Anne of Cleves: The Wife King Henry Loved Most?

Was Henry VIII’s jilted wife Anne of Cleves more loved than most people believe?

Mar 10, 2024By Elizabeth Morgan, BA History w/ Tudor concentration

anne of cleeves henry wife


When it comes to the question of which of his six wives was King Henry’s personal favorite, Anne of Cleves is undoubtedly the most controversial choice of all. Since their marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, and since King Henry publicly proclaimed his dislike of Anne, she is widely considered the least successful of his wives — romantically speaking — at least.


For nearly five hundred years, Anne has been condemned as the unattractive one. Maybe now, in the twenty-first century, it is time to re-examine this short but fascinating failure of a love story. Could there be more to Anne and her relationship with King Henry than initially meets the eye?


Anne of Cleves: Wife Number Four

Henry VIII, by Joos van Cleve, 1530-35, Source: The Royal Collection Trust


Anne of Cleves was the fourth in a long line of women to marry King Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour had all gone before her. Catherine of Aragon had been divorced in 1533, Anne Boleyn had been beheaded in 1536, and Jane Seymour had died in 1537. But Anne of Cleves was special for one reason alone. Of all his six wives, it was she who was married to King Henry for the shortest time.


Their wedding took place on the 6th of January during the year of 1540. This date was significant. The 6th was the annual celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, which also marked the culmination of King Henry’s Christmas festivities. Obviously, it was intended that this event should be filled with warmth, joy, and romance.

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Despite the happy occasion of their wedding, their unhappy union lasted just six months. Anne and King Henry formally separated on the 9th of July that same year, having failed to fall in love with each other and, more importantly, having failed to consummate their relationship.


Their marriage may very well have been doomed from the beginning. To the modern historian, it may seem that a romance such as theirs was simply not going to work, however hard they may have tried to get on amicably as husband and wife. Therapists and counselors of our era would surely agree that King Henry was in no fit state to receive a new bride. One might say that Anne was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536-7, Source: the Kunsthistorisches Museum


You see, Anne had the particular misfortune of succeeding Jane Seymour, the woman traditionally thought to have been the greatest love of King Henry’s life. When he married Anne, King Henry’s heart was still breaking over the premature death of his beloved Jane. We know that King Henry never really recovered from the loss of his third wife, for even when married to his sixth nearly a decade later, it was the deceased Jane Seymour that he commanded to be painted into his family portrait, rather than the living Catherine Parr.


To make matters worse for Anne, Jane had been the perfect example of a 16th-century wife. She had been beautiful, meek, pious, kind-hearted, and agreeable. What’s more, she had provided England with a healthy and legitimate Prince. What woman in her right mind would have wished to follow her?


Now, in the 21st century, Anne is remembered for two reasons. Firstly, she is remembered for being particularly unappealing to look upon (so unattractive was she supposed to have been that King Henry lacked the physical ability to do with her his duty as a husband). Secondly, and somewhat unsurprisingly, she is remembered for being the least loved of all his wives and lovers.


But we may ask ourselves whether or not any truth lies behind these assumptions. We may wonder whether or not there is any evidence to support the theory that Anne of Cleves was as ill-favored as King Henry liked to make out. To understand her relationship with King Henry, and to comprehend why she, in particular, was so displeasing to him, we must first understand the woman herself.


Beginning with the Basics: Who was Anne of Cleves?

Arms of the House of La Marck, by Euryrel, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Anne of Cleves was the second of King Henry’s wives not to have been born in England. Instead, she was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, during the year of 1515. At the time of her birth, King Henry had already been King of England for six years and was happily married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.


Anne’s father was John III of the House of La Marck, and her mother was Maria, the Duchess of Julich-Berg. She was the second of their four children. Her siblings were Sibylle (1512-1554) who would later marry the Elector of Saxony, Wilhelm (1516-1592) who would receive the Dukedom of Julich-Cleves-Berg, and Amalia (1517-1586) who would, despite her parents best efforts, remain unmarried until her death.


This small nursery possessed a grand and prestigious lineage. Each child was descended from various Kings of both England and France and held particularly close ties to King Louis XII of France and the Duke of Burgundy.


All four children spent their earliest years together in extremely close quarters. The girls were poorly educated and were prepared only for a life of Royal housekeeping and motherhood. Their limited and old-fashioned schooling consisted mainly of painting, needlework, household management, music, dancing, and card games. Despite the fact that the girls would have been particularly valuable prospects in the European marriage market, it is fair to say that they endured extremely sheltered upbringings.


