In the saga of King Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves holds her secrets tight. She gave him no children, they were married for barely half a year, and most surprising of all, she survived. Legend has it that Henry fell in love with Anne’s flattering portrait, took one look at her in real life, and divorced her. But what was the real truth behind Henry's disgust? Read on to find out.
1. She Was A Born Rebel
Henry VIII's future wife Anne of Cleves came from stubborn stock. Her father John, Duke of Cleves, was one of the bad boys of the Protestant Revolution, and openly ticked off the Pope and other Catholic monarchs left, right, and center. Accordingly, he raised Anne and her sisters and brother to think deeply and to think for themselves. But Anne had one more secret weapon on her road to Henry VIII.
2. She Was Perfect For Henry In One Way
See, while Anne's family was scandalous among a certain set, she was exactly what Henry VIII was looking for. Ever since he had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Henry also despised Catholicism and the Pope. So when Anne started to become a marriageable age, Henry's eye fell right on her. Only, he didn't get the response he was hoping for.
3. Her Mother Disliked Her Suitor
Anne was extremely close with her mother, Maria of Julich-Berg, and their woman-heavy household—Anne did, after all, have two other sisters—was something of a haven for the young girl. Indeed, when Henry first began courting Anne, the matron of the family tried to prevent the union, saying she was "loath to suffer her to depart her". But that wasn't even the worst part.
4. Her Husband Was A Creep
We all know that Henry VIII was mega lecherous during his day, but most people don't understand just how bad it was for poor Anne of Cleves. While the 24-year-old Anne was relatively mature for a royal bride, Henry VIII was still practically double her age and almost 50 years old when he was sniffing at her skirts. Oh, and there's more.
5. Henry Wanted To Marry Her Sister
Though Anne's tragic tale with King Henry has gone down in history, few people know the whole disturbing story of their courtship. For one, Henry didn't just court Anne as his bride—he also considered her younger sister Amalia as his potential Wife #4. Maybe if he'd actually chosen Amalia, the disaster that was his fourth marriage never would have happened.
But then again, the beginning of their official courtship wasn't any better...
6. Her Future Husband Was Shallow
In the late 1530s, Henry sent his court painter Hans Holbein on a creepy mission. Still deciding between the two sisters, he told him to go paint both Anne and Amalia so he could decide which one he liked best. He also gave Holbein a very specific instruction: Paint the girls accurately and don't flatter them, because he needed a beautiful queen. Well, this is where it all started to go wrong.
7. She Tried To Hide Herself
When it came time to do portraits of the Cleves sisters, Hans Holbein ran into one big difficulty. Both Anne and Amalia kept their faces covered with veils, as per the modest German customs of the time. The painter had to wheedle his way in and gain their trust before Anne and her sister finally revealed their faces and let themselves be painted. Spoiler: This was a big mistake.
8. She Beat Out Her Sister
After Holbein returned and Henry saw both portraits of the women, he obviously went with Anne over Amalia—but his motives were very far from romantic. Many historians agree that the choice probably had less to do with looks, and more because as the elder daughter, Anne had more hereditary rights than her sister. Aw, true love. Maybe THAT's why it unraveled so fast.
9. She Got Lost In Translation
Henry's "don't flatter" directive to Holbein goes against the common story that the painter deceived the king and painted a beautified portrait of the actually homely Anne. Even so, as any online dater can tell you, you can't tell everything from a picture—especially not chemistry. And let's just say, when Anne walked into the room, Henry was not pleased...
Sign up to our newsletter.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
10. She Had A Meet-Ugly
Almost as soon as he met her, Henry's reaction to his bride was chilling. He pretty much immediately complained about her looks, and blamed not only Holbein for supposedly glowing her up too much, but also his chief Minister Thomas Cromwell, who urged him to marry Anne and kept talking up her beauty. And since this is King Henry we're talking about, he did not hold back.
11. Henry Dealt Her A Cruel Insult
Henry's exact response after actually seeing Anne has gone down infamy. He apparently grumbled, "She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported". Still other sources claim he called her a "Flanders Mare," an infamous nickname that has stuck with poor Anne ever since, though as we'll see, that little moniker has another origin entirely. Yet despite King Henry's horrible reaction, the royal wedding was already in the works. There was no backing out now.
12. She Became A Queen Of England
On January 6, 1540, Anne of Cleves married King Henry VIII at the Royal Palace of Placentia, despite all his protests and misgivings. On the day of the wedding, Henry gave his new queen a ring that he had inscribed with her new motto: "God send me well to keep". It could have been a fairy tale day, but Anne's nightmare was just beginning.
