You are at the top of the page

Skip to content or footer

Start of main content

Anne of Cleves: The Great Survivor

Wife number four, but so much more

Wife number four, but so much more

Anne of Cleves was Queen of England and Henry VIII's fourth wife for just over six months. Disregarded by some historians as the 'ugly one' and the subject of a much-discussed portrait by renowned court painter Hans Holbein, for many she was a brief footnote in Henry VIII's quest to secure the Tudor dynasty. But there is more to her story than meets the eye.

How did Anne of Cleves' status change from being the King's wife to the so-called 'King's Sister'? Not just 'divorced', Anne survived, and even thrived, in the cut-throat Tudor court.

Header image: Portrait of Anne of Cleves (1515-57), Hans Holbein the Younger, © Louvre, Paris/Bridgeman Images

Image: An engraving called Anne of Cleves by Francesco Bartolozzi, after Hans Holbein the Younger, © National Portrait Gallery, London

A stipple engraving called Anne of Cleves by Francesco Bartolozzi

Anne of Cleves' Early Life

Born in Dusseldorf in 1515, Anne of Cleves was the daughter of Maria of Julich-Berg and John III, Duke of Cleves. Her traditional birthdate is thought to be 22 September 1515, although some historians have suggested a date in June or July. Anne had three siblings: a brother Wilhelm and two sisters, Sibylla, and Amelia.

Anne grew up in Cleves, a small state in modern-day Germany inside the Holy Roman Empire. Despite its small size, Cleves was a prestigious and respected player in European politics.

Sadly, we know little about Anne's early life. She was close to her mother, who oversaw her education by preparing her to succeed as a German noblewoman. This was a very different upbringing to most women in the Tudor Court. Anne learned to read and write in German, as well as practical household management skills such as cooking and needlework. However, unlike English ladies, Anne did not learn to dance or play music.

A portrait of Henry VIII, richly dressed and bejewelled by an unknown artist.

Why did Henry VIII marry Anne of Cleves?

In 1537, Henry VIII's third Queen, Jane Seymour died shortly after giving birth to Prince Edward – Henry's long-awaited male heir and the future Edward VI.

But one son was not enough for the King, who only inherited the throne himself after the early death of his older brother, Prince Arthur. Henry was obsessed with dynastic security and desperately wanted a new queen to provide another son.

Meanwhile, England was politically and religiously isolated. In 1531, the King had broken ties with the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, so he could annul his marriage to his first Queen, Katherine of Aragon.

This religious split left England vulnerable against a new alliance between Catholic France and Spain. Through marriage, Henry hoped to strengthen his position by allying with other countries that also challenged the Pope's authority.

The great task of royal matchmaker fell to Henry's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who eventually set his sights on Anne of Cleves.

Cleves, like England, was a Catholic state open to religious reform. Anne's brother-in-law even led a league of united German Protestant States that challenged the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. In Cleves, Cromwell found a country with a similar religious and political outlook to England.

Anne, now 23 years old, had been engaged to the Duke of Lorraine since she was 11. However, nothing had come of the match and her family assured Cromwell that Anne was free to marry. Just to be sure, her younger sister Amelia was also brought into negotiations.

Image: Henry VIII by an unknown artist, based on a work of c.1542. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne of Cleves' Holbein Portrait

When choosing his future bride, Henry was not prepared to rely on his ambassadors' word alone. Instead, the King sent his court painter Hans Holbein to create Anne and Amelia's portraits.

Holbein was renowned for capturing famous figures in the Tudor court, including Jane Seymour and possibly her predecessor, Anne Boleyn. Now, his artist's eye was entrusted to paint Henry's next Queen.


Anne Comes to England

We don't know how Anne felt about her engagement to Henry. Their 24-year age gap was not uncommon at this time, but the couple had never met and didn’t even speak the same language. Add to this Henry's reputation from his previous marriages, and we might imagine some apprehension on Anne's part.

Anne left Cleves in the autumn of 1539 and reached English-controlled Calais on 11 December 1540, aged 24. While she waited to cross the Channel, Anne asked through her interpreter to learn one of Henry's favourite card games and took dinner with her English hosts – perhaps to prepare for her new life.

Anne arrived in Dover on 27 December and was accompanied north to Rochester. She rested there a few days before her journey to London, where Anne was told she would finally meet the King.


An Embarrasing First Meeting

When Henry heard that Anne of Cleves had arrived, he and several Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber rode to Rochester to surprise her. On New Year’s Day, 1540, he dressed in disguise, wearing a ‘marbled’ or coloured cloak, and prepared to meet his new Queen.

Meetings in disguise were a romantic tradition, based in French customs of chivalry - a code of conduct that medieval knights were expected to follow. This tradition was popular with Henry and the Tudor court, meant to demonstrate ‘true love’. Ideally, Anne would have either recognised Henry, or been drawn to him instinctively. It was supposed to be love at first sight.

