1 January 1540 – Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves have a disastrous first meeting

Anne of Cleves, or Anna von Jülich-Kleve-Berg, had arrived in England on 27th December 1539, landing at Deal in Kent, in preparation for her forthcoming marriage to King Henry VIII. On New Year’s Eve, she travelled on to Rochester, where she was to rest before travelling to Greenwich Palace, where she’d be formally received. She expected to meet her husband-to-be at Greenwich, but Henry VIII had other ideas…

Henry VIII was excited about meeting Anne and so he decided to disguise himself and travel to Rochester to surprise her. Chronicler Edward Hall gives an account of their first meeting on New Year’s Day 1540:

“On which day the kyng which sore desyred to see her Grace accompanyed with no more then viii. persons of his prevy chambre, & both he & they all apparelled in marble coates prevely came to Rochester, and sodainly came to her presence, which therwith was sumwhat astonied: but after he had spoken & welcomed her, she with most gracious & loving countenance and behaviour him received & welcomed on her knees, whom he gently toke up & kyssed: & all that after noone commoned and devised with her, & that night supped with her, & the next day he departed to Grenewich , & she came to Dartford.”

Charles Wriothesley goes into a bit more detail:

“[…] and on New Year’s daie at afternoune the Kinges Grace, with five of his Privie Chamber, being disguysed with clookes of marble with hoodes, that they should not be knowen, came privelie to Rochester, and so went upp into the chamber where the said Ladie Anne looked out at a wyndowe to see the bull beating that was theat tyrne in the court, and sodenlie he embraced her and kissed, and shewed her a token that the King had sent her for her Newe Yeares gift, and she being abashed, not knowing who it was, thanked him, and so he communed with her, but she regarded him little, but alwaies looked out of the wyndow on the bull beatinge, and when the King perceaved she regarded his comming so little, he departed into [an]other chamber and putt of his cloke and came in againe in a cote of purple velvett, and when the lordes and knightes did see his Grace they did him reverence, and then she, perceiving the lordes doeing their dewties, humbled her Grace lowlie to the Kinges Majestie, and his Grace saluted her againe, and so talked togeether lovinglie, and after tooke her by the hand and leed her into another chamber where they solaced their graces that night and till Fridaie at afternoune […]”

As we can see from this account, Anne was not expecting a visit from the king, Henry was in disguise and she did not realise who he was and so treated him just like a servant. Ooops!

In the depositions taken a few months later, regarding Henry VIII’s wish to have his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled, we have another account of this meeting from Sir Anthony Browne, Henry VIII’s Master of the Horse:

“The said Sir Anthony saith. How at the arryval of the Quene at Rochester, the Kings Highnes appointed to go thither to se her upon newyeres day, and ordered the said Anthony to wayt upon hym: and at his comyng thithe, to go before him with this message, how he had brought her a newyers gift, if it liked her to se it. And when the said Sir Anthony entred the chambre where she was, and having conceived in his mind, what was by picures and advertisements signified of her beauty and qualities, at the general view of the ladies he thought he saw no such thing there, and yet were thother of better favour than the Quene. But whan he was directed unto herself, and advisedly loked upon her, he saith, he was never more dismayed in al his life, lamenting in his hart, which altered his outward countenance, to se the Lady so far and unlike that was reported and of such sort as he thought the Kings Highnes shuld not content hyself with her. Nevertheless, at his retorne to the Kings Majesty with her answer, the said Sir Anthony said nothing, ne durst not. Then whan the Kings Highnes entred to embrace her, and kiss her, the said Sir Anthony saith, he saw and noted in the Kings Highnes countenance such a discontentment and misliking of her person, as he was very sory of it. For the said Sir Anthony saith, he moch marked that the Kings Highnes taried not to speak with her twenty words, but called for her counsail, and with his counsail and theym devysed
communication al that night, the Kings Highnes without shewing any cherful or mery countenance disclosed not his hart. But wheras the Kings Majesty had brought with him a partlet furred with sables and richly garyshed, sable skins garnyshed to wear about her neck, with a muffley furred, to geve the Quene, and a capp, the Kings Highnes passed over thexecution of his intent that night, and in the morning sent them by the said Sir Anthony Browne with as cold and single a message as might be.

The said Sir Anthony saith also, how the Kings Majesty retourning in his barge from thens to Grenewich, said to the said Sir Anthony, by his Highnes commandment than sitting by him, these words very sadly and pensively: I see nothing in this woman as men report of her; and I mervail that wise men wold make such report as they have don. With which words the said Sir Anthony was abashed, fearing lest any thingg shuld be objected to my Lord of
Southampton his brother, for that he had written to her prayse.”

Charles Wriothesley doesn’t read too much into the meeting. Although Anne didn’t recognise the king (and why would she?), when the king removed his disguise and she was made aware of who he really was, she humbled herself to him and they were reported as talking together “lovingly”. However, this disastrous first meeting is used later as evidence of the king’s unhappiness and his view that he had been deceived into marrying Anne by those who had made false reports about her.

What’s the truth?

Well, it is likely that the king was humiliated by this meeting. According to chivalric tradition, the woman was mean to be able to see through a disguise and recognise her true love. Anne was meant to fall in love with Henry at first sight, she was mean to be bowled over by him, yet, instead, she had ignored him. It must have been a blow to Henry VIII’s pride, particularly as this happened in front of Anne’s ladies and the king’s men. He may have been able to cover up his embarrassment, but I do think that this had a major impact on how he felt about Anne. I don’t think he’d been deceived at all. Nobody else found Anne unattractive or questioned Holbein’s depiction of her or reports on her looks and personality, I think Henry just needed to blame someone else for setting him up with a woman who hadn’t been ‘wowed’ by him on their first meeting. He couldn’t get over that and it left him unable to consummate the marriage. My view anyway!

If only Anne had been warned of Henry VIII’s love of dressing up, if only someone had whispered in her ear that the servant in front of her was the King of England, if only Anne had swooned and sunk to her knees, recognising her husband to be, if only…

It’s so sad, don’t you think?

You may be interested in reading my article Anne of Cleves – Flanders Mare?
Also on this day in history…

Today is also New Year’s Day, the traditional day for monarchs and nobles to exchange gifts. Click here to read about the gifts Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn exchanged.

Happy New Year!

Notes and Sources

  • Hall, Edward. Hall’s chronicle : containing the history of England, during the reign of Henry the Fourth, and the succeeding monarchs, to the end of the reign of Henry the Eighth, in which are particularly described the manners and customs of those periods. Carefully collated with the editions of 1548 and 1550, Printed for J. Johnson, 1809, p. 833.
  • Wriothesley, Charles. A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Volume 1, Printed for the Camden society, 1875, p. 109-110.
  • Strype, John. Ecclesiastical Memorials Relating Chiefly to Religion and the Reformation of It, and the Emergencies of the Church of England under King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I…, Volume I Part II, Appendix, 1822, Clarendon Press, p. 456-457.

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