Meet the Wives Handbook: Anne of Cleves

Homespun and plain, Anne of Cleves was. And unable to arouse the king's desire. But when Henry's rejection came, this German noblewoman - for all her "evil smells" -- had the sense to survive.

Background: Overview

Anne of Cleves was intended to act as the glue that would bind Germany's Protestant princes to England and give Henry VIII the upper hand over his archrival Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This role she understood. But how to titillate or charm she did not. When Henry cast her aside, she panicked. Then took stock. In the end, this plainspoken German hausfrau would prove the longest lived of Henry's wives.

Background: Looks & Personality

Initial reports on the 23-year-old daughter of John, Duke of Cleves had urged caution: "I hear no great praise neither of her parentage nor her beauty," an English envoy wrote. But Henry VIII's marriage broker, Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, was not inclined to listen. Instead, he advised the king that Anne was "above all other ladies excellent." It was a mistake that would cost Cromwell his head.

The lack of similarity between Anne of Cleves and her portrait by Hans Holbein was immense. Not only was she "nothing fair," she was tall and thin, and gave off "evil smells."

Her reported gentleness and humility would alone hold true. Less like the beheaded Anne Boleyn, more like the beloved Jane Seymour. It was, perhaps, a calculated strategy. But in Anne's future with the irascible Henry VIII, they were traits that would serve her well.

Background: Education

Anne's accomplishments were decidedly limited in comparison with those of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Raised "in a manner never far from" the elbow of her mother, Anne of Cleves only spoke German and could not play any musical instrument or sing. For music-mad Henry VIII, these would appear strong disadvantages, but Anne's reported skill at various needlework and embroidery was more in keeping with expectations. Though she knew no French or Latin, she was reported to be intelligent enough to learn English quickly. More important for the mother of Henry's heir, no doubt, was that Anne was not "inclined to the great cheer of this country" (beer) and had been thoroughly tasked in religious devotions.

Background: Religion

Anne of Cleves has traditionally been classified as a Lutheran Protestant - a fact that sparked great alarm on the part of Catherine of Aragon's daughter, Mary, who feared her future stepmother was a heretic. Speculation in England presented Anne as a hard-core evangelical who was reluctant to travel to England "so long as one Abbey is standing." The truth was more mixed. Anne's mother, Duchess Maria, remained a strict Catholic. The rules governing the church in the duchy of Cleves had been drawn up by the Dutch theologian Erasmus, a reform-minded defender of the Catholic church. Anne's sister, Sybilla, had been married to the head of the Schmalkaldic Alliance, a defensive league of Protestant German rulers, but her father, Duke John, was not a member. Anne of Cleves' Protestantism was easy and in time, as queen, she herself would return to the Catholic fold.

Background: Family Ties

By Tudor standards, Anne of Cleves's lineage was not particularly impressive. Through her father, Duke John "the Simple," Anne could claim descent from descent from the Plantagenet 13th century English monarch Edward I Longshanks. Her mother, Maria, had been the heiress to the duchies of Juelich and Berg, relatively small territories on the Lower Rhine. The marriage of Anne's parents had created a much larger duchy of Cleves, with Dusseldorf as its capital. Of her siblings, only one was of strategic interest. Anne's older sister Sybilla was married to the Duke of Saxony, head of the Schmalkaldic League, a defensive alliance formed by Protestant German princes to ward off attacks by England's sometime enemy Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Background: Trouble Alert

At the age of 12, Anne of Cleves had been engaged to Francis, son of the Duke of Lorraine. Since Francis was only 10 at the time of the betrothal, the engagement was not considered to have the force of an actual nuptial contract. When negotiations began with Cleves for Anne's marriage to Henry VIII, her brother, Duke William, maintained that his sister was free from any prior obligations. Or was she? Later attempts would be made by Henry VIII to locate a copy of the contract between Anne and Francis of Lorraine, but none would ever be found. Ironically, Francis would go on to marry Anne's fellow contender in Henry VIII's marriage stakes -- Christina, Duchess of Milan.



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