Wilhelm V. Duke of Julich, Berg, and Cleve, by Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540, Source the MET Museum


It was in around 1527, when Anne was aged just eleven, that she was betrothed to Francis, the nine-year-old son and heir of Antoine Duke of Lorraine. However, because Francis was under the age of consent for marriage (at the time in Germany, this was just ten years old), the betrothal was later considered unofficial and declared only suggested. Luckily for King Henry, in around thirteen years’ time, the issue of this pre-contract would provide grounds for him to question the validity of his own marriage to Anne.


It was not until the year of 1539 that Thomas Cromwell, (the man who eventually lost his head for his involvement in this marriage contract), first made contact with the Cleves family with the intention of proposing a union between King Henry and one of the daughters.


Hans Holbein the Younger was sent to paint reliable depictions of both Amalia and Anne so that King Henry could choose which he would prefer to proceed with. As luck would have it, he soon selected Anne.


Was Anne Of Cleves “The Ugly One?”

Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves in The Tudors, Source: Screen Crush


It is entirely possible that Anne of Cleves was no great beauty. Let’s be realistic — most of us aren’t. Many UK surveys suggest that now, even with the use of all our modern conveniences, only ten percent of us possess what might be considered beauty. Fifty percent fall into the category of average. It is not out of the question that one of King Henry’s six wives lacked that certain something in the way of her appearance.


But is there any reliable evidence to support the theory that Anne was particularly unpleasant to look upon? Is there any legitimate reason for us to believe she was any less attractive than any other woman of her time, age, and status?


No, there isn’t. In fact, the likelihood is that Anne was no less attractive than any other woman King Henry had ever encountered. True, she may not have possessed the same allure and sex appeal as Anne Boleyn. True, she may have lacked the English-Rose-style beauty that Jane Seymour had been blessed with. But the fact remains that King Henry was the only person who ever saw fit to complain about her. Every other man in England deemed her looks perfectly satisfactory.


Edward Hall (1498-1547), for example, gave extremely favorable descriptions of Anne’s appearance. He described her hair as being “long, yellow and fair.” He stated that she dressed in English fashion but with a French hood, which at the time would have been the height of fashion. Hall even went as far as to say that her clothes “set forth her beauty and good visage so much that every creature rejoiced to behold her.”


Every creature except, of course, for the King.


Anne Boleyn, by the English School, 1550, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Edward Hall was by no means the only man to compliment Anne of Cleves publicly. Charles de Marillac (1510-1560), the French Ambassador, described her as being  “tall and slim, of middling beauty,” and of a “very assured and resolute countenance.”


While these are not the most flattering descriptions a woman could wish to hear, they paint the picture of a wealthy, striking, confident, well-dressed, well-maintained, and averagely pretty woman. The disappointed King Henry claimed, “I see nothing in this woman as men report of her.”


We may decide for ourselves whether or not Anne’s looks were up to King Henry’s high standards, for she has been depicted several times in works by various artists. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Cornelis Martinus Vermeulen (1644-1708), Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722), and John June (1740-1770) are just a few of the men who took on the unenviable task of bringing Anne to life on paper. So often has she been painted that London’s National Portrait Gallery alone is home to fourteen such depictions.


Anne of Cleves, by hands Holbein the Younger, 1539, Source: The Web Gallery of Art


The image we are most familiar with is undoubtedly the version of Anne painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. It was this work that was completed during the year 1539, having been commissioned by King Henry himself. It is this depiction of Anne that King Henry would have laid his own eyes upon and fallen in love with, long before he laid eyes upon and fell in love with the woman in the flesh.


To the 21st-century eye, a portrait of Anne of Cleves looks very much the same as a portrait of Catherine Howard, Catherine of Aragon, or in fact any other woman of the era. Many would struggle to identify any one of the wives using one portrait alone. Certainly, when presented with six pictures, one who knew nothing about history would be unable to identify the woman traditionally deemed to be the least attractive.


One interesting piece of evidence suggests that Anne of Cleves believed herself to be attractive. She went as far as to declare to her friends that she possessed better looks than Catherine Parr. According to reliable reports, when it was announced that King Henry was to marry once again, Anne remarked to her ladies that she herself was a good deal more attractive than the Queen-to-be. She also mentioned, perhaps in a bout of jealousy, that Catherine was unaware of what she was taking on in marrying King Henry.


It was Eustace Chapuys (1489-1556), the Imperial Ambassador, who just happened to overhear this conversation. Whether he approved or disapproved of Anne’s confidence is left for us to decide, but since he was a man who did not usually have trouble expressing his opinion if he had thought her comments laughable, he very likely would have recorded it.


Rebecca Dyson Smith as Anne of Cleves, Secrets of the Six Wives, Source: Apple TV


Predictably, casting directors of our era have not yet cared to appoint an unattractive Anne. Over the last century, she has been portrayed by a wide variety of beautiful women, including Elsa Lanchester in The Private Life Of King Henry VIII (1933), Pia Girard in King Henry VIII (2003), Joss Stone in The Tudors (2007), and Rebecca Dyson-Smith in the documentary series, Six Wives With Lucy Worsley.


