If you’ve read my article on Catherine Parr, you already know how this English children’s rhyme goes: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived.
The rhyme describes the fate of Henry VIII‘s six wives. Henry VIII, for the ones who managed to dodge all the shows and movies about him and his wives, is the most married monarch in English history. It’s not that his wives kept dying on him. It’s more like he kept making them die when he wasn’t divorcing (or annulling) his marriage with them.
Though Henry VIII was initially a good-looking king with a head for governance, as he aged it became clear that he had a sharp temper and a narcissistic streak a mile wide. He burned through several young women in his court and after a while, many came to realize that being the apple of his eye may as well be a death sentence.
“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” follows the chronological order of Henry’s wives. Catherine of Aragon gets divorced, Anne Boleyn is beheaded, Jane Seymour dies in childbirth, Anne of Cleves is divorced, Catherine Howard is beheaded, and Catherine Parr survives.
It’s usually the first two wives who get the attention for their rivalry and fiery personalities along with Catherine Parr who “survived.” Except surviving didn’t pan out well for her because her new husband was just as bad as Henry and she had to put up with Henry in the first place.
Enter Anne of Cleves, the real winner among Henry’s wives. Married at 24 years old and divorced in just six months, Anne made off with a generous yearly allowance, several houses, and Hever Castle. The best part? She outlived Henry, his children, and his wives long enough to enjoy it all.
Who Exactly Is Anne of Cleves?
Anne of Cleves, or Anne von Cleves in her native German, was born in Düsseldorf Castle on June 28, 1515 to John III, Duke of Cleves, and his wife Maria. Anne’s origins were clearly blue-blooded. Her father John III was known to his people as Johann the Peaceful, partly because of his attempts to reconcile or at least calm the tensions that arose between the opposing factions of the Protestant Reformation.
Maria, on the other hand, was the daughter and heiress of Duke William IV of Jülich-Berg. The vast political influence and wealth of her parents made it natural for Anne to be raised as a proper aristocratic lady. Here’s the thing, though: they raised her as a proper German lady.
Back then, just as it is today, there were cultural differences in what was valued as a worthwhile education. The German court preferred to teach young ladies valuable skills with practical applications. Anne of Cleves was taught needlework and household management in addition to German court manners.
Unlike her English counterparts, Anne never learned French, English, Spanish, or Latin. In fact, she only spoke High Dutch, her native language. It’s a stark difference from other wives, like Catherine Parr, who did know those languages.
Aside from being monolingual, Anne wasn’t expected to know how to dance, sing, and perform other courtly tasks that other major European courts expected of high-born women. Instead, her life in her father’s court exposed her to his forward-thinking and moderate views. John III was a patron of the Dutch Renaissance scholar, Erasmus. Meanwhile, Maria was a devout Catholic who raised Anne to be one herself.
If you haven’t picked up on them already, there’s a lot of things here that would contribute to Anne’s marriage to Henry going awry.
For one, Anne of Cleves didn’t speak any language other than High Dutch which is obviously a massive hurdle if you’re going to be shipped off to a foreign country where people speak English. Next is her lack of typical English court graces.
Anne would have had a harder time socializing and relating to other people in court because she wasn’t trained to share their interests. Catherine Parr, for one, was able to manage Henry’s temper by keeping him fed and entertained. Like Henry, Catherine was an art enthusiast. Meanwhile, Anne doesn’t seem to have any artistic pursuits under her belt.
Here’s the final nail in the coffin: Anne was raised in a relatively peaceful environment. Contrary to the impression other accounts might leave, it wasn’t that John III’s court was a backwater, it was just more peaceful. The politics Anne was exposed to weren’t as tumultuous as the kind that went on in Henry’s England, especially considering that John took his cues from Erasmus instead of Martin Luther.
All things taken into consideration, you get a picture of a 24-year-old Anne of Cleves who is polite, innocent, and frankly, very sheltered.
The Holbein Incident
So when Hans Holbein the Younger came with his easel and paints, it may as well have been a harbinger of doom knocking on Anne’s door.
Hans Holbein was commissioned to do be a 1500s Tinder by traveling around Europe to pick potential wives for Henry VIII. Imagine him coming back with a whole carriage full of portraits and presenting them one by one to Henry VIII while the 40 something, gout-ridden king told his servants to swipe left and right for him because, in a way, that’s kind of what happened.
Holbein returned with at least three portraits. One was of Christina of Denmark, who was only 16 years old when the portrait was made, wearing black mourning clothes after the death of her first husband, Francis II, Duke of Milan. She was described as a famously beautiful young woman, making Anne and Amalia’s looks pale in comparison.
