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 Mary 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. He reported to Thomas Cromwell that "she (Anne of Cleves) occupieth her time most with the needle... She can read and write her own language but of French, Latin or other language she hath none... she cannot sing, nor play any instrument, for they take it here in Germany for a rebuke and an occasion of lightness that great ladies should be learned or have any knowledge of music." (12)
Cromwell was desperate for the marriage to take place but was aware that Wotton's reported revealed some serious problems. The couple did not share a common language. Henry VIII could speak in English, French and Latin but not in German. Wotton also pointed out that she "had none of the social skills so prized at the English court: she could not play a musical instrument or sing - she came from a culture that looked down on the lavish celebrations and light-heartedness that were an integral part of King Henry's court". (13)
Wotton was 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. (14) 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. (15)
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. (16)
Holbein's biographer, Derek Wilson, argues that he was in a very difficult position. He wanted to please Thomas Cromwell but did not want to upset Henry VIII: "If ever the artist was nervous about the reception of a portrait he must have been particularly anxious about this one... 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. If we study the portrait of Anne of Cleves we are struck by an oddity of composition.... Everything in it is perfectly balanced: it might almost be a study in symmetry - except for the jewelled bands on Anne's skirt. The one on her left is not complemented by another on the right. Furthermore, her right hand and the fall of her left under-sleeve draw attention to the discrepancy. This sends a signal to the viewer that, despite the elaborateness of the costume, there is something amiss, a certain clumsiness... 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." (17)
Unfortunately, Henry VIII did not understand this coded message. As Alison Weir, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) has pointed out, 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." (18)
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". (19)
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". (20) Antonia Fraser has argued that Holbein's painting was indeed accurate and Henry's reaction is best explained by the nature of erotic attraction. "The King had been expecting a lovely young bride, and the delay had merely contributed to his desire. He saw someone who, to put it crudely, aroused in him no erotic excitement whatsoever." (21)
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. (22)
Two of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford and Eleanor Manners, Countess of Rutland, 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. (23)
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. (24)
In the spring of 1540 Henry VIII met Catherine Howard who had joined the household which had been set up for Queen Anne of Cleves. (25) Alison Weir pointed out that at this time Henry was not in good health: "It had already therefore occurred to her that she might become queen of England, and this was no doubt enough to compensate for the fact that, as a man, Henry had very little to offer a girl of her age. He was now nearing fifty, and had aged beyond his years. The abscess on his leg was slowing him down, and there were days when he could hardly walk, let alone ride. Worse still, it oozed pus continually, and had to be dressed daily, not a pleasant task for the person assigned to do it as the wound stank dreadfully. As well as being afflicted with this, the King had become exceedingly fat: a new suit of armour, made for him at this time, measured 54 inches around the waist." Catherine was able to ignore these problems: "Catherine flattered Henry's vanity; she pretended not to notice his bad leg, and did not flinch from the smell it exuded. She was young, graceful and pretty, and Henry was entranced." (26)
On 6th May, 1540, Henry VIII told Thomas Wriothesley the "King liketh not the Queen, nor ever has from the beginning." Henry asked Thomas Cromwell to find a way out of this problem because he had found a woman who he wanted to become his fifth wife. Cromwell suggested that he should arrange a divorce from Anne. The most obvious reason was the question of non-consummation, in itself this was the clearest cause of nullity by the rules of the church, but it was one that was difficult to establish. (27)
Quarrels in the Privy Council continued and Charles de Marillac reported to François I on 1st June, 1540, that "things are brought to such a pass that either Cromwell's party or that of the Bishop of Winchester must succumb". On 10th June, Cromwell arrived slightly late for a meeting of the Privy Council. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." The captain of the guard came forward and arrested him. Cromwell was charged with treason and heresy. Norfolk went over and ripped the chains of authority from his neck, "relishing the opportunity to restore this low-born man to his former status". Cromwell was led out through a side door which opened down onto the river and taken by boat the short journey from Westminster to the Tower of London. (28)
On 12th June, Thomas Cranmer wrote a letter to Henry VIII saying he was amazed that such a good servant of the king should be found to have committed treason. He pointed out that he had shown "wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience as no prince in the realm ever had". Cranmer told Henry that he loved Cromwell as a friend, "but I chiefly loved him for the love which I thought I saw him bear ever towards your grace singularly above all others. But now if he be a traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason has been discovered in time. But yet again I am very sorrowful, for whom should your grace trust hereafter." (29)
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. (30)
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." (31)
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. (32)
On 21st July, 1540, Marillac was reporting that the marriage was over because of Henry's relationship with Catherine Howard: "The Queen appears to make no objection. The only answer her brother's ambassador can get from her is that she wishes in all things to please the King her lord, bearing testimony of his good treatment of her, and desiring to remain in this country. This, being reported to the King, makes him show her the greater respect." (33)
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. (34) 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". (35)
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. (36)
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.
She (Anne of Cleves) occupieth her time most with the needle... She can read and write her own language but of French, Latin or other language she hath none... she cannot sing, nor play any instrument, for they take it here in Germany for a rebuke and an occasion of lightness that great ladies should be learned or have any knowledge of music.
Henry VIII was fluent in several languages and most European princess could have communicated with him in at least Latin; but Anne only spoke her native German. She also had none of the social skills so prized at the English court: she could not play a musical instrument or sing - she came from a culture that looked down on the lavish celebrations and light-heartedness that were an integral part of King Henry's court. Yet none of this would have mattered if her looks had appealed to the king. It quickly became obvious that they did not.
