Anne of Cleves – Flanders Mare?

Posted By on February 10, 2011

Anne of Cleves seems to have gone down in history as the ugly one, the Flanders Mare who Henry found so unattractive that he just couldn’t bring himself to consummate their union, but what other opinions, labels, myths and stereotypes are there out there about Henry VIII’s fourth wife:-

  • Anne of Cleves the Flanders Mare
  • That she smelled bad
  • That she was not a virgin
  • That Anne was a strict Lutheran
  • Anne had no fashion sense
  • She had children with Henry VIII
  • She hoped to remarry Henry after the fall of Catherine Howard
  • Anne was already pre-contracted to someone else
  • That she had a lesbian affair with Catherine Howard
  • Anne of Cleves was the one who got away and outlived them all
  • Anne had royal blood
  • Anne of Cleves was half-horse and half-human

So, let’s look at these statements one by one and see what the real truth about Anne of Cleves is…

Anne of Cleves the Flanders Mare

Although Anne of Cleves has gone down in history as the Flanders Mare, the wife who was ugly and looked like a horse, it is only Henry VIII who seems to have considered her ugly. In January 1539, Henry VIII sent Christopher Mont, a member of Thomas Cromwell’s household, as ambassador to Germany to discuss a possible marriage between the Princess Mary and William, Anne of Cleves’ brother, and to “inquere of the beautie and qualities of the lady eldest of booth doughters to the duke of Cleves, as well what stature, proportion and complexion she is of as of her lerning actyvitie, bihauiour and honest qualities”1. Mont reported back that “everyone praises the lady’s beauty, both of face and body. One said that she excelled the Duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun did the silver moon”, although he was going on hearsay as he had not seen Anne himself.

In March 1539, Henry sent ambassadors to Cleves to get further reports on Anne and to get a portrait of Anne but the ambassadors encountered difficulties as Anne and her sister kept their faces covered. In the summer of 1539, Henry sent his court painter, Hans Holbein, to Cleves to paint Anne and her younger sister. When the leading English ambassador, Nicholas Wotton, saw Holbein’s portraits of the sisters, he declared that the artist “hathe expressyd theyr imaiges verye lyvelye”2 and that others also considered the portraits a good likeness of the young women. Although we do not know what Henry thought of Anne from her portrait, we have to conclude that he liked what he saw as he continued with negotiations. Why then did the King take an instant dislike to his bride-to-be when he first encountered her at Rochester on New Year’s Day 1540? Why did he adamantly declare “I like her not”?

In my opinion, Henry was humiliated and embarrassed by their first meeting, which had been a complete disaster. Always the romantic, Henry had decided to surprise Anne by disguising himself in the great chivalric tradition and intercepting her on her way to London. According to this tradition, the would-be bride would see through the disguise, fall in love at first sight and swoon into her beloved’s arms, it would be the perfect first date and they would both live happily ever after. Unfortunately, Anne knew nothing of this tradition, did not recognise Henry and was shocked and scared by this monstrous man who tried to embrace her and take such liberties with her. She acted in an entirely proper way but she failed to recognise Henry for who he was and failed to react in the way that Henry had anticipated. We don’t know whether Anne lived up to her portrait, but I think it was her reaction to Henry which sealed her fate. If she had been ugly then why did nobody else notice and why did Holbein risk painting her the way he did? Of course, it could be that Anne with her tall stature, her rather long nose and heavy lidded eyes was just very different to Henry’s previous wives, perhaps she just wasn’t Henry’s type?

By the way, there is no contemporary evidence for Henry VIII calling Anne of Cleves a “Flanders Mare”. Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, wrote in his 1679 book that Henry “swore they had brought over a Flanders mare to him”, but that is him saying that Henry VIII uttered those words and it is not backed up by evidence. Anne was not from Flanders anyway, something that Henry VIII was well aware of.

Contrary to legend, there is no evidence that Anne wore a huge blonde wig and that she was actually dark-haired, or that she was dark-skinned or “swarthy”.

Did Anne of Cleves Smell Bad?

On the morning after their wedding night, Henry VIII made it clear that he did not like Anne and that she had “very evil smells about her”3. Hmm… a rather hypocritical comment coming from a man with a nasty leg ulcer which often smelled to high heaven, but Henry did expect perfection and perhaps Anne did suffer with body odour or perhaps she used a scent which Henry just did not like. Of course, Henry had already made up his mind that he did not like her before the wedding night and had felt pushed into the marriage. I can just picture Henry having a tantrum on the morning of the 7th of January and acting like a child, “I said I didn’t like her and I still don’t”, or words to that effect!

Was Anne of Cleves a Virgin?

Of course the poor girl was! Anne seems to have been a complete innocent and completely ignorant of what sexual intercourse involved, so much so that it appears that she though she had done her duty by kissing the King goodnight! (See my article The Marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves for more discussion on this). However, Henry professed on the morning after that Anne could not possibly be a maid due to “the looseness of her breasts and other tokens”4. Perhaps Anne was simply large breasted, who knows, but Henry was not satisfied with her body. Henry had found Anne so unattractive that he had not been able to have sex with her. He told his physicians how “he found her body in such sort disordered and indisposed to excite and provoke any lust in him”5, in other words Anne’s appearance had led to Henry not being able “to get it up”, something which, of course, could not possibly be Henry’s fault, after all, he had experienced wet dreams and “thought himself able to do the act with other, but not with her” – yeah, right! Anyway, Henry later annulled his marriage on various grounds, including non-consummation, so Anne did not lose her maidenhead to the King.

