Anne of Cleves: Henry’s Most Surprising Wife

The (in)famous portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein

Anne of Cleves, Hans Holbein

The last decade or so has seen some very challenging re-examinations and reinterpretations of some of the wives of Henry VIII, most notably Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. However, our picture (literally at times) of Anne of Cleves, short-live wife number four, has remained static and flawed.

Anne of Cleves appears on the English scene after the longest gap in Henry’s matrimonial career a full two years, three and a half months. Prior to this, Henry was last single thirty years before. Her predecessors were an indomitable Spanish princess, a sexy and ambitious French-styled Englishwoman, and the woman who finally produced the longed-for son. Henry, who harboured chivalrous, romantic ideas had high, perhaps unrealistic, hopes for wife number four.

1. She was pretty

Anne may forever be “the ugly one” to those looking at Henry’s marriages. Henry reported that she was so unattractive and her “body in such disorder” that he was unable to force himself to consummate the marriage.

Henry VIII in his forties, Hans Holbein

Henry VIII, Hans Holbein

However, what do other sources say? Our primary source is Holbein’s portrait which now hangs in the Louvre. There are two things to bear in mind when looking at this painting. Firstly, Holbein tended to be (sometimes brutally) frank in his portraits. The notion that all the portraits of the period were all flattery doesn’t stand up to challenge. Have a look at these paintings by Holbein of Henry and Jane Seymour. These are honest depictions, not soft-focused sycophancy. The second is, simply, that’s she has a pretty face which her unusual dress and headwear distract from. It’s certainly not a face one would expect anyone to be horrified by.

One of the few contemporary likenesses of Jane Seymour (Hans Holbein)

Jane Seymour, Hans Holbein

Anne’s journey to England was slow. Her brother the duke of Cleves insisted she travel over land and not by sea (as Henry impatiently wanted). As she travelled, there were many occasions for Englishmen to see her on her way. Several of them reported their impressions of her back to their countrymen. All of their reports were flattering. We must, of course, consider that no one is likely to have written that she was ugly, even if they thought it, but it’s quite another thing to be fulsome in your praise of someone’s attractiveness to someone who would see for themselves in a few weeks if you were disingenuous. Letters never likely to have been seen by Henry described her as pretty.

The real disadvantage Anne of Cleves had were her odd German clothes. The English court trailed some way behind the French court for sophisticated fashions (which Anne Boleyn had used to her advantage 15 years earlier), but German clothes were considered very unflattering. However, this problem which have quickly been solved with the purchase of some new gowns, and Henry was rarely loath to indulge his queens. It seems more likely that the myth of her unattractiveness had its roots in Henry’s unrealistic expectations and his impotence, which we know courtiers had gossiped about since George Boleyn’s trial in 1536, if not before.

2. She was a Catholic

People often assume that because the Cleves marriage was designed to ally Henry with the Schmalkaldic League of German Protestant lords, that Anne must have been Protestant. In fact, she was traditionally Catholic in her beliefs and through this formed a close bond with her step-daughter Mary. This continued long after her marriage was dissolved.

3. She outlived Henry and all his other wives

Katherine Parr is famed as the wife who survived. However the seconded divorcee also outlived her one-time husband. Not only that, she outlived both Katherine Parr and Edward VI. She died a little over a year before Mary and so never saw the bloody excesses of the end of her reign, or the accession of Henry’s second bastard daughter, Elizabeth.

4. She was shrewd

Although reports stated that she was distraught when she learned that Henry was to divorce her, she quickly regained her composure. She adopted a more pragmatic approach to her situation when she realised that Henry would not be dissuaded, . She negotiated the terms of her divorce. Fearing her brother would kill her if she want to returned to Cleves she set about securing herself a place in England. She became the king’s beloved sister and received from him a household and properties (including the former Boleyn family seat, Hever Castle though she never lived there).

Perhaps she knew of Catherine of Aragon’s fruitless intransigence and learned a lesson there, or perhaps she was simply a more practical person. Either way, Anne of Cleves left her marriage in a far better state than any of her three predecessors did.

5. The most successful wife?

It’s difficult to gauge Henry’s wives in terms of success. How would we measure it? Probably not in Henry’s terms (were we able to adequately assess them, beyond producing a son). Here are my suggestions.

Sons: Both Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour gave birth to living sons, but only Jane’s son Edward survived infancy. Jane was the most successful in this respect, but this must be tempered by the fact that doing so cost her her life.

Time served: Catherine of Aragon was successful in terms of the sheer longevity of her marriage to Henry. She clung on for almost 24 years. No other wife lasted more than four years (the closest was Katherine Parr at around three and a half).

Katherine Parr by an unknown artist

Katherine Parr, unknown artist

Survival: Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr both outlived Henry. Katherine, however, had a position at court after Henry’s death as the dowager queen. She was guardian to Elizabeth and had good relationships with all of her royal step-children. However, she jeopardised all of that in her unsanctioned and uncharacteristically hasty and ill-advised marriage to Thomas Seymour only a few months after Henry’s death (though one might note here that there was a longer gap here than Henry himself typically left between spouses!). This, her fourth marriage and the only one she made for love, was marked by betrayal and scandal. Katherine died of childbed fever the following year.

Anne of Cleves, however, secured a generous settlement from Henry. For the rest of Henry’s reign, she regularly visited court, even getting on well with her former husband. She never remarried (though whether that is a success or not I leave for you to decide!) and seems to have lived a contented and full life in England. She reputedly loved feasting and entertaining at her home at Richmond Palace.

Certainly, her life after her marriage seems to have been a happy one, which cannot be said for Katherine Parr. I would, therefore, posit that Anne of Cleves was the most successful of all the wives of Henry VIII*.

*Well, perhaps a dead heat with Katherine Parr as she had some particularly notable achievements too!

3 thoughts on “Anne of Cleves: Henry’s Most Surprising Wife

  1. Angelina

    She was definitely the prettiest of all his wives. I do believe he was not yet over Jane Seymour’s death and that his failure to “perform” was really HIS fault. I mean, in his younger years he could have had sex with anyone at all. To save face he had to blame her looks on his own failures. I think he kept her around because he really DID care for her. Go ahead, deny it, Henry! You know I’m right.

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