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.
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... As it is, Anne's dress seems to have fascinated him more than the strangely lifeless symmetry of her features. Henry's displeasure at finding Anne of Cleves more like a "fat flanders mare" when she arrived for the marriage ceremony in January 1540 cost Holbein dear in prestige, and he received no further important work from this quarter.
Anne of Cleves... was pleasant, talentless, naive, lumpy... homely perhaps, but certainly not pretty... How was he (Holbein) to represent this truth in paint? Simplicity had been the appropriate technique with the Duchess of Milan. Holbein had deliberately concentrated attention on the face and hands; had let the girl's beauty speak for itself. With Anne of Cleves... exactly the opposite was called for. Holbein would not, dared not, improve on nature. 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 employed tempera on parchment, which he glued on to canvas when he reached London... If ever the artist was nervous about the reception of a portrait he must have been particularly anxious about this one... 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. If we study the portrait of Anne of Cleves we are struck by an oddity of composition. This is the most "square-on" portrait Holbein ever painted. Everything in it is perfectly balanced: it might almost be a study in symmetry - except for the jewelled bands on Anne's skirt. The one on her left is not complemented by another on the right. Furthermore, her right hand and the fall of her left under-sleeve draw attention to the discrepancy. This sends a signal to the viewer that, despite the elaborateness of the costume, there is something amiss, a certain clumsiness... 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.
Holbein, contrary to legend, does not appear to have flattered Anne. Instead, his painting and Wotton's pen-portrait are all of a piece. Both highlight the woman's gentle, passive character... But, in any case, by this point Henry was almost beyond putting off. For he had fallen in love, not as previously with a face, but with an idea. And his feelings were fed, not with images, but with words. All over the summer, Cromwell and his agents had told him that Anne - the beautiful, the gentle, the good and the kind - was the woman for him. Finally he had come to believe them. Only a sight of the woman herself might break the spell.
Sir Anthony Browne said that from the moment he (Henry VIII) set eyes on the Lady Anna, he was immediately struck with dismay... The important comment was that made by the King to Cromwell after he left the Lady Anna. "I like her not", said Henry VIII.
The question must now be raised as to what the King saw, compared to what he had expected to see: was there a deception and if so by whom? There are after all a number of candidates, not only Holbein, but the English agents and envoys abroad. Let us take the actual appearance of Anna of Cleves first: for this we are fortunate in having a first-hand description, written only a few days later by the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, who was not prejudiced in either direction, towards her beauty or her ugliness. Anna of Cleves looked about thirty, he wrote (she was in fact twenty-four), tall and thin, "of middling beauty, with a determined and resolute countenance." The Lady was not as handsome as people had affirmed she was, nor as young (he was of course wrong about that), but there was a "steadiness of purpose in her face to counteract her want of beauty". This in turn seems to fit well with Christopher Mont's careful reference to the "gravity in her face" which went so well with her natural modesty.
The "daughter of Cleves" was solemn, or at any rate by English standards she was, and she looked old for her age. She was solemn because she had not been trained to be anything else and the German fashions did little to give an impression of youthful charm in a court in love as ever with things French, or at any rate associating them with fun and delight. Although Henry VIII never actually "swore they had brought over a Flanders mare to him", the apocryphal story does sum up, as apocryphal stories often do, the profound cultural gap between the two courts of Cleves and England. Turning to Holbein's picture, one finds this solemnity well captured: a critic might indeed term it stolidity. Besides Nicholas Wotton, in his report, had confirmed that Holbein, generally regarded as the master of the "lively" or lifelike (not the flattering) in his own time, had indeed captured Anna's "image" very well.
Of course a beautiful young woman, however stolid or badly dressed, would still have been acceptable. Anna of Cleves was not beautiful, and those reports which declared she was were egregious exaggerations in the interests of diplomats - to this extent, the envoys are the real culprits, not the painter. But was Anna of Cleves actually hideous? Holbein, painting her full-face, as was the custom, does not make her so to the modem eye, with her high forehead, wide-apart, heavy-lidded eyes and pointed chin. There is indirect evidence that Anna of Cleves was perfectly pleasant looking from the later years of Henry VIII. When Chapuys reported Anna of Cleves as rating her contemporary, Catherine Parr, "not nearly as beautiful" as herself, this expert observer did not choose to contradict her so that the boast was presumably true, or at least true enough not to be ridiculous...
Then there is the question of Anna of Cleves' complexion. It may be that this was a problem: her own officials' protests about the damage to be done by a long sea voyage may have been a tactful way of handling it. When the King roared at his courtiers that he had been misinformed - by them amongst others, since they had seen her at Calais - the only explanation which could be stammered out was that her skin was indeed rather more "brown" than had been expected... the contemporary ideal was to be "pure white".
Even allowing for all this we are still left with something mysterious in the whole episode, and the sheer immediacy of the King's disappointment (followed by his indignation - which was, however, never directed at Holbein). The explanation must therefore lie in something equally mysterious, the nature of erotic attraction. The King had been expecting a lovely young bride, and the delay had merely contributed to his desire. He saw someone who, to put it crudely, aroused in him no erotic excitement whatsoever. And more intimate embraces lay ahead: or were planned to do so.
The Queen appears to make no objection. The only answer her brother's ambassador can get from her is that she wishes in all things to please the King her lord, bearing testimony of his good treatment of her, and desiring to remain in this country. This, being reported to the King, makes him show her the greater respect.