A Brief History
On July 9, 1540, the marriage between Henry VIII and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was annulled.
Annulled on the basis of non-consummation of the marriage, the real reason Henry wanted the divorce was because he found Anne unattractive, if not revolting. Yes, it sounds very harsh, but it was probably a bit of an exaggeration as Henry had to get his point across to morally win his case. How could he possibly be expected to make love to a woman who did not turn him on? Well, he should have asked his forefathers who mostly had arranged marriages and somehow managed to fulfill their conjugal duties. It was not until his grandfather, Edward IV, that a king dared marry for love, or rather, to get the woman into bed, an example which Henry followed with his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
It took Henry nearly two years after the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, in childbirth, to beginning looking for a new wife in earnest. His favorite court painter, Hans Holbein, was sent to the various courts of Europe to paint portraits of all eligible princesses. This was how Anne of Cleves got into the running. Though her family’s German dukedom was not particularly significant like say the Kingdom of France or the House of Hapsburg, Hans Holbein’s portrait captured qualities of her appearance that caught Henry’s eye and attention. Though he had not yet met her, like a silly school boy, Henry VIII, the hopeless romantic, believed himself in love with her.
There are a couple theories as to when and why Henry became disillusioned with her. Some believe it was because she did not recognize him when he went to surprise her in disguise upon her arrival in England and that this rebuttal offended him and hurt his pride. Others believe that her lack of elegance, grace and skill was in stark contrast to the polished and refined women who could sing and dance he so admired. The latter theory is somewhat flawed, though, because Jane Seymour, his favorite wife, was also not known to exhibit these qualities. Instead, she excelled in needlework which Anne of Cleves undoubtedly did as well as such a skill would have been fostered in a German woman from a court where frivolous behaviors such as flirting and courtly love were frowned upon. Jane Seymour, however, may not have been the innocent and good-hearted player she is often portrayed to be. Like Anne Boleyn, she played the chaste card and won the ultimate prize, that being marriage to Henry. So, she likely knew how to compose herself in a way that Henry liked, told him what he wanted to hear and behaved in a way that he needed her to. Anne of Cleves, on the other hand, did not need to ingratiate herself with Henry through the use of her feminine charms and guiles. Unlike Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour who were ladies in waiting who ousted their predecessors, Anne of Cleves, like Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was a real princess. As such, she did not need to go out of her way to impress and to feign attentiveness and sweetness. Her position was secure by birthright. And Henry, used to women fawning over him, was shocked and offended. For his ego, he felt compelled to replace her with a woman who exhibited a character more to his liking, namely that of a hero worshipper. Likely, for just this reason, Anne of Cleves was not exactly what Henry wanted and rather than to get to know her good qualities, like a spoiled child who is used to getting what he wants, he immediately came up with a reason why she, in his eyes, was flawed. Nowadays, Henry would probably have tried to get a divorce on the basis of fraud. Fraud because her appearance was not what the portrait had promised.
In the 16th century, however, there were basically two ways that a king could get out of an undesirable marriage – a pre-contract with another potential partner or non-consummation of the marriage. So, in order to not have to sleep with Anne and thus “legalize” their marriage, Henry had to come up with a reason why he could not do so. The excuse he came up with was that he was repulsed by her because she was ugly, had loose breasts which made him doubt she was a virgin and that she smelled bad. To make sure that everyone knew that he could not bring himself to sleep with her, he announced her physical “shortcomings” to members of the court. The poor woman. Henry had been forced by contract to marry Anne, but immediately following the ceremony he already began working on the marriage’s demise. Most likely he knew going into the wedding night that he did not intend to sleep with her. Why else be so vocal afterward about not being able to do so?
As it was, Henry kept up the appearance of a “happy” marriage for six months before he began with the annulment proceedings on the basis of non-consummation. For good measure, he threw into the mix her pre-contract with a member of a high-ranking ducal family that he said had not been properly broken. Lucky for Henry, Anne agreed to the divorce. Grateful for her amicableness, when he was likely expecting resistance like Catherine of Aragon had shown him, he awarded her money and property and the title of the “King’s Sister.”
So, what happened around the 6-month mark for Henry to finally go ahead with the annulment? Well, he had met his most recent hero-worshipper, of course! And where did he find her? Among his wife’s maids of honor, of course! And what did he do with this lower-born noblewoman when he wanted to bed her? Marry her, of course! More on her, Catherine Howard, in the next article in the series on the wives of Henry VIII.
As for Anne, was she really that ugly? Most likely not. Above are portraits of her sisters for comparison. None of Henry’s wives were known to be exceptional beauties either, however. In other words, it would not have made a difference had Anne been beautiful in Henry’s eyes. Having had women fawn over him his entire life and being used to getting what he wanted, what he needed most was a wife who stroked his ego and worshipped and adored him (or at least pretended to). Appearance had less to do with it than the sweet nothings that were whispered in his ear, telling him how wonderful and strong he was despite the fact that he was beginning to fall into a state of decrepitude. Anne was young, strong, levelheaded and practical. Even with Henry having fertility issues as a result of his declining health, she might still have given him at least one more child. Unfortunately for Henry, this became less of a priority after the birth of his son, the future Edward VI, who was to die while still a teenager not long after Henry.
Some Tudor historians and scholars say that Anne got the best deal of all of Henry’s wives. She certainly fared better than the 5 others – she survived him the longest. Not a woman who aimed to please, as Henry likely would have preferred, her pragmatism and confidence in herself is best exemplified by the fact that she was willing to remarry Henry after he had just executed his fifth wife for adultery. Not even 2 beheaded previous wives could frighten her off. He, however, declined.
Question for students (and subscribers): What if Anne of Cleves had been beautiful? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Barnes, Margaret Campbell. My Lady of Cleves. Sourcebooks Landmark, 2008.
Norton, Elizabeth. Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride. Amberley Publishing, 2010.