13. She Made A Horrible Second Impression
Once the unhappy couple finally married, there was still the dreaded wedding night...and alhough it was a chance for Anne to rise in Henry's estimation, it went horribly. On the morning after the wedding, the king reportedly complained, "I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse". So what actually happened? Well...
14. She Was A Total Novice In The Bedroom
When her ladies questioned Anne about her night with the king, Anne's reply was revealing in all the wrong ways. She told them, "When he comes to bed he kisseth me, and he taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me 'Good night, sweetheart'; and in the morning kisseth me and biddeth 'Farewell, darling.'" So...just kisses then. Did poor and sheltered Anne even know how to consummate her marriage?
There is a fair chance that Anne believed these smooches were all it took to seal the deal. Henry, meanwhile, had more embarrassing complaints.
15. She Had "Evil Smells"
It wasn’t just about Anne's inexperience in the bedroom. After all, Henry VIII liked his wives innocent and pliable. Instead, Henry accused Anne of even worse sins. He claimed that in addition to how little he was attracted to her, she also had "very evil smells about her" that he caught a whiff of at the most inopportune times. Then he really took it up a notch.
16. Henry Claimed She Was A "Loose" Woman
Henry also threw Anne's virginity into question, which was a serious allegation during a time when a woman's worth was all about her "purity". Henry's evidence for this? "The looseness of her...tokens". As you might tell from his way with words, Henry was a poet and songwriter in his youth. Whatever the truth, though, Anne was in for her biggest humiliation yet.
17. She Had A Previous Lover
After their disappointing meeting and wedding night, Henry was desperate to get rid of Anne, so he came up with an ingenious plot. In 1527, an 11-year-old Anne had been briefly betrothed to another man, Francis of Lorraine. Though her parents quickly canceled the match, it would bite her in the well-clothed back in January 1540, when Henry struck out HARD.
18. Her Husband Tried To Slander Her
Henry and his councilors, looking for a way to weasel their king out of his ill-fated match, tried to use Anne’s childhood pre-contract to Francis of Lorraine as "proof" that she was not free to marry. Um, guys, we've all had exes. And maybe even this accusation wasn't enough, because they soon took the divorce proceedings to a disgusting climax.
19. She Was In A Courtroom Drama
Henry held a full-blown trial for his annulment from Anne, and it was an absolute three-ring circus. You see, the king wanted to cut off the marriage on the grounds that they had never consummated the union. Easy enough, right? Well, wrong. Because while Henry wanted to claim he hadn't slept with Anne, he didn't want anyone to think he was impotent. To prove his vigor, he resorted to an incredibly crude claim.
20. Her Name Got Dragged Through The Mud
Get this: Henry hired a doctor to come in and defend his, er, male desires. According to the medic, His Majesty experienced an entire two "nocturnal pollutions" (i.e. wet dreams), even as he slept with Anne for days without consummating the marriage. In other words, the king was not impotent, it was only the marriage itself that was bad. He just needed you to know that. Worst of all, it worked...
21. She Had An Infamous Divorce
In the end, Henry VIII got what he wanted yet again, and they officially annulled their short and ugly union on July 9th, 1540 after just six months—the briefest of his many marital adventures. I'm betting Anne was pretty relieved to leave the marriage with her head still squarely attached to her shoulders. Yet in reality, this was just the start of Anne and Henry's sordid history.
22. She Gave Henry A Tragic Gift
After the annulment was official, Henry and Anne had to go through the very awkward stage of giving their possessions back to each other. Anne’s wedding ring was one of the very first items to go...and she returned with a stroke of genius. When Anne sent it back, she told Henry to break it apart, since it was of little worth. Do I detect some shade? If she wasn't angry yet, though, Henry's next move must have incensed her.
23. Henry Double-Crossed Her
Even as he was married to Anne of Cleves, Henry committed a cold-hearted betrayal. Certain that Anne wasn't The One, Henry started immediately casting about for his next wife. He quickly honed in on the young Catherine Howard, and married the new girl within a few weeks of his annulment from Anne. Yep, sounds like Henry. Only, Anne must have learned a thing or two, because her reaction to this was as Machiavellian as they come.
24. She Played The Game Of Thrones
In public, Anne held no hard feelings about Catherine Howard replacing her on the throne and in the royal marriage bed. For the New Year in 1541, Anne even gifted her ex-husband and his new wife two fine horses, and also joined the couple for dancing. Smart girl, Anne—but as we'll see, eventually even Anne couldn't play nice. For now, though, she had a bigger scandal to deal with.
25. People Thought She Had A Secret Lovechild
Just because Anne was free of Henry doesn't mean she was free of controversy, and soon a dark rumor started going around the castle. In November 1541, people started whispering that Anne of Cleves had given birth to a secret child. Just to thicken the plot, some sources even said it was King Henry VIII's own son. This had disturbing consequences.
