Who was Anne of Cleves?
Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of English King, Henry VIII, and consequently was the Queen of England from 6 January to 9 July 1540. She was born into a German aristocratic family, which though opposed to Papal authority but was not Protestant. Her father, John III, was the Duke of Julich, Cleves, Berg. Anne of Cleves, unlike Henry VIII’s previous wives, didn’t possess the acumen or charm of clever women. She was instead a young lady from Rhineland whose knowledge of English was limited. Her marriage was arranged keeping a political alliance in mind. Her brother, the Duke of Cleves, was a leader of Protestants in Western Germany. King Henry VIII’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, decided this alliance was necessary because of the powerful attack by Roman Catholic groups. Her marriage to King Henry VIII was solemnized on 6 January 1540. However, Henry wasn’t satisfied with Anne as he deemed her unattractive and naïve. When the political motive behind the marriage didn’t materialize, the marriage was annulled in July 1540. Referring to her as the King’s Beloved Sister, she was given a large income and stayed in England until her death.
Childhood & Early Life
Anne of Cleves was born on 22 September 1515 to John III and Maria in Dusseldorf. She was the second child, and her father was the Duke of Juilch, Cleves and Count of Mark. Her mother was the Duchess of Julich-Berg. She spent her initial years growing up in Schloss Burg, near Solingen.
Her father was deeply influenced by Erasmus, an influential European scholar. He followed his teachings and backed the Reformation. Her mother was a devout Catholic. After her father’s death, her brother, William, would assume the title of Duke of Julich-Cleves-Berg. The religious affiliations of the family proved pivotal for Anne later.
Anne’s older sister, Sibylle, was married off to John Frederick who was given the title of Elector in Saxony. He was the head of the Protestant Confederation in Germany and was often called the ‘Champion of the Reformation’.
Anne’s position in the family was mostly that of a strategic puppet. She was betrothed to Francis, the son of Duke of Lorraine, when she just 11 years old, in 1527. However, because the young heir was only 10 years old, the betrothal wasn’t considered official and was subsequently cancelled in 1535.
The family’s religious ties and stronghold over Western Germany attracted Thomas Cromwell’s interest. Cromwell was the chief minister for King Henry VIII. Cromwell proposed a match with Anne and Henry to help the English King gain political power against the Roman Catholic dominance.
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Marriage to King Henry VIII
At a time of great political foment in Europe, with the rise of Protestantism in the mainland, and the Reformation under way in England, Anne's father's religious disposition only served to make his daughter a favorable match to Henry VIII.
One of the key personages in ensuring the match was the painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, who was asked to paint the portraits of Anne. These portraits were for Henry to gauge how his fourth wife would look. Despite early reluctance, Henry agreed to wed Anne.
The negotiations with the Cleve family were personally overseen by Cromwell and he ensured the swift signing of the treaty.
Henry’s expectation of his Queen was that she was knowledgeable and cultured. Anne, however, lacked these as she barely knew English owing to the lack of formal education. Her other virtues, including her docility and kindness, were touted as values Henry should prize in her.
He finally met her in private in at Rochester Abbey while she was on her way to Dover. Sources cite that he was dejected and dissatisfied with Anne. He also believed that she was not accurately described.
Henry asked Cromwell to find a legal way to avoid marrying Anne. However, it was too late to do so as promises had already been exchanged.
King Henry VIII and Anne of Cleveswere married at the Royal Palace of Placentia, London by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer on January 6, 1540. Her wedding ring had the phrase ‘God send me well to keep’ engraved. The marriage wasn’t a success as Henry confided he didn’t like her appearance.
It is recorded that her vapid appearance put Henry off the marriage. It was said that he did not consummate the marriage as he felt misled. His minister, too, was blamed. Her plain appearance would cause much strain.
Annulment of Marriage
Anne was asked to leave the King’s court on 24 June 1540, barely six months after the marriage. She was later informed on 6 July that the King had officially decided to reconsider their marriage. When she was asked to give her consent for the annulment, Anne agreed.
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On 9 July 1540, the marriage was officially annulled on grounds on lack of consummation and her previous betrothal to Duke of Lorraine. Henry went on to marry his next wife Catherine Howard within a month of the annulment.
Anne received a generous compensation for her consent. This included the Richmond Palace and Hever Castle along with a tidy income. She remained on friendly terms with the King and even became an honorary member of the King’s family.
Anne was bestowed the title ‘King’s Beloved Sister’ as well. Henry would later assert her importance, stating that she was the most important woman in England after his wife and daughters.
After the death of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine, Anne’s brother asked the King to remarry Anne. However, Henry was opposed to the idea and Anne was relegated to her position.
She went on to live a quiet and obscure life. Her last public appearance was at Mary I’s coronation at Westminster Abbey. She would remain in England until her death.
Personal Life & Legacy
Anne’s health deteriorated considerably in 1557. She soon crafted a will and left behind some money to her maids. She was fondly remembered as a generous mistress. She died on 16 July, 1557 at her manor. The cause of death was cancer. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Many scholars were impressed with Anne’s political understanding and acumen. Several biographies of her have been written, including ‘Anne of Cleves’ (1972) by Julia Hamilton and ‘Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride’ (2009) by Elizabeth Norton.
While her contemporaries, saw her as an unworthy Queen of England, historians have been more circumspect. Her practicality and pragmatism in accepting the settlement have come in for much praise.
She was also chronicled by Ford Maddox Ford in his 1906 novel 'The Fifth Queen'. She was shown to be a sensible and generous woman. Her political acumen was also on display, when she decided to change her religion, for the second time in her life, when Mary I ascended to the English throne.