By Roland Hui
Anne of Cleves – Henry VIII’s Luckiest Wife?
By Roland Hui
Of Henry VIII’s six wives, Anne of Cleves has the distinction of not only outliving him, but also his other Queens. That she also emerged unscathed from her marriage (unlike the unfortunate Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard) and ended up a wealthy divorcee, has many describe her as Henry’s luckiest wife.
But did Anne of Cleves see herself that way? Although there were reports of her being joyous and spending her time as a free woman in endless rounds of recreations and shopping sprees for new clothes, there were indications that her behaviour was a façade. In truth, Anne’s divorce from the King was crushing to her. So much so that, when the opportunity arose, she even wanted him to take her back.
Misconceptions about Anne begin with her early life in Germany. The daughter of Duke John III of Cleves, she was brought up by her mother the formidable Mary of Julich-Berg-Ravensberg, a lady who ‘very straightly looketh to her children’. Of her siblings, Anne – a girl of ‘very lowly and gentle conditions’ – was particularly close to her mother. The Duchess, it was said, was ‘very loath to suffer her to depart from her.’ This implied a meekness in Anne, perhaps even a reluctance to ever leave the comfort of home and family to marry.
However, when the King of England sought her hand as his fourth wife in 1539, Anne appeared to have regarded the marriage with eager anticipation. Unlike the lovely Christina of Denmark, whom Henry VIII’s fancy had alighted upon previously, Anne had apparently no fear of marrying a man whom Christina thought was another Bluebeard. From what she had heard of Henry’s three late Queens, the first ‘was poisoned, the second was innocently put to death, and the third lost through lack of keeping in her childbed’. There were no reports that Anne shared such worries. On her journey to England to be made a married woman, her only concern was to make herself an agreeable companion to her future husband.
At a stopover at Calais, Anne was made aware that her fiancé was especially fond of gambling. Seeking out one of the King’s officials, the Admiral William Fitzwilliam, she had him teach her one of Henry’s favourite card games. Later, she even invited Fitzwilliam and his fellow Englishmen to her table to sup in order to learn more about her new country and its people. When Fitzwilliam declined out of modesty, she insisted he sit with her.
Anne’s enthusiasm was even more evident when she would not even let foul weather hinder her way to the King. When a snowstorm threatened to delay her at Canterbury, it was Anne who insisted that she and all her party set out for Rochester nonetheless. She was ‘so desirous to make haste to the King’s Grace’, the Duke of Suffolk remarked, ‘that Her Grace forced for no other.’ So much for the shy and withdrawn young woman many historians have made Anne out to be.
Despite Anne’s zeal, the meeting with Henry VIII at Rochester was a disaster. For reasons that remain mysterious to us, he took an instant dislike to her. However, the papers were signed, and the couple were duly wed on January 6, 1540. Although Henry was unfailingly polite to Anne, he shunned her bed, claiming impotence (he was still a most virile man, Henry insisted, but just not with his wife). Not only that, in private he complained about her supposed ugliness, and he even grumbled that she was probably not the virgin she claimed to be owing to her unattractive figure.
On the other hand, as her ladies would later claim, Anne was definitely still ‘a maid’; she was clueless as to what sex really was. According to them, the Queen stated that by just lying next to the King, she could become pregnant without intercourse! As this story only later came about during Henry VIII’s efforts to annul his union with Anne, it can be dismissed as an outright fabrication. A lie to confirm that the royal marriage was never consummated, making it easier for the King to get rid of her. Such a tall tale made Anne look pathetically naive and, even today, some historians give it credit. But we need not believe it. It is inconceivable that Anne, a woman who was determined to be a success as Queen of England, would have been so dense as to what was expected of her in the royal bedchamber. Also, Anne’s English was still too limited to allow her to converse with ease with her English ladies, much less on a subject so intimate.
Anne’s disappointment with her marriage (the King rarely, if ever, slept with her), led her to seek out Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister, who had arranged their match. However, Cromwell put her off repeatedly as he thought himself incapable of dealing with such private matters. Frustrated, she began to wax ‘stubborn and wilful’ with her husband, as the King himself would complain. This was a woman who would not sit still and be silent when her happiness was at stake.
‘The pretended marriage’ as even Anne herself would later call it, came to an end in July when it was told to her that the King had doubts about its validity (Anne was formerly betrothed – and actually still was – to another man Francis of Lorrain, according to English lawyers). As many historians would tell it, as well as Hollywood with ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933) and television with’ The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ (1970), Anne was very eager and willing to be free of the notorious Henry. But nothing was farther from the truth. According to Karl Harst, the German envoy, his mistress was devastated. ‘She does weep and bitterly cry,’ he wrote her family, ‘in such a manner as would move a stone heart to pity.’
Ultimately, Anne had no choice but to give in. In return, she accepted a handsome settlement and was even adopted as the King’s ‘sister.’ Anne was reported to be most content, and when the King married his fifth wife Katheryn Howard, Anne bore her no grudge. However, when Katheryn fell, Anne saw it not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity – a second chance for herself. Would the King take her back? But when her German representatives put out feelers at the English Court, they received an unequivocal ‘no’. Anne was further embittered when her ex-husband took a new wife, Katharine Parr. Although she was never heard to say an unkind word about anyone, Anne was heard to complain how the new Queen was less beautiful than herself.
Far from being the ugly and dim lady many historians and popular culture have made her out to be, Anne of Cleves was far from that. She was reasonably attractive (just take a look at Hans Holbein’s portraits of her) and her efforts to be a success in England show Anne to be a woman of courage, determination, and initiative. By no fault of hers, her husband was entirely unattracted to her and, being King, he was allowed to have his way in the end. Perhaps it was in death that Anne of Cleves was vindicated. Of all of Henry VIII’s wives, she alone was laid to rest in the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, the great burial place of the Kings and Queens of England.
Roland Hui received his degree in Art History from Concordia University in Canada. After completing his studies, he went on to work in Interpretive Media for California State Parks, The U.S. Forest Service, and The National Park Service.
Roland has written for Renaissance Magazine and for Tudor Life Magazine. He blogs about 16th-century English art and personalities at Tudor Faces at: tudorfaces.blogspot.com.
Ten remarkable women!
One remarkable era!
In the Tudor period, 1485–1603, a host of fascinating women sat on the English throne. The dramatic events of their lives are told in The Turbulent Crown: The Story of the Tudor Queens of England.
The Turbulent Crown begins with the story of Elizabeth of York, who survived conspiracy, and dishonour to become the first Tudor Queen, bringing peace and order to England after years of civil war. From there, the reader is taken through the parade of Henry VIII’s six wives – two of whom, Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard, would lose their heads against a backdrop of intrigue and scandal.
The Turbulent Crown continues with the tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, the teenager who ruled for nine days until overthrown by her cousin Mary Tudor. But Mary’s reign, which began in triumph, ended in disaster, leading to the emergence of her sister, Elizabeth I, as the greatest of her family and of England’s monarchs.
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