Considering its tumult, drama, and far-reaching historical implications, there's something endlessly fascinating about the life of Henry VII. But while his break with the Catholic Church and multiple attempts to secure an heir over the course of six marriages are the stuff of legends, some chapters in his life are more heavily examined than others.
And that can be particularly seen in his marriages, as the stories of his first three wives are far more widely known than the latter three. One could argue that Anne of Cleves, in particular, is the most overlooked of Henry VIII's wives, but that doesn't mean she deserves to be.
What seemed like a rock-solid foundation
According to the Society of Antiquaries of London, the early 16th Century saw Henry VII as a stalwart Catholic who had stepped up so strongly for the Church in a time of crisis that he was considered the "Defender of the Faith."
The Latin term for this honorific is Fidei Defensor, the initials of which are still known to appear on British coins. But while this favor in the eyes of the Church wouldn't last, that fact is more widely known than how it was earned in the first place.
Martin Luther didn't change Henry's mind
Although Henry could understand the need for reform in the Catholic Church, he felt the upheaval of the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther's 95 Theses was too radical and violent. And his word on the matter carried enough weight to be valued by Church officials.
So, with the help of his secretary, the since-canonized Thomas More, Henry VII wrote a defense of the traditional Catholic sacraments called Assertio Septem Sacramentorum in 1521. This defense was dedicated to Pope Leo X, who rewarded the king with this "Defender of the Faith" distinction.
Other influences muddied this once-staunch defense
However, Henry had significantly changed his mind by the 1530s. Rather than defend the Catholic Church from Luther's challenges, the king of England started to have some faith-shaking questions of his own. As the Society of Antiquaries of London noted, he especially wondered why scripture couldn't be directly accessible by the people.
This was partially influenced by earlier conversations by the Dutch humanist scholar Erasmus, but voices closer to him had their own influences. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer suggested his own reforms, but chief minister Thomas Cromwell exerted a great deal of influence in Henry's court for much of his reign.
Succession troubles with Catherine Of Aragon
But while these considerations and the attractive proposition of becoming Supreme Head of the Church of England were certainly factors in Henry's split from the Vatican, one problem loomed large over them all.
Namely, he was not able to conceive a male heir who survived early childhood with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. By the standards of the time, this served to put his royal line and his kingdom in jeopardy. And Henry thought his crisis could be solved with an annulment.
Henry no longer found the faith worth defending
However, the birth of the future queen Mary I and the ill-fated life of Henry, Duke of Cornwall, proved that Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine had been consummated. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, there was no way they could realistically grant him an annulment.
So, he started a coordinated campaign to rewrite his nation's history and establish England as an empire that had never needed external support. And while he was coming up with his own reality, he decided to assert that he and Catherine were never married.
A new marriage with some heavy consequences
This gave him the justification he needed to pursue a relationship with and eventual marriage to Anne Boleyn, but it created a permanent rift between him and the Catholic Church. And the consequences of that rift were seen among his ranks.
Although a series of political machinations would eventually lead to Boleyn's execution, hers wouldn't be the only such death set in motion by their marriage. For not everyone was as willing to lend legitimacy to Henry's new vision for England.
Thomas More's principled sacrifice
According to the United Kingdom's National Archives, Thomas More could not accept Henry's claims about his first marriage, nor would his conscience allow him to support Henry's reasons for breaking with the Catholic Church. This led him to resign as Henry's lord chancellor in May 1532.
Although he tried to maintain a civil distance from Henry and Anne Boleyn, this wasn't enough for Henry. The king had Thomas Cromwell push the Act of Succession through Parliament, which legislated that Boleyn was the rightful queen. When More refused to swear an oath acknowledging this, he was tried for treason and executed on July 6, 1535.
An heir finally secured
Although Boleyn would give birth to the now legendary future queen Elizabeth I, her marriage to Henry wasn't any more successful at producing a male heir than Catherine's was. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, it was this fact and some advice from Cromwell that led Henry to pursue a new relationship with Jane Seymour (pictured).
Nonetheless, this was not sufficient justification for divorcing her, which led Henry's court to engineer adultery and treason charges that led to Boleyn's execution on May 19, 1536. But while Seymour's reign would not last long due to a fatal illness, she nonetheless had time to give birth to Edward VI.
No reason to stop marrying
According to Historic Royal Palaces, Henry's fulfillment of his long and costly ambition to produce a male heir was not the final step in securing his legacy. Indeed, resting all of one's hopes on one heir has historically been seen as a risky proposition in sustaining monarchies.
And while Elizabeth's prosperous reign would end up fulfilling a great deal of the Tudor line's potential, this wasn't something Henry would have predicted at the time. So, as he saw it, it would only be more prudent to have a spare son in case something happened to Edward.
