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Anne of Cleves (1515 – July 16, 1557) was queen consort of England from January 6, to July 9, 1540 as the fourth wife of King Henry VIII. Anne was born in 1515, on either 22 September, or more probably 28 June. She was born in Düsseldorf, the second daughter of Johann III of the House of La Marck, Duke of Jülich jure uxoris, Cleves, Berg jure uxoris, Count of Mark, also known as de la Marck and Ravensberg jure uxoris (often referred to as Duke of Cleves) who died in 1538, and his wife Maria, Duchess of Jülich-Berg (1491–1543). She grew up in Schloss Burg on the edge of Solingen.

Anne of Cleves

Not much is known about Anne before 1527, when she became betrothed to François, Duke of Bar, son and heir of Antoine, Duke of Lorraine, although their marriage did not proceed.

In March 1539, negotiations for Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII began, as Henry believed that he needed to form a political alliance with her brother, Wilhelm, who was a leader of the Protestants of western parts of the Holy Roman Empire, to strengthen his position against potential attacks from Catholic France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Anne arrived in England on December 27, 1539 and married Henry on January 6, 1540. However, after six months, the marriage was declared unconsummated and, as a result, she was not crowned queen consort. Following the annulment, she was given a generous settlement by the King, and thereafter referred to as the King’s Beloved Sister. She lived to see the coronation of Queen Mary I, outliving the rest of Henry’s wives.

Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland

The Rejection

We all know the story. The marriage was arranged by Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The artist Hans Holbein the Younger was dispatched to Düren to paint portraits of Anne and her younger sister, Amalia, each of whom Henry was considering as his fourth wife. Henry required the artist to be as accurate as possible, not to flatter the sisters.

After seeing a portrait of Anne, Henry proceeded with the marriage. However, upon seeing his new bride Henry was immediately repulsed. I would like examine just watch Henry found unacceptable with Anne of Cleves.

Amalia of Cleves

Outside of the portrait by Hans Holbein Henry had to rely on the observations of others to obtain the attractiveness of Anne of Cleves. The reports Henry received were not solely about Anne but we’re placed in juxtaposition with sisters. One report claimed that Anne’s beauty outshined that of her eldest sister, Sibylla, who was married to Elector Johann-Friedrich I of Saxony. The quote stated that Anne’s beauty was ‘as the golden sun does the silver moon’.

Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton was another who had the responsibility to be honest with Henry regarding the truth about Anne’s attractiveness (or perceived lack thereof). The Earl of Southampton reported to the king that he had heard nothing but praise concerning her appearance.

Sibylla of Cleves

By the time Anne reached Calais, she was promised to the king and the marriage contract was set. Therefore Henry was given the advice that it was ‘no time to dispraise her’. At this point in the proceedings the Earl of Southampton’s hands were tied. There was no backing out of this contract and even if the Earl had harbored negative thoughts regarding his future Queens attractiveness he wouldn’t have voiced those thoughts in fear of encountering the wrath of his master the king.

Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is therefore subjective, the majority of descriptions and opinions of Anne’s attractiveness were positive. One description of Anne comes from the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac. Marillac had the reputation of never giving complimentary remarks about any women at the English court.

With Anne of Cleves, Charles de Marillac had no reason to either praise or denigrate Anne, whose brother, Wilhelm, had been an ally of King François I. Therefore his account of Anne’s beauty does seems reliable, although the first description is hearsay. Marillac wrote that ‘according to several who have seen her close, she does not seem so young as expected, nor so beautiful as everyone affirmed. She is tall and has an assurance in her carriage and countenance giving the impression that vivacity of spirit will supply as much beauty as one could desire.’ 

Marillac added that her ladies-in-waiting were even less good-looking, but they were all dressed in clothes so hideous they would have made even the most beautiful women look ugly.

Although Henry VIII’s immediate reaction to Anne is well-documented, the information does not date from the meeting between Henry and Anne but from papers relating to the annulment case in June and July of 1540.

Miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger

These documents in affirmed that Henry had told Cromwell immediately after meeting Anne that he did not want to go through with the match if it could at all be avoided. Henry proceeded to give uncomplimentary reports of Anne’s body, which were cited by the king as his reason for his inability, or reluctance, to consummate the marriage. The report states Henry had felt her breasts and belly, and wondered if she were, in fact, a virgin.

There are accounts of Henry and Anne’s January meeting from the same time (July 1540) as the previous account mentioned. One report was by Sir Anthony Browne, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, who had taken Henry to greet Anne. Henry met her privately on New Year’s Day 1540 at Rochester Abbey in Rochester on her journey from Dover. Henry and some of his courtiers, following a courtly-love tradition, went disguised into the room where Anne was staying

Sir Anthony claimed that, on entering the room, with a mind prepared by all the praise of her to find a beautiful woman, ‘he was never more dismayed in all his life, lamenting in his heart …to see the lady so far and unlike that was reported, and of such sort that he thought the king’s grace could not content himself with her.’ Sir Anthony may have been recalling a genuine memory or being wise after the event.

It is well known and psychological disorders that memory is not reliable. In a court of law evidence-based and memory as often considered the most unreliable source of evidence. However, there is enough evidence to conclude and he did indeed find Anne of Cleves unattractive and that was the reason the marriage was never consummated.