Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves

After the death of Jane Seymour in October 1537, Henry VIII showed little interest in finding a fourth wife. One of the reasons is that he was suffering from impotence. Anne Boleyn had complained about this problem to George Boleyn as early as 1533. His general health was also poor and he was probably suffering from diabetes and Cushings Syndrome. Now in his late 40s he was also obese. His armour from that period reveals that he measured 48 inches around the middle.

However, Thomas Cromwell told him that he should consider finding another wife for diplomatic and political reasons, Henry eventually agreed. "Suffering from intermittent and unsatisfied lust, and keenly aware of his advancing age and corpulence" he thought that a new young woman in his life might bring back the vitality of his youth.

Cromwell's first choice was Marie de Guise, a young widow who had already produced a son. Aged only 22 she had been married to Louis, Duke of Longueville before his early death in June 1537. He liked the reports that he received that she was a tall woman pleased him. He was "big in person" and he had need of "a big wife". In January 1538 he sent a ambassador to see her. When Marie was told that Henry found her size attractive she is reported to have replied that she might be a big woman, but she had a very little neck. Marie rejected the proposal and married King James V of Scotland on 9th May 1538.

The next candidate was Christina of Denmark, the sixteen-year-old widowed Duchess of Milan. She married Francesco II Sforza, the Duke of Milan at the age of twelve. However, he died the following year. Christina was very well connected. Her father was the former King Christian II of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Her mother, Isabella of Austria, was the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Henry VIII sent Hans Holbein to paint her. He arrived in Brussels on 10th March 1538 and the following day sat for the portrait for three hours wearing mourning dress. However, Christina was disturbed by Henry's treatment of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and apparently told Thomas Wriothesley, "If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England's disposal." Wriothesley told Cromwell that he should look for a bride "in some such other place". Henry was very disappointed as he loved the painting and looked at it on a regular basis.

Thomas Cromwell suggested the name of Anne of Cleves, the daughter of John III. He thought this would make it possible to form an alliance with the Protestants in Saxony. An alliance with the non-aligned north European states would be undeniably valuable, especially as Charles V of Spain and François I of France had signed a new treaty on 12th January 1539.

John III died on 6th February, 1539. He was replaced by Anne's brother, Duke William. In March, Nicholas Wotton began the negotiations at Cleves but were frustrated by the stalling tactics of William. Eventually he signed a treaty in which the Duke granted Anne a dowry of 100,000 gold florins. However, Henry refused to marry Anne until he had seen a picture of her. Hans Holbein arrived in April and requested permission to paint Anne's portrait. The 23-year-old William, held Puritan views and had strong ideas about feminine modesty and insisted that his sister covered up her face and body in the company of men. He refused to allow her to be painted by Holbein. After a couple of days he said he was willing to have his sister painted but only by his own court painter, Lucas Cranach.

Henry was unwilling to accept this plan as he did not trust Cranach to produce an accurate portrait. Further negotiations took place and Henry suggested he would be willing to marry Anne without a dowry if her portrait, painted by Holbein pleased him. Duke William was short of money and agreed that Holbein should paint her picture. He painted her portrait on parchment, to make it easier to transport in back to England. Nicholas Wotton, Henry's envoy watched the portrait being painted and claimed that it was an accurate representation.

Primary Sources
Anne of Cleves
(Source 1) Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein (1539)

(Source 2) John Guy, Tudor England (1986)

Thomas Cromwell persuaded a reluctant king to seek marriage with a German noblewoman in order to negotiate an alliance with the Protestant League of Schmalkalden. The result was a treaty, signed at Hampton Court in October 1539, between Henry VIII and Duke William of Cleves. Yet Henry married Anne of Cleves under protest (6 January 1540); Cromwell's career lay in the balance.

(Source 3) Nicholas Wotton, report to Thomas Cromwell (March, 1539)

She (Anne of Cleves) occupieth her time most with the needle... She can read and write her own language but of French, Latin or other language she hath none... she cannot sing, nor play any instrument, for they take it here in Germany for a rebuke and an occasion of lightness that great ladies should be learned or have any knowledge of music.

(Source 4) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

Dominated by her strong-minded and extremely conservative mother, Anne of Cleves had received no education worthy of the name, being mainly trained in modesty of thought and expression... the only accomplishment for what she was noted was neddlework... Anne could neither sing nor play any musical instrument. She could dance, but her repertoire was restricted to those traditional German measures which her mother had considered seemly.... She could speak and read only Low German, and if she had any intellectual qualities they had never been allowed to appear.

