Most famously known by the rather unflattering nickname of ‘The Flanders Mare’, Anne of Cleves has often been overlooked in the list of Henry VIII’s wives. In fact, she remains one of the most remarkable of them all: pensioned off after less than six months of marriage with title and status in tact, Anne can be seen as perhaps the most fortunate of all Henry’s wives.
1. Anne was a political pawn
Anne’s early life is relatively obscure, but she was born in Düsseldorf in 1515 to the Duke and Duchess of Jülich-Berg. Her family had Protestant sympathies in the Reformation, and opposed the Catholic Emperor Charles V.
As a daughter, Anne would always have been expected to marry whomever her parents chose for her. In the turbulent religious landscape of mid-16th century Europe, political matches were even more important.
Aged 11 she was betrothed to the son of the Duke of Lorraine, but this was broken off as the two reached a marriageable age, partly because of religious disputes between Anne’s parents.
2. The Cleves-England match was purely political
Europe was divided by religion by the late 1530s, and Henry VIII, King of England, was keen to make a Protestant alliance with his next marriage. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Chief Minister, was keen on a match between Henry – now a bloated, overweight 48 year old – and the 24 year old Protestant Anne of Cleves, primarily for political reasons.
Whilst Anne had not benefited from a formal education (and in fact could barely speak English), she was considered virtuous and accomplished in skills like needlework and cards – the perfect companion for the increasingly erratic Henry.
3. History has focused most on Anne’s looks
Whilst Cromwell was negotiating the marriage, Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the prominent portrait painters of the time, was dispatched to paint both Anne and her younger sister Amalia. Henry was said to be pleased with the resulting portrait, and copies of it can be seen in Paris and London today.
However, Henry later accused of Holbein of flattering Anne, declaring she was unattractive in real life – so much so that he could not bring himself to consummate the marriage. Certainly the Germanic fashions Anne wore were very different to what was fashionable at the English court by this point. The nickname ‘The Flanders Mare’ was coined in the 17th century.
4. The match did not have an auspicious start
Anne and Henry had not met before the match, and there is no record of how Anne responded to the betrothal. She travelled to London with a retinue of her ladies to meet the king in late 1539, and en route, Henry decided to surprise his bride-to-be in the true tradition of chivalric love.
Along with several of his men, Henry burst into Anne’s apartments in a mask and tried to kiss her: chivalric traditions of love meant Anne was supposed to recognise her beloved despite his disguise. Not expecting such informality, the confused Anne pushed him away rudely and demanded to know who he was.
Henry is said to have left in a rage, declaring ‘I like her not!’
5. She had a very short-lived marriage
Anne and Henry were married in January 1540 in Greenwich: however, Henry declared to Cromwell the following day that he could not bring himself to consummate the marriage (implying he found Anne so unattractive he could not rouse any desire). History does not record how Anne felt about the prospect of consummating a marriage with Henry, who by this stage had a 52 inch waist and ulcers on his legs that would not heal.
6. She left court in June 1540
Henry was said to be furious with Cromwell, and just 6 months after they were married, Henry ordered Anne to leave court. She was asked to consent to an annulment of the marriage, which she agreed to. Cromwell, on the other hand, was imprisoned on trumped up charges of treason and later executed.
The marriage was formally annulled in July 1540.
7. Anne’s attitude was rewarded
Henry was grateful that Anne did not contest the annulment: she was awarded the title of ‘The King’s Beloved Sister’, and awarded precedence over all ladies in the land except the King’s family. Anne was also given a number of properties, including Richmond Palace and Hever Castle and a generous annual income.
Anne was well received at court, and frequently invited back, even dancing with Catherine Howard following her marriage to Henry as a gesture of goodwill.
8. Anne’s father tried to get her to remarry Henry
Anne’s status had become complex. As ‘The King’s Beloved Sister’ and one of the wealthiest women in England, it would be difficult for Anne to remarry elsewhere, and the alliance between Cleves and England was somewhat rocky following the failure of the marriage.
Following Catherine Howard’s execution, Anne’s brother William petitioned Henry to remarry his sister. Henry showed little interest in reviving the match, and with Anne happily pensioned off, it seems unlikely that she wanted this either.
9. Anne survived to see Mary on the throne
Anne outlived Henry and his final wife, Catherine Parr. She had initially met Mary as her step-mother (although the two only had a few years between them) and despite religious differences, the two were said to have got along remarkably well.
Anne took part in Mary’s coronation procession, and wrote to congratulate her on her marriage to Philip of Spain. In deference to Mary’s Catholicism, Anne also converted in order to stay on the right side of the new queen.
Despite this, she lost favour following Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554, as Mary was led to believe she had used her Protestant connections abroad to help Elizabeth garner support. She was not invited back to court during her lifetime.
10. She died peacefully in 1557
Anne never left England following her arrival in 1539, and she lived her last years in Chelsea Old Manor until she died in July 1557. Her will remembered her family and her step-family, as well as her servants, whom she asked Mary and Elizabeth to employ in their households.
She was buried in Westminster Abbey with full pomp by Mary, showing that despite their differences, Anne had a place in the Queen’s affections.