Anne of Cleves: The Sisterwife of King Henry VIII

When she first got the news of Henry’s request for divorce, Anne of Cleves was a bit shell-shocked.[1] He had not even had the gall to ask her in person–instead, he had sent a delegation to her.[2] A delegation, it might be noted, that had quite unceremoniously announced that Henry was no longer interested in having Anne as his wife. She had wanted to fling herself to the ground in despair, but instead remained silent, feeling the nausea sweep across her powdered face, paling it even more than it already was accustomed to be. She had not seen this coming at all. Sure, Henry VIII, the great monarch and her often absent husband, had sent her off to Richmond Palace in June without his massive self.[3] At the time, however, it had seemed like a nice gesture. Did not all kings make such kind overtures for their wives?

At the same time, this sort of naivete had not served Anne well months earlier in the marriage. How could she have been such a fool as to think that kind words and kisses were all the physical affection married couples could have?[4] Her ladies-in-waiting had none too delicately set her straight when the conversation of her pregnancy had arisen.[5] More than hand-holding had to occur for an heir to be conceived, and that required a kind of intimacy that Anne was not entirely ready for with Henry. Nor, it appeared, was he ready to touch her since the last time they had done anything more than bid each other goodnight was also the first time they had done so–the night of their wedding in January.[6]

After the initial dismay and despair she had felt over her husband–soon to be ex–not wanting her anymore, Anne began to piece together the puzzle that lay before her. In person he had never been anything but polite to her, but then again maybe too polite.[7] When they were together, he did not act as though he found her to be repulsive or unsavory. She had done the same, in spite of his mammoth personage and grizzled features.[8] But by the same token, perhaps that meant he was not truly attracted to her.

anne of cleves
Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of King Henry VIII 

That would explain why he would not touch her. Not that she minded, as he was oafish and smelly and somewhat vile. It did not bother her that Henry had made no motion to consummate their marriage since those first few days.[9] If he had, she might be carrying his child within her right this minute, and that would certainly complicate things. Not to mention the fact that it might just be the most uncomfortable and disgusting thing she could possibly imagine doing with Henry. She would much rather play cards with his daughter Mary, which was a dreadful task in itself as Mary never, ever lost.

That was just his attitude in person, however; Anne was no idiot. She had eyes and ears all over the multiple residences that she and Henry occupied, and apparently he talked of her often, though not in a positive manner. She was told often of the things he had said of her: her foul smell, her unsightly features, her resemblance to a “Flanders mare.”[10] It was hurtful, but Anne assumed much of it was just hearsay. Really, how could a man be so two-faced? He was so kind when he was around her!

The horse comment was real, she knew that much. Anne had heard him say it to the court when she was supposed to be retiring to her chambers. She had cried for hours upon hearing such an affront, but further consideration led her to agree to some extent. She did have a rather unsightly nose.[11] It was not as offensive as time went on, and she learned more and more about Henry’s private life. He was not the very model of a modern major monarch, and she comforted herself with that fact whenever word of his rudeness reached her.

Maybe the worst thing about her marriage had been the king’s flirtatiousness with her ladies-in-waiting, specifically Katherine Howard.[12] Kat was a dear friend, but Anne would never confide in her. There were stories about Katherine Howard’s behavior behind closed doors that were disturbing at best, and they were believable when one saw the way she acted with men publicly–especially with Henry.[13]

It had been in the Springtime that things had seemed–well, they had seemed off. Kat was a tiny thing, prettier than Anne but not too much so, and she was constantly concerned with her appearance when men were about.[14] Henry had expressed an interest, not to Anne but then again not really to anyone in particular, in throwing more garden parties since the weather was nice, and as a result Kat had been available to Anne a lot more than usual.