But the meeting did not go well. When Henry burst into the room, Anne did not recognise him. Some accounts said she ignored him or even pushed her fiancé away – a great insult to the proud English King.


Anne of Cleves Marries an Unhappy Henry

After their first meeting, Henry was disappointed and told Cromwell he did not want to marry Anne. He hoped that her previous engagement to the Duke of Lorraine might prevent the match, but Anne’s advisors insisted that she was free to marry. Anxious not to lose the important political alliance with Cleves, Henry had no choice but to go through with the marriage.

Anne of Cleves married Henry VIII at Greenwich Palace on 6 January 1540. Her wedding ring was inscribed with her personal motto, 'God send me and keep me well'. Publicly, the royal wedding was celebrated with pageantry and splendour, but behind closed doors the relationship was already a disaster.

Things went from bad to worse on their wedding night. In the morning, Henry was said to have told Cromwell that 'I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse’ and that they were unable to have sexual intercourse (known as consummation) to legalise their union.

Perhaps recognising her situation, Anne reportedly tried asking Cromwell for advice in the following months. However, Cromwell was frightened of upsetting the King and refused to see her.

Image below: Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century, based on a work of 1532-1533 - NPG 1727 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Many times, his majesty has declared unto him that his nature has abhorred her ever since, so far that if his grace would... go about to have a do with her, his highness verily thinks that his nature would not consent to do so.

Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII 'Divorces' Anne of Cleves

Thomas Cromwell wanted to break off the match as quickly as possible. In July 1540, he, Henry, and other eyewitnesses testified to an assembly of Archbishops that the marriage was non-consensual (at least, on Henry's side) and unconsummated. Anne was not invited to testify.

Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII's marriage was formally annulled on 9 July 1540. Unlike divorce, which was rare in Tudor England, an annulment declared that the marriage had never been valid or binding.

Anne was only formally told of the annulment three days before its approval. Henry's officials reported she heard the news calmly and 'without any alteration of countenance'. Yet privately other observers, including Karl Harst, a diplomat who accompanied Anne from Cleves, tell us she was frightened — both for her position and her life. She knew what had happened to Henry's previous queens — the discarded Katherine of Aragon and the executed Anne Boleyn. Other eyewitnesses comforted Anne, recognising that she took the matter 'heavily', and reassured her that the King meant her no harm.

Once the news sunk in, Anne stayed calm. Keeping whatever private thoughts and feelings she had to herself, she wisely accepted the annulment without a fight.


Why Did Henry and Anne's Marriage Fail?

Historians have tended to focus on Anne's appearance. Some have accused Holbein’s portrait of exaggerating her beauty, since the King said he was not attracted to her despite initially approving the match.

However, while Henry complained that Anne was 'nothing so fair as hath been reported', contemporary accounts don’t accuse Holbein of misrepresenting the King's bride-to-be. In fact, Henry's ambassador in Cleves wrote that Holbein had 'expressed [Anne's] image very lively' — suggesting his portrait had a pleasing likeness to the real woman.

Henry and Cromwell also used cruel and graphic descriptions of Anne’s body to explain why their marriage was unconsummated. These descriptions predictably direct the blame firmly away from the King. After all, questioning Henry's ability to consummate the marriage would have insulted his pride and masculinity.

While some eyewitness accounts mocked Anne's foreign clothes and manners, infamous nicknames such as 'the Flanders Mare' were first recorded much later, in the 17th century.

Instead of Anne's looks, historians have suggested other factors:

  • The couple lacked both personal and romantic chemistry. This may have been influenced by the bad first impression made at Rochester.
  • Anne and Henry were separated by language and culture. For example, Anne’s upbringing meant that she did not share the English court’s love for music and dance.
  • The Catholic alliance between France and Spain had faded, reducing the political importance of Anne and Henry’s marriage.
  • The King preferred to choose his own lovers. Henry felt that Cromwell had forced Anne upon him, and his eye had already wandered to Catherine Howard, the woman who would become his fifth queen.

The King's 'Sister'

Grateful for Anne's cooperation, and probably to avoid conflict with her family, Henry presented his former Queen with a generous settlement.

The King promised Anne that if she remained in England, she would be granted the honoured title of 'the King’s Sister'. Anne would be bestowed with vast amounts of property, such as Henry VII's Richmond Palace and later Hever Castle, the former childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Anne also received an annual income of £500 as well as revenue from several estates. She was allowed to keep all her dresses, jewels and a metal plate.

Anne accepted. With Henry's encouragement, she eventually wrote to her family to assure them she was safe and would not be returning to Cleves. Finally, Anne returned her wedding ring and asked that it be broken into pieces 'as a thing which she knew of no force or value'.

Henry VIII married Catherine Howard on 28 July 1540 — the same day that Thomas Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill. Though not the only reason for his downfall, it speaks volumes that Anne of Cleves survived a crisis that heralded the death of one of England’s most powerful men.


Madame la Cleve has a more joyous countenance than ever. She wears a great variety of dresses, and passes all her time in sports and recreations.