None of this might have mattered if she had been a striking beauty, but unfortunately the poor girl did not possess that quality either... When Henry sent, as was his custom, envoys to inspect the lady, she appeared so wrapped up that very little could be seen of either her face or body, a situation which was indignantly defended by her guardians on the grounds of her modesty.

(Source 5) Kelly Hart, The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009)

Henry VIII was fluent in several languages and most European princess could have communicated with him in at least Latin; but Anne only spoke her native German. She also had none of the social skills so prized at the English court: she could not play a musical instrument or sing - she came from a culture that looked down on the lavish celebrations and light-heartedness that were an integral part of King Henry's court. Yet none of this would have mattered if her looks had appealed to the king. It quickly became obvious that they did not.

(Source 6) Retha M. Warnicke, Anne of Cleves : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

In March, Nicholas Wotton and Richard Beard began the negotiations at Cleves but were frustrated by the stalling tactics of Wilhelm, who was still attempting to conciliate the emperor. By late summer the ambassadors had achieved success, and Hans Holbein the younger was commissioned to paint a portrait of Anne, which Wotton swore was a faithful representation of her. Many contemporaries, including Wotton, praised her beauty. The first writer to ridicule her as a ‘Flanders mare’ and to insist that Holbein had flattered her was Bishop Gilbert Burnet, writing late in the seventeenth century.

Anne of Cleves
(Source 7) Miniature painting of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein (1539)

(Source 8) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

Anne smiles out demurely from an ivory frame carved to resemble a Tudor rose. Her complexion is clear, her gaze steady, her face delicately attractive. She wears a head-dress in the Dutch style which conceals her hair, and a gown with a heavily bejewelled bodice. Everything about Anne's portrait proclaimed her dignity, breeding and virtue, and when Henry VIII saw it, he made up his mind at once that this was the woman he wanted to marry.

(Source 9) Helen Langdon, Holbein (1976)

Holbein was placed in an impossible position: dispatched to Düren with orders to produce an instant likeness of Henry VIII's next intended bride, he needed to exercise diplomacy and tact... As it is, Anne's dress seems to have fascinated him more than the strangely lifeless symmetry of her features. Henry's displeasure at finding Anne of Cleves more like a "fat flanders mare" when she arrived for the marriage ceremony in January 1540 cost Holbein dear in prestige, and he received no further important work from this quarter.

(Source 10) Derek Wilson, Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man (1996)

Anne of Cleves... was pleasant, talentless, naive, lumpy... homely perhaps, but certainly not pretty... How was he (Holbein) to represent this truth in paint? Simplicity had been the appropriate technique with the Duchess of Milan. Holbein had deliberately concentrated attention on the face and hands; had let the girl's beauty speak for itself. With Anne of Cleves... exactly the opposite was called for. Holbein would not, dared not, improve on nature. All he could do was attract attention away from the features by making the most of jewellery, elaborate court dress and gem-studded hair-covering...

Holbein employed tempera on parchment, which he glued on to canvas when he reached London... If ever the artist was nervous about the reception of a portrait he must have been particularly anxious about this one... He had to do what he could to sound a note of caution. That meant that he was obliged to express his doubts in the painting. If we study the portrait of Anne of Cleves we are struck by an oddity of composition. This is the most "square-on" portrait Holbein ever painted. Everything in it is perfectly balanced: it might almost be a study in symmetry - except for the jewelled bands on Anne's skirt. The one on her left is not complemented by another on the right. Furthermore, her right hand and the fall of her left under-sleeve draw attention to the discrepancy. This sends a signal to the viewer that, despite the elaborateness of the costume, there is something amiss, a certain clumsiness... Holbein intended giving the broadest hint he dared to the king. Henry would not ask his opinion about his intended bride, and the painter certainly could not venture it. Therefore he communicated unpalatable truth through his art. He could do no more.

(Source 11) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003)

Holbein, contrary to legend, does not appear to have flattered Anne. Instead, his painting and Wotton's pen-portrait are all of a piece. Both highlight the woman's gentle, passive character... But, in any case, by this point Henry was almost beyond putting off. For he had fallen in love, not as previously with a face, but with an idea. And his feelings were fed, not with images, but with words. All over the summer, Cromwell and his agents had told him that Anne - the beautiful, the gentle, the good and the kind - was the woman for him. Finally he had come to believe them. Only a sight of the woman herself might break the spell.