26. Henry Opened An Inquest On Her
Though the baby scandal was almost definitely a rumor gone wrong, the crown still took chilling action. Henry launched a serious investigation into the whispers and even detained two people for alleging that Anne was Henry’s true wife after all, and they had consummated the union. Then, soon enough, Anne was in deep trouble again.
27. She Was Friends With Benefits
In 1542, Anne found herself in hot water with King Henry VIII once moe. By then, the king believed Queen Catherine Howard had been unfaithful to him, and the poor girl was awaiting execution for treason, just like Anne Boleyn before her. Not content to suffer through yet another of his breakups on his own, Henry lashed out at Anne of Cleves in a cruel way.
28. Henry Sent Her An Enraged Letter
Since they were still on friendly terms, mostly thanks to Anne's desire to keep her head, Henry thought he could use Anne whichever way he pleased. The hurting Henry sent Anne a terse letter, ordering his ex-wife to return a royal ring that Catherine Howard had given to her as a gift. Way to strike at two exes in one swoop. But the mess was just getting started...
29. She Tried To Become Queen Again
History has tended to paint Anne as a humble and shy woman, but the truth is much different. When Henry finally executed his fifth queen Catherine Howard in 1542 for adultery, it was Anne who harbored a dark secret. She may have viewed the execution as less of a tragedy and more of an opportunity. After all, the spot of "Queen" was now open for business again, and Anne jumped at the chance.
30. She Made A Doomed Power Play
There are more than a few hints that after Catherine Howard's violent demise, Anne of Cleves held some hope of re-marrying Henry and convincing him she could be just as good of a wife as she had been a friend these past years. For one thing, Anne's brother even tried to pressure Henry into taking her back. Instead, it all blew up in Anne's face.
31. Henry Replaced Her
Just when Anne thought her time had finally come as the permanent Queen of England, Henry went and chose Catherine Parr as his sixth wife instead. But it got even more mortifying than that for Anne. Parr was an English widow who was actually a few years older than our girl. Ouch, that's one's gotta hurt...and Anne did not take the news well.
32. She Sniped At Henry's New Wife
We don’t know how exactly Anne reacted to Catherine Howard's execution, but she reportedly detested the idea of the upstart Parr as her "replacement". Anne did think of herself as the more attractive option, and she also remarked, "Miss Parr is taking a great burden on herself," somehow insulting both Parr and Henry in the same comment. Masterful, Anne.
33. She Was Uneducated
Anne had a perfectly functional education for a European princess, and she was even innately clever enough to become fluent in English within a very short time. Except there was one huge thing missing. Unfortunately, growing up, her conservative family discouraged Anne from frivolities such as music, singing, and dancing. This was actually more of a problem than you might think.
34. She And Henry Were Fundamentally Incompatible
Although Anne was accomplished in her own right, Henry was a lifelong geek of the arts—including all the things Mommy and Daddy Cleves forbid Anne from taking part in. So even if Anne could speak to the king in English, the pair probably had very little to actually talk about. Reminder, guys: emotional chemistry is just as important as physical chemistry. Still, Anne knew how to make up for her deficiencies...
35. She Made Friends In High Places
Like the cunning woman she truly was, Anne got along with all of Henry’s kids. She even sent gifts to the king’s heir, the future Edward VI, was close with the future Queen Mary I, and also made an impression on the future Elizabeth I, to whom she left part of her jewelry collection when she passed. After all, Anne clearly knew where power flowed from...and it paid off.
36. She Earned Her Retirement
Anne's later life was the picture of idyllic living in many ways. Leveraging her friendship with Henry's children, she enjoyed good favor in court under his daughter Queen Mary I, and eventually retired to a quiet life away from the city. According to one source, the middle-aged Anne was "courteous, gentle, a good housekeeper" and generous to all her servants. That's more than Anne Boleyn could ever say.
37. Henry Forced Her To Convert
Despite her notorious reputation, Anne made surviving King Henry VIII look easy. But, well, it wasn't. In order to marry him in the first place, she had to agree to more than a few trade-offs. Besides going to live far away from her beloved mother, Henry also insisted she convert to Anglicanism when she married him. Anne, without any other option, obediently agreed. But the minute she could, Anne asserted her dominance.
38. She Did Exactly What She Wanted
In the end, Anne's attention to Henry's children didn't just provide her with a comfortable old age, they also allowed her to do what she darn well pleased after Henry passed. Anne was so close to Queen Mary, she likely even attended the young queen's coronation at Westminster Abbey, and she converted back to Roman Catholicism for the Catholic queen. Take that, Henry.