While neither of the sisters is ugly, you can probably tell from the portraits above that even between them, Amalia was the more beautiful sister. And yet, Henry VIII chose Anne of Cleves.
It’s bizarre, to say the least. We already know from his marital track record that Henry VIII is as shallow and disloyal as they come. How else do you describe a man who forcefully divorces his first wife by establishing his own church just so he can marry a younger woman who excited him more?
We can only assume that Anne of Cleves was actually his type.
Unfortunately, despite being married twice already, Henry apparently didn’t understand how to be tactful with the ladies or, you know, just not sexually harass them on the first meetup.
Henry VIII was scheduled to meet Anne on January 3, 1540, but the king wanted to give his new bride a surprise.
Imagine this: you’re a 24-year-old devout Catholic in a foreign country where you don’t speak the native language. You’re nervous, feeling lonely, and haven’t actually seen the person you’re going to marry. He comes to visit you in disguise and, without telling you who he is, gives you a hug and kiss without your consent. The worst part is that nobody steps in to explain that it was just a misunderstanding and that Henry was just trying to make a romantic gesture that doesn’t make sense unless you understand English literary references.
Anne did her best to be polite to the stranger that just sexually harassed her, but her cold reception of Henry, who expected his foreign wife to understand an English™ thing, was not pleased by the fact that she didn’t play along.
He would later ridicule her in private to his councilors and ambassadors from Cleves, saying that she was “nothing as well as she was spoken of” or, as Six: The Musical puts it, “didn’t look like her profile picture”. Prior to this, there were no accounts of anyone calling Anne ugly or even plain unattractive.
Still, the marriage pushed on.
Anne’s Marriage Was Pretty Uneventful (Which Was a Good Thing)
Let’s say it plainly because it’s not like old Henry’s around to throw a manchild fit about it: Henry VIII couldn’t get it up so instead of admitting that he was old, sickly, and impotent, he blamed Anne of Cleves for being “ugly”.
The two were married on January 6, 1540 even after it was clear that Henry’s ego was hurt and he wanted to take out his frustrations with Thomas Cromwell out on Anne. They were wed at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich and the marriage that followed was not pleasant.
Or was it? There’s something strange about the way Henry VIII acts towards and talks about Anne of Cleves throughout their marriage. He’s clearly unhappy about being unmarried to her and speaks badly about her looks when he’s with his courtly bros.
But considering Anne’s positive opinion of him, it seems the king was conflicted about how he felt towards Anne. He didn’t have the patience to put up with her innocence, leaving the marriage unconsummated. He claimed that “I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.”
Still, he didn’t treat Anne cruelly to her face. This may have been because of how innocent and oblivious Anne was about the goings-on of the English court. Henry VIII still made sure to spend time with Anne and would hold her hand, kiss her, bid her goodnight, and fortunately, never forced himself on her.
His friendly manners had Anne believing they were on good terms and she would openly praise him in front of her ladies in waiting for being a great husband. But it was also these stories that clued her ladies in waiting in on the fact that Anne and Henry’s marriage remained unconsummated.
After telling her ladies that she suspected she was pregnant, one of them told her, “I think your Grace is still a maid…Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York, which all this realm most desireth.”
By May, Henry VIII was already courting Catherine Howard, who was only 19 years old when they married.
Before that marriage could happen though, he had to get rid of Anne.
Henry and Anne Were Practically Besties
Perhaps afraid that she would meet the same end as Anne Boleyn, the Anne who got beheaded, Anne of Cleves consented to the annulment that Henry VIII asked for. The fuss-free annulment, which likely came as a shock to Henry considering how Catherine of Aragon fought him tooth and nail, had the old king ecstatic.
He gave Anne a generous settlement of 3,000 pounds a year that Anne enjoyed for 17 years, long after Henry’s death. Adjusted for inflation, the amount would have been worth 29,630,000 pounds. That’s roughly 38 million U.S dollars.
Aside from a big allowance, the settlement came with Hever Castle and Richmond Palace as well as expensive jewels, fine furniture, and a high place in English court that placed her just behind Henry’s own wives and children.
But strangely, the annulment didn’t sour their relationship. In fact, the two became so close that Henry would call Anne his, “right dear and right entirely beloved sister“.
Let’s take a quick recap here.
Out of all the wives of Henry VIII, Anne was the one married for the shortest time at just 6 months. Henry gave her two palaces, a massive yearly allowance, and a ton of extra goodies after their annulment. Henry proclaimed her only second to his family in esteem. Then, she outlived him, his wives, and his children. The entire time, Anne never remarried which meant she kept living independently as a single rich woman.
Catherine Parr may have survived, but Anne of Cleves was the clear winner of all of Henry’s wives.