Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves to form a new alliance after relations between England, France and the Holy Roman Empire deteriorated. They divorced six months later.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

Anne was born on 22 September 1515 in Düsseldorf, Cleves. She was the second of four children born to John III ‘the Pacific’, Duke of Cleves, and Maria of Jülich-Berg.

She received no formal education—apart from reading and writing in German—as a child. Anne could not sing or play music, but she was skilled in needlework and card games.

The search for a new Queen of England began in 1538. Many princesses declined Henry’s offer to become his fourth wife. Jokes circulated around European courts about Henry’s marital career.

He was in his late forties, obese, irascible with serious health problems including two bad legs. He was used to getting his own way and far more difficult to please than a younger man. He preferred buxom women.


Thomas Cromwell suggested the match, as William, Anne’s brother, was involved with an ongoing dispute with Emperor Charles V over Gelderland. Anne’s younger sister Amelia was also considered as a possible bride.

Anne and Amelia were covered up so the ambassadors were unable to see their faces or figures.

Painter Hans Holbein was dispatched to Düsseldorf paint Anne’s portrait—a gentle passive character with breeding, dignity and virtue.

Portrait of Henry VIII

Anne was dark-haired, sturdy, big-boned with a rather swarthy complexion, a high forehead, heavy-lidded eyes and a pointed chin. She was solemn and looked old for her age. The stiff clumsy German fashions were unflattering and did little to emphasise youthful charm.

Her journey was delayed by bad weather as Anne did not leave Calais until 27 December. Anne was received by the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk who accompanied her to from Deal to Dover Castle. Anne travelled to Canterbury and Rochester.

Meanwhile, Henry was growing impatient to see his new bride. He rode from Greenwich to Rochester in disguise.

Anne was bewildered as she didn’t recognise Henry. Nor did she speak English. He was mortified and overwhelmed with disgust.

He returned to Greenwich in a foul mood, believing Holbein, the English agents and envoys abroad misled him.

Anne, on the other hand, carried off a difficult and humiliating situation with natural dignity and composure.

Henry ordered Thomas Cromwell to find a find a loophole to avoid going through with the marriage without endangering the German alliance.

However, he made no attempt to overcome his initial aversion. He went through with the marriage on 6 January 1540 at Greenwich. The wedding night did not go well—Henry complained his wife’s body was a complete turnoff.

“I like her before not well, but now I like her much worse,” said Henry.


The marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation and Anne’s pre-contract with Francis of Lorraine in 1527, with generous terms. Anne was granted £500 per year, use of two royal residences, precedence over every lady except the next queen and princesses, and remain in England as “the King’s Good Sister”.

Anne accepted these terms eagerly. Henry was surprised, even disconcerted as he had expected some protests and tears.

She outlived both her husband, Edward IV and Lady Jane Grey. Anne accompanied step-daughter Elizabeth to Mary I’s coronation and state banquet in 1553.

Anne did not survive to see Elizabeth become Queen. Anne died, aged 42, at Chelsea Manor, London, on 16 July 1557. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1992 (Seventh Impression 1993)

Plowden, Alison, Tudor Women: Queens & Commoners, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2002 (Reprinted 2007)

Starkey, David, Six Wives The Queens of Henry VIII, Vintage [Random House], London, 2004

Weir, Alison, Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, Vintage Books, London, 2008

Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Pimlico, London, 1991 (Reprinted 1992)

© 2009 Carolyn Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 23 May 2009.

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