The saga of Henry VIII’s wives is told, often scurrilously, between English schoolchildren.
One story, though, is not quite what it seems, and that’s what happened to and with Anne of Cleeves, the famous “Flanders mare.”
The Official Line
Henry, at 44, was desperately in need of two things: Alliances, and an heir. His legitimate son, Edward VI, was sickly and it was commonly believed that the boy might not live long enough to be king (he did, but not for very long).
He had fathered a bastard in his youth, Henry FitzRoy, on one of his queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Henry had been acknowledged and could potentially have been legitimized, but he died of “consumption” (likely tuberculosis) in 1536.
To solve both of these problems, Henry agreed to marry a foreign princess, but he wasn’t willing to take one sight unseen. Foreign kings, however, were unwilling to parade their daughters and sisters in front of the king.
The compromise was that they would send a portrait. Cromwell entered into marriage negotiations on the King’s behalf with the Duke of Cleves, who had two daughters, Anne (or Anna) and Amelia. The portraits were duly sent and Henry selected Anne.
When she showed up, however, she looked nothing like her overly-flattering portrait. The King, in fact, found her so ugly (and with such bad BO) that he was unable to consummate the marriage, which was annulled six months later.
Anne of Cleeves, rather than being sent back home, was granted land and titles in England, where she lived out the rest of her life comfortably.
So, was this what actually happened?
Was she really that ugly?
The problem is that this story is written from the perspective of, well. The King.
So, who was Anne of Cleeves and what really happened between them?
Was Anne of Cleeves Ugly?
First of all, let’s lay this to rest.
The only person who ever described Anne of Cleeves as ugly…was Henry. Well, and people who didn’t dare contradict him. The story about the horrible body odor appears entirely invented. And the nickname “The Flanders Mare,” implying she had the face of a horse, wasn’t even contemporary.
Cromwell sang praises of her beauty, which were likely exaggerated (and he lost his head as a result, as tended to happen to people who pissed off the King).
The portrait Henry complained about was described as lifelike by others.
The likely truth is that Anne was not a great beauty but was, in fact, a reasonably attractive young woman.
Was Their Marriage Consummated?
By all accounts, no. Anne herself seemed to have been thoroughly sheltered and to have never received any sex ed, but in her naivete she clearly revealed that the King had not, in fact, done the deed.
Henry himself claimed he found her so revolting that he couldn’t get it up and that he “Left her as good a maid as he found her.” (He also implied more than once that she wasn’t a maid, but this contradicts the accounts of what she had to say about their nights together).
This was the very reasonable grounds for annulment. A marriage wasn’t considered full and final until it was consummated.
So, why was it not consummated?
The reason is likely…not Anne of Cleeves at all.
Henry had a number of children. He had one acknowledged bastard, and several suspected ones that he did not acknowledge. This was because the women concerned were married, so there was no way of being sure.
His youngest child was Edward VI, who was born to Jane Seymour in October, 1537. (Jane died within weeks of giving birth). After that, there is absolutely no indication of any further issue from Henry.
Henry had been an extremely active man, known to be a good wrestler and a good rider. In 1536, he had a serious accident while jousting, in which he ended up under the horse. He experienced a TBI and a serious leg injury from which he never recovered.
In other words, by the time he married Anne, Henry was disabled. He often had to use a wheelchair, and his lack of mobility contributed to morbid obesity. He was in constant pain, in an era before painkillers.
Henry had two wives after Anne. Catherine Howard was executed for having an affair. Catherine Parr appears to have been a nursemaid.
The likely real reason why Henry was indeed unable to consummate the marriage was a simple one:
He was impotent.
(And yes, I’m implying that the two subsequent marriages may also have been unconsummated. We will probably never know).
At the time, no man, especially not a king, admitted to impotence. For the sake of his pride, “She was so ugly I couldn’t do it” was a reasonable explanation.
Which meant poor Anne got blamed for, well, her husband’s disability.
Why Did He Treat Her So Well?
Yet, here’s the odd part.
There’s no argument that Henry did not much care for Anne. One reason might have been a poor first impression; he tried a romantic stunt (dressing up as a commoner and sneaking around) which backfired when, of course, she failed to recognize him.
Another was that she had been raised to be…well. Boring. This wasn’t Anne’s fault, but her family emphasized practical household-running skills and needlework. Henry wanted a wife who enjoyed dancing and music. And spoke better English. (Side note, there’s some indication Anne was a card shark. Something Henry probably wasn’t).
So, if he didn’t like her, why did he reward her with land? Did he feel sorry for her? If he just never wanted to see her again, he could have sent her home. Or killed her.
Part of it was that he still needed that alliance. Although all the evidence was that the marriage was unconsummated, Anne was still “ruined.” She had little chance of another marriage. Sending her home in that state would have undoubtedly turned the Duke against him.
It may not have been just politics, though. Henry called Anne his sister, informed everyone to treat her as ranked just below any future queens, and gave her not just one manor but three. It seems excessive.
Did he feel sorry for her? Was it because she agreed to the annulment?
Or did it all boil down to that impotence thing. She didn’t like him. He didn’t like her. She could, in a stroke, embarrass him in front of the court and the entire international community.
This is rampant speculation, but could he have been buying her off? Yet, this also seems unlikely, because Anne was often invited to court and treated as a member of his family.
Here’s a clue.
When Anne died at the age of 41 of some kind of cancer, she left her most significant financial income…to Mary I. Not as the crown, but apparently as an individual
Did Henry keep Anne in the family even though he found her physically repulsive and emotionally uninteresting for one simple reason: His kids liked her.
I think that might be the most human explanation for Anne’s status as “beloved sister.”
It’s all rampant speculation, of course.
Either way, Anne of Cleeves was not the ugly and insignificant wife, but an independent woman and advisor to royalty. And that, perhaps, makes her the most successful of them all.