Who Was Anne of Cleves?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of King Henry VIII, although their marriage was annulled after six months. The daughter of the German Duke of Cleves, Anne is often considered a naïve woman who was lucky to survive the wrath of a king known for disposing of his wives. Other experts consider Anne’s survival and prominent place in the English court a sign of considerable wisdom.

Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of King Henry VIII.
Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of King Henry VIII.

Born in 1515, Anne is believed to have had a provincial and uneducated youth in the court of Cleves. She was not tutored in music or literature and spoke only German. Reports of the time claim Anne of Cleves was modest, quiet and reserved. In the glittering and extravagant English court, Anne was at first an obvious misfit.

Anne Boleyn was King Henry VIII's second wife, wile Anne of Cleaves was his fourth.
Anne Boleyn was King Henry VIII's second wife, wile Anne of Cleaves was his fourth.

After the death of Queen Jane Seymour, Henry remained in mourning for two years. Eventually, wishing for a second son should anything happen to his precious heir, Henry began a search for his fourth bride. In order to get a clear idea of the available foreign nobility, Henry dispatched artists to paint the marriageable ladies. Henry’s advisors, desperate to make a political alliance with the Duchy of Cleves, ordered a famous English painter named Hans Holbein the Younger to make the portrait of Anne of Cleves as attractive as possible. Henry was enchanted with the resulting painting, and decided to marry Anne.

Unfortunately, upon meeting Anne, Henry realized the portrait was deceptive and famously complained “I like her not!” But negotiations for their marriage were at a critical point, and Henry could not safely walk away without offending a much needed ally. Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII married on 6 January 1540. According to the king, the union was never consummated, which served as his grounds for annulment only six months later.

Hoping to avoid a fight, Henry sent his ministers to Anne to persuade her to co-operate with the annulment. Anne of Cleves had clear examples of the peril she risked by disagreeing. Catherine of Aragon, the king’s first wife, had fought their divorce for years, being forced to live in near poverty and kept away from her only child as punishment. Anne Boleyn, Henry’s fiery second wife, had been tried and executed when she attempted to cross the king. By managing to end her marriage while retaining the good will of the king, Anne of Cleves survived a dangerous situation that had brought down two brilliant women.

King Henry, possibly out of relief, officially named Anne his beloved sister, heaping estates and money on her. Anne of Cleves never returned to Germany, remaining in England for the rest of her life. She possessed a great ability to befriend people, forming close relationships with Lady Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and Katherine Howard, who would succeed her as queen. She and Henry remained cordial friends, and Anne was a frequent dinner guest of the King and his new Queen.

Along with Katherine Parr, Anne of Cleves was one of the two wives to survive Henry VIII. Anne lived long enough to see her dear friend Mary crowned as queen, before dying at her Chelsea estates in July, 1557. A modest and quiet woman, Anne is often overlooked by scholars, perhaps unjustly. Her integration into the intricate English court and careful steering of her marriage’s annulment suggest that the fourth queen of Henry VIII possessed wisdom surpassing some of her better known fellow wives.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- I never really knew much about Anne of Cleves, but what you said makes a lot of sense.

Everything I've ever read about Henry talks about how he got touchier as he got older. I saw a PBS special not long ago that took his life from a CSI/forensic standpoint and the investigators concluded he was probably diabetic and had severe arthritis. It was known at the time he had gout, which can be extremely painful. So, yes, he was probably relieved not to have the stress of having to "deal" with another difficult wife. Too bad he married Katherine Howard next.


There's no doubt Anne of Cleves had great good sense, as well as good advice from someone on how to handle Henry. I've always suspected it was her ready assent to the annulment that won him over. He wasn't going to have a fight on his hands with her, and he knew it. So, he was prepared to be generous.

I've also always suspected she was so relieved to be free of Henry, she wasn't going to buck the system too much. He was nearly fifty, had health problems and was infamous for becoming more difficult to please. If she left in the king's good graces, she no longer had to worry about having a son or angering the king. It really was a win-win situation for her.

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