Anne of Cleves the Lutheran Queen


Although Alison Weir writes of how Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, was “at first dismayed to learn that her father was marrying a Lutheran heretic”6 and how Mary was “partly responsible for Anne’s conversion to the Catholic faith”, I’m not sure that Anne of Cleves was a staunch Protestant. Elizabeth Norton, in her biography of Anne, points out that Anne’s religious education was controlled by her mother, a devout Catholic, and that her father, although “influenced by the religious reform” was humanist rather than Lutheran, “remaining in outlook very much a Catholic, although a reformed one.”7 Later in her book, Norton goes on to say that”the absence of any reference to her religion during Edward’s reign suggests that she conformed to the reformed faith” but that she was prominent at court in the early years of Mary I’s reign, that she was happy to attend mass and that “there is no evidence that Anne ever really adopted Protestantism and she died a confirmed Catholic”8. Perhaps Anne the pragmatist just did what she could to survive, perhaps her beliefs were those of a ‘reformed’ Catholic, someone sitting on the fence, and so she was happy to abide by the law of the land.

Anne the Frumpy Queen

It’s not so much that Anne of Cleves was a frump and had no dress sense, it’s just that her dress was very different to English dress at that time. Elizabeth Norton points out that “Anne had grown up wearing the heavier fashions and round skirts popular in Germany and the Low Countries”9, dress that did not flatter the figure.  As you can see from Holbein’s portrait of her, her headdress was also very different to the English gable hood favoured by Jane Seymour or the French hood favoured by Anne Boleyn.

Children and Remarriage?

Once when I wrote about Anne of Cleves, I had the following comment left by a gentleman called “Prince of England and Ireland from Tudor-Cleves Ludovit Bialon”:-

“Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to, kindly, advise you, that my Dear Ancestry Grandmother the German Princess and English Queen Anne of Cleves, with my Ancestry Grandfather the English Monarch King Henry VIII have had together two Royal Children.
Their first-born Royal Child – their little Princess, was born, in Sept/October 1540, which, then, became, my next Ancestry Grandmother, (so that the “not consummation of their marriage” is absolute nonsense, please, see the proves of the consummation of their marriage, for example:http://englishhistory.net/tudor/pricleve.html – “amusing themselves in another chamber”- absolutely alone, for 24 hours, in one go…!) and their second Royal Child was the “Faire Boye”, born, in January 1542, (Please, see the witnessing Document, about his birth : http://books.google.com.au/books?id=hf0TAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA97-IA1&dq=Anne+of+cleves+Agnes+STRICKLAND,+%22+Lives+of+the+Queens+of+England#PPA85,M1 see PAGE 83)
when this truth, about these their concealed Absolute Legitimate Royal Children, have been exposed, by the servants, which loved their English Queen Anne of Cleves, very much, and wanted her, to live, also, officially, with her Royal Husband, and not just secretly.
But however, at this moment, when this have been exposed – revealed, our Dear Ancestry Grandmother the English Queen Ann of Cleves, according which, all CLEVER Beings, in this world, have been named, have immediately, lost both, of her Royal Children, at ones, as they had to be, immediately, sent, secretly, into Exile, on to the Slovak Territory, of the Kingdom of Hungary, where they, then, had to live, without Mother and Father, in poverty and need and in discriminations, and where all their Royal Descendants lives, this way, even, until today!”

Now, King of Gossip, Eustace Chapuys, wrote in December 1541 that Anne of Cleves “was known to have gone away in the family way from the King, and had actually been confined this summer”10, but there is no evidence to back up this rumour and although it appears that Anne expected to be re-instated as Henry’s wife and queen after the fall of Catherine Howard, Henry was not inclined to take her back. As for the ‘evidence’ cited above by Ludovit, the first one, a report by Chapuys is simply a report of Anne and Henry’s meeting on New Year’s Day, and it definitely would not have been proper for the King and Queen to sleep together before their official marriage ceremony, and I can find no mention of any document in Agnes Strickland’s book on the birth of a child to Anne. Gossip and rumour is what this all boils down to and if Henry had had a son by Anne he certainly would have recognised him in some way.

The Pre-Contract

One of the issues used as grounds for the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was the alleged pre-contract between Anne and Francis of Lorraine. Anne’s betrothal to Francis, heir of the Duke of Lorraine, had been arranged by her father in 1527 but was broken when Ann’’s brother, who became Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg on the death of his father in 1538, refused to give up the territory of Guelders to the Duke of Lorraine in 1539. Henry VIII’s Council had looked into the issue of the betrothal in January 1540, when Henry was trying to wriggle out of marrying Anne, but Anne’s brother’s ambassadors had been able to ensure the Council that Anne was free to marry and that the betrothal had been abandoned many years before. In February 1540, the ambassadors had been able to provide the Council with a notarial certificate stating that the betrothal had been broken off as early as 1535, although the original documents no longer existed.

Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard

I have not yet read Brandy Purdy’s novel, “The Boleyn Wife), but I have heard that there is a lesbian ‘encounter’ between Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. I have also seen discussions online pondering whether the non-consummation between Anne and Henry was because Anne was actually a lesbian. Just because Anne did not sleep with Henry it does not mean that she was a lesbian and just because she is depicted as having a lesbian fling with Catherine Howard in a novel it does not mean that it happened in real life! Aaggghhh!

The Survivor and the One Who Got Away

Anne of Cleves managed to get out of her marriage to Henry with her head held high (and still connected to her neck, a feat in itself!), property and money, the title of “right dear and right entirely beloved sