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Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII's Fourth and Luckiest Wife

Henry VIII's fourth wife Anne of Cleves was his luckiest. She kept her head and became one of the richest women in England.

Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves

Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves

Henry VIII Needs a 4th Wife

Henry VIII's first, second, and third wives each passed within two years of one another: Catherine of Aragon through illness in January 1536, Anne Boleyn through execution in May 1536, and Jane Seymour through fever after childbirth in October 1537.

Henry VIII needed to remarry to secure the Tudor succession and gain an ally in Europe against France and the Holy Roman Empire (who were rumored to be plotting an attack on an isolated post-Reformation England). Cromwell was nervous that the king would for a third time seek out a lady in waiting so he hastened to search for a European bride.

Royal Marriage Refusals

Henry had earned a reputation as a poor choice of husband if you wished to live and be happy. At almost fifty he was on the verge of Tudor old age and his corpulent form, seeping leg ulcer, paranoia, and temper were deterrents. Marie of Guise, the future wife of James V of Scotland, politely but uncompromisingly refused Henry’s advances. Sixteen-year-old Christina of Milan, Catherine of Aragon’s great-niece, remarked that if she had two heads then she might take the chance but as she had only one she’d decline.

Thomas Cromwell advocated Anna von Julich-Kleve-Berg, better known as Anne of Cleves, who was born on the 22nd September 1515 in Dusseldorf, capital of the Duchy of Berg, now in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. She was the second of four children born to Johann III “the Peaceful,” Duke of Cleves, Count of Mark, and his wife Maria of Julich-Berg. A ten-year-old Anne had been contractually betrothed to Francis I of Lorraine but this agreement was later canceled.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

Hans Holbein's Portrait of Anne of Cleves

Court artist Hans Holbein the Younger was dispatched to paint portraits of sisters Anna and Amalia of Cleves (1517-1586) so that Henry could choose between them. Holbein’s portrait of Anna depicted a demure and finely dressed woman in her twenties.

Henry selected Anna, possibly because she had greater hereditary rights than Amalia who was the fourth child of the Duke and Duchess of Cleves. Amalia never married.

Through the centuries Anne, as she was known in England, has been referred to as ugly and pock-marked. In the 1600s she was labeled “the Flanders Mare” by Bishop Burnet, but there is a fair chance that Holbein didn't deviate too far from her true image. That could have cost him his head.

An Inauspicious First Meeting

Anne arrived in Rochester, Kent on New Years' Day, 1540. Henry VIII, eager to see his bride, traveled incognito with members of his council to the town. Wearing a cloak and hood he burst into the chamber where Anne and her party awaited the king’s arrival.

A rotund man stood  before her, bowed, kissed, and embraced her. Unnerved, she pushed him away before turning to look steadfastly out of the window to discourage him from making conversation.

Little did she realize that Henry was playing out a chivalric tradition. The bride-to-be was supposed to see beyond the disguise and recognize that true love lay behind it, or at least Henry.  Insulted, he left the chamber and returned in his majestic attire. As others in the room bowed Anne realized who she had rebuffed.

Her basic education in Cleves had focused on household management and embroidery so qualities that Henry took for granted including knowing the etiquette for life at a royal court, languages, music, and literature were sadly lacking. She only knew a few English words. Henry decided that Anne was disappointing, boring, humorless, and plain, but he conceded that she was “well and seemly.”

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

Cancel the Wedding!

Henry wanted to cancel the wedding. Anne did not ignite his passion, but more problematic was that as the marriage negotiations had taken so long Cleves was now drawing close to armed combat against the Holy Roman Empire whilst the attack on England had failed to materialize and with it the reason for the king to marry Anne and gain an ally.

He didn’t want to be dragged into a conflict that he had no appetite for. Henry postponed the wedding for two days as a diplomatic way out of the marriage was sought, to no avail.

On the 6th January 1540, the wedding day, Henry informed Cromwell, ‘My Lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my Realm I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.’ The service was conducted in the Queen’s Closet at Greenwich Palace, London.

Wedding Night Disaster

The wedding night was a disaster. Henry could not rise to the occasion. They couldn’t pretend that it had been a success, because tradition dictated that there were courtiers positioned outside the bedchamber overnight to listen for activity and the following morning the servants were expected to check the bed for telltale signs that the marriage had been consummated. Word rapidly spread around the court.

Henry had his physician Doctor Butt state confidently that the king was perfectly able to perform in the bedchamber, that he had recently experienced two wet dreams, and that the problem was unquestionably Anne.

Bruyn's portrait of Anne of Cleves (c.1640s).

Bruyn's portrait of Anne of Cleves (c.1640s).


For a month the couple reportedly played cards before retiring to the same bed. Anne naively commented to her ladies in waiting that he “…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?”

Her ladies explained why this was insufficient to fall pregnant. Henry was already distracted by Anne’s lady in waiting Katherine Howard. Cromwell’s enemies commented that the Cleves marriage was Cromwell’s fault. The king agreed.

On the 24th of June 1540, Anne was sent to Richmond Palace sixteen miles away from Henry and Greenwich Palace because he claimed that the weather was better there. On the 6th of July, Henry’s advisors informed Anne that he wanted a legal end to their union.

Anne initially resisted but reconsidered quickly, presumably remembering the fate of others who had not obliged the king. The annulment was finalized on the 9th of July 1540. Anne accepted the blame and she reaped the rewards from a grateful Henry.

“King's Sister”

In her settlement, Anne was allowed to keep all of her jewels and plate and was awarded homes including Richmond Palace and Bletchingly Manor. Later, Hever Castle, the former Boleyn home, and Chelsea Manor House were added.

Anne enjoyed freedoms that most women could only dream about and through wise acquisitions, she became one of the richest women in England. She was frequently invited to court and Henry referred to her as the “king’s (beloved) sister.” She had precedence over all women except his current queen and his daughters. Anne had a good relationship with Princesses Mary and Elizabeth and Prince Edward.

The 1553 coronation of Mary I was Anne’s last public appearance. She outlived Henry and his other wives and died on the 17th of July 1557 aged forty-one at Chelsea Manor House. Anne was buried by the high altar in Westminster Abbey.

Chelsea Manor House

Chelsea Manor House

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle