Anne of Cleves, the daughter of John III, Duke of Cleves was born in 1515. Her father was the ruler of the duchy of Juliers-Cleves. Like other principalities in the Holy Roman empire, was virtually independent of imperial authority, maintaining an army and conducting its own diplomacy.
As Retha M. Warnicke has pointed out: "Since the River Lippe joined the Rhine within its frontiers, and since its scattered territories lay across the lower Rhine, the route that connected the dominions of the Habsburgs in the Netherlands to their Italian principalities, the duchy occupied a position of very great economic and military significance." (1)
Since the death of Jane Seymour in October 1537, Henry VIII had shown little interest in finding a fourth wife. One of the reasons is that he was suffering from impotence. Anne Boleyn had complained about this problem to George Boleyn as early as 1533. His general health was also poor and he was probably suffering from diabetes and Cushings Syndrome. Now in his late 40s he was also obese. His armour from that period reveals that he measured 48 inches around the middle. (2)
However, when Thomas Cromwell told him that he should consider finding another wife for diplomatic reasons, Henry agreed. "Suffering from intermittent and unsatisfied lust, and keenly aware of his advancing age and corpulence" he thought that a new young woman in his life might bring back the vitality of his youth. (3) As Antonia Fraser has pointed out: "In 1538 Henry VIII wanted - no, he expected - to be diverted, entertained and excited. It would be the responsibility of his wife to see that he felt like playing the cavalier and indulging in such amorous gallantries as had amused him in the past." (4)
Cromwell's first choice was Marie de Guise, a young widow who had already produced a son. Aged only 22 she had been married to Louis, Duke of Longueville before his early death in June 1537. He liked the reports that he received that she was a tall woman pleased him. He was "big in person" and he had need of "a big wife". In January 1538 he sent a ambassador to see her. (5) When Marie was told that Henry found her size attractive she is reported to have replied that she might be a big woman, but she had a very little neck. Marie rejected the proposal and married King James V of Scotland on 9th May 1538. (6)
The next candidate was Christina of Denmark, the sixteen-year-old widowed Duchess of Milan. She married Francesco II Sforza, the Duke of Milan at the age of twelve. However, he died the following year. Christina was very well connected. Her father was the former King Christian II of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Her mother, Isabella of Austria, was the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Henry VIII received a promising report from John Hutton. "She is not pure white as (Jane Seymour) but she hath a singular good countenance, and, when she chanceth to smile there appeareth two pits in her cheeks, and one in her chin, the witch becometh her right excellently well." He also compared her to Margaret Shelton, one of Henry's former mistresses. (7)
Impressed by Hutton's description, Henry VIII sent Hans Holbein to paint her. He arrived in Brussels on 10th March 1538 and the following day sat for the portrait for three hours wearing mourning dress. However, Christina was disturbed by Henry's treatment of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and apparently told Thomas Wriothesley, "If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England's disposal." (8) Wriothesley told Cromwell that he should look for a bride "in some such other place". Henry was very disappointed as he loved the painting and looked at it on a regular basis. (9)
Thomas Cromwell suggested the name of Anne of Cleves, the daughter of John III. He thought this would make it possible to form an alliance with the Protestants in Saxony. An alliance with the non-aligned north European states would be undeniably valuable, especially as Charles V of Spain and François I of France had signed a new treaty on 12th January 1539. (10) As David Loades has pointed out: "Cleves was a significant complex of territories, strategically well placed on the lower Rhine. In the early fifteenth century it had absorbed the neighbouring country of Mark, and in 1521 the marriage of Duke John III had amalgamated Cleves-Mark with Julich-Berg to create a state with considerable resources... Thomas Cromwell was the main promoter of the scheme, and with his eye firmly on England's international position, its attractions became greater with every month that passed." (11)
John III died on 6th February, 1539. He was replaced by Anne's brother, Duke William. In March, Nicholas Wotton began the negotiations at Cleves but were frustrated by the stalling tactics of William. Eventually he signed a treaty in which the Duke granted Anne a dowry of 100,000 gold florins. (12) However, Henry refused to marry Anne until he had seen a picture of her. Hans Holbein arrived in April and requested permission to paint Anne's portrait. The 23-year-old William, held Puritan views and had strong ideas about feminine modesty and insisted that his sister covered up her face and body in the company of men. He refused to allow her to be painted by Holbein. After a couple of days he said he was willing to have his sister painted but only by his own court painter, Lucas Cranach. (13)