Katherine/Catherine Howard, Anne’s lady-in-waiting and Henry VIII’s fifth wife

“Just worried about your complexion, dear,” she would say, maybe a bit condescendingly, as she bustled about Anne’s quarters. In busty apparel, she would usher Anne out to the courtyard, or grove, or wherever Henry had deemed appropriate for a seemingly insignificant and frivolous garden party. Here was the kicker, though, and something Anne had not previously realized until just this moment: Kat never left Anne’s side at those garden parties. Henry had seemed in good spirits, smiling and pleasant and actually present at those gatherings, and the common thread seemed to be Kat’s proximity to Anne…or perhaps, Kat’s proximity to Henry.

This made total sense. Kat would stay behind, claiming that she deemed herself the fittest of the ladies to clean up after these garden soirees, and would return to Anne’s chambers hours after Anne herself had retired there. In recent months, Kat had gotten herself some presents as well: hefty and expensive pieces of jewelry that she claimed were from admirers beyond the palace gates. Once, in April, she did not return from one such garden party until the next morning, giving some excuse about getting locked out of the chambers and having to sleep elsewhere, though where she never said.[15]

Anne of Cleves was a gentle woman from the land of Dusseldorf.[16] It was not in her nature to assume the worst, or to assume at all really. The servants of her chambers and her other ladies-in-waiting, however, had their suspicions. Many a time had Anne walked into a room to get her bodice adjusted and all conversation would stop. Anne at the time brushed it off, thinking that the girls simply were not accustomed to sharing their gossip with her yet, but on her way back into the main room of the chambers the ladies’ whisperings would continue, and Kat’s name was often floating about in the air with the names of various men not far behind.

When she really thought about it, in the wake of her husband’s plea for divorce and the circumstances surrounding it, pieces of the puzzle that were her marriage seemed to be falling into place in a most unsavory manner. Mental absence on Henry’s part was understandable. After all, he was the king of England. Physical absence, by that same token, was also forgivable.

Sexual absence, however, was intolerable.

Was Anne not good enough? Not pretty enough? What did she lack that Katherine had? It was not as though she had a burning desire to sleep with Henry, the fat and sweaty and disheveled ruler she had married less barely six months prior, but it was crushing to believe that her husband had lain with another woman, touched another woman, and was now discarding his wife for this–

King Henry VIII of England, notorious for his six wives whom he divorced (2), beheaded (2), outlived (1), and was outlived by (1)

She could not bear to even think of the word that so deliciously described her former lady-in-waiting, and now possible replacement.

When Anne of Cleves had properly recovered from the start her husband’s written had given her, she sat down at the big, oak desk which sat in her private chambers at Richmond to reply with sparks of rage blossoming within her. Parchment, ink, and quill were procured, and with a feverish energy she raised a hand to pen the most cutting acceptance of divorce that any German had ever written before.

A second of hesitation, brought on by a glance out the window which overlooked the River Thames, brought her to her senses. She took a much-needed deep intake of breath, ignoring the sharp pain that this action brought to her ribcage. Fie the English and their tight corsets!

Henry was the king of England. Anne was his fourth wife. Simple logic suggested that there had been three wives prior to Anne, and hearsay told her that all three of them were presently dead. If Anne was not careful, she could end up in the ground like each of these women.

Catherine of Aragon Henry had divorced. Her failure to produce a son, an heir to his throne, was unforgivable, and there were claims that Catherine had died of heartbreak.[17] This could be the route Anne would take to the grave, as both women were divorced by Henry for reasons as simple as his disinterest. However, Anne had been pretty surely cleansed of any love for him in the fallout following his request for divorce. She could live without him now.

But would she? Anne Boleyn, with whom she shared a given name, had met her end with decapitation. Henry feared she had been cheating on him with other men, and although he obviously had been doing the same to her–though with Jane Seymour, not men–this was not to be allowed.[18] If Anne were to anger the king with her response, perhaps he would be so riled that he would order her German neck cut by an axe. That simply would not do.

Jane Seymour had died in childbirth, and since Anne was not pregnant and likely never would be by Henry’s doing, this was not much of an issue. The task at hand now became how to word such a letter to Henry that he would not be incensed and react dreadfully. She also had to keep in mind that this offer was probably the best that she was likely to get. Divorced by the king and she would be given homes, land, and salary galore? He could have left her to her own devices, sent her back to Germany in a handbasket and rejected her completely. Henry was no stranger to bribery, and Anne, in this moment of clarity, was no foe to accepting it.

