History's Women Who Ruled: Anne of Cleves - The Wife Who SurvivedAnne of Cleves
The Wife Who Survived
1515–1557 A.D.

To historians the six wives of England’s Tudor monarch Henry VIII can be described as beautiful but tragic (Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) or well loved (Jane Seymour) and as a nurse-companion (Catherine Parr). Yet the fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, is perhaps difficult to classify After all, her short marriage was annulled but still, she also emerged as respected and content. In fact she might be classified as a survivor.

Yet sadly history has mislabeled her as the “ugly wife.”

Anna von Kleve, as she was known in German, was born 1515 as the second daughter of the Duke of Cleves, a German duchy which is located northwest of Dusseldorf, near the Dutch border. At age 11 she was unofficially betrothed to the son of another noble, but that was later cancelled. Then in 1539 she became a candidate to be Henry VIII’s fourth wife.

By that year Henry’s rival monarchs—the Holy Roman Emperor and the French king—had forged a mutual alliance—and the Pope had reissued an excommunication order for Henry. Though Anne’s father was not a Protestant, he too had barred Papal authority from his nation so England began to regard him as a likely ally, and part of an alliance treaty was a marriage with Anne.

Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, completed the arrangements and as the marriage came nearer, Henry wanted to know more about his bride. So he dispatched renowned court portrait artist Hans Holbein to Cleves to complete a portrait of the potential bride.

Writer/Historian Dr. Tracey Borman described the result. “…Holbein’s portrait showed a pretty young woman with fair hair, a doll-like face, delicate eyes, mouth and chin, and a demure, maidenly expression.”  Henry was pleased so after the treaty was signed and the match was confirmed. Anne arrived in England.

Their first personal meeting occurred at Anne’s temporary lodging when the king decided to make a sudden appearance—in disguise. There was a courtly love tradition that because of true love a woman should instantly recognize her betrothed (even in disguise) so he and others suddenly burst into her room where she was with her ladies and attendants. Confused and bewildered, Anne could only respond with horror and then disorientation, when Henry tried to embrace and kiss her. The intruders quickly left.

“I like her not! I like her not!” The dismissed king shouted at Cromwell. He had found that  Anne’s appearance failed to match Holbein’s portrait. As Dr. Borman described it: “In contrast to the petite stature of Henry’s first three wives, she was tall, big-boned and strong featured. Her face was dominated by a large nose, that had been cleverly disguised by the angle of Holbein’s portrait, and her skin was pitted with the marks of small pox.”

There is the tradition that Henry dubbed Anne the “Flanders Mare” but that term was actually coined many years later, and in fact most of the contemporary accounts of her appearance were generally complimentary. Still, the king’s initial rejection had ensured that Anne would henceforth be known as “ugly.”

Yet from Anne’s point of view, her fiancé was no prize himself.

Henry had previously suffered a leg injury after a jousting accident, and it had evolved into burst varicose ulcers that never really healed and often became infected. He was in ongoing pain, and frequently immobile, but since he also increased his eating and drinking, so he put on weight. In fact, what Anne saw was an overweight man with a 52″ waistline, and whose leg often reeked with infection and odor. He was also probably impotent.

But since not marrying Anne would be disastrous politically, he had to go through it. So they were married in January, 1540 but the wedding night was itself disastrous, to the King.

The next morning he informed Cromwell that “She is nothing fair, and has very evil smells about her.”  He also told a servant that “his bride was ‘indisposed to excite and provoke any lust’ and he ‘could never be stirred to know her carnally.’”

Yet on the surface the couple seemed content, at least from Anne’s point of view. She wrote her family that she was very happy, and the couple was often seen in public. In one case, just after the wedding they attended at a celebratory tournament, a contemporary writer praised her appearance. He wrote: “She was appareled after the English fashion, with a French hood, which so set forth her beauty and good visage that every creature rejoiced to behold her.”

Yet Anne must have been confused, particularly about the king’s love making approach—or lack of it.  She spoke kindly of her husband to one of her ladies and described his bedroom technique: “When he comes to bed he kisseth me and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me ‘Good night, sweetheart; and in the morning kisseth me and biddeth ‘Farewell, darling.’” One lady had to explain: “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a duke of York, which all this realm most desireth.’”

(Everyone knew that though Henry already had his heir—Prince Edward—and he would be anxious for a “spare” —a second son who traditionally bore the title of Duke of York).

Also, Anne’s education had been a great contrast to that of English noblewomen, since German girls learned household management skills and needlework. In contrast to the music and languages taught to English girls. As Dr. Borman wrote: “No matter how affable and eager to please the new queen was, her awkwardness rendered her an embarrassment, in the sophisticated world of the Tudor court.”

Anne was probably not aware of Henry’s dissatisfaction but she soon learned about it in June 1540 when there began an official inquiry to dissolve the marriage. When delegates arrived to question her she was at first shocked and then adamantly opposed. However, possibly because she remembered Henry’s treatment of his previous wives, she took the pragmatic approach and began to cooperate. On July 9 an annulment was decreed and was confirmed by Parliament.

It is possible that Henry was so pleased with her unquestioned compliance that he proved very generous of providing a generous settlement. Anne received several houses, a large monthly income and she was from then on to be considered “the king’s sister” taking precedence over all but his children or a future queen.

As Dr. Borman put it: “It says much for Anne’s strength of character that she managed to accept and adapt to her new life with dignity.”

After the King died in January, 1547 she continued to reside at Hever Castle, originally the home of Anne Boleyn. She entertained esteemed guests, including Princess Elizabeth, who was close to her. She easily kept up with the news from the court.

When Mary Tudor came to the throne at Edward’s death Anne and Elizabeth occupied a place of honor at the Queen’s coronation and took a prominent position in the royal procession. Anne retired from court again, and spent her last days out of the public eye. She died in July, 1557 at age 41, and the admiring Queen Mary arranged for a funeral and burial at Westminster Abbey.

Though she was Queen of England for just months, and almost forgotten by history, Anne of Cleves indeed proved that a wise and pragmatic approach. This enabled her to survive precarious existence of Henry’s wives.


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

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