Political considerations also factored into his future
In addition to this need for another son, Henry VIII saw marriage as a potential way to bolster England's relations with the Duchy of Cleves into an alliance. After all, the Protestant enclave of Cleves would look a lot different to Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England than it would when he was the "Defender of the Faith."
So, as he saw it, a marriage to a member of the House of Cleves would not only earn his kingdom their favor but also the support of other potential Protestant allies throughout Europe. Between the political implications and the chance to produce another heir, the idea of a fourth marriage seemed like an opportune one.
Hans Holbein sweetens the pot
As he had done with Henry's past wives, prominent members of his court, and even the king himself, Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger painted a portrait of Anne, the second daughter of the Duke of Cleves. Holbein's work is pictured here, and in it, Anne appears to be a lovely young woman.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Henry was deeply enchanted by this portrait. And since her presented appearance seemed to clinch the myriad of reasons to marry Anne, Henry agreed before he had ever met her. Unfortunately for almost everyone involved, this would turn out to be a decision he regretted.
Cromwell makes his arrangements
By the time Henry VIII became aware of Anne of Cleves, Thomas Cromwell had already demonstrated a long history of both arranging the king's marriages and engineering his exits from those marriages once Henry grew tired of them.
As the Smithsonian Magazine outlined, Cromwell first ingratiated himself to the king by navigating his divorce with Catherine. While he had helped Boleyn marry Henry, Cromwell was also instrumental in engineering her downfall as a means of bringing Henry closer to Jane Seymour.
A disastrous first meeting
So, Cromwell wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary when he introduced Anne of Cleves to the king's attention and arranged for her to meet Henry in England. But while Cromwell's previous machinations had cemented his status as a trusted advisor, this arrangement jeopardized everything for him.
And that was apparent from the moment they met, as the Smithsonian Magazine reported Henry's reaction to her presence as saying, "I like her not! I like her not!" According to Historic Royal Palaces, he would later add, "I see nothing in this woman as men report of her."
What was so wrong with Anne?
As far as the most widely accepted understanding of their brief relationship holds, Henry VIII found her repulsive upon meeting her. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, he saw her as far more of a "tall, big-boned and strong-featured" woman than the Holbein portrait led him to believe.
Henry was very vocal about his disappointment in Anne's appearance in conversations with Cromwell, describing her as "nothing fair." According to Westminster Abbey, other accounts have him comparing Anne to a "Flanders mare" due to her strength and supposedly horse-like appearance.
Anne wasn't sure what to make of Henry either
According to Historic Royal Palaces, a chivalric tradition in England encouraged people to meet their betrothed in disguise. The idea was that such a tactic demonstrated true love because the disguise's person's love would recognize them anyway. However, this was not how things worked out in Anne's case.
From her perspective, she was accosted by a group of masked men on her way to London, and they were led by a tall, burly, middle-aged man. When this man tried to kiss her, she pushed him away because her lack of familiarity with this custom made this situation bewildering and uncomfortable for her.
Henry tries to back out of the marriage
Putting how attractive Henry and Anne found each other aside, this incident highlighted how much the two differed in terms of culture and personality. In addition, Historic Royal Palaces cited a language barrier between them.
With all of this in mind, Henry was not enthusiastic about pursuing the marriage and was already looking toward the woman who would become his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. So, Cromwell started some desperate political maneuvering to give the king a way out of marrying Anne.
There was nothing they could do
Historic Royal Palaces described Cromwell as trying every diplomatic tactic he could think of to have Anne sent back to her German duchy, but nothing seemed to change what had already been set in motion.
Although the political landscape that once made this marriage seem opportune had shifted, denying Anne would have been such a catastrophic insult to the House of Cleves that Henry had to marry her whether he wanted to or not. Needless to say, that did little to improve the king's mood.
Things didn't get any better in private
Judging by Henry VIII's statements to Cromwell during the morning after their wedding night, any attempts at intimacy between the new couple had proved disastrous. He described being unable to bring himself to do more than run his hands over Anne's body.
Apparently, part of this difficulty had to do with the "evil smells" he supposedly experienced when they tried to get close. However, there was another factor that has since inspired an alternative theory for why the couple didn't get along.
Henry suggested he wasn't Anne's first
In addition to his apparent turn-offs, Henry was vocal about his suspicions that he would not be the first man to know Anne intimately. In a statement relayed by Smithsonian Magazine, he said, "I have left her as good a maid as I found her."
As for what led him to believe she had been seeing other people, he reportedly said he "plainly mistrusted her to be no maid by reason of the looseness of her [body]."
A modern but controversial theory
In her book Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait, acclaimed British historical writer Alison Weir presented an admittedly "inconclusive and speculative" theory that Henry's lack of enthusiasm about his marriage to Anne wasn't based on purely aesthetic reasons.
