Was Anne Of Cleves Really "Too Ugly" For Henry VIII To Sleep With?
How Henry VIII got his giant ego bruised by his new bride and she paid the price but it saved her life in the long run.
Here’s the story most people believe...
Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves based on a portrait. Then, when he met her, he was horrified. Said she was so ugly he couldn’t bear to consummate the marriage. The portrait lied, she’s ugly. So he annulled the marriage.
People think of her as the “ugly” wife. Except, she wasn’t really ugly, and that’s not how it went down. There was more to the story. There usually is.
The whole mess started when Jane Seymour died
For a while, Henry was probably thinking third time’s the charm. All he had to show for the first two wives was a couple of daughters.
Then Jane Seymour delivered a live son. Third time’s the charm! Except she died after delivering. Everyone knew one son isn’t enough. A King needed male heirs to keep the throne in the family. Simple as that.
Problem was, his choices were slimmer after Anne Boleyn.
A lot of people were mad at Henry for separating from the Catholic Church to divorce Catherine and marry Boleyn. The Pope was mad at him. The entire Holy Roman Empire was mad at him. Entire Catholic regions were mad at him. He desperately needed Protestant allies.
Look. She’s single. And Protestant!
Henry’s envoys were travelling around Europe looking for a potential bride that would bring him strong Protestant allies.
One of his envoys came back with a portrait of Anne of Cleves. She was single and Protestant. Middle daughter of a Duke in Germany. And she was young. Just 24. Plus, she had a younger sister that was single, too.
Problem was, Henry didn’t entirely trust portraits. He knew sometimes artists painted portraits a little more flattering than reality because duh, the rich people were paying for said portraits.
So he sent his own personal artist to Germany to paint both girls.
Hans Holbein the younger was a very talented artist in Henry’s employ. He told Hans to paint the portraits “true.” Holbein agreed and off he went.
Yes, yes! Delightful! Arrange the marriage!
When Holbein got back with portraits, Henry was over the moon. He asked Holbein if the paintings were “true” and Holbein assured him they were.
Yes, yes. Delightful. He wanted arrangements made immediately so the marriage could happen as soon as she arrived. So marriage preparations began and Anne left Germany for London and her wedding.
When she arrived, everything changed
Then Anne arrived, and everything changed. They say when Henry went in to meet her, he came out of the room distraught.
I do not like, I do not like, he was hollering.
He wanted to call off the wedding, but he was afraid to alienate the allies he’d made in agreeing to the marriage. Royal marriages were often political affiliations. He needed allies, not more enemies.
So five days later, on January 6, 1540, the wedding went ahead.
Henry slipped the ring on her finger. Inside the ring, he’d carved a vow before her met her. It said “God send me well to keep.”
She was a fish out of water at first…
When Anne arrived, people commented and whispered. She barely spoke English. And how dreadful her clothing was.
After she changed her clothing and was decked out in English fashion, they were suddenly astounded by how lovely the new queen was. So lovely. Such a fair countenance. And so polite and sweet and meek.
Suddenly, no one had a bad thing to say about her.
“As fair a countenance as ever I have seen” one royal observer wrote.
But Henry couldn’t consummate the marriage…
Here’s a creepy thing royals used to do. When the King was consummating a marriage, royal aides piled into the room to watch.
No worries, it wasn’t a porn show. The King and his new bride huddled under covers or, more often, pulled drapes around the four poster bed. Which is still — yuk.
It was to make sure the marriage was consummated so if an heir resulted, they knew it was the King’s.
Four nights in a row they piled into the room, and nothing. The King bade her good night and they went to sleep.
Later, when King Henry was annulling the marriage, he’d have the royal doctor testify that it wasn’t “Henry,” per se. He was having “nocturnal pollutions” the entire time. (Wet dreams, if you wondered.)
To Henry, that was proof “she” was the problem. Too ugly. Simple as that. He could not bring himself to consummate the marriage.
Shortly after, he began flirting with other women. A few months later, he met a teenager named Catherine Howard. That’s when he started checking into the process of annulment.
Was Anne of Cleves really that ugly?
Artist Becca Saladin created a modernized photo based on the Holbein portrait so we could see what she really looked like in a relatable way.
Is she ugly? No. Really, she’s pretty average. But six months later, the marriage was annulled so Henry could marry Catherine Howard.
Keep in mind Holbein didn’t get fired for painting a portrait untrue to her likeness. He remained on payroll. With Henry’s temper, if Holbein had painted a lie, he’d have suffered grave repercussion. But he didn’t.
So what really happened?
The story Henry wanted kept quiet…
Now let me tell you the stupid part of the story.
The whole time Henry was complaining about portraits not being “true” and sending Holbein to paint women he might want to marry, he was distributing portraits of himself when he was a much younger man.
On the way to London, Anne and her entourage stopped at Rochester to rest and refresh. It was New Year’s Day, 1540.
Anne was standing in the window, watching a bull-baiting event when a stranger burst into her room.
It was an obese old man with jowls and a 52 inch waist. He wasn’t dressed as royalty. To her horror, the old man grabbed her and kissed her on the mouth. His hand were everywhere, groping her.
There’s no way she could have known it was Henry.
He was “testing” her love. It was a game he liked to play. He’d wear the garb of a knight or a “Robin Hood” and see if people could tell it was him. He had some crazy idea she’d see him and fall madly in love. Except that’s not what happened. Not one little bit.
Later, ambassador Eustace Chapuys would write about it saying her “slight” was entirely accidental — and possibly fatal to their relationship.
Oh to be a fly on the wall when she arrived at the palace and her “groom” came in to meet her and she realized he was the man that burst into her room in Rochester.
She became the richest woman in England
Anne was meek and gracious through the whole thing. She’d gravely insulted the King of England not through any of her own fault. I can almost hear her saying “My Lord, I knew not it was thee.”
He couldn’t get past her initial reaction. It must have been an utter shock to his sensibilities. A woman who did not want him.
But still, he couldn’t afford to anger his allies. He needed a way out of the mess. So he gave her such a huge annual payment she became the richest woman in England next to royalty. Called her his “dear sister” and the two formed a strange friendship that befuddled pretty much everyone.
On Christmas Day, she danced with Catherine Howard at the palace.
And in peace and prosperity, she outlived all of them.
“Who does not tremble when he considers how to deal with his wife, for not only is he bound to love her but so to live with her that he may return her to God pure and without stain when God who gave shall demand His own again.”
― King Henry VIII, (source)
What a funny, ironic, messed-up story!
Even a king has to experienced instant karma!
(I loved the medical terminology in this piece BTW.)
And I thought he was screwed up before this...
Thanks, Linda -
God this is creepy. Sorry, entitled royalty. But flipping creepy.