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Anne of Cleeves- Henry VIII's "Good Sister"

Updated on December 31, 2011

A Diplomatic Marriage is arranged

King Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour died after the birth of their only child, a son Prince Edward and he went into immediate mourning. Henry would not remain a widow for long, his new marriage would be a diplomatic bargaining tool and for a man who was becoming huge and showing signs of illness and age, it was comforting for him to have a woman as his wife beside him and of course there was always the possibility of the birth of another healthy son. In 1538 the security of the country was threatened following the brokering of an alliance between France and Spain by the Pope. There was a real worry that England would be invaded to bring the country back into papal control. At the beginning of 1539 the Duchy of Cleves offered a diplomatic opportunity as Cleves had recently gained control of a lower piece of Rhineland which made them a potential enemy to Charles V and a friend of England.

Anne of Cleeves

The daughter selected to marry Henry was Anna, a quiet girl with few accomplishments other than her needlework. She could not sing, nor play music which would immediately separate her from her musical husband. In August of that year the artist Holbein was sent to Cleves to capture Lady Anna’s likeness for the King- no photographs could be taken in Tudor times! There is no record that the King disapproved of the likeness that Holbein produced.

Anne of Cleeves- a painting by Bruyn
Anne of Cleeves- a painting by Bruyn | Source

The Eager Bride?

Anne travelled from her home of Cleves in stages. It was felt too risky for her to have a long sea journey and it was agreed that she should cross the English Channel at Calais. Anna arrived at Calais where she was received by the governor and gentlemen of the Privy chamber some of whom like Edward and Thomas Seymour were relatives of the dead Queen Jane. A sumptuous welcome was given by the merchant men of Calais and Anne is reported as being determined to please her new courtiers. At Calais, whilst awaiting the rough seas to subside Anne persuaded her couriers to teach her to play cards and to show her how the English ate at court as it was more sophisticated than at Cleves.

A difficult crossing of the English Channel

Anna waited for at least two weeks at Calais and crossed the channel on 27th December resting at Dover castle. The King was not in a good mood, he had been kept waiting and his imagination had been fuelled by his suspense- he had created in his mind a portrait of a beautiful talented woman. On the last day of the year, Anne reached Rochester and the King, who was now in total suspense, rode from Greenwich to Rochester to meet his bride, not waiting for the formal progression. The Kings Master of the Horse, Sir Anthony Brown was heard to say of the first meeting between Henry and Anne that the King was immediately struck with dismay and disappointment. In Anna’s defence it has to be said that she spoke little English and the King was in disguise, not introduced to her and she had no idea who the man was who had been presented to her. It was said that the King said to Cromwell “I like her not”

Henry painted by Hans Holbein the younger
Henry painted by Hans Holbein the younger | Source

Was Anneugly?

Was Anne of Cleves ugly? The French Ambassador Charles de Marillac describes Anne of being of middling beauty with a resolute countenance and Christopher Mont referenced the “gravity in her face”. Anne was, by English standards, a solemn woman who is regarded as looking older than her age. She had been trained to be solemn in a German court and dressed in a solemn, plain, German style. There is some evidence that Catherine may have had a bulbous nose and it may have been this that turned the King against her. However the King did not take his anger out on Holbein who was the man who had captured her image so maybe she was the image he had painted, perhaps the chemistry between the King and his prospective Queen was just not there.

The marriage takes place despite the King's reservations.

Henry and Anne were married on 6th January 1540. Although it was clear that if given a personal choice the King would not have gone through with the marriage there was the need of a successful foreign policy. The duchy of Cleves was an ally in Europe where most states were likely to ally with the pope in opposition to England. The King did not consummate the marriage; he found that her body” did not provoke any lust in him”. Henry blamed Anne, especially for her sagging body, so much that he doubted she was a virgin! Anne was ignorant of what was going on, her strict upbringing had not made mention of what we regard as the “facts of life”. She regarded the kisses that the King made on her hand on his visits as enough of a relationship and was therefore spared the humiliation of a new bride whose husband cannot make love to her as he is not attracted to her.

