Anne of Cleves, Queen of England: Retha Warnicke Uncovers the Real Reason for Henry VIII's Divorce from His Fourth Wife

By Warnicke, Retha | History Review, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Anne of Cleves, Queen of England: Retha Warnicke Uncovers the Real Reason for Henry VIII's Divorce from His Fourth Wife


Warnicke, Retha, History Review


In October 1537, shortly after Jane Seymour's death, Henry VIII's privy councilors, including Sir Thomas Cromwell, began canvassing noble families on the continent for another wife for him. After considering various candidates, Henry chose Anne of Cleves. The controversial issues concerning his fourth marriage are: his reasons for selecting her, the validity of Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait, Henry's motives for greeting her in disguise, the grounds for their annulment, and Anne's reaction to it.

An Arranged Marriage

Born on 22 September 1515, Anne was the daughter of John III, duke of Cleves, and Maria, heiress of Juliers. Of Henry's wives, only Catherine of Aragon's lineage was more impressive, for Anne was a descendant of both Edward I of England and John II of France. Although nominally an Imperial fief, her homeland, Juliers-Cleves, conducted independent diplomacy and possessed a state religion that may be described as Erasmian. Her father banned Lutheran writings, denounced papal authority, and issued regulations requiring the clergy to be resident and to educate their parishioners.

Nicholas Wotton, the ambassador sent to arrange the marriage, described Anne's upbringing. He found that she spent her leisure hours sewing, for she lacked musical training since her mother, like other German ladies, thought this instruction was frivolous. Although she could speak and write only German, Wotton believed that she was intelligent and would learn English quickly.

Some scholars claim that Cromwell favoured this marriage because he wanted to ally England with Lutheran powers for religious reasons. Although Anne's older sister Sybilla was the wife of a Lutheran, Frederick, duke-elector of Saxony, their brother, William, their father's successor in early 1539, was not a Lutheran. Henry more likely sought an alliance with Cleves because he was threatened with diplomatic isolation by the 1538 rapprochement of Emperor Charles V and Francis I and the decision of Pope Paul III, in early 1539, to renew the suspended bull of excommunication against him.

William was slow to approve this marriage for his sister. Because he possessed an ancient claim to Gelderland, its estates invited him to become its duke, and his first priority was to win Imperial approval for their decision. As Charles would view with hostility Anne's marriage to Henry, William prolonged the negotiations, although in the summer of 1539 he did permit Holbein to paint her portrait for Henry. Noting the king's later negative reaction to her, some writers have accused the artist of deliberately flattering her features.

Not only did Wotton believe the portrait faithfully represented her but also every contemporary observation about her appearance, except for Henry's, was extremely positive. In December 1539 at Calais, for example, England's lord high admiral, William Fitzwilliam, first earl of Southampton, referred to her excellent beauty.

The Abortive Union

Anne arrived at Calais, where stormy weather delayed her voyage to England, in December 1539, only two months after Henry and her proxy were betrothed at Greenwich. The king had directed the Cleves ambassadors to bring with them, when they escorted her to England, a copy of her 1527 marriage contract with Francis, the heir of Lorraine. Henry wanted to see the document to ensure she had contracted only a betrothal, the promise of marriage, not a completed union that prevented her from legally marrying him.

After reaching England on 27 December, she travelled northward, stopping at Rochester on the 31st. There on New Year's Day 1540, Henry greeted her incognito, not from personal eagerness to see her but from a willingness to follow the customary chivalric protocol in which disguised kings set out to meet privately their foreign-born brides with whom they were not yet acquainted. This practice helped to mask the financial and political underpinnings of their alliances.

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