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Early Modern Britain

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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

Part 5: Anne of Cleves

At forty-six and after managing to win and lose 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 Kleve was attractive to Thomas Cromwell because of her religious connections. To Henry she was attractive for her family relations, but he would commit himself only if he could be persuaded that he would also find her physically attractive.

Court painter Hans Holbein made a portrait of Anne of Cleves (as the English knew her) and Henry's ambassadors raved about the beauty of her face and body. Cromwell worked hard on Henry to encourage him 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. She was the original mail order bride.

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 twenty-four year-old 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.

By the time Anne had arrived in England the original political reason for the union had diminished, and the lack of any immediate chemistry between Henry and Anne certainly had not helped. 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.

Part 1: Marriage Lines
Part 2: Catherine of Aragon
Part 3: Anne Boleyn
Part 4: Jane Seymour
Part 5: Anne of Cleves
Part 6: Catherine Howard
Part 7: Katherine Parr

Because Anne didn't make a fuss about the marriage being annulled, she and the king remained on good terms, and she was even invited to Hampton Court for Christmas. On one occasion there she danced with the new queen, Catherine Howard, whom she easily outlived.

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 Henry's death, which is when her money ran out. Even then she was allowed to live in a slightly reduced status on her estates and she was asked to relinquish Bletchingley in exchange for a smaller palace at Hever Castle.

Sometimes in favour with Mary Tudor and sometimes out of it, her last public appearance seems to have been in 1554, after which she was compelled to live a quiet life on her estates. By 1557 her health had declined, possibly due to cancer, and she died that summer, shortly before her forty-second birthday.



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