History Files


Early Modern Britain

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

From Channel 4's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series by Doctor David Starkey, September 2001



Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7

Part 5: Anne of Cleves

At forty-six and after the loss of three wives, Henry was not an attractive proposition. He commented that he needed a 'big wife', but when put forward to Mary de Guise she replied that she might be a big woman but she had a very little neck.

A young princess of the West German Duchy of Cleve (or Kleve) was attractive to Thomas Cromwell because of her religious connections and to Henry for her family relations, but he would commit himself only if he could be persuaded that he would find her physically attractive.

Court painter Hans Holbein made a portrait of Anne of Cleves and Henry's ambassadors raved about the beauty of her face and body. Cromwell worked hard on Henry to choose Anne. The marriage would protect England from the Catholic threat of Spain and France and it would enable Cromwell to attack his Catholic enemies at home.

Anne could not sing or dance, or speak foreign languages, but the Holbein portrait left her face as a dreamy mask. Henry saw what he wanted an ideal wife.

When the two met it was a different story. He is quoted as saying: 'I see no such thing in her as hath been showed me. I like her not.' Henry, in private, raged against Cromwell, thinking he had tricked him into the match for political reasons, while he desperately searched for a way out.

In public, Henry behaved politely and Anne had no idea of his opinion of her. Reluctantly Henry submitted to the marriage for the sake of the country. But he found her so repugnant that lovemaking was impossible.

Anne still knew nothing of Henry's feelings. The people of London, however, saw the truth: that the king had been visiting Catherine Howard, one of Anne's ladies in waiting.

When Cromwell was arrested and taken to the Tower and Anne was asked to leave the palace all became clear. The court soon decreed that since the marriage had never been consummated, it had never existed.

No longer queen, Anne was told that from now on she would be known as the sister of the king, she would be given precedence above everybody apart from the queen and the king's children. She would be given Richmond and Bletchingley palaces and an income of 2,600 a year. Realising she had no choice, she accepted.

The marriage of Anne of Cleves to Henry VIII had lasted less than six months, but Anne survived and lived well for seven years until his death, when her money ran out.



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