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 even more than her life and her dignity.

Henry VIII chiefly married for romance with hopes 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, chief advisor Thomas Cromwell decided foreign policy should triumph over love in the pursuit of a new queen.

Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein c.1532/33


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  The devout, Catholic Catherine of Aragon had been superseded by the Protestant, fiery, independent and modern-cultured Anne Boleyn.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; his pursuit of Anne Boleyn added dramatic momentum to the English Reformation which slowed with Jane. Such tumultuous arrangements must have left ardent Protestant Cromwell with the impression the future success of English Reform 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 friends, signing a ten year truce.  This was over seen by Pope Paul III and demonstrated a show of Catholic solidarity.  England was left somewhat alone and friendless in a European context.  Thomas Cromwell became aware of a Protestant, European alliance.  The sister to William, Duke of Cleves (an enemy of Spain) proved available.


William, Duke of Julich-Cleves, Anne’s brother. Engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever.   

As 1538 turned into 1539, Thomas Cromwell began his skilful negotiation that would eventually seal the Cleves deal.  Through summer to autumn, Cromwell and his allies convinced the king that Anne of Cleves was perfect.  Henry had fallen in love with an idea.  By September Henry had seen a portrait of Anne produced by his trusted royal painter Hans Holbein.  He 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; she met Henry on New Years’ Day.

Anne of Cleves, Hans Holbein, 1539.




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 two.  King Henry and some revellers had entered Anne’s chamber in heavy disguise.  They found her watching a bull-fight 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 ‘thankyou’ 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.

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 on her part.  His pride and his belief in romance had been irrevocably damaged where Anne was concerned.  It also emphasised a cultural gap that would remain between them during their marriage.  Henry found himself almost disgusted by Anne’s appearance and presence as well as humiliated.  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.  Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves on 6th January 1540.

Naive or Shrewd?

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.  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.  Even simple relief and a reluctance to alter the status quo may have prevailed.  Anne would go on to reveal there was more to her than naivety and docility as she became more aware of the workings of the English court and 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 – opinions!

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, was 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 there was also 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 Henry 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 was able to take the courageous decision to consent only verbally.  This bought her time to plan and consider his subsequent offer as yet having signed nothing.  The verbal message was clearly to his liking.  Her submissively worded answer encouraged his generosity.  The settlement offered would give her higher status than all other ladies in England, excluding the new queen, several estates and a very comfortable annual allowance of approximately £4000.  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 able 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 kept her life and remained wealthy, settled and single for the most of the rest of it.  She enjoyed a luxurious freedom seldom experienced by her female contemporaries and outlived all of Henry’s wives.  After Henry’s death she experienced financial loss when Edward VI replaced two of the properties bestowed to her by Henry, Richmond and Bletchingly, with the Manor of Penshurst and Dartford Priory. Anne died while at Chelsea Manor on 16 July 1557.  She left her jewellery to her stepdaughters. On 4 August, Anne of Cleves’ funeral took place at Westminster Abbey. She was highly respected by many writers, one of whom praised her gentleness and devotion to her religious path.

Henry Never at Fault

Henry, as always, needed to punish someone to truly settle such a 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 more 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 be-headed shortly after the marriage was dissolved.

A couple cannot passionately hate if they never passionately loved, so Anne of Cleves kept her head.  She was skilfully quick to succumb knowing she could not win.  Henry did not feel bitter, vengeful and let down because he had no love or expectations of her.  Anne had revealed a lack of naivety and yet played the part of docile and accepting with easy skill.  Her desire to be independent of Cleves also propelled her decision.  She clearly wasn’t unintelligent she must have seen Henry’s desire for Katherine would make a hasty agreement favourable to generous terms.  Anne was quick to learn English language and customs, so it is fair to assume she learnt with speed, how to manage Henry’s inflated pride.

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


Starkey, David. (2004). Six Wives. The Queens of Henry VIII, London, Vintage Books.

Fraser, Antonia. (1992). The Six Wives of Henry VIII, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

All images from Wiki Commons.