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July 9, 1540: Cleves Marriage Dissolved

Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Anne of Cleves (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1540, Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was formally dissolved on the grounds of the King’s lack of consent to it (evidenced by the nonconsummation…) and her precontract with the Duke of Loraine. The former queen fared quite well in the transaction: she received a generous financial settlement that included Richmond Palace and Hever Castle (which had formerly been home to Anne Boleyn…I always wonder whether that was a subtle reminder that things could go considerably worse for her). She was also made an honorary member of Henry’s family, referred to as “the King’s Beloved Sister”.

Thomas Cromwell had supplied the basis of the testimony, in his letter of June 30. The lawyerly Cromwell covered every key fact that spoke to the King’s lack of consent, and suggested other witnesses to bolster the King’s case. It was another example of Cromwell’s unparalleled skill at giving the King what he wanted.

A note of caution, this was the most run-on letter I have ever encountered – the entire text that you see below was a single sentence, perhaps to establish the weight of the case.  I considered leaving it like that to convey the sense of desperate urgency it gave, but it was too unreadable so I added commas and substituted periods for some of the connective “ands.” I also created paragraphs, all to make it more understandable and not discourage anyone from reading the full story.

First, after your Majesty heard of the lady Anne of Cleves’ arrival at Dover and that her journeys were appointed towards Greenwich and that she should be at Rochester on New Year’s Eve even at night, Your Highness declared to me that you would privately visit her at Rochester upon New Year’s Day, adding these words to nourish love, which accordingly Your Grace did upon New Year’s Day as is abovesaid. And the next day being Friday, Your Grace returned to Greenwich where I spoke with Your Grace and asked of Your Majesty how you liked the Lady Anne. Your Highness answered, as I thought, heavily and not pleasantly, “Nothing so well as she was spoken of.” You said further that if Your Highness had known as much before as you then knew, she should not have come within this realm. And you said as by way of lamentation, “What remedy?” Unto the which, I answered and said I knew not but was very sorry therefor, and so God knoweth I was, for I thought it a hard beginning. 

The next day after the receipt of the said lady and her entry made into Greenwich, and after Your Highness had brought her to her chamber, I then waited upon Your Highness in your Privy Chamber. Being there, Your Grace called me to you, saying to me these words or the like, “My Lord, is it not as I told you, say what they will. She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported howbeit she is well and seemly.” Whereunto I answered saying, “By my faith Sire, you speak true,” adding thereunto that yet I thought she had a queenly manner, and nevertheless was sorry that Your Grace was no better content. Thereupon Your Grace commanded me to call together your Council which were these by name: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, my Lord Admiral, my Lord of Duresme and myself, to comment on those matters, and to know what commission the Agent of Cleves had brought touching the performance of the covenants sent before to Doctor Wotton to have been concluded in Cleves and also the declaration as to how the matters stood regarding the covenants of marriage between the Duke of Lorraine’s son and the said Lady Anne. Whereupon Oslegerr and Hogeston were called and the matters purposed, whereby it plainly appeared that they were much astonished and abashed and desired that they might make answer in the morning which was Sunday. And upon Sunday in the morning, your said counselors and they met early and their eftsons were purposed unto them as well, touching the commission for the performance of the treaty and articles sent to Master Wotton and also touching the contract and covenants of marriage between the Duke of Lorraine’s son and the Lady Anne and what terms they stood in. To the which things so purposed they answered as men much perplexed that as touching the commission they had none to treat. Concerning the Articles sent to Mr. Wotton and as to the contracture and covenant of marriage they could say nothing but that a revocation was made, and that they were but spousals, and finally after much reasoning they offered themselves to remain prisoners until such time as they should have sent unto them from Cleves the First Articles ratified under the Duke their master’s sign and seal, and also the copy of the revocation made between the Duke of Lorraine’s son and the Lady Anne. Upon these answers, I was sent to Your Highness, by orders of your said Council, to declare to Your Highness what answer they had made. I came to Your Highness by the privy way into your Privy Chamber and declared to the same all the circumstances. Wherewith Your Grace was very displeased saying “I am not well handled,” insomuch that I might well perceive that Your Highness was fully determined not to have gone through with the marriage at that time, saying unto me these words, or others with like effect, that “if it were not that she is come so far into my realm and the great preparations that my state and people hath made for her, and for fear of making a ruffle in the world that is to mean to drive her brother into the hands of the Empeor and French king being now together, I would never have married her,” so that I might well perceive Your Grace was neither content with the person nor yet content with the proceeding of the agent.

