Some may say that Anne of Cleves was one of the luckiest women in history as she was to wed, not bed and escape with her head from Henry VIII.
In truth in coming to England Anne was escaping from a dysfunctional and horrible family in the German duchy of Cleves. Her father was John was a reformer influenced by Erasmus and opposed the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Upon her fathers death, on 6 February 1539, her Brother William inherited their fathers title.
It must have been scary to be considered as a prospective wife to one of the most notorious kings of England. He had abandoned one wife as she failed to give him the longed for heir and treated her appallingly. Her replacement was abandoned and lost her head and his third dies after traumatic experience in the child bed.
However Anne was of the right religious flavour and Hans Holbein, the younger, was sent to get her likeness. There is a copy of this picture at the V&A in London as well as second copy in the Louvre Paris. The match was encouraged by Thomas Cromwell, and this mismatch would be one of the things that would aid his demise. Henry never looked to Europe for a bride again.
Negotiations with Anne’s brother the Duke of Cleves would end in a marriage contract being signed on 4th October 1539. The first meeting between Henry and Anne however did don run smoothly. On New Years Day 1540, Henry went to meet his new bride in disguise in Dover. He went to kiss Anne but she was unimpressed with his even after he revealed his true identity the damage had been done, Henry’s ego had been hurt.
He would later claim that Anne’s looks would be why he could not consummate the marriage and that she had poor personal hygiene (lets face it who didn’t in the 16th century?) However the fact his next wife was very young and attractive implies that he may have needed a bit of help in that department.
The sources of the day however are not as scathing on Anne’s appearance. The Chronicler Edward Hall described her thus
“Her hair hanging down, which was fair yellow and long…with a French hood which so set forth her beauty and good visage, that every creature rejoiced to behold her.”
Hardly words that conjure up the reputation and legacy that history has given her. The royal couple officially met on 3rd of January 1540 and married 3 days later in Greenwich. The marriage was never consummated and it is said that the Henry is supposed to have said
“I Liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse”
His main complaints being body odour and sagging breasts. Needless to say the marriage was ended by the summer. On 24th June, 1540 Anne was asked to leave court. She was asked if she would consent to an annulment and sensibly Anne agreed. The annulment was finalised on 9th July. 19 days later Henry Married wife number 5 Catherine Howard and Thomas Cromwell met his maker on the block as a convicted traitor.
What happened to Anne? She did rather well out of the deal. She would become known as the Kings beloved sister and was given Richmond Palace and the former home of Anne Boleyn Hever Castle. Henry and Anne even became friends.
Anne would be part of Mary I Coronation pocession. She had at this point out lived all of Henrys other wives.
In the summer of 1557, Anne is said t have sickened. She was 41. Mary I allowed her to move into Chelsea Old Manor where Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour lived after Henry’s death. She died her on 16th July 1557 most likely from Cancer. She was buried at Westminster Abbey on 3rd August and is the only one of Henry’s wives to buried there. (well 2 of them were beheaded in the tower!)
Anne for me is a greatly under estimated character in histroy, she may not have been as attractive or intelligent as some of henry’s wives but she was sensible enough to give him what he wanted and thus succeeded where other failed – she survived. For me she is a true history heroine!