The reasons for King Henry’s accusations could not be clearer. What King of England would publicly admit his inability to consummate a marriage? There was no one for him to blame for this failure other than his wife.


Anne Of Cleves: Reasons She Could Have Been a Favorite

Anne of Cleves coat of Arms as Queen Consort, by Sodacan, 2010, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Before we begin to search for something that simply isn’t there, we must be realistic about our possibilities of finding something worth evaluating. Truthfully, there is little to no evidence to support the theory that Anne of Cleves was the favorite wife of King Henry VIII.


King Henry did not love Anne of Cleves as devotedly as he had loved Catherine of Aragon. He was not as infatuated with Anne of Cleves as he had been with Anne Boleyn. He did not treasure her as he had treasured Jane Seymour. He did not lust after her in the same way he would lust after Catherine Howard, and he did not trust her and rate her as highly as he would trust and rate Catherine Parr.


However, there is much evidence to support the idea that he harbored a genuine, brotherly affection. There is a wealth of material to confirm the notion that he thought of her with warmth and friendship; so much so that they might have been better suited as platonic companions rather than as husband and wife. Or perhaps, after reviewing this material, we might conclude that had they wed at a different time in their lives and under different circumstances, their marriage might even have been a success.


There are a few facts to back up the idea that King Henry might have loved Anne of Cleves above all others. First: Their relationship began with love.


First Meeting Between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, by George Folingsby, 1879, Source: Wikiart


Even before their first meeting, King Henry had decided that his marriage to Anne was going to be a success. Having decided that he was in love with her after only a few positive descriptions from Thomas Cromwell and a swift glance at her portrait by Holbein, he had hardly been able to wait for her arrival in England. So excited had he been to lay eyes upon her in the flesh that he had ridden out with a group of companions, in true Arthurian fashion, to surprise her with an early rendezvous. To make matters worse, he had come up with the ingenious idea of disguising himself as a lowly messenger and testing Anne on her ability to recognize true love.


The curators of Hampton Court Palace tell us that  “while on the way to London, Anne was surprised by a group of masked men, led by a tall burly middle-aged man who tried to kiss her. Anne, unused to such behaviour, pushed him away in bewilderment.”


Anne had thought that she had several days left to prepare herself for her first meeting with her future husband and was horrified when this group of rowdy and excitable gentlemen burst in on her and her temporary household unexpectedly. The Royal-blooded Catherine of Aragon, the sophisticated Anne Boleyn, and the well-prepared Jane Seymour would have recognized this for what it was — a game of chivalric tradition and courtly love. However, the foreign and ill-prepared Anne of Cleves was completely caught off guard by what she perceived to be a random attack.


Joss Stone as Anne of Cleves, Source: Pinterest


We are told that, immediately upon seeing his soon-to-be bride, King Henry took her in his arms and kissed her. We can take this as a sign that he was initially pleased; obviously, he found her attractive enough to pay her the compliment of physical affection. If a kiss does not signify his initial attraction, what does?


Unfortunately, Anne did not recognize King Henry as quickly as he had hoped, and it was after this fiasco that things swiftly went downhill. Perhaps if their first meeting had gone as planned, and if their relationship had not started out with confusion and miscommunication, it might have had more of a chance at survival.


The Arms of Manners, Dukes of Rutland and Barons of Manners, by sodacan, 2017, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Second; Anne had no complaints about her marriage. If she thought there was something wrong with her marriage, she certainly did not voice her concerns to those around her. Instead, she complimented King Henry as a sweet and kind-hearted husband. In February, just a month after their wedding, Anne told the Countess of Rutland that she and he conversed twice daily.


When he comes to bed,” Anne began, “he kisseth me, and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me ‘good night, sweetheart.’” She continued, “and in the morning he kisseth me and biddeth me ‘farewell, darling.’”


This, it seemed, was enough to keep Anne happy.


Hever Castle from the Moat, by David Cox, 1850, Source: Abbott and Holder Ltd


Third; her generous divorce settlement.


After being divorced from a King — generally speaking — the best an ex-queen could hope for was a life in obscurity. Most would have been thankful for the chance to live out their days in a prestigious but quiet countryside Abbey. But Anne of Cleves was granted the greatest gift King Henry could possibly have given — the chance to begin her life again. As far as King Henry was concerned, Anne had done nothing wrong, and therefore it made no difference to him if she enjoyed what she was technically owed as a former Queen of England.


Anne received an extremely generous divorce settlement. She was given manors in Hampshire formerly owned by Breamore Priory and Southwick Priory and, even more excitingly, Hever Castle, the childhood home of the deceased Anne Boleyn.