After dinner the said Sunday, Your Grace sent for all your said counselors and repeated how Your Highness was handled as well as touching the said articles and also the said matter of the Duke of Lorraine’s son. It might – and I doubt not it did – appear to them how loath Your Highness was to have married at that time. And thereupon and upon the considerations aforesaid Your Grace thought that it should be well done that she should make a protestation before your said councilors, in the presence of notaries, that she was free from all contracts. This was done accordingly, and thereupon I repaired to Your Highness declaring how she had made her protestation. Whereunto Your Grace answered in effect these words or others like them, “Is there none other remedy but that I must needs put my head in the yoke?” Whereupon I departed leaving Your Highness in a study or pensiveness, and yet Your Grace determined the next morning to go through.

In the morning, which was Monday, Your Majesty prepared yourself toward the ceremony. There was some question who should lead her to church, and it was appointed that the Earl of Essex and an Earl that came with her should lead her to church. And thereupon one came to Your Highness and said unto you that the Earl of Essex was not yet come, whereupon Your Grace appointed me to be one that should lead her. And so I went to her chamber to do your commandment and shortly after I came into the chamber the Earl of Essex was come, whereupon I repaired back again in to Your Grace’s Privy Chamber and showed Your Highness how he was come. And thereupon Your Majesty advanced toward the gallery out of your Privy Chamber, and Your Grace being in and about the middle of your Presence Chamber called me into you saying these words, or others  like them, “My Lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.”  Therewith one brought Your Grace word that she was coming, and thereupon Your Grace repaired into the gallery toward the closet, and there paused her coming being nothing content that she so long tarried as I judged then. And so consequently she came and Your Grace afterwards proceeded to the sermons, and they being finished traveled the day, as appertained, and the night after the custom.

And in the morning on Tuesday, I repaired to Your Majesty in your Privy Chamber, finding Your Grace not so pleasant as I trusted to have done. I was so bold to ask Your Grace how ye liked the Queen, whereunto Your Grace soberly answered, saying “Surely my lord, as ye know I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse. For I have felt her belly and her breasts and thereby as I can judge she should be no maid, which struck me so to the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters. I have left her as good a maid as I found her.”  Methought then ye spoke displeasantly, which I was very sorry to hear.

Your Highness also after Candlemas and before Shrovetide once or twice said that you were in the same case with her as you were afore, and that your heart could never consent to meddle with her carnally. Notwithstanding, Your Highness alleged that you for the most part used to lie with her nightly or every second night, and yet Your Majesty ever said that she was as good a maid for you as ever her mother bore her, for any thing that you had ministered to her.  Your Highness showed me also in Lent last passed, at such time as Your Grace had some communication with her of my lady Mary, how that she began to wax stubborn and willful, ever lamenting your fate and ever verifying that you had never any carnal knowledge with her. And also after Easter Your Grace likewise at divers times and in the Whitsun week in Your Grace’s Privy Chamber at Greenwich exceedingly lamented your fate and that your greatest grief was that you should surely never have any more children for the comfort of this realm if you should so continue, assuring me that before God you thought she was never your lawful wife. At which time Your Grace knoweth what answer I made, which was that I would for my part do my utmost to comfort and deliver Your Grace of your affliction and how sorry I was both to see and hear Your Grace. God knoweth Your Grace divers times since Whitsuntide declared the like to me, ever alleging oiv thing, and also saying that you had as much done to move the consent of your heart and mind as ever did man and that you took God to witness this, but ever you said that the obstacle could never leave your mind, Gracious Prince.

After you had first seen her at Rochester, I never thought in my heart that you were or would be contented with that marriage. And Sire, I know now in what case I stand, in which is only the mercy of God and Your Grace. If I have not to the utmost of my remembrance said the truth and the whole truth in this matter, God never help me. I am sure that there is no man living in your realm that knew more in this than I did, except only Your Highness, but I am sure my Lord Admiral calling to his remembrance can show Your Highness and be my witness what I said unto him after Your Grace came from Rochester, and also after your Grace’s marriage, and also now of late since Whitsuntide. And I doubt not but many and divers of my Lords of your Council, both before your marriage and since, have right well perceived that your Majesty hath not been well pleased with your marriage, and as I shall answer to God I never thought Your Grace content after you had once seen her at Rochester.

This is all that I know.

For further reading:

Roger Bigelow Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, Volume 2


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July 9, 1540: Cleves Marriage Dissolved
Published inInteresting Letters and Speeches


  1. A run-on sentence of that magnitude could also indicate sheer panic…. Maybe he was hoping if he provided enough verbiage, Henry would be satisfied.

  2. Curious that the letter appears to contain nothing that Henry would not already know. For all its length and verbosity, it never once admits to the fact that Henry had contracted with Anne on the recommendation of Cromwell, and with the possible connivance of Hans Holbein in the matter of the portrait. In my novel ‘Justice for the Cardinal’ I have Cromwell commissioning a portrait of Anne’s prettier older sister and switching it for the one of Anne. Given how marriage partners were chosen in those days, it may be closer to the truth then we shall ever know.

    • It was testimony to justify the annulment….not to dig himself deeper into the hole…I am fascinated by your approach! Can’t wait!

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