One of the lasting myths about Anne of Cleves is that she was said to be so unattractive, her marriage to King Henry VIII was never consummated because he couldn’t stand the sight of her.
In fact, the King famously told his ministers, “I like her not!” When he first laid eyes on his future bride, he refused to marry her, even though he knew Britain needed more allies and it was a strong political move to marry a German duchess.
Sadly, for Anne, not only is she remembered as being the “ugly wife” of the King, she was also the shortest reigning, as the couple only made it last for six months.
But let’s not feel too sorry for Anne of Cleves because she became one of England’s most successful Queens: she escaped the marriage with her head intact and she managed to outlive the King and all his other wives.
She might have been labelled chubby and ugly and, according to the King, carried an “evil smell” but the fact the King didn’t want to have sex with her, meant Anne ended up having the last laugh.
Anne was born in Dusseldorf, in September 1515, the second daughter of Duke of Juliers-Cleves, Johann III. Anne’s mother was in charge of her daughter’s education which consisted of reading, writing, needlework and German, although she was nowhere in the league of other Queens who were expected to be much more accomplished so they could make intelligent conversation with foreign dignitaries.
When Anne was just 12, she was betrothed to the Duke of Lorraine, who was only ten … but that arrangement was cancelled in 1535.
Meanwhile in England, King Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was trying to find a new wife for his master, but Henry wasn’t interested in thinking about marriage, as he was still grieving the death in 1537 of his beloved wife Jane Seymour.
In the midst of his grief, Henry fell into a deep depression. It was at this time he indulged in ‘comfort eating’ and put on the massive amount of weight that he’s known for today.
According to historian Tracy Borman, King Henry also had an ulcerated jousting wound in his leg, making him incapacitated for some time and unable to exercise, so that also contributed to the increase of his girth. There’s been much speculation by historians that there might be a link between Henry’s personality change (from generous and high spirited to paranoid and irritable) and the injuries that he suffered in the tournament arena.
When he was first crowned, Henry was a trim 32 inches around the waist; by the time he met Anne of Cleves it was closer to 52 inches.
Even though the King told his ministers he wasn’t ready to marry again, Cromwell was determined to find the King a Protestant princess. He searched the Germanic states within the ‘Schmalkaldic League’ which included the Duchy of Cleves.
That’s when he discovered Duke William of Cleves had two sisters who were possibilities for marriage to Henry, particularly the eldest daughter, Anne. Aged 22 at the time, Anne had already been used as a pawn in the international marriage market when she’d been promised to another François, heir to the duchy of Lorraine. But nothing came of that union, so she was free to find love elsewhere.
Cromwell believed Anne would be the best match for King Henry but he was still showing no interest in finding a new bride. However, everything changed in 1539 when Henry realised he needed more allies.
When he inquired after Anne of Cleves, Cromwell assured the King that Anne was a beautiful young woman.
Historical archives record Cromwell as telling the King: “Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body … she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon.”
Cromwell went out of his way to exaggerate Anne’s looks because he knew the match would be a good one politically, if nothing else. But Henry wanted evidence of Anne’s beauty and sent his favourite painter, Hans Holbein, to the Duke’s court to paint portraits of Anne and her sister Amelia.
On inspecting the portrait, King Henry immediately preferred Anne to Amelia. It was easy to see why he chose Anne; her portrait was very flattering. Holbein’s painting showed a pretty woman with fair hair, a doll-like face, delicate eyes, mouth and chin, and a sweet expression.
King Henry agreed to the match, and a treaty was signed on 4 October 1539. By December, Anne was sent on a journey to England to meet her future husband … but their first meeting was a disaster and set the stage for the rest of their short-lived marriage.
The first meeting
It was a stormy New Year’s Eve when one of the strangest incidences of King Henry VIII’s reign occurred as he decided to ‘surprise’ his bride on her arrival at Rochester castle in Kent.
On December 31, 1540 the overweight King barged into Anne’s room, wearing a disguise. He had no idea Anne couldn’t speak English and, because she had no idea who the strange man was, she assumed she was being assaulted by a large man. Anne managed to shove the King off her as she called for help. Henry was so humiliated, he left the room and told his ministers he didn’t want to marry Anne because she wasn’t pretty enough.
The King was shocked that his fiance looked nothing like the demure looking young woman in the painting. Instead, Anne was said to be very tall and stocky with a large nose and skin badly scarred following a bout of smallpox.
The artist, Hans Holbein, had cleverly disguised all Anne’s large features and turned her into a completely different looking woman. Henry realised right away that his fiance looked nothing like the portrait he’d admired.
After he left Anne’s room, Henry yelled at his ministers, “I like her not! I like her not!”
He told them that because he didn’t find Anne sexually attractive, he couldn’t possibly marry her. But Cromwell managed to persuade the King to change his mind and marry her, for the good of England.
Henry eventually agreed and went through with the marriage ceremony, taking Anne as his fourth wife on January 6, 1540.
While Henry might have agreed to marry Anne, that didn’t mean he had to consummate the union. The King told his ministers he doubted his new bride was a virgin. “I have felt her belly and her breasts, and, thereby, as I can judge, she can be no maid.”
He also reiterated how repulsed he was by her looks, telling Cromwell, “She is nothing fair and she has very evil smells about her.” (Note: the King was more than twice her age and was used to his women flattering him, while at that stage, Anne could only speak German.)
But it’s clear Anne was a virgin. She’d led a very sheltered life and had no ‘knowledge of carnal matters’ because she assumed that her marriage had been consummated.
According Sara Beth-Watkins, author of ‘Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife’ when Anne told her ladies in waiting: “When he (the King) comes to bed he kisses me, and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me, Goodnight, sweetheart: and in the morning kisses me, and biddeth me, Farewell, darling. “Is this not enough?”
So, Anne thought that because Henry gave her a kiss at night and another kiss in the morning, that that was enough to get pregnant.
Shortly after his marriage, the King began a steamy love affair with Katherine Howard and looked for legal ways to annul the marriage to Anne. (The lack of sexual consummation and the prior engagement of Anne and the Duke of Lorraine were enough reason for an annulment.)
When she heard that Henry wanted to annul the marriage, Anne did nothing to resist, clearly smart enough to realise what had happened to other wives.
When the marriage was annulled on July 9 1540, Anne was awarded for agreeing to the annulment with jewels and properties and a whole lot more.
Henry VIII also awarded his ex-wife the honorary title of ‘The King’s Sister’, which made her the most important woman in England, just behind whoever Henry was married to at the time, and his two daughters. She was also given £500 a year, and two houses, including servants. Anne was also allowed to lease several manors to enhance her status and income, including Hever Castle, at an annual rent of £9-13s-3½d.
Anne settled happily in England and went on to have a good relationship with the King and his children, particularly his daughter with Anne Boleyn, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Aside from being known for her unattractiveness to the King, Anne has also gone down in history as the Queen who made the great escape.