Anne of Cleves – The Luckiest Queen?

Julie Wheeler summarises Anne of Cleves’s marriage to Henry VIII and the subsequent divorce and asks why Anne survived where others were not so fortunate.

Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, ended their lives on the executioner’s block as traitors.  Another, Catherine of Aragon, had been humiliated by him before all the courts of Europe.  It is surprising then, that a young woman from the Rhineland who barely spoke English, survived Henry and the machinations of the English court.  Anne of Cleves managed to marry him and escape his tyranny with her life and her dignity in tact.

Henry VIII married chiefly for romance and with the hope that true-love and God’s will would produce a plethora of healthy male heirs.  It was uncommon during the sixteenth-century for the nobility to opt for romance; marriage was usually a political or status-driven manoeuvre.  With wife number three, Jane Seymour, dead after producing Henry’s much longed for son, his chief advisor Thomas Cromwell decided that in the future foreign policy should triumph over love in the pursuit of a new queen.

Romance, Religion and Politics

Cromwell had his reasons.  How could Henry fall in love after the sad loss of the woman who gave him a legitimate son?  It would seem Henry could only fall in love when the object of his desire was the antithesis of his current spouse.  The devout, Catholic Catherine of Aragon had been superseded by the Protestant, fiery and cultured Anne Boleyn.  She in turn became despised in favour of the gentle, Catholic home-maker Jane Seymour.  Each new love would find events driven by a passionate single minded energy. Henry’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn added dramatic momentum to the English Reformation which slowed down during his marriage to Jane.

Such tumultuous arrangements must have left the ardent Protestant Cromwell with the impression that the future success of the English Reformation lie in the religious affiliation of England’s queen.  Thomas Cromwell would also have been very aware of the rather alarming news in June 1538 that Spain and France had united as allies, signing a ten year truce.  Overseen by Pope Paul III, it demonstrated a show of Catholic solidarity.  England was left somewhat alone and friendless in the context of European diplomacy.  Thomas Cromwell saw the opportunity of a Protestant, European alliance when the sister of William, Duke of Cleves (an enemy of Spain) became available for marriage.

Henry Falls In Love With a Painting

As 1538 turned into 1539, Thomas Cromwell began his skilful manipulation that would eventually seal the Cleves deal.  As summer turned to autumn, Cromwell and his allies convinced the king that Anne of Cleves was perfect.  Henry fell in love with the idea.  In September 1539 Henry saw a portrait of Anne produced by his trusted royal painter Hans Holbein (pictured) and, besotted, quickly disregarded concerns that Anne was already locked into a pre-existing betrothal to the son of the Duke of Lorraine. Anne of Cleves finally arrived in England in late December and met Henry for the first time on New Years’ Day.

The king was more than ready to turn this political tango into a romantic waltz.  Unfortunately a disastrous first encounter led to a distinct, and lasting, lack of synchronicity between the Henry and Anne.  King Henry and some revellers had entered Anne’s chamber in heavy disguise.  They found her watching a bullfight through the window.  One of the group stepped forward, kissed her and proffered a gift, informing her it was from the king.  Anne’s contemporary modesty dictated a ‘thank you’ and a shy resuming of her view of events through the window.  He tried to continue his amorous advance, only to be rejected with persistent, decorous modesty.

Anne’s Immense Failure

The advancing, disguised man was Henry.  Anne’s inability to use the ‘second sight’ of true-love in order to see through his disguise was an immense failure.  His pride and his belief in romance was irrevocably damaged where Anne was concerned.  It also symbolised the cultural gap that would remain between them during their marriage.  Henry, humiliated by the encounter, found himself almost disgusted by Anne’s appearance.

Despite attempts by his council to free him from the contracted betrothal he found himself trapped.  Immediate talks were resumed on the issue of the previous contract between Anne and the Duke of Lorraine in a bid to prevent the marriage.  The weight of proof behind this was simply not enough.  Europe was watching; contemporary laws and expectations meant Henry could not rescind.  The last thing England needed was Cleves becoming another enemy in Europe thus, reluctantly, on the 6 January 1540, Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves.

Initially Henry went through the motions, supplying Anne with a household befitting her new status and the court seemed happy.  Behind closed drapes however, the union remained unconsummated.  Henry wasn’t attracted to Anne; no doubt the feeling was mutual given Henry’s aging and obese condition.

Naive or Shrewd?

