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September 22, 1515 – Happy Birthday Anne of Cleves!

Anne of Cleves, by Holbein (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Ah, the lucky one.

As the daughter of Johann III, Duke of Juliers-Cleves, Anne was a pawn in the international marriage market from her early years: she was betrothed in 1527 when she was only 12 to Francis, the heir to the Duchy of Lorraine, then started being suggested as a potential bride for Henry VIII in 1537, soon after Jane Seymour died. At the time, Henry was contemplating a French or Spanish bride and didn’t pursue the matter, but when politics changed the alliance with Cleves became just too tempting.

Anne of Cleves was 25 when she came to England. She was fair-haired and was said to have a lovely face – certainly the Holbein portrait bears this out. The French ambassador described her as tall and slim, of middling beauty and of very assured and resolute countenance.” She was not formally educated, which was a bit of a letdown for Henry (he valued sophistication in his courtiers, both men and women), but she could read and write (though only in German). The Six Wives of Henry VIII has a great scene where Anne reproaches her brother for not teaching her any of the “important” things – like how to dance or play a musical instrument – and he responds angrily that those kinds of things only lead to lovers. (Six Wives also imbued her with political understanding, but I think that was just a convenient – and brilliant – way of explaining the situation to the audience).

Things went poorly from the start and got steadily worse from there – until six months later it was over and Henry remarried Catherine Howard. The best description of the process is to be found in the letter Thomas Cromwell wrote in the hope of saving his own life: it contains his testimony as to the King’s lack of consent to the marriage (amazing letter, by the way; you can find it here). But despite this, the King was actually generous – Anne received a financial settlement that included Richmond Palace and Hever Castle (a subtle reminder of how much worse things could go for her…). She was also made an honorary member of Henry’s family, referred to as “the King’s Beloved Sister”.  In all, a great result in the end.

Happy birthday, Anne!


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September 22, 1515 - Happy Birthday Anne of Cleves!
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