There must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York.

Anne: Nay, I am content with this, for I know no more.

The state of the marriage wasn’t at first widely known, but the circle of those taken into Henry’s confidences directly or indirectly slowly began to expand. Even so, on the face of it, everything looked stable. Henry visited Anne at night and shared with her information about the marriage negotiations he was in the midst of on behalf of his daughter, Mary, and the Duke of Bavaria. On April 18th, Cromwell, responsible for Anne’s queenship, was made Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain. Given his origins, this was the apex of his career.

A possible portrait of Katherine Howard

Underneath the surface, not only was Henry still unhappy and seeking a divorce, he had also fallen in love. The lady in question was Katherine Howard, a cousin of Anne Boleyn and niece of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. There is some speculation that part of Henry’s aversion to his fourth marriage stemmed from having fallen for Katherine in the weeks leading up to Anne’s arrival – Katherine having been brought to London in preparation for her role as a lady-in-waiting. This is possible, but inconclusive. Whatever the origins of their relationship, by the spring he was spotted visiting Howard residences and showing the family more favor than he had in years.

At the start, the politics were deadlier than the personal. Norfolk was conservative and had long been a champion of Princess Mary, for all that he had been Anne Boleyn’s uncle. He didn’t care for how high Cromwell had risen, nor did he like the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The crux of the matter, arguably, was that Cromwell’s presence and political acumen boxed out other advisers, roles which men like Norfolk believed belonged to those of noble and royal birth. And now, with Henry annoyed at Cromwell over the Cleves marriage and his niece having caught the King’s eye, was Norfolk’s moment to right wrongs.

Arrests began, first Cromwell’s friends at the behest of Norfolk’s party, and then leading conservatives at the hand of the reformist party. Foreign emissaries, viewing the situation from the outside, put their confidence in Cromwell. He had, after all, managed to extricate Henry from his first marriage and successfully lived through the rise and fall of Boleyn. Their bets were off – on June 10th, Cromwell was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cromwell’s closest political ally, spoke out in his defense – a huge gamble – though he used soft language to do so. In a letter to Henry, he wrote:

“I loved him as a friend, but now, if he be a traitor, I am sorry that I ever loved him or trusted him […] I am very glad his treason is discovered in time, but again I am very sorrowful. For who shall your Grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him?”

It was a fair question – Henry turning on Cromwell may well have been the stupidest move of his reign and that’s really saying something.

Thomas Cromwell

What Anne truly thought of all of this can only be guessed at, but she would have known well Henry’s track record and the fate of his earlier wives. Given Katherine Howard’s place in her household, she also understood what exactly was about to or had already begun to transpire between the girl and her husband. Ten days after Cromwell’s arrest she complained to the Cleves emissary stationed in London that Henry was disrespecting her by paying Katherine too much attention. Two days after that he took his leave of her, cheerfully and without cause for suspicion – they never met again as husband and wife.

On June 24th, Anne was sent from court to Richmond Palace on the King’s orders. It was similar to how Katherine of Aragon had been treated in the later stages of her own divorce – gradually moved away from Henry. Anne and her countrymen feared the worst, but in a post-Anne Boleyn world, the worst was not divorce but execution.

On July 6th Anne was finally put out of her misery – Henry was pushing for divorce, fumbling through various legal arguments that would render the marriage null and void. But Anne, without a child to fight for and a good template for what resistance looked like, readily agreed. When handed a notice outlining Henry’s intent to submit their union for inspection, she assented, saying “that she is content always with your Majesty’s [desires.]”

This may not, however, have been informed consent. Witnesses later remarked that Anne never read the letter and instead agreed to its terms immediately. Perhaps she didn’t care, knowing that regardless of what it said her best bet was to give into the King. Then again, it’s also possible she threw in the towel not realizing what she was doing.

Three days later another delegation arrived at Richmond requiring Anne’s written consent to the proceedings and it is then that reality seems to have set in. Upset that she was on her way to being discarded and unsure of the ramifications, she refused to offer anything in writing and instead only gave verbal reaffirmation.

The following day she was offered a choice: agree to the divorce and Henry would honor Anne by giving her the role of his “sister” and take care of her financially, or resist and face God knows what. She took the deal.

Richmond Palace

Henry gave her Richmond Palace, as well as Bletchingley, for residences and an annual income of £4,000. She was also told she was always welcome at court and would be greeted each and every time as the dear and honored sister of the King.

Anne accepting these terms is remarkable. Not only did she seemingly transition peacefully from wife to sister, but she chose to stay in England instead of return to Cleves. Given that she had been in England for less than a year, it’s notable that she never once left the country, not even to visit her family. The answer to that may be found in an offhand remark she made around the same time that if she did return, her brother the Duke “would slay me.”

William V, Duke of Cleves

Whatever dishonor she may have brought Cleves, she took care of herself. While Katherine Parr is given the moniker of “Survived” in the old rhyme, Anne outlived them all, not dying until 1557 in the reign of her former stepdaughter, Mary I.

As for Katherine Howard, she and Henry were married just days later on July 28, 1540, the same day Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill.

Leave a Reply