Instead, Weir posited that Henry discovered she had already carried another man's child. This theory has been roundly rejected as "poppycock" by the Anne Boleyn Files history blog, while fellow historian Dan Jones described it as "incredibly silly and actually sort of weirdly misogynist."
Henry VIII is not a reliable narrator
Based on Anne's account of a conversation with her ladies-in-waiting and how certain events likely impacted Henry's ego, it's not necessarily wise to take Henry's accusations at face value. Indeed, even his statements about her beauty may not have been entirely truthful.
After all, the king's actions following his divorce from Catherine of Aragon show he wasn't exactly above altering historical records to suit his own interests. And Thomas More was an illuminating example of what happened when someone in Henry's court challenged his revisions.
Anne legitimately didn't seem to understand carnal activity
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Anne of Cleves once asked her ladies-in-waiting how it was possible for her to "be a maid and sleep every night with the king." By that, she seemed to express uncertainty at how she was supposed to produce another heir for the king.
In response, one of the women joked that it took a lot more than sleep to produce a prince. But based on Anne's response, this would be a joke that Henry's court would have to take more seriously than they thought.
An awkward explanation
In response, Anne said, "When he comes to bed, he kisses me and taketh me by the hand and biddeth me, 'Goodnight sweetheart'; and in the morning kisses me and biddeth me, ‘Farewell, darling.’ Is that not enough?"
Henry's court was reportedly so stunned by her innocent view of reproduction that the Countess of Rutland explained, "Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York." It's unknown whether her explanation was more detailed than that.
There's even reason to doubt that he found her so ugly
As strange as it may seem to question the validity of Henry's personal aesthetic preferences, there's a surprisingly distinct possibility that both he and the popular consensus after his reign exaggerated his repulsion. As Historic Royal Palaces noted, the unflattering "Flanders mare" nickname didn't start appearing in historical records until a century after Henry's death.
Remember, Henry had already discovered the marriage would grant him less political capital than he thought and was already attracted to Catherine Howard by the time he met Anne. With that in mind, he was already looking for reasons not to marry her, and something so subjective would be hard to refute.
However it happened, the marriage didn't work out
Describing Anne as "innocent" and Henry as "impatient," Historic Royal Palaces explained that the couple's further attempts to consummate the marriage didn't fare any better than their wedding night. Henry tried for four nights after the fact, but they were never intimate.
It's worth noting that this was a period when Henry started to experience "intermittent impotence," which Henry was quick to blame on Anne's appearance. Nonetheless, the marriage only lasted six months. And since it was never consummated, the couple was eligible for annulment.
Although Westminster Abbey described the marriage as being annulled in July of 1540, it was clear that Henry VIII's bitterness about this chapter in his life persisted after he and Anne separated. And since it was Thomas Cromwell's idea to wed her in the first place, he would become the focus of the king's wrath.
Although the Smithsonian Magazine described Cromwell as outliving both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Henry's fury at the debacle with Anne of Cleves was so palpable that he had Cromwell executed on July 28, 1540. However, it only took weeks for the king to regret this decision and praise Cromwell as the most faithful servant he ever had.
A far better fate for Anne
Ironically, Henry would end up treating Anne far better than he would the man who introduced her to him. Of course, her status in the House of Cleves was such that he likely would have gone to war with the duchy if Anne shared a similar fate.
But while Anne of Cleves was not Anne Boleyn and, thus, had no reason to be put to the sword, that's far from the only reason that she fared the best out of anyone involved in their arrangement.
Some enviable settlement terms
On the day of her annulment, Henry promised and honored an allowance that saw her earn around $4,000 pounds a year. According to the National Archives, this amount of money would have been the equivalent of making over $1.6 million a year in 2017.
As if that weren't enough, Historic Royal Palaces also noted that Henry set aside a property in Kent for her. Considering how revolting he supposedly found her and his willingness to kill someone over their very introduction, this seems oddly generous.
Why did Anne get such a good deal?
Although this likely wasn't a question that anyone dared to ask Henry publicly, some historians do have possible explanations for how handsomely Anne of Cleves profited from his disastrous marriage to her. And the most commonly cited factor in this decision likely felt refreshing for Henry.
By the time he married her, Henry's past relationships (with the exception of Jane Seymour) ended despite being contested by Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, respectively. By contrast, Anne of Cleves was much more cooperative and didn't contest the annulment at all.
Henry seemed to like her more than he expected to
Henry wrote to Anne on the day of their annulment, saying, "You shall find us a perfect friend, content to repute you as our dearest sister. We shall, within five or six days...determine your state minding to endow you with £4,000 of yearly revenue...your loving brother and friend."
