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Portrait of Anne of Cleves

8 little known facts about Anne of Cleves

Image: Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein, said to be the portrait that made Henry VIII choose her as his next wife | Public Domain

While not the most scandalous of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne of Cleves certainly added some unexpected curveballs to the monarch’s matrimonial history. From her short-lived first engagement to her life in the Tudor court as the world’s first catfish: here are eight facts about Anne of Cleves that you might not have known.

1. She was nearly married to someone else

Long before her engagement to Henry VIII, Anne had been destined to marry another. At the age of 11, she was engaged to be married to 9-year-old Francis Duke of Bar. However, as Francis was under the age of consent (10 years of age, if you were wondering) at the time of their betrothal, the whole affair was considered null and void a few short years later.

2. She was a mail-order bride

Henry had always preferred to choose and court his brides before marriage, but with Anne, he was out of his comfort zone. Desperate to regain some power in Europe following his departure from the Catholic Church and eager to sire a second son as a spare to his heir, Edward, Henry sought a political alliance through Anne’s brother, William.

Unfortunately for Henry, time was of the essence, and Anne was living in her brother’s court in Western Germany. Unable to travel to view a potential bride himself and eager to wed either Anne or her sister, Henry dispatched his favourite portrait artist, Hans Holbein, to Germany, with the instruction to paint an accurate picture of each of the sisters. Using these portraits, Henry chose his future bride-to-be, and they didn’t meet until she arrived in England for their wedding.

3. She was half Henry’s age

It wasn’t uncommon for Royal marriages to have an age discrepancy, but for Anne and Henry, it was quite considerable. Just 24 at the time of their marriage, Anne was exactly half the age of her husband. She was also considered to be incredibly innocent and naive, which would have no doubt made the difference in age between the pair even more apparent.

4. She’s considered to be the original catfish

Despite choosing Anne based on the depiction by Holbein, Henry was still practically picking his bride sight unseen. So, when Anne arrived in the Tudor court for her wedding, it was a bit of a shock to the King that she wasn’t quite as she had appeared in her portrait.

In the leadup to the wedding, Henry was quite vocal in his disappointment that his bride was not as he expected and sought to call the whole thing off. The wheels were already in motion, however, and with the politics involved, it wasn’t quite as easy to cancel as Henry had hoped. The wedding went ahead, and the pair were married on 6th January 1540.

5. She accidentally rejected Henry before they’d even been introduced

Even if Anne had looked exactly like her portrait, she probably didn’t do herself any favours in the eyes of her new husband when she accidentally rejected him in front of his friends.

While practising an old tradition that was supposed to show whether your intended was really your true love, Henry intercepted Anne on her journey from Dover while wearing a disguise and tried to kiss her.

As the old tradition goes, true love would recognise their beloved through disguise; however, not knowing who he was, Anne rebuffed the hidden King's advances, unaware that she was, in fact, spurning her future husband.

Henry did eventually reveal his true identity, but not before she had rather indelicately rejected his advances and spent most of their conversation looking disinterested.

6. She didn’t divorce Henry

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived; this poem might have helped you remember which of Henry’s six wives survived their marriages with their heads firmly planted on their shoulders, but it’s not 100% accurate.

Anne of Cleves and Henry didn’t have a divorce because they were never technically married. After failing to consummate their marriage for more than six months, Henry finally decided to seek an annulment from Anne instead. Unfortunately, poor Anne didn’t get the memo, so when the King’s men came to fetch her in the middle of the night with news about her failed marriage, she was said to have fainted out of fright, believing that they had come instead to whisk her away to the Tower of London to meet a much more final fate.

7. She remained good friends with her ex-husband

Despite the issues that their marriage had faced and the awful things that Henry had quite publicly said about his new bride, the pair ended their marriage on surprisingly good terms. Anne was a regular at the palace and was even invited to the King’s Christmas celebrations, where she was spotted dancing with his new wife, Catherine Parr.

Although their marriage fizzled before it had even had a chance to spark, the pair would often write to one another, and Henry even referred to Anne affectionately as his ‘dear sister’.

8. She outlived all of Henry’s other wives

When Anne passed away on 16th July 1557, she had outlived not only her ex but all his subsequent wives as well. Watching the coronation of Mary I, Anne had witnessed Henry’s legacy live on.

Anne passed away, still unmarried, from cancer at Chelsea Old Manor. She was buried in Westminster Abbey the following month, and her tomb reads, 'ANNE OF CLEVES, QUEEN OF ENGLAND, BORN 1515 • DIED 1557'.