39. She Got A Strange Severance Package
Henry proved to be a generous ex-husband to Anne of Cleves, even though most of his ex-wives couldn't say the same. After she agreed to the annulment, Henry hooked Anne up with a severance package that included great manors, estates, and a sexy royal income. Not bad to keep your head and your financial independence. But that wasn't all.
40. She Was A Sister Wife
After their divorce, Henry kept the random acts of kindness rolling. He ruled that Anne would be England’s highest-ranking lady, with only the King’s wife and daughters ahead of her in precedence. He even adopted her in name as "the King's Beloved Sister". Did that make up for all the torment he must have put her through? Gonna go with "no". Still, there is one cruel story about Anne that Henry had nothing to do with.
41. She Wasn't A "Flanders Mare"
Anne’s oft-repeated and cruel nickname, "The Flanders Mare," did not originate from Henry VIII, much as I'd like to blame him for everything. In fact, it didn’t even originate from the Tudor period. The name only emerged in the late 17th century, when the history of Henry VIII grew into a legend. Anne luckily never knew about the hurtful moniker during her lifetime.
42. She Was A Monet
It’s the question we’re all here to learn: What did the legendary "ugly one" of Henry’s wives really look like? Was she really that ugly? Or was she secretly hot and just awkward? The answer probably lays in "attractive enough, I guess?" Though Anne was tall with pretty blonde hair, she also apparently had a "solemn face" that aged her beyond her 24 years.
43. She Was A True Survivor
Anne "survived" her term as Henry VIII’s fourth wife, but others suffered a much darker fate. Henry had Thomas Cromwell, the engineer behind the match in the first place, executed for treason on the same day he married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. The man Anne had to thank for her crown lost his head on July 28th, 1540.
44. She Was Caught In A Political Scandal
The big plot hole in all this is: If Henry disliked Anne so much, why the heck didn't he get out while he still could? He was a super-powerful King of England; surely he could snap his fingers and the wedding would be off. Well, it all goes back to the fact that Anne and Henry were a political match. There was simply no way to call the wedding off without offending his German allies.
45. You Can Still See Her Portrait
Anne of Cleves' strange, tragic story all starts and ends with that first painting of her by Hans Holbein. Believe it or not, although so many other Tudor artifacts are lost to the sands of time, you can still see the original painting to this day. Oddly enough for its very English history, it hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris.
46. She Was Related To Henry
Even from her far away homeland, Anne was a distant cousin to Henry VIII. Like all his wives, Anne of Cleves is a descendant of King Edward I "Longshanks" of England. Yep, King Henry sure did have a type when it came to his six wives. Edward was Anne's nine-times great-grandfather, for those who care to keep an exact count.
47. She Lived Longer Than Her Ex
Anne of Cleves is the longest surviving of Henry VIII’s wives, and she not only outlived his other queens, but also the king himself. On July 16, 1557, just months shy of her 42nd birthday, she passed on in her adopted country of England, mostly likely from cancer. When the former queen passed, her family gave her a heartbreaking tribute.
48. She Got The Last Laugh
As Queen Mary I’s beloved "aunt," attendants buried Anne of Cleves in the legendary Westminster Abbey, albeit not in a very prominent place. But Anne had one more trick up her sleeve. Despite her annulment, her grave reads "Anne of Cleves, Queen of England". Even more impressive? Anne of Cleves is the only one of Henry's wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
49. A Stranger Surprised Her
Anne is now infamous as Henry’s rejected queen, but modern historians suggest a more disturbing reason for his disgust. Anne’s first meeting with Henry was a diplomatic blunder: Making their way to London, Anne’s party stopped on New Year’s Day 1540 at Rochester, where she took time to look at bull-baiting from the window. Suddenly, an old burly stranger entered the room—and everything went horribly wrong.
50. She Had A Horrible First Meeting
You see, this stranger was really Henry VIII in disguise. He had wanted to creep in and get a sneak peek of his new bride-to-be. He also expected that she would see through his costume via the power of "true love"...or something along those lines. Guess what? This was not a good idea. When Henry approached Anne, her response made his blood run cold.
51. Henry Tried To Role-Play With Her
Depending on the account, either Henry tried to get Anne's attention and she politely ignored him, or he outright tried to kiss and grope her. Which, uh, understandably caused the young woman to ring the alarms about a strange dude harassing her. Either way, it was utterly disastrous. Henry left the encounter angry, embarrassed, and possibly ready to take revenge...
52. Henry Scorned Her
Some historians believe that this ill-fated early encounter between Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII sealed her fate. According to them, Anne's lack of enthusiasm for Henry (even in disguise) made the king put up his defenses. If she was unimpressed with him, he may have decided to be unimpressed with her no matter what. And the rest, as they say, is history.