Anne of Cleves, Queen of England

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 to the left. 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. 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 15, 1557. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Read about the fifth wife Catherine Howard.

Resources: “Great Harry” by Carolly Erickson, “Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister” by Robert Hutchinson

(c) 2012

About Susan Abernethy

Susan Abernethy has a degree in history and is a member of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association and the Historical Association in Britain. Her blog, The Freelance History Writer has been continuously publishing historical articles since 2012, with an emphasis on European, Tudor, medieval, Renaissance, Early Modern and Women’s history. She is currently working on a biography of a prominent Stuart royal.
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8 Responses to Anne of Cleves, Queen of England

  1. Susan Ozmore says:

    Sounds like she got a pretty good deal! Was she able to marry or have children? Or did the “The King’s Beloved Sister” have to remain a virgin? All of these ladies are interesting Susan! Good read. Thanks.

    • Susan Abernethy says:

      Thanks a bunch. I don’t think she was required to be a virgin for the rest of her life but she chose to remain so. She never remarried or had children. She had a unique place in society at the time, not beholden to a brother or husband and was rich in her own right so she basically had it made. She was the luckiest of the wives for sure!

  2. Pingback: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” | Saints, Sisters, and Sluts

  3. Carolyn Lowder says:

    I had the impression that Anne was a shrewd player in the politics of court life and got credit with historians for playing her situation skillfully to survive and prosper. Am I confusing her with another character is Henry’s drama?

    • Susan Abernethy says:

      Carolyn: Thanks for reading about Anne Boleyn. You are absolutely right! Anne was a very shrewd player and was extremely instrumental in propelling the Protestant Reformation in England as well as working diplomatically in foreign policy and other matters. I find two things that worked to bring her down. One, she had the capacity to be shrewish and unpleasant with Henry and this was exacerbated when Henry’s eye began to wander to Jane Seymour. Jane was a polar opposite to Anne in temperment. Second, she went up against someone who was even more shrewd than herself, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was pushing for a French alliance and Anne wanted an alliance with Spain. When she began actively pursuing this alliance, Cromwell was threatened and pushed back with tragic consequences. See the biography on Thomas Cromwell in Resources on our page for more information.

  4. shoofscoop74 says:

    Wow those royalty do some wierd things! Did I read that right, that Anne was born in1515, but somehow was betrothed in 1512? I must agree that she does so far seem to be theluckiest of Henry’s brides.

    • Susan Abernethy says:

      Thank you for pointing out the error. It should read “at the age of 12”. Yes, royalty does interesting things in the name of politics and the succession!

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