Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII, endured the shortest marriage of any of the six wives. In fact, her marriage was over before it had even begun.
In late June 1540 Anne was informed that, due to plague in London, she was to move to Richmond Palace immediately. This was the first time that she had left the court since their marriage and she realised at once that something was wrong. On 26 June, she summoned Carl Harst, who was her brother’s ambassador, to complain of the pre-emptory way that she had been sent away. Harst assured her that Richmond was not so very far from court, but his master’s sister was far from convinced. Ominously she informed him that she knew very well what had happened to Catherine of Aragon – Henry’s discarded first wife.
Although three of Anne’s English ladies would later testify that she was entirely innocent to the fact that her marriage remained unconsummated, this conversation is highly suspect. In June 1450 the queen still used interpreters to communicate with her servants and is unlikely to have managed the intimate conversation on her marital sex life that the ladies claimed. Instead, Anne realised that her marriage was deeply troubled. In the months following her wedding, she made repeated attempts to speak to Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, alone. She also changed out of her heavy German fashions into French hoods and other – to English eyes – more stylish clothes.
Cromwell, in fact, wanted to avoid a delicate conversation with Anne at all costs, instead speaking to her Chamberlain, the Earl of Rutland, to ask him ‘to find some mean that the queen might be induced to order your grace pleasantly in her behaviour towards you [Henry]’. When this failed to have the desired effect, Cromwell took more direct action, calling Rutland and Anne’s council before him, where he ‘required them to counsel their mistress to use all pleasantries to’ Henry. Nothing worked and, eventually, the king’s own doctor warned him ‘not to enforce himself’ when attempting to consummate the marriage. With this, the royal couple stopped even the pretence of sharing a bed.
In late June 1540, the atmosphere at Richmond was one of alarm. On 6 or 7 June, Thomas Wriothesley, who was one of the king’s secretaries, visited Cromwell at his house in London. The minister, who was deeply worried, told the visitor that ‘one thing reseth in my head, which troubleth me, and I thought to tell it you. The king, liketh not the Queen, nor did ever like her from the beginning. Insomuch as I think assuredly that she be yet as good a maid for him as she was when she came to England’. Cromwell was widely seen as the architect of Anne’s marriage. The end came swiftly for Thomas Cromwell, who was arrested at a council meeting on 10 June and sent to the Tower. He was executed later that summer.
In order for the marriage to be investigated by a church court, it was necessary for Anne’s consent to be obtained. Henry evidently anticipated that his wife might refuse, with the messenger he sent arriving at Richmond in the early hours of the morning on 6 July. The strange time for the visit, which meant that Anne had to rise from her bed to meet with him, can only have been decided in order to frighten her into compliance.
Anne was informed by the king’s messenger that there were doubts over the marriage and that Henry wished it to be investigated. She immediately sent for Carl Harst, who also summoned the Earl of Rutland just after 4am. Anne was so shocked that she was speechless, with Harst instead informing Rutland that the king had sent a message that required an answer. Anne refused to set anything down on paper, but sent a message back with the king’s emissary, agreeing to what was asked of her. In spite of her compliance, she took the news ‘heavily’.
While Anne waited at Richmond, Harst was furious, storming up to court as soon as it was morning. He was treated with respect, but his request that matters be delayed until Anne’s brother, William, Duke of Cleves, and brother-in-law, John Frederick, Duke of Saxony, had been informed were ignored. Instead, matters moved with alarming speed. At 3pm on 7 July 1540 the clergy, meeting in convocation, ruled that the marriage was invalid, due to Anne’s childhood betrothal to Francis of Lorraine, lack of consummation, as well as Henry’s own failure to consent to the match. Since Harst is not recorded to have attempted to force his way into the Chapter House, it is probable that Anne was not informed that her marriage was being tried so soon.
Henry sent commissioners to Anne at Richmond, in order to ensure that she confirmed the sentence. When she saw them, she fainted. Harst had been with her before they arrived and had advised her to have patience, to which she replied that she had given herself to one man and would remain his wife until the bitter death. According to the ambassador from Cleves, it broke his heart to hear her cries and screams.
Anne had no wish to become another Catherine of Aragon or, worse, the next Anne Boleyn. When told that, if she accepted the divorce, she would be well treated, she accepted. She was indeed well provided for by the grateful king, being granted the palaces of Richmond and Bletchingley, as well as a generous financial settlement. She was also declared to be the king’s ‘sister’, with precedence at court before all other women, save any subsequent queen and the king’s two daughters.
Anne’s reluctant agreement to her divorce may have saved her life. It certainly ensured that, while Henry lived, she was able to live as a rich and independent woman. She did, however, refuse to write to her brother when requested, fearing that he would ‘slay her’ if he heard the news. In fact, William merely commented that he was glad his sister had fared no worse.
On 7 July 1540 Anne of Cleves once again became a single woman. The terms of her marriage settlement were such that she had to remain in England. She still had a further seventeen years left to live, becoming the last survivor of Henry VIII’s six wives.
Picture Credit: Henry VIII, the most terrifying husband in Europe (image from author’s own collection)