Although this passage, obtained by Historic Royal Palaces, could be interpreted as an attempt to keep their separation amicable, it seems Henry meant it. The two continued to refer to each other as "brother" and "sister" for the rest of Henry's life.
Anne didn't seem to have many regrets either
From what historical accounts exist of Anne's relationship with Henry after their marriage, it's hard not to get the impression that they got along much better as platonic friends than they did as spouses. At the end of it all, Anne couldn't have asked for a better deal.
Long after Henry married Catherine Howard, Anne would carry on her informal status as the "king's beloved sister," and the Smithsonian Magazine described her as living the rest of her life in England. In that time, she never seemed to lose the crown's favor.
A meeting that was less awkward than it could have been
Although they hadn't even been apart for six months by then, Henry VIII invited Anne to a Christmas celebration in the Hampton Court Palace. In an unprecedented situation for Henry's reign, it was there that she would meet the next queen of England for the first time.
Indeed, Henry didn't wait for a month to pass before marrying Catherine Howard on July 28, 1540, the same day he had Cromwell executed. But while Historic Royal Palaces described Howard as not knowing what to say to Anne, the former queen met her gracefully, and they danced together.
Anne had a good relationship with Henry's children as well
According to Westminster Abbey, Anne of Cleves was described as having an "affectionate" relationship with Queen Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, she wouldn't live to see Elizabeth's coronation, having passed away a year prior during Mary I's reign.
Although her relationship with Mary didn't sound quite as close as the one Anne shared with her younger sister, Mary nonetheless respected Anne's funereal wishes after her passing. But while she only lived to 41, Anne's longevity in Henry's court was more impressive than it sounded.
Anne of Cleves survived a tumultuous time
By the time of her passing, Anne of Cleves had outlived her former husband by nearly a decade. And even more staggering for the time, she also survived the two wives who came after her and even lived to see Edward VI pass away.
After all, Catherine Howard would end up facing her own execution less than two years after her coronation. And while Katherine Parr famously survived Henry, it would only take a year before she succumbed to childbirth complications. Edward VI's reign would only last six years due to a fatal illness.
Anne's last days
However, Anne would fall ill herself four years after Edward's death, and according to Westminster Abbey, she spent her last days at London's Chelsea Manor before passing away on July 17, 1557. Mary I ordered her burial at the Abbey and arranged for a Catholic funeral.
Although Anne entered Henry's life as a valuable Protestant ally, she had converted to Catholicism during Mary's reign. It's suspected that this change of heart was more about aligning herself with Mary's values than about undergoing a personal transformation.
An elaborate celebration of her life
Whatever her motivations, Westminster Abbey noted that Anne requested her funeral be conducted according to Catholic rites, and Mary was more than willing to oblige. The funeral was described as "magnificent," and her body was interred at the Abbey as promised.
However, that didn't mean her tomb was ready yet. And while some elaborate features marked her eventual resting place, it was never finished as intended. Indeed, some important features of the tomb wouldn't be added until the 20th Century.
Where she is now
According to Westminster Abbey, Anne's tomb lies on the south side of the Abbey's High Altar. And while it was never completely finished, its elaborate nature hints as to what it could have looked like if the work had persisted.
For a reasonable approximation of what that final version would have resembled, the Abbey recommended seeing the wooden panels at St Leonard's Church in Bedfordshire and Hever Castle in Kent. That's because the motifs present in Anne's tomb were likely based on those panels.
The elaborate results
More generally, Westminster Abbey described Anne of Cleves's tomb as a stone structure that sits low to the ground and is comprised of three sections. Each of these sections is marked by carvings that represent either her or her mortality.
For instance, the crown inscription along with the initials A.C. are obviously there to denote her name and status. But while there is a lion in her family's coat of arms, the lion heads' presence near the skulls and crossbones likely characterize them as symbols of mortality.
A long overdue inscription
Although this original work on Anne's tomb was likely done by her countryman Theodore Haveus of Cleves, an inscription on the back part of the structure wasn't added until the 1970s. If there was any confusion about whose tomb this was before then, that should abate it.
This inscription reads, "Anne of Cleves Queen of England. Born 1515. Died 1557." According to Westminster Abbey, it remains visible from the building's south transept section but is largely obscured by monuments that were added later.
A woman with a complicated reputation
Although Anne of Cleves's "Flanders Mare" nickname didn't leave her with the most flattering historical reputation of Henry VIII's six wives, it's abundantly clear that she fared the best out of them.
Not only was she able to avoid the grisly fate of Anne Boleyn and the hardships of Catherine of Aragon, but even the lot of Henry's surviving wife, Catherine Parr, was less enviable than hers. While getting close to Henry spelled doom for so many people, it only took six months for that arrangement to keep her comfortable for the rest of her life.