Thomas Cromwell a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger
Thomas Cromwell a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger | Source

Arrest of Cromwell

The Spring of 1540 saw turbulence both at home and abroad. Cleves no longer had worth as an ally and the new Prince turned away from marriage to Lady Mary Tudor. At the same time Cromwell’s power seemed to be rising as on 18th April he was ennobled to Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain. A new girl arrived in the Queens court, Katherine Howard. The arrival of Katherine resulted in a deterioration of Anne’s position and her last public occasion was at the May day celebrations in 1540. At this point the King started to take an interest in the sacraments and in June he ordered the arrest of Thomas Cromwell on the basis that he was suppressing the old preachers and would force the new Lutheran principles upon the country. It is often argued that the failure of the Cleves marriage forever tainted the relationship between Henry and Cromwell and the discovery of Katherine Howard prompted the recovery of power in Cromwell’s rival the Duke of Norfolk. Cromwell was taken to the Tower and sentenced to death under the Act of Attainder, for which there was no trial, just sentence and execution for the crime of Treason and Heresy, the particulars of the attainder were that in 1538 Cromwell had made a secret pact to marry Lady Mary and usurp the throne from the King- a quite bizarre suggestion.


The King wanted a divorce- there were two grounds open to him, the first being that Queen Anne had been pre contracted to marry Francis of Lorraine and was not free to marry the King, the second being that the couple had not been able to consummate the marriage. The King chose the third way that the pre contract did exist; despite there being no evidence of this in the country, and it was this that prevented the King from being physically able to consummate his fourth marriage.

Tower of London , scene of the imprisonment and execution of Thomas Cromwell
Tower of London , scene of the imprisonment and execution of Thomas Cromwell | Source

Good Sister

The King sent his commissioners to see Queen Anne and they informed her that her marriage to the King was invalid. The Queen would have been shocked but would also have realised that her position was very dangerous at this point; she had no wish to be a second Queen to lose her head. Anne of Cleves took a submissive route advising the King to do what he thought was right and signed her name as Anne daughter of Cleves a clear way to show that she recognised her change in fortunes and the dangerous nature of her position. The King was generous to Anne giving her status and wealth as long as she lived in England – she was to be regarded as the Kings “good sister”. Indeed Anne put in writing her wish to act as the Kings loyal and trusting subject and smoothed the waters with her brother in Cleves saying that she wished to remain in England and was being well treated by the King. Lady Anna continued this relationship and sent presents to her “Good brother” on a regular basis, even giving obeisance to Queen Katherine at a banquet in 1541 and forming an agreeable relationship with Katherine. The King had no intention of keeping Anne in seclusion, locked away from court as Catherine of Aragon had been. He wanted to show the rulers of Europe that Anne was happy that the marriage had been dissolved and Lady Anne wanted to make sure that the Kings promise should be upheld and that there should be nothing but friendship between the Good Sister and Good Brother. She was clearly aware that this would ensure that she lived a safe and comfortable life in a country that she liked with friends she had made and the love of the Kings daughters Mary and Elizabeth. If she went home it would be to humiliation and a dreary court with a controlling mother, so she cheerfully adapted to this new life and was described as happy and gay at court.


The divorce passed through the courts quickly. The clergy found that Anne was pre contracted to marry and that the marriage had not been consummated and also that the King had acted under duress almost being forced into the marriage by Cromwell. By 13th July the divorce had been agreed by Parliament and the King was free to marry again.

On 28th July Thomas Cromwell was executed, this was the day that the King chose to marry Katherine Howard.


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      joanvernonica- thanks for your visits and votes- yes kept her head which was quite an achievement- it must have been quite awful in those days to be bethrothed and realise that there is absolutely no chemistry

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Very good Hub. Anne of Cleeve's story has always been a fascinating one, she must have been quite an intelligent person. She managed to make the best of her situation, and as you say, she kept her head! Voted up, etc.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      pmccray- Thankyou for your visit and your kind comment

    • pmccray profile image

      pmccray 5 years ago from Utah

      I watch reruns of the "Tudors" on BBC religiously. I love everything about the era. Voted up, marked interesting.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      phdast7- Thank you for your kind comment- It's a nightmare for sure. I researched and wrote a hub on my case1worker account of all the Kings and Queens since 1066 just to get straight in my own mind, who was who! Thanks for your visit.

      Jenafran- Thanks for your kind comment and your visit.

    • Jenafran profile image

      Jenafran 5 years ago from Tampa Bay Florida

      Thanks for another great article, Just History. Voted up and interesting!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good Hub. You must teach English History. You make it both interesting and understandable; I used to get caught in and confused by all the convolutions in who various monarchs married and divorced. Not an easy time to be a women,even a royal woman.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Judi Bee- thankyou for your visit- she was lucky insofar as she kept her head on!! Thank you for your visit!

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      Anne of Cleves was extremely lucky - she got an independence that few women of the Tudor age managed.

      Enjoyed reading your hub, as usual, so voted up etc.