Henry was unwilling to accept this plan as he did not trust Cranach to produce an accurate portrait. Further negotiations took place and Henry suggested he would be willing to marry Anne without a dowry if her portrait, painted by Holbein pleased him. Duke William was short of money and agreed that Holbein should paint her picture. He painted her portrait on parchment, to make it easier to transport in back to England. Nicholas Wotton, Henry's envoy watched the portrait being painted and claimed that it was an accurate representation. (14)
Alison Weir, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) has argued that the painting convinced Henry to marry Anne. "Anne smiles out demurely from an ivory frame carved to resemble a Tudor rose. Her complexion is clear, her gaze steady, her face delicately attractive. She wears a head-dress in the Dutch style which conceals her hair, and a gown with a heavily bejewelled bodice. Everything about Anne's portrait proclaimed her dignity, breeding and virtue, and when Henry VIII saw it, he made up his mind at once that this was the woman he wanted to marry." (15)
Anne of Cleves arrived at Dover on 27th December 1539. She was taken to Rochester Castle and on 1st January, Sir Anthony Browne, Henry's Master of the Horse, arrived from London. At the time Anne was watching bull-baiting from the window. He later recalled that the moment he saw Anne he was "struck with dismay". Henry arrived at the same time but was in disguise. He was also very disappointed and retreated into another room. According to Thomas Wriothesley when Henry reappeared they "talked lovingly together". However, afterwards he was heard to say, "I like her not". (16)
The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, described Anne as looking about thirty (she was in fact twenty-four), tall and thin, of middling beauty, with a determined and resolute countenance". He also commented that her face was "pitted with the smallpox" and although he admitted there was some show of vivacity in her expression, he considered it "insufficient to counterbalance her want of beauty". However, as Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002) has pointed out "Holbein's miniature is by no means without charm, and compared with, say, the portrait of Queen Jane Seymour, her successor would seem to have little to be ashamed of." (17)
Henry VIII asked Thomas Cromwell to cancel the wedding treaty. He replied that this would cause serious political problems. Henry married Anne of Cleves on 6th January 1540. He complained bitterly about his wedding night. Henry told Thomas Heneage that he disliked the "looseness of her breasts" and was not able to do "what a man should do to his wife". Henry later claimed that he doubted Anne's virginity, because she had the fuller figure that he expected a married woman to have, rather than the slimmer one of a maiden. (18)
Two of her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Rutland and Viscountess Rochford, asked Anne about her relationship with her husband. It became clear that she had not received any sex education. "When the King comes to bed he kisses me and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me good night... In the morning he kisses me, and biddeth me, farewell. Is not this enough?" She enquired innocently." Further questioning revealled that she was completely unaware of what had been expected of her. (19)
Henry VIII was angry with Thomas Cromwell for arranging the marriage with Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, saw this as an opportunity to remove him from power. Gardiner considered Cromwell a heretic for introducing the Bible in the native tongue. He also opposed the way Cromwell had attacked the monasteries and the religious shrines. Gardiner pointed out to the King that it was Cromwell who had allowed radical preachers such as Robert Barnes to return to England. The French ambassador reported on 10th April, 1540, that Cromwell was "tottering" and began speculating about who would succeed to his offices. Although he resigned the duties of the secretaryship to his protégés Ralph Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley he did not lose his power and on 18th April the King granted him the earldom of Essex. (20)
Thomas Cromwell was convicted by Parliament of treason and heresy on 29th June and sentenced him to be hung, drawn and quartered. He wrote to Henry VIII soon afterwards and admitted "I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all". He finished the letter with the plea, "Most gracious prince I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy." Henry commuted the sentence to decapitation, even though the condemned man was of lowly birth. (21)