Richmond Palace, where Anne was sent in the summer of 1540 to receive Henry’s divorce plea

She picked up the quill once more. Pleaseth your most excellent majesty, she began.[19] Best to pepper his ego with praise, even as meaningless as it would be coming from the soon-to-be ex-wife. She continued with the formalities for a time, and then paused. Should be admit her feelings for him? Sure, in this moment she was utterly disgusted and betrayed and hurt, but she had liked him once. It had been her duty to feel some sort of affection for the man who occasionally warmed her bed.

Though this case must needs be most hard and sorrowful unto me, for the great love which I bear to your most noble person, she continued, feeling bile rise in the back of her throat.[20] ‘Great love’ was an oxymoron. He was a great man in that he ruled a country, and he was great in the fact that his weight was a large figure, but there was nothing else about Henry and Anne’s relationship to him that involved the word great. Perhaps she felt great resentment toward Katherine, or towards the situation, although even that feeling was dissipating now that she had realized the task at hand.

I acknowledge myself hereby to accept and approve the same, she finally etched into the parchment.[21] Here it was. She had done it. They could not go back and recant, not that Henry wanted to, or that she particularly did either. Anne had been comfortable in her English palace, and life had been so perfectly monotonous as a royal. It was a shame that she could not continue living that way, although the comforts Henry was offering her did seem rather similar.

The pretended matrimony between us is void and of none effect.[22] Now that was hard to write. To act as though they had never touched lips, never stood before God as man and wife was essentially saying that the past six months or so had been but a dream. How could she pretend? They had both worn gold and walked about followed by lines of servants dressed in velvet and draped in gold chain.[23] She had been, for a while anyway, fawned over as the future coronated Queen of England. Everything she could ever possibly want she had been given–except a loving husband, it seemed.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 09.32.09.png
All six wives of Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr


Anne was no Tudor, she could not act as though she was…or could she? Thoughts of the gifts she was to be given, of the pain she would never have to endure again, or the consequences should she not accept this unholy demand flashed across her mind and, suddenly, the quill was writing on its own.

Your majesty’s most humble sister, she wrote with a smirk, signing off from the letter with a flourish.[24]  If he wanted to be her sibling rather than her stupid husband, then she’d oblige him. Anne could be content living off of his English money, left to her own devices in this palatial home for the rest of her days.[25] If such lavish gifts were involved, maybe getting a divorce–actually, an annulment–was not such a bad thing after all.

With a chuckle, she placed her quill down on the table and replayed the past six months in her mind. If nothing else had come of their flop of a marriage, at least the little German girl from Dusseldorf had been one of–if not the–most important women in Europe for a while.

And she had slept–literally–with the King of England.



[1] Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 326.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Starkey, “Chapter 72: From Queen to Sister,” from Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, (New York: Jutland, 2003), 639.

[4] Ibid, 633.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 632.

[7] Alison Weir, “Chapter 54: ‘Displeasant Airs,’” from Henry VIII: The King and His Court, (New York: Ballantine, 2001), 421.

[8] Karen Lindsey, “Chapter 7: The Flanders Mare,” from Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995), 146.

[9] Weir, Henry VIII, 422.

[10] Lindsey, Divorced, 142.

[11] Fraser, The Wives, 307.

[12] Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII, (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), 338.

[13] Weir, Henry VIII, 424.

[14] Fraser, The Wives, 316.

[15] Ibid, 322.

[16] Ibid, 303.

[17] cheniger, “Horrible Histories: The Wives of Henry VIII (Terrible Tudors),” (SchoolTube video, 2:16), August 23, 2011,

[18] Weir, Henry VIII, 363.

[19] Anne of Cleves, Letter of Anne of Cleves to her husband, King Henry VIII 11 July 1540, letter, English History, web, (accessed March 21, 2017).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Starkey, Six Wives, 629.

[24] Cleves.

[25] Starkey, Six Wives, 642.

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