Poor Anne of Cleves was sitting at the home of her brother the Duke of Cleves, minding her own business when who do you think came calling? King Henry VIII of England. He sent his trusted and favorite painter, Hans Holbein The Younger, to the Duke’s court to paint portraits of Anne and her sister Amelia to determine if they would be suitable brides. The result of his painting is above. Henry certainly thought Anne looked attractive enough in the painting. The next thing Anne knew, she received an offer of marriage from the notorious King.
Henry’s third Queen, Jane Seymour, had died in October 1537. Henry went into a deep depression. It was about this time he began to eat uncontrollably and put on the massive weight that he is known for. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister was already conspiring to find his master a new wife but Henry didn’t really want to think about marriage again.
In June of 1538, King Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor met with the Pope for mediation and signed a truce that ended years of war. This powerful Catholic alliance resulted in forcing Protestant England into isolation. Cromwell was searching for a Protestant alliance to counterbalance power. He turned to the Germanic states within the Schmalkaldic League which included the Duchy of Cleves. Duke William of Cleves had two sisters who were of the right age for possible marriage to Henry.
Anne was born in 1515 in Dusseldorf. Cleves was not a cultural backwater. The dukes patronized humanist scholars, musicians and artists. The Cleves dukes were unusual in that they spoke French as well as their own language. Anne’s mother supervised her education which consisted of reading, writing, German and needlework. At the age of 12, she was betrothed to the Duke of Lorraine who was only ten at the time. This arrangement was cancelled in 1535. By July 1539, Cromwell’s scheme for Henry to marry a Protestant princess was progressing and Holbein was sent to paint his portraits. Henry was satisfied with what he saw in the painting and by December of 1539, Anne was on her way to England to meet her future husband.
One of the most unusual incidences of Henry VIII’s reign occurred at this time. On New Year’s Day 1540 Henry decided to “surprise” his bride and rode in disguise to Rochester where Anne was staying. He barged into her room. She had no idea who he was and was very confused. She spoke no English so communication was limited. She basically ignored him and Henry left in huge disappointment. This was not an auspicious beginning to their relationship.
Henry returned to court and immediately made it known he did not want to marry Anne. He was not attracted to her sexually. Cromwell convinced him to marry Anne for the good of the kingdom and Henry went through with the ceremony on January 6, 1540. Henry made sure the union wasn’t consummated and apparently Anne had no knowledge of carnal matters. The lack of sexual consummation and the prior engagement of Anne and the Duke of Lorraine were used as an excuse to have the marriage annulled.
Anne’s last appearance as Queen at court was on May 1, 1540 at the May Day celebrations. The marriage was declared null and void on July 9th and Henry sent a deputation to Anne to tell her the marriage was over. Understandably, Anne was terrified she would meet the fate of Anne Boleyn. She wrote a letter to Henry agreeing to his terms and in return received a very generous settlement. She was to be “The King’s Beloved Sister” and have the highest place at court behind Henry’s future wife and his daughters. She could keep her clothes, plate and gold and a household appropriate to her rank. She was given substantial property and income. And she wrote to her brother saying she was happy with the settlement. Anne certainly didn’t want to return to Cleves so everyone was gratified with the outcome.
One of the greatest consequences of this story is the downfall of Thomas Cromwell. Henry considered this marriage a colossal blunder and someone had to pay. Cromwell was arrested June 10, 1540, went to trial, found guilty and executed on July 28th. Henry’s reign suffered it’s greatest loss with Cromwell’s death. He was ruthless but effective and Henry never found another chief minister to match his capabilities.
Anne lived out her days in England comfortably and in the good graces of the King. When Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife was executed on February 13, 1542, Anne and her brother hoped Henry would marry her again but it was not to be. She lived to see Princess Mary crowned Queen, dying on July 16, 1557. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Further reading: “Great Harry” by Carolly Erickson, “Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister” by Robert Hutchinson, entry on Anne of Cleves in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Retha M. Warnicke