Anne of Cleves feared that her life was in danger. However, Henry made it clear that he was willing to accept an annulment of his marriage based on his inability to consummate the relationship. This was because he feared that she was the wife of another man, Francis, Duke of Lorraine. "His lawyers had to argue that his problem was relative impotence, an incapacity limited to one woman. This was often put down to witchcraft. But publicly the annulment was justified by reference to Henry's decision to refrain from consummation until he had ascertained that Anne was free to marry him, to Anne's contract with the son of the duke of Lorraine, and to Henry's reluctance to wed her." (22)
After she made a statement that confirmed Henry's account, the marriage was annulled on 9th July 1540, on the grounds of non-consummation. Anne of Cleves received a generous settlement that included manor and estates, some of which had been recently forfeited by Cromwell, worth some £3,000 a year. In return, Anne agreed that she would not pass "beyond the sea" and became the King's adopted "good sister". It was important for Henry that Anne remained in England as he feared that she might stir up trouble for him if she was allowed to travel to Europe. (23)
After the execution of Catherine Howard in 1542, Anne of Cleves, hoped to remarry Henry VIII. It was reported that Duke William initiated discussions but the King quickly rejected the idea. (24) They did exchange gifts that Christmas but became deeply depressed when he neglected to communicate with her. The problem became worse when he married Catherine Parr in July 1543. Henry responded by granting her more land. After his death on 28th January, 1547, Anne longed to return home and informed her brother that "England was not her country and that she was a stranger there". (25)
Anne suffered financial distress during the reigns of Henry's children. In 1547 the Privy Council of Edward VI confiscated Richmond and Bletchingley. Anne was allowed to attend the coronation of Queen Mary and on 4th August 1553, she wrote to congratulate her on her marriage to Philip of Spain. In an attempt to please Mary she became a Roman Catholic. (26)
Anne of Cleves died on 16th July 1557.
At Henry's first sight of Anne he doubted her virginity, because, as he later explained, she had the fuller figure that he expected a married woman to have, rather than the slimmer one of a maiden. He believed that she was Lorraine's wife, and had therefore been symbolically deprived of her maidenhead. Since the Cleves ambassadors had failed to bring a copy of the Lorraine contract with them, as they had promised, the English churchmen were unable to determine her marital status. On 3 January, after Henry had greeted her publicly on Blackheath Common, he instructed Cromwell to question her ambassadors about the validity of her Lorraine union. Having requested a day's delay (not two days', as some scholars maintain) to consider their response, they swore on 4 January that she was not the wife of Lorraine and promised to have a copy of the contract forwarded to England. As Anne agreed to sign a notarial instrument swearing that she was free to marry, Henry reluctantly resumed the wedding arrangements, primarily out of fear that François and Charles, who were celebrating the new year together in Paris, were planning to invade England.
Henry had sent Anne of Cleves down to Richmond in the middle of June, "purposing it to be more for her health, open air and pleasure", though he himself remained to seek his pleasure in the capital, paying frequent visits to Mistress Katherine Howard at her grandmother's house in Lambeth. The Queen would not, of course, have understood all the ramifications of the power struggle currently in progress at Court (they remain more than somewhat obscure to this day), but she was certainly alarmed by the sudden arrest of Thomas Cromwell on a charge of high treason, which took place a few days before her own banishment. Cromwell had been the chief architect of the Cleves marriage, and Anne naturally regarded him in the light of a friend and mentor. Whether she was really afraid that she might soon be joining him in the Tower is difficult to say, but in the circumstances she could hardly be blamed for feeling nervous about her future. According to one account, she fell to the ground in a dead faint when a delegation headed by the Duke of Suffolk arrived at Richmond, believing they had come to arrest her. Her visitors, however, quickly reassured her. They had, on the contrary, been instructed to offer her what Henry considered generous terms in exchange for his freedom : an income of five hundred pounds a year, the use of two royal residences, with an adequate establishment, plus the position of the King's adopted sister with precedence over every other lady in the land except the next queen and the princesses.
In March, Nicholas Wotton and Richard Beard began the negotiations at Cleves but were frustrated by the stalling tactics of Wilhelm, who was still attempting to conciliate the emperor. By late summer the ambassadors had achieved success, and Hans Holbein the younger was commissioned to paint a portrait of Anne, which Wotton swore was a faithful representation of her. Many contemporaries, including Wotton, praised her beauty. The first writer to ridicule her as a ‘Flanders mare’ and to insist that Holbein had flattered her was Bishop Gilbert Burnet, writing late in the seventeenth century.