Marillac, French Ambassador to the English Court, 1540

The Tudor Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace, showing the Abraham Tapestries and the room set out for day visitors.

Anne of Cleves at Hampton Court Palace

Anne's settlement offered a new kind of freedom. She spent time across her different properties, enjoying fashion, sports, and wine. She also learned to dance and to speak English.

Anne stayed on good terms with the King and became close with his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. In January 1541, Henry even invited Anne to Hampton Court Palace for Christmas. Anne paid homage to the new Queen Catherine, her former lady-in-waiting, and the two danced together when Henry went to bed.

After Catherine's tragic downfall, there were rumours that Anne and Henry might re-marry. Anne had stayed single since the annulment and remained so for the rest of her life. Some observers and historians have suggested that Anne still considered herself Henry's wife and secretly wished to be renamed Queen. However, others argue that she simply wanted to protect her settlement and independence. After Henry married Katherine Parr in 1543, Anne continued to be welcome at court and exchanged letters and gifts with the King and his family.

Image: The Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

Anne's Life After Henry VIII

Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547. This meant Anne was no longer the 'King's Sister' and she moved away from court circles. Financial troubles led her to exchange larger estates for smaller properties and she settled into a quieter, domestic life.

When Mary I assumed the throne in 1553, Anne attended her coronation with Princess Elizabeth. Anne's name appears in a few key moments in Mary's reign. Making a rare move into politics, she unsuccessfully suggested that the new Queen marry Ferdinand of Austria, who had close ties to her family in Cleves. Instead, Mary chose to marry Philip of Spain. This controversial decision helped spark the Wyatt rebellion — a Catholic plot to depose the Queen and place her half-sister on the throne. As Mary and her advisors worked to uncover the plotters, rumours cast suspicion on Anne of Cleves — particularly as a close friend to Elizabeth.

Yet there was little evidence against Anne. Ever the survivor, she was never directly accused of treason. Though some historians suggest this incident soured Anne’s relationship with the Queen, the two women stayed outwardly on good terms. Anne continued to live her life in relative peace and privacy.


The Death of Anne of Cleves

Anne suffered poor health for several years and finally on 18 July 1557, she died at Chelsea Manor, aged 41.

Mary I sent condolences to Anne's family, who ordered memorial services to be held in every church and monastery in Cleves. Back in England, Mary had Anne buried with Catholic rites in great pomp and ceremony near the high altar in Westminster Abbey. This makes Anne the only one of Henry's wives to lie in the traditional resting place of England's kings and queens.


A lady of right commendable regard, courteous, gentle, a good housekeeper and very bountiful to her servants.

Holinshed’s Chronicle, memorialising Anne after her funeral

Luck and Survival

Anne's life represents more than six months of unhappy marriage. In fact, many recent historians point out that she might be the luckiest of Henry's queens.

Anne not only escaped the King's attentions unharmed, but as his 'sister' she enjoyed status, wealth and independence rarely shared with women in her time. Anne never returned to Cleves, even after Henry's death, which might suggest some satisfaction with the life she had made in England.

Today, Anne's story is retold through new research and popular portrayals such as Six: The Musical — each searching for the woman and Queen behind centuries of gossip.


Listen to the podcast

In this episode of  The Six Tudor Queens, Tracy Borman talks about her favourite - Anne of Cleves. Divorced, so the rhyme goes, for being the ‘ugly’ Queen. Anne’s looks were the least interesting thing about her, but her story has been dominated by them for centuries.

Tracy is joined by fellow Curator Brett Dolman to unpack this fixation on appearance and reveal the woman beneath the myths.

This six-part series aims to do The Six Tudor Queens justice by stripping away unhelpful narratives and myths, to better understand them as women in their own time.

More episodes


Henry VIII, Terrible Tudor?

Who was the real Henry VIII?

Catherine Howard

A young woman whose marriage to Henry VIII would end in tragedy

Jane Seymour

Henry VIII's third and favourite wife


  • Things to see

Great Hall

Experience the splendour of the Tudor court in Henry VIII's Great Hall, complete with his magnificent tapestries.

  • Open
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more
  • Things to see

Great Watching Chamber

Discover Henry VIII’s State Apartments and the battle for power at the Tudor court in the Great Watching Chamber.

  • Open
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more
  • Things to see

Chapel Court

Explore an opulent Tudor pleasure ground in the inner precincts of Hampton Court Palace.

  • Open
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more

Shop online

Shop Tudor gifts

Browse through our Tudor Collection to find a whole range of products based on the Tudors.

From £3.00

Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman

Discover the world of Elizabeth I with this insightful look at Elizabeth's relationship with woman and how they helped to shape her into a remarkable monarch. This thrilling book explores the lesser known side of Elizabeth I who is often portrayed as a ruthless 'man's woman'.


Henry VIII gauntlet armour oven glove

This fun oven glove has been inspired by a suit of armour made for Henry VIII in 1540, which is on display at the Tower of London.