Anne of Cleves is often portrayed as naive, young and from a sheltered background. While this is true—after all, she believed that she could be pregnant from just a kiss—the decisions she made as Queen Consort of England were some of the smartest she could have made. She proved herself to be the smartest of all Henry VIII’s six wives and had the opportunity to form a close bond with Lady Mary Tudor.
Anne of Cleves: The Smartest of All Henry VIII’s Six Wives
Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of Henry VIII. She agreed to the annulment in 1540 and never argued with Henry. Did that make her the smartest of all six wives?
The Sheltered Life of Anne of Cleves
Anne grew up in the Germany state of Cleves. It had become a deeply Lutheran state, which would become a major point for the decision for her to remain in England in 1540. She had been raised as a typical German woman, learning about the house and caring for her husband. She was educated for a German princess but not for an English Queen. In fact, she had never received any formal education.
She hadn’t been raised with the music and festivities.The English Court was full of these, even during Catherine of Aragon's reign. Henry loved his music, his theatre and his dance and he needed someone who would enjoy it with him.
Her upbringing was extremely sheltered, which caused some problems at the start of life in Henry VIII’s court. She didn’t even know what the King of England looked like! When Henry VIII surprised her on New Year’s Day 1540 when she had just reached the English shore, she never showed him the respect he was due by curtseying. When he came towards her, she flinched and pushed him away.
Henry found this unappealing. First impressions were extremely important at the time and Henry was not happy with his bride of choice. She didn’t look as beautiful as the portrait that he had seen and didn’t enjoy the same things that Henry loved: music, ale and playing cards. These were something that she could learn, never having the opportunity in Cleves, but Henry didn’t have the time or patience. He wanted the perfect bride now!
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Anne of Cleves was Previously Betrothed
Henry VIII wanted out of the marriage before it even took place. He wanted Thomas Cromwell to find a way out since he was the person to arrange it in the first place. That was when Thomas brought up the fact that Anne of Cleves had been previously betrothed and in 16th century England that was as good as marriage.
There was a pre-contract between Anne and Francis, the son of the Duke of Lorraine, was created. However, the marriage never took place as the pre-contract was seen as unofficial. This led to uncertainty for Cromwell and Henry. Could that really make the marriage invalid? At the same time, France and Spain were forming an alliance and Henry needed support for England. An alliance with the protestant German state was the best option. The marriage had to take place on January 6, 1540, despite the knowledge of the previous betrothal.
Something that helped Henry at a later stage was that he chose to avoid consummating the marriage. He was so repulsed by his new bride that he couldn’t bring himself to be close to her. He would hold her hand and kiss her goodnight but that was all. Anne of Cleves shared this with one lady-in-waiting close to her and then found out that there would never be an heir.
Was Anne of Cleves the Smartest Wife?
Anne of Cleves Conforms to Henry VIII’s Religion
Anne had been raised as a Lutheran but like any wife, she chose to conform to Henry VIII’s Anglican religion. It is possible that she was simply following what she believed she should do but it is also possible that she was acting with some sense of preservation. Her brother would have heard about how Catherine of Aragon was treated for not allowing the divorce and how Lady Mary Tudor was being treated for refusing to give up her Catholic faith.
Henry VIII's last wife, Katherine Parr, showed what could have happened had Anne of Cleves refused to conform. Katherine was a sympathiser of the reformers due to her relaxed upbringing. She often debated with Henry about religion and it almost ended with her arrest and possible death.
Anne knew that to keep her head she had to follow Henry’s wishes. If that meant changing her religious views then so be it. The problem was that the Duke of Cleves, Anne’s brother, was unhappy about her conforming. She would not be welcome back to Cleves if she remained Anglican.
Was Anne of Cleves the Smartest of Henry VIII’s Wives?
While being naive, Anne of Cleves made one of the smartest decisions on July 6, 1540. She agreed to the annulment of her marriage. Whether she knew it was happening or not, she never argued and simply followed everything that her husband told her. However, had she simply been raised to not argue with her husband or was she smart enough to realise that this would get her everything she wanted.
Catherine of Aragon had already proven how dangerous it was to argue against a divorce. She had been banished from Court and left to live with very little money and few servants. She never saw her daughter again and was died a very unhappy woman. This didn’t have to happen though. It was Henry’s punishment for arguing and fighting against the inevitable. Henry was happy to allow her to live in a nunnery with the title Dowager Princess of Wales and everything that title brought with it but she refused outright.
Anne Boleyn has also proven the dangers of arguing and not delivering her promises. After just three years of marriage, Anne had fallen from favour with Henry VIII and, whether intentionally or not, it led to her downfall and execution.
Anne of Cleves arguably knew what arguing would bring her. She didn’t want that and decided to follow everything Henry VIII wanted. She agreed that the marriage was invalid due to the previous betrothal. It certainly helped that the marriage had never been consummated. She also agreed to remaining in England and would be known as the King’s Beloved Sister.
Anne of Cleves in TV
Did Anne of Cleves Negotiate the Terms?
I watched a TV show from the 1970s of the Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was the Anne of Cleves story and showed Anne negotiating the terms of the annulment with King Henry. She only agreed to the annulment if she got to stay in England and was given a yearly allowance. She would be allowed to attend court and would learn card games and be known as the King’s Sister.
It made me think whether Anne would have negotiated these terms. It is possible that within the six months in England she had grown to love it. She had become friends with Mary, despite their different religious views, and she possibly knew that there was no future in Cleves since she had conformed to the Anglican religion. It is possible that she did negotiate the terms of the annulment but made sure that Henry still gained the most from it.
On the other hand, this doesn’t strike me as Anne. She was so naive to believe she could be pregnant without intercourse. She hadn’t been raised as a thinker; more as a traditional woman. She hadn’t been well-educated and would have simply obeyed her husband. It is more likely that Henry brought up the terms as a reward for Anne agreeing to the annulment and Anne's advisors suggested that this was the best option for her.
However, she was still extremely smart. Anne of Cleves had some common sense in her traditional upbringing. She never faced any controversy at Court. Nobody wanted to get rid of her or her faction. Nobody wanted to kill her and she was always welcome. She was present for Mary Tudor’s coronation, which shows how well-loved she was. All because of that one decision: to agree with Henry VIII.
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I was like that when I first started researching. There's still so much that I can learn and I want to find out. I just love learning so much!
You're making me realise that I don't know nearly enough about the Tudors as I should, just the superficial stuff.