It starts to become unclear at this point whether Anne was naive or shrewd in her dealings with Henry.  Her apparent naivety was highlighted by a conversation between herself and one of her ladies, the widowed Lady Rochford.  It appeared Anne was under the impression that since the King had laid and slept beside her, she was no longer a virgin.  Could Anne truly have been so unworldly?  Such ignorance was rare but not impossible.  Anne’s overbearingly devout mother may have left her unprepared.  Perhaps she was shrewd enough to save the King’s public pride on this matter.

Anne reveals there was more to her than naivety and docility as she became more aware of the workings of the English court and as her English language skills improved.  She and Henry discussed marriage options for his eldest daughter Mary.  Henry later complained to Cromwell that Anne’s opinions in this matter showed her to be ‘stubborn and wilful’.  In other words, she possessed a resolute opinion.

An Uncertain Future

Anne anticipated a coronation around Whitsuntide.  Henry however had a new plan; he was in love again, this time with Anne Boleyn’s much younger cousin, Katherine Howard.  With Henry’s passion and determination stirred once more, Anne’s marriage was in jeopardy and so, arguably, her life.  It looked incredibly unlikely she would wear a crown.  Henry and his councillors squared their shoulders ready to battle for divorce and freedom yet again.

The result was rather different to his previous partings, it was resolved with speed.  Officials once more looked to Anne’s pre-contract with the Duke of Lorraine; fussing over technicalities with the wording and the issue of non-consummation.  On the pretext of her avoiding plague Anne was asked to leave court and reside at Richmond Palace.  She was well aware this move replicated events regarding the removal of Catherine of Aragon.

Her suspicions were confirmed when the King sent word to her that he believed their marriage invalid.  Some reports claim Anne was initially distressed at the news.  This distress was most likely borne out of fear.  She must have been afraid just how far Henry would go to be rid of her.  Where would she go?  Back to Cleves to a brother she feared would ‘slay her’ and a crushing maternal presence, amidst a humiliating debacle of a marriage?  Her whole future hung on the uncertainty of a tyrant’s whim.

Reality struck and Anne quickly regained her shrewd composure.  By the time Henry demanded written consent to his divorce proposal she took the courageous decision to consent only verbally.  Having signed nothing it bought her time to plan and consider his subsequent offer.  The verbal message was clearly to Henry’s liking and her submissively worded answer encouraged his generosity.

The settlement offered would give her a higher status than all other ladies in England, excluding the new queen, several estates and a very comfortable annual allowance of approximately £4,000.  She would be known as the ‘King’s Sister’.  All this for an uncomplicated exit from the marriage and, he stipulated, she remain in England.  Henry wished to avoid potential anger amongst foreign courts if she were to return to Cleves and incite trouble.

Anne was quick to evaluate the pros and cons and offer her acceptance, even asking if she may still enjoy Henry’s company at court occasionally.  Anne survived and remained wealthy, settled and single for the rest of her life.  She enjoyed a luxurious freedom seldom experienced by her female contemporaries and outlived all of Henry’s wives.

Henry Never at Fault

Henry, as always, needed to punish someone to truly settle the matter.  No blame should ever be apportioned to him.  Anne’s easy, friendly submission left only the orchestrator of the Cleves affair available.  The high-flying star of Thomas Cromwell was to fall.  His destruction closely mirrored that of Henry’s other wives.  He had been favoured and bestowed accordingly and then thrown down with charges of treason.  He was beheaded shortly after Henry’s marriage to Anne was dissolved.

A couple cannot passionately hate if they never passionately loved, so Anne of Cleves kept her head.  Knowing she could not win she had been skilfully quick to succumb.  Henry did not feel bitter, vengeful or let down because he had no love or expectations of her.  Anne had revealed a lack of naivety and yet played the part of a docile and accepting former wife with easy skill.  Her desire to be independent of Cleves had also propelled her decision.

She clearly wasn’t unintelligent and must have realised that Henry’s desire for Katherine would make a hasty agreement favourable to her.  Anne was quick to learn the English language and customs, so it is fair to assume she quickly learnt how to manage Henry’s inflated pride.

Anne’s perceptive interpretation of events and surroundings was coupled with luck.  She was lucky to have had previous examples not to follow, and fortunate have Thomas Cromwell take her place in Henry’s apportion of blame and, ultimately, on the executioner’s block.  Anne Boleyn’s motto had been, ‘The Most Happy’, Anne of Cleves should certainly have read, ‘The Most Lucky’.

Julie Wheeler

Read more in Henry VIII’s Wives: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.