Henry's ugly duckling: why is history so unkind to Anne of Cleves?

Plain, bad-mannered, hated by Henry? Not at all. Thanks to Hilary Mantel and Six, we're finally getting to know the real Anne of Cleves

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'Pleasant-looking': Anne of Cleves, as she appears in her Holbein portrait
'Pleasant-looking': Anne of Cleves, as she appears in her Holbein portrait Credit: getty

Poor Anne of Cleves. You may remember her from school history lessons: in the famous rhyme, she’s the second “Divorced” (which is the rather less exciting one to be than the first) shoved awkwardly between the saintly, son-bearing Jane Seymour and sexy adulterer Katherine Howard. Scooping the prize for Henry’s briefest marriage, Anne was so infamously unattractive that even her lustful husband nicknamed her the Flanders Mare. It’s a pitiful story. Or it would be, if any of it were true.

Revisionist approaches to Tudor history are having a moment. Just published is The Mirror & the Light, the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s double Man Booker-winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Mantel rejects the traditional view of Henry VIII’s right hand man as a thug; in her meticulously-researched, lyrically-written novels, he is a nation builder and religious reformer touched with genius.

Across the pond, Six, a musical penned by two Cambridge undergraduates which gives Henry VIII’s wives the chance to tell their own stories, was about to open on Broadway (before Covid-19 got in the way). For contemporary British artists, it seems, our traditional understandings of the Tudors merit reexamination. 

Anne of Cleves is no exception. Until the last decade or so, historians have tended to approach her through the lens of Henry, says Elizabeth Norton, a Tudor historian at King’s College, London and author of Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII's Discarded Bride.

Chosen for the political prudency of shoring up an alliance with Germany against the newly allied Holy Roman Empire and France, she arrived in England in January 1540 but didn’t measure up to what Henry wanted in a wife. Late 20th-century historian Geoffrey Elton says that Henry was “shocked” by her “plainness and bad manners” and she was discarded eight months later, in favour of her 17-year-old lady in waiting.

“That’s really the end of the story for many writers,” says Norton. She points to popular historian David Starkey’s book Six Wives (2001), which gives Anne 27 of its 900-odd pages. “But when you turn it around and look specifically at Anne as a person, you get a very different picture.”

Crucial to this different picture are the dipatches of Cleves’ ambassador to England, Karl Harst, which survive only in old German, and were first used by American historian Retha Warnicke as recently as 2000. Harst's writings show Anne was not quite the meek victim that historians have often assumed from her seemingly ready acquiescence to Henry’s request for a divorce.

When she first heard of the king's intentions, she was patently angry, and sobbed with rage and fear. She tried to obtain copies of the documents Henry was using to argue for the marrigae’s invalidity, presumably with a view to challenging them; she also initially refused Henry’s request to write to her brother, the Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, to say that she had agreed to the divorce.

A life size mannequin of Anne of Cleves at Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire Credit: pa

Anne also had a high estimation of her own value, both as a political alliance, and a woman. When Henry married his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, three years later, the imperial ambassador Eustache Chapuys wrote that Anne considered her “inferior to her[self] in beauty.”

Anne was certainly not so plain as history-through-Henry’s-eyes would have us believe. As Norton points out, nobody ever said that Holbein’s infamous portrait was a bad likeness.  Hilary Mantel too is unconvinced: “She is pleasant-looking”, remarks Cromwell’s son.

Admittedly, Anne was clearly no great beauty: “I think it was probably quite a flattering angle,” Norton notes diplomatically of Holbein’s portrait, pointing to its unusual front-on perspective. But Norton argues that it was more likely her unfashionable clothes – Anne favoured the heavy head coverings and circular gowns of Germany, whereas the English court followed the more flattering French fashions  – and Henry’s lack of agency in the match that caused his near-instant aversion to her.“Henry’s really different to other contemporary kings because he'd picked all his previous wives personally” Norton points out. In that respect, Anne didn’t stand a chance. 

Hilary Mantel, author of The Mirror and the Light

Perhaps the most radical reassessment made of Anne of Cleves in recent years relates to her life post-divorce. Strikingly and unusually – both for one of Henry’s discarded wives, and for women more generally in Tudor England  – she seems to have gone on to lead a happy, independent life. 

Lucy Moss, one of the writers of Six, says that Anne of Cleves is her favourite story among the queens, because “she actually had a great time! And that’s really nice to think about among all the sadness” of his other, less fortunate spouses.

Henry granted her a remarkably generous divorce settlement, perhaps reflecting his relief that she had agreed to it (however reluctantly). He declared her legally his sister, which gave her precedence over almost every other woman in England. She was also given an annual income of £4,000, which Henry topped up whenever she needed. Anne became something of a big spender, putting on lavish entertainments for her guests, and according to Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador to England, wearing a new dress everyday.

Anne of Cleves' home, in Lewes, Sussex Credit: Christopher Pledger

Henry also gave Anne the palaces of Richmond and Bletchingley for her lifetime. These, according to Henry himself, were chosen because they were “not far from London that you may be near us and, as you desire, able to repair to our Court to see us, as we shall repair to you.”

“Bizarrely, they get on really well after the divorce,” says Norton. Anne, who was enjoying more financial and personal independence than she’d ever in her life had, soon learned English, and was often at court. On the occasion of each of his subsequent marriages, Henry came to Richmond to tell her himself, and the two dined together.

When the triumphant post-divorce Anne sings,“I’m the queen of the castle/ Get down you dirty rascal”in Six, she’s probably addressing Henry. But the sentiment is equally applicable to an old guard of Tudor historians. This queen’s here to take up space – revise your expectations.