Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves

Q1: Read the introduction. Why did Henry VIII decide to marry for the fourth time? Who did he consider marrying before selecting Anne of Cleves.

A1: Thomas Cromwell told Henry VIII that he should consider finding another wife for diplomatic and political reasons. Both Marie de Guise and Christina of Denmark rejected him before he decided to marry Anne of Cleves.

Q2: Why did Thomas Cromwell want Henry VIII to marry Anne of Cleves?

A2: The French and Spanish monarchs supported the Catholic Church. Cromwell thought it was important to form an alliance with the Protestants in Saxony. One way of doing this was to marry Anne of Cleves, the daughter of John III, the Duke of Cleves.

Q3: According to John Guy (source 2), why did Thomas Cromwell's "career lay in the balance".

A3: Thomas Cromwell persuaded a reluctant Henry VIII to marry Anne of Cleves. If the marriage was not successful he was have to deal with a very angry king and faced the possibility of losing his government post and even his life.

Q4: Study sources 3, 4 and 5. Why did some people predict that Henry VIII might be dissatisfied with Anne of Cleves as a companion?

A4: Nicholas Wotton (source 3) warns that Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves might have problems communicating as they do not share a common language. Wotton and David Loades (source 4) point out that Anne could sing nor play any musical instrument. Young women in the Royal Court were expected to do both of these things. Loades adds that she had received "no education worthy of the name, being mainly trained in modesty of thought and expression". Loades goes on to argue that "none of this might have mattered if she had been a striking beauty, but unfortunately the poor girl did not possess that quality either." Kelly Hart (source 5) agrees "none of this would have mattered if her looks had appealed to the king".

Q5: Give as many reasons as you can why Duke William of Cleves was reluctant to allow Hans Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves.

A5: Duke William of Cleves 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 Hans 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.

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.

Duke William of Cleves puritanism was clearly a factor in his reluctance to allow Hans Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves. However, others have suggested that William feared that if Henry saw her face he might have called off the wedding.

Q6: Helen Langdon states "Holbein was placed in an impossible position: dispatched to Düren with orders to produce an instant likeness of Henry VIII's next intended bride, he needed to exercise diplomacy and tact" (source 9). Use the information in the other sources to explain how Holbein solved this problem.

A6: Hans Holbein faced the problem of trying to please both Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. Holbein's biographer, Derek Wilson (source 10) points out that it would have been far too dangerous to have "improved on nature" with his portrait of Anne of Cleves. Instead, all "he could do was attract attention away from the features by making the most of jewellery, elaborate court dress and gem-studded hair-covering". Holbein also attempted to communicate in a very subtle way his true feelings: "He had to do what he could to sound a note of caution. That meant that he was obliged to express his doubts in the painting." According to Wilson, Holbein intended giving the broadest hint he dared to the king. "Henry would not ask his opinion about his intended bride, and the painter certainly could not venture it. Therefore he communicated unpalatable truth through his art. He could do no more."

Helen Langdon (source 9) supports this view: "Anne's dress seems to have fascinated him more than the strangely lifeless symmetry of her features."

David Starkey (source 11) argues that Holbein, "contrary to legend, does not appear to have flattered Anne". He points out that Holbein's painting of Anne of Cleves reflects closely the report sent by Nicholas Wotton. Alison Weir (source 8) is therefore not surprised that Henry VIII decided to marry Anne after seeing the portrait.

Q7: How did Henry VIII react when he met Anne of Cleves for the first time? What were the long-term consequences for Hans Holbein?

A7: According to Antonia Fraser (source 12), Henry VIII told Sir Anthony Browne, soon after he had seen her for the first time: "I like her not", said Henry VIII. He asked Thomas Cromwell to cancel the wedding treaty. He replied that this would cause serious political problems and Henry married Anne of Cleves on 6th January 1540.

Helen Langdon (source 9) claims that the portrait "cost Holbein dear in prestige, and he received no further important work from this quarter". This is in fact untrue. After his marriage to Anne of Cleves, the king actually commissioned two more portraits from Holbein, his son, Edward, and his future wife, Catherine Howard.