Anna, Duchess of Cleves, Queen of England

Poor Anna 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 court painter, Hans Holbein The Younger, to the Duke’s court to paint portraits of Anna and her sister Amalia to determine if they would be suitable brides. The result of his painting is above. Henry certainly thought Anna looked attractive enough in the painting. The next thing Anna 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 ending years of war. This powerful Catholic alliance resulted in forcing Protestant England into isolation. Cromwell searched for a Protestant alliance to counterbalance power. He turned to the Germanic states within the Schmalkaldic League and their supporters which included the Duchy of Cleves. Duke William of Cleves had two sisters who were of the right age for possible marriage to Henry.

Anna was born on June 28, 1515 in Dusseldorf with the title of Duchess of Cleves. Cleves was not a cultural backwater and the dukes were known for their patronage of humanist scholars, musicians and artists. The Cleves dukes were unusual in that they spoke French as well as their own language. Anna’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 an effort to cement the Cleves claim on the Duchy of Guelders but ended up being cancelled in 1535. By July 1539, Cromwell’s scheme for Henry to marry a Protestant princess progressed and Holbein was dispatched to paint his portraits.

Upon Holbein’s return, Henry seemed pleased with Holbein’s vision of Anna, and after contentious negotiations, they completed a marriage contract with a betrothal on September 4, 1539. Anna traveled to England, arriving in December. Henry, eager to meet his new wife, traveled to Rochester and, dressed as a private person with several men in attendance, met her on New Year’s Day. According to the two first-hand accounts of this meeting, it went well and Henry and Anna were married on January 6, 1540.

Cromwell had greatly miscalculated in making an alliance with the Germanic states. Anna’s brother, Wilhelm, had entered a dispute with Charles V over the ownership of the strategically located and economically important Duchy of Guelders. The claims of both men were tenuous and complicated, but by the time of Anna’s marriage to Henry, the argument had reached the point where they were on the brink of war. Because of the Cleve’s alliance, Henry was about to be drawn into a conflict with the Hapsburg Empire.

A Secret Council convened to consider a legal basis for extricating Henry from the Cleves alliance and his marriage to Anna. They searched Cromwell’s house for the marital contract between Anna and Francis of Lorraine, an arrangement made before Anna’s betrothal and which she had renounced before she married Henry VIII. The Secret Council also considered how they would break the news to Anna. These proceedings were meant to protect Anna’s honor and extricate England from the looming debacle of war.

They agreed Cromwell would write a memorandum suggesting Henry did not like Anna, and declaring the marriage had never been consummated. Anna would confess to this and the annulment of the marriage would allow both parties to wed again. In addition, they decided the marriage was legally null and void due to Anna’s pre-contract of marriage with Frances of Lorraine. They arrested Thomas Cromwell on June 10. Not long after, he was found guilty and executed on July 28th. Henry’s reign suffered a great loss with the death of Cromwell. He was ruthless but effective and Henry never found another chief minister to match his capabilities. The government from this point forward consisted of a Privy Council and would never again be dominated by a single, omnipotent minister.

Anna’s last appearance as Queen at court was on May 1, 1540 at the May Day celebrations. She was sent to Richmond, ostensibly to avoid the plague which was rampant at the time. With the execution of the plan of the Secret Council, Anna and Henry’s marriage was formally annulled on July 9th. Anna would be “The King’s Beloved Sister” and have the highest place at court behind Henry’s future wife and his daughters. She kept 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. Anna certainly didn’t want to return to Cleves so everyone was gratified with the outcome.

Anna lived out her days in England comfortably and in the good graces of the King. When Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was executed in February 1542, Anna 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 and was interred in Westminster Abbey.

Argument for the June 28, 1515 birth date for Anne of Cleves 

Further reading: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” by Heather R. Darsie, “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