When we discuss Henry VIII, we talk about his six wives- the faithful one, the coquette, the mother, the ugly one, the flirt and the nurse. Anne of Cleves was famously called by Henry VIII “the Flander’s Mare” and claimed that he was incapacitated by her “slack breasts” and “evil smells”. But what do we know of this woman, who was defamed throughout England as too unattractive to marry?
Anne was born September 22, 1515 to Duke Johann III the late Duke of Juliers-Cleves. She was the second daughter, and had a brother William, who became the Duke after her father’s death, and a sister Amalia. Sybille was an older sister. Anne was descended from both Edward I of England and John II of France. The prevailing myth is that Juliers-Cleves was a backward part of the world. However, it was an independent part of the Holy Roman Empire. Her father was a patron of Erasmus, the famous Dutch Renaissance scholar, and was a good ruler. The court was just with low taxes and was relatively unaffected by the religious storms sweeping Germany. Johann’s wife, Maria, raised their daughters as Catholics, although Duke William became a Protestant when he succeeded to his father’s title.
Unlike Henry’s previous wives, Anne’s education was limited. She only spoke German and did not play a musical instrument, a distinct handicap in the English court and paired with musically talented Henry. At age 12, Anne was betrothed to Francis, son of the Duke of Lorraine. This was not unusual for a girl at that time. The prospective groom was only 10, so there was no hurry for the marriage. Eventually, the support for this marriage petered out and the betrothal was put aside. However, it would cause problems for Anne later in life.
In 1539, famous Tudor court painter Hans Holbein arrived at her home to pain her and her sister, Amalia. They were under consideration to be the next wife of King Henry VIII. Jane Seymour had died after giving birth to the future Edward VI. Henry had remained single for a record two years after Jane’s death, but was now casting about looking for a new wife, someone who could give a spare to go with his heir. Also in the running were Christina of Milan and Marie de Guise. Christina was quoted as saying she would marry Henry if she had two heads, and Marie de Guise ended up marrying Henry’s nephew, James V of Scotland. It is thought Henry’s chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, pushed him in the direction of an alliance with Cleves. Cleves could stand as a buffer between England and the Holy Roman Empire and France. France and the Holy Roman Empire had just signed a treaty setting the two of the against England. A buffer was going to be necessary. But Henry couldn’t marry anyone, and was very concerned Anne would be up to his standards. Cromwell reassured Henry “Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady [Anne] as well for the face as for the whole body… she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon.” Not wanting to take any chances, Holbein was dispatched. Henry must have liked what he saw because the treaty was signed on October 4, 1539 and Anne was on her way a few weeks later.
Please keep in mind that at this time Henry was no longer the golden young king of his youth. He was close to 50 years old had become rather grotesque. He had gained untold amounts of weight and portraits show his small eyes and rosebud mouth buried in fat and he appears to have no neck. The circumference of his doublets were said to measure 52 inches. “The king was so stout that such a man has never been seen,” reported a visitor to court. “Three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet.” He was not a young girl’s dream husband, but Anne was royal. She knew her duty.
Anne appeared in Rochester Castle on New Year’s Eve. In keeping with chivalric tradition, Henry came to her in disguise. According to Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, who was kept abreast of all the latest gossip, the meeting did not go well. His reports say, “On New Year’s Eve the duke of Norfolk with other knights and the barons of the exchequer received her grace on the heath, two miles beyond Rochester, and so brought her to the abbey of Rochester where she stayed that night and all New Years Day. And on New Years Day in the afternoon the king’s grace with five of his privy chamber, being disguised with mottled cloaks with hoods so that they should not be recognized, came secretly to Rochester, and so went up into the chamber where the said Lady Anne was looking out of a window to see the bull-baiting which was going on in the courtyard, and suddenly he embraced and kissed her, and showed here a token which the king had sent her for New Year’s gift, and she being abashed and not knowing who it was thanked him, and so he spoke with her. But she regarded him little, but always looked out the window…. and when the king saw that she took so little notice of his coming he went into another chamber and took off his cloak and came in again in a coat of purple velvet. And when the lords and knights saw his grace they did him reverence…. and then her grace humbled herself lowly to the king’s majesty, and his grace saluted her again, and they talked together lovingly, and afterwards he took her by the hand and led her to another chamber where their graces amused themselves that night and on Friday until the afternoon.” There is speculation that this meeting was even worse than is portrayed, but we cannot know for sure.
At any rate, Henry was not pleased with his new bride. He blamed others for over praising her beauty, but luckily never went after Holbein, who remained court painter. However, despite popular legend, Henry never called Anne a “Flanders Mare”. That was a story popularized by Bishop Gilbert Burnet in the late 17th century. However, Henry did look for any way to get out of the wedding. Plus, the truce between France and the Holy Roman Empire was disintegrating, so the diplomatic reasons for the marriage were gone as well. Unable to find an excuse, Henry went through with the marriage, but Anne’s days as queen were numbered. There is a detailed account of the wedding night, and it is much less salacious than anyone would imagine. It was reported the king inspected his new wife’s body and complained of the “looseness of her breasts” and declared she was “no maid”. He confided she could not “provoke any lust” in him and he left her a maid. Henry was quick to insist to his physician that didn’t mean he was impotent as he had two “wet dreams”.
This had to be completely embarrassing for a young wife to hear. Additional testimony depicts Anne as completely ignorant of sex and what it took to make a son. The Countess of Rutland reported that Anne claimed Henry only kissed her goodnight and good morning, and that she thought this was normal for married people. Could she be this ignorant? It is possible. However, it must have been humiliating to have your new husband, who was no prize himself, discussing your “evil smells” and the “slackness of [your] belly”. It did not help matters that Henry had cast his eyes on young Katherine Howard, a very young beauty who was a lady in waiting to the queen. Henry had to be rid of Anne.
As architect of the Cleves marriage, Thomas Cromwell took the fall. He was arrested for treason and forced to give evidence for the annulment from the Tower. Eventually, he would be beheaded. The old betrothal to the Duke of Lorraine was brought into play as the reason the marriage was invalid. Fearing the fate of Anne Boleyn, Anne agreed even though she doomed herself to a life alone as she could not marry as long as the Duke of Lorraine was alive. Anne wrote a letter of submission to the king and was declared his “beloved royal sister”. From her new manors of Hever Castle, she watched her former lady in waiting Katherine Howard marry Henry.
However, Katherine didn’t fair well either as she was eventually sent to the block for adultery. At that time, Anne had her brother pursue possibly remarrying Henry to become queen again. Henry refused and married Catherine Parr. Anne was again humiliated and was said to have gone into a deep depression. Rumors went round that Anne had given birth to the king’s son, and was mentioned to the King’s Council at least twice. However, these rumors were dropped in 1542.
Anne outlived Henry and survived into the reign of his daughter Mary, and rode in her coronation procession in 1553. She died at Chelsea Manor on July 16,1557 at 42 of suspected cancer. Anne is the only one of Henry’s queens buried in Westminster Abbey.
Sources available on request