Anne was free to remain in England and to live as a private person in her own right. She was answerable to no one but the King, and since by this time he was planning to spend most of his time in bed with Catherine Howard, he had very little care for what his ex-wife might do.


Since King Henry confirmed that Anne was still a virgin, she was free to marry whoever she chose. Unsurprisingly, this was one opportunity she chose not to take.


Finally, Henry placed her above almost all other women in England. After her divorce, Anne was hardly treated as an outcast. Instead, she was considered an honorary member of King Henry’s family. Anne and King Henry grew to like each other — probably much more so than they had when they were married — and even became fond of each other’s company.


King Henry insisted that all should refer to Anne as “the King’s beloved sister.” Such was her favor that he decreed she was to be given precedence over all other women in England, save his own wife and daughters.

Anne Of Cleves: The Wife Who Lived

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1540s, Source: Wikimedia Commons


“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.”


Over the last five centuries, historians have been conditioned to believe that it was Catherine Parr who was the most successful of King Henry’s wives. She is the queen who appears with a resounding victory at the end of the verse written above. Traditionally, it is she who is remembered as “the one who survived.”


While Catherine of Aragon had suffered in exile, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had lost their heads and Jane Seymour had died in agony bearing a Prince, Catherine Parr had managed to avoid the inevitable without so much as a scrape on her hand. So relieved are we to hear of her narrow getaway escape that we can almost forget that she died just a year later while bearing the child of her final husband, Thomas Seymour.


Although she is labeled simply as “the one who was divorced,” it was actually Anne of Cleves who survived King Henry by the longest. Her life went on another decade after his death and, having been provided with a clean slate and a good chance of happiness, she certainly made the most of that life. Anne did not live in obscurity after her husband’s death, but actually made many notable public appearances. Most significantly of all, she took part in the Coronation procession of her daughter-in-law, Queen Mary I, on the first of October in 1553.


Mary I, by Hans Ewouth, 1555-8, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Anne’s only sadness was that she never had the chance to return home to Germany. Evidence suggests that she was generally content in England, but she did express the occasional bout of homesickness in her letters.


Anne died at Chelsea Old Manor on the 16th of July during the year, 1557. The most likely cause of her death was an unknown form of cancer. Just a few weeks later, on the 4th of August, Anne was buried in Westminster Abbey. She received Catholic rites, just as she had requested.


Anne mentioned many friends and family members in her will. These included her brother, her sister, and her sister-in-law, as well as Queen Mary, the future Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of Suffolk, and the Countess of Arundel, all of whom she counted among her closest friends. She left money and belongings to each of her favored servants and beseeched Mary and Elizabeth to employ them in their own households.


Raphael Holinshed (1525-1582) described Anne as “a lady of right commendable regard, courteous, gentle, a good housekeeper, and very bountiful to her servants.” He confidently stated that there had never been “any quarrel, tale bearing or mischievous intrigues in her court, and she was loved by her domestics.” Anne was remembered by everyone who served her as a particularly kind, fair, and easy-going mistress. It really did seem that nobody had a bad word to say about her.


The Old Chelsea Manor House, 1873, Wikimedia Commons


The body of Anne of Cleves now lies on the South Side of the High Alter at Westminster Abbey. According to the Abbey “her monument is a low stone structure of three sections with carvings showing her initials with a crown, lions heads and skulls and crossed bones.” Her Epitaph simply reads “Anne of Cleves, Queen of England, born 1515, died 1557.”


Anne Of Cleves: The Wife King Henry Loved Most?

Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII in The Tudors, Source: Apple TV


While Anne of Cleves may not have been the wife King Henry loved most, there is absolutely no doubt that he genuinely liked and respected her as a woman in her own right. Certainly, she was not the despised and ill-treated Queen that so many people now perceive her to have been.


On the day his marriage to Anne was annulled, King Henry delivered to her a comforting letter. “You shall find us a perfect friend,” he assured her, “content to repute you as our dearest sister. We shall, within five or six days, determine your state minding to endow you with four thousand pounds of yearly revenue, from your loving brother and friend.”


If that is not good enough proof of King Henry’s affection for Anne, what is?

Author Image

By Elizabeth MorganBA History w/ Tudor concentrationElizabeth is a historian, writer, and student with a passionate interest in the Tudor era. She also enjoys religious history, mythology, and Renaissance art. Recently she has studied King Henry VIII at Oxford University and history at the Open University and the University of Roehampton. She has also gained two Certificates (King Henry VIII & The Tudors) and a History Diploma (The Tudors). Elizabeth lives in Wales, United Kingdom, and can often be found exploring its many castles, cathedrals, and churches. She regularly writes about her trips to Museums and Heritage sites. Much of her research is dedicated to Cardinal Wolsey. She is the Founder of The Cardinal Wolsey Society, writes daily articles, and publishes its monthly newsletter.