Potential Period Film Fodder: Anna of Cleves

The last time I went out—you’ll note that this is significant because, ha, my state is under a stay-at-home order and practically everything’s closed–I went to see Six the Musical, which imagines Henry VIII’s six wives as a girl group, each wife singing a song about her troubles with the King.

I went through a Tudors phase in high school–I watched BBC documentaries and miniseries, I read Philippa Gregory’s books, I read biographies. When The Tudors was on, I was drawn to both the sexiness on show and repelled by how wrong the history was.

All of the Tudors queens are compelling in her own way, but Anna of Cleves, fourth wife, came out of the marriage with the best deal and I think she deserves a movie about her life. Here’s why:

It’s 1539 in the German Duchy of Cleves and Hans Holbein the Younger, King Henry VIII’s court painter, has been dispatched all over Europe to paint various noble ladies so that Henry, who was on the market for another wife but had only married women he’d seen in person before marriage, can see what his potential wife looks life. I mean, they didn’t have Instagram in those days, you know?

Holbein was in Cleves to paint the Cleves sisters Anne (or Anna) and Amalia. When Henry VIII finally saw the portraits, he seemed really enthusiastic about Anne’s looks. She wasn’t worldly or multilingual or particularly well-educated by Tudor court standards, but she could read and write in German, was Protestant, and she had a reputation as a docile, gentle young woman, which sounded perfect to Henry. The marriage was arranged by Thomas Cromwell.

So Anne left Cleves. She arrived in England and was staying in Rochester Castle on New Year’s Day 1540 when one night, a strange group of men in weird costumes showed up, gained entrance to her rooms, and one of them kissed her. She pulled away in disgust and did not pay this man much attention after that. Because when creepy men do things like this, of course you’re going to pull away in disgust and ignore them.

Except that creepy man was Henry VIII and he decided after this incident that he didn’t like Anne. He did not find her as pretty as in her portrait and he did not want to marry her. But the marriage had to go through or else it would be a diplomatic incident. Henry and Anna married on January 6, 1640–and Thomas Cromwell was then no longer in the king’s favor.

The marriage was not consummated. Anna had no concept of sex and Henry VIII claimed that he found her unattractive. To be fair, maybe he did find her unattractive or awkward. Equally fair, perhaps his ego was bruised after she turned away from him without knowing who he was on New Year’s–and perhaps Henry was impotent. There are no reports of his latter wives being pregnant.

So, anyway, the marriage went along. About a month later, Anna was talking to one of her ladies-in-waiting about how the King was so kind: “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.'” Her lady-in-waiting Lady Rutland responded: “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a duke of York, which all this realm most desireth.”

On June 24th, 1640, Anna was ordered to leave Court. On July 6th, she was told that Henry wanted to divorce her. Supposedly, she was shocked at first, but decided to be pragmatic: she consented to the annulment quickly.

Henry gave testimony as to why he wanted to annul the marriage: he didn’t think she looked like her portrait, she wasn’t attractive, she smelled, and he didn’t think she was a virgin. The annulment went through on July 9, 1640. Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the marriage, was attainted and beheaded on July 28, 1640.

Because Anna had been so biddable, Henry gave her a generous settlement: Richmond Palace, Hever Castle (which belonged to the Boleyn family in the past), and other properties and lands, generating a very nice income for Anna. Henry invited her to court as “The King’s Sister” and she was given high precedence.

But basically, despite the six month long marriage and the humiliation she endured after Henry basically said she was deeply unattractive, Anna was a rich single woman without anyone to tell her what to do. What unusual freedom she had! Part of the settlement was that she would lose the money and assets if she returned to Cleves, but she seems to have enjoyed her life in England. After Henry died and his son Edward became the boy king, Anna’s status diminished, but she still lived at Hever Castle, where her life was lively. Princess Elizabeth came to visit her often.

Anne of Cleves waxwork at Warwick Castle

When Edward died young and Mary became queen, Anna was at the coronation. She attended court, too, but as Mary’s reign grew dangerous for Protestants, Anna retreated from court back to her estates. She died in 1557 at the age of 41.

She was discreet and pragmatic and, I think, very astute. Nobody knows what went on in her private life after the divorce and it may very well be that she wasn’t romantically inclined. Or that Henry VIII had cursed her with this reputation of being ugly. Or that she enjoyed having control of her own life!

Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Most Successful Queen?

6 thoughts on “Potential Period Film Fodder: Anna of Cleves

  1. You know, no one ever talks about Anne of Cleves. It would be interesting to get a movie from her POV for a change. Her post-Henry life sounds like it might have been interesting.

    I’m pretty sure old Henry had performance problems after Jane, between him mourning her passing, letting his body go to pot, that festering sore on his leg, and his cake and sausage diet. I’m pretty sure that bad smell he whined about was himself.

    Also, ew. Didn’t know he forced a kiss on her. That explains a LOT about his nasty attitude. That and obvious performance issues.


    1. I totally think he felt rejected and that’s why he lashed out at her. I couldn’t find specific stories about her life after Henry but it sure seems interesting!

      I feel like we don’t hear as much about the last three wives?

      And he definitely had performance issues.


  2. I agree with your assessment – definitely not the worst deal of all the wives!

    I love how one of the reasons for annulment was that she smelled. Dude, I think just about everyone smelled at that time.


    1. Her song in Six is called “Get Down” and it is a jam, it’s all about her living after the divorce.

      Yeah, they allll smelled. Especially him, I imagine, with the ulcer on his leg. Ewww.


  3. I had to snort at the added throw-in that he doubted she was a virgin. Had to make up something more concrete than stinking and ugly, I guess.


    1. He apparently assessed her breasts on their unconsummated wedding night and decided they were “too loose” which somehow meant she wasn’t a virgin? Maybe they just sagged a bit?

      Any excuse with Henry


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