Dispelling Tudor Myths: Henry VIII and Anna, Duchess of Cleves

The story of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves has been distorted over the last five hundred years. Author and historian Heather R. Darsie has written a biography about Anna, Duchess of Cleves in which she delves into the political and geographical climate in the Low Countries during the sixteenth century and places the marriage into the proper context of German history. Many of the entities of the area were a part of the Holy Roman Empire and answered to Charles V. In this state of affairs, Henry VIII’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, sought a Protestant alliance to counterbalance Catholic influence in Western Europe.

Consequently, he made an arrangement with Wilhelm, Duke of Cleves for Henry VIII to marry his sister, Anna. Yes, Darsie confirms she was called Anna and also that she held the title of Duchess of Cleves. Darsie discovered in a primary source during her research that Anna’s birthday was June 28, 1515, not September, the date everyone believed for hundreds of years. Let’s take a look at some of the other myths about Henry’s fourth marriage.

Myth: Hans Holbein the Younger altered his portrait of Anna to enhance her beauty

Part of the negotiations for the marriage with Anna included a trip by court painter Hans Holbein the Younger to Cleves to depict Anna and her sister Amalia. Holbein was chosen for several reasons. He was one of Henry’s favorite painters and, most importantly, he had a reputation for realism in his portraits. Henry accepted Holbein’s vision of Anna and this is confirmed by the very fact the negotiations for the marriage went forward. It was only after the Cleves alliance became a problem that Henry had to state one of the reasons for annulling the marriage was his dislike of Anna’s appearance.

The reality is, Holbein remained in royal favor after the marriage fell apart and retained his job as a court painter until his death in 1543. Henry did not blame him for the debacle of the Cleves alliance and marriage. The courtiers who had written flattering reports about Anna were held responsible by the King. In fact, Hans painted his charming portrait of the future King Edward VI and presented it to King Henry as New Year’s gift in 1540.

Myth: Henry VIII’s first meeting with Anna went badly

There are two contemporary sources recounting the first meeting between the king and his betrothed, one of which came from an eye witness. Heinrich Olisleger held the position of Vice Chancellor of Cleves and was in England at the time of the meeting. A few days after this event, he wrote a letter to Anna’s brother Wilhelm.

Olisleger states Anna was in Rochester watching a bull-baiting with some of her German retinue when Henry came calling after lunch with ten or twelve gentlemen. The king and the men surrounding him were dressed as private persons, not in disguise as the legend states. Anna, having been brought up in a strict culture, was not used to having men come into her room, let alone greet her enthusiastically. Although she may have been caught off guard, she graciously returned the greetings of this representative of the king and invited him to dine her.

He gave Anna a beautiful New Year’s gift ‘from the King’. It was a crystal goblet of which the lid and foot were inlaid with diamonds and rubies. The goblet also contained an encircling golden band with more rubies and diamonds. The couple then dined together. Henry stayed overnight in Rochester, lodging away from Anna to guard her honor. In the morning, Henry, his men and Anna and her men all had breakfast together before Henry returned to Greenwich and Anna left for Dartford. It is unknown when or if Henry declared his true identity to Anna.

Hall’s Chronicle also has a description of the meeting:

“..the king which sore desired to see her Grace accompanied with no more than eight persons of his privy chamber, and both he and they all appareled in marble coats privily [privately] came to Rochester, and suddenly came to her presence, which therewith was somewhat astonished: but after he had spoken and welcomed her, she was most gracious and loving countenance and behavior him received and welcomed on her knees, whom he gently took up and kissed: and all that afternoon, communed and devised with her, and that night supped with her, and the next day he departed to Greenwich, and she came to Dartford.”

As we can see from these accounts, the meeting went well. It was only later, when Henry learned Duke Wilhelm had entered a dispute with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V over the geographically and economically strategic Duchy of Guelders that the story changed. Henry was on the verge of having to go to war with the Holy Roman Empire and needed to diplomatically extricate himself from the alliance with Cleves and from his marriage. Cromwell, commissioned with writing a letter with Henry’s reasons for annulling the marriage, invented the story of the ruinous first meeting.

Myth: Henry called Anna, Duchess of Cleves a ‘Flanders mare’

There is no contemporary source in existence for this comment. The first reference comes from the book “An Abridgement of Bishop Burnet’s History of the Reformation of the Church of England, Volume 1” written in 1679 by Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, who is not always a reliable source. He says Henry ‘swore they had brought over a Flanders mare to him’. But there is no earlier written historical evidence this comment was ever made by Henry. Also, Henry knew good and well Anna was not from Flanders.

Further reading: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” by Heather R. Darsie, “An Abridgement of Bishop Burnet’s History of the Reformation of the Church of England, Volume 1”, “In the Shadow of Burgundy: The Court of Guelders in the Late Middle Ages” by Gerard Nijsten

5 thoughts on “Dispelling Tudor Myths: Henry VIII and Anna, Duchess of Cleves

  1. Do you know if Henry’s alleged comments on her “maiden” state (based on the shape of her body) are documented?


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