(Source 12) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992)

Sir Anthony Browne said that from the moment he (Henry VIII) set eyes on the Lady Anna, he was immediately struck with dismay... The important comment was that made by the King to Cromwell after he left the Lady Anna. "I like her not", said Henry VIII.

The question must now be raised as to what the King saw, compared to what he had expected to see: was there a deception and if so by whom? There are after all a number of candidates, not only Holbein, but the English agents and envoys abroad. Let us take the actual appearance of Anna of Cleves first: for this we are fortunate in having a first-hand description, written only a few days later by the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, who was not prejudiced in either direction, towards her beauty or her ugliness. Anna of Cleves looked about thirty, he wrote (she was in fact twenty-four), tall and thin, "of middling beauty, with a determined and resolute countenance." The Lady was not as handsome as people had affirmed she was, nor as young (he was of course wrong about that), but there was a "steadiness of purpose in her face to counteract her want of beauty". This in turn seems to fit well with Christopher Mont's careful reference to the "gravity in her face" which went so well with her natural modesty.

The "daughter of Cleves" was solemn, or at any rate by English standards she was, and she looked old for her age. She was solemn because she had not been trained to be anything else and the German fashions did little to give an impression of youthful charm in a court in love as ever with things French, or at any rate associating them with fun and delight. Although Henry VIII never actually "swore they had brought over a Flanders mare to him", the apocryphal story does sum up, as apocryphal stories often do, the profound cultural gap between the two courts of Cleves and England. Turning to Holbein's picture, one finds this solemnity well captured: a critic might indeed term it stolidity. Besides Nicholas Wotton, in his report, had confirmed that Holbein, generally regarded as the master of the "lively" or lifelike (not the flattering) in his own time, had indeed captured Anna's "image" very well.

Of course a beautiful young woman, however stolid or badly dressed, would still have been acceptable. Anna of Cleves was not beautiful, and those reports which declared she was were egregious exaggerations in the interests of diplomats - to this extent, the envoys are the real culprits, not the painter. But was Anna of Cleves actually hideous? Holbein, painting her full-face, as was the custom, does not make her so to the modem eye, with her high forehead, wide-apart, heavy-lidded eyes and pointed chin. There is indirect evidence that Anna of Cleves was perfectly pleasant looking from the later years of Henry VIII. When Chapuys reported Anna of Cleves as rating her contemporary, Catherine Parr, "not nearly as beautiful" as herself, this expert observer did not choose to contradict her so that the boast was presumably true, or at least true enough not to be ridiculous...

Then there is the question of Anna of Cleves' complexion. It may be that this was a problem: her own officials' protests about the damage to be done by a long sea voyage may have been a tactful way of handling it. When the King roared at his courtiers that he had been misinformed - by them amongst others, since they had seen her at Calais - the only explanation which could be stammered out was that her skin was indeed rather more "brown" than had been expected... the contemporary ideal was to be "pure white".

Even allowing for all this we are still left with something mysterious in the whole episode, and the sheer immediacy of the King's disappointment (followed by his indignation - which was, however, never directed at Holbein). The explanation must therefore lie in something equally mysterious, the nature of erotic attraction. The King had been expecting a lovely young bride, and the delay had merely contributed to his desire. He saw someone who, to put it crudely, aroused in him no erotic excitement whatsoever. And more intimate embraces lay ahead: or were planned to do so.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Read the introduction. Why did Henry VIII decide to marry for the fourth time? Who did he consider marrying before selecting Anne of Cleves.

Question 2: Why did Thomas Cromwell want Henry VIII to marry Anne of Cleves?

Question 3: According to John Guy (source 2), why did Thomas Cromwell's "career lay in the balance".

Question 4: Study sources 3, 4 and 5. Why did some people predict that Henry VIII might be dissatisfied with Anne of Cleves as a companion?

Question 5: Give as many reasons as you can why Duke William of Cleves was reluctant to allow Hans Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves.

Question 6: Helen Langdon states "Holbein was placed in an impossible position: dispatched to Düren with orders to produce an instant likeness of Henry VIII's next intended bride, he needed to exercise diplomacy and tact" (source 9). Use the information in the other sources to explain how Holbein solved this problem.

Question 7: How did Henry VIII react when he met Anne of Cleves for the first time? What were the long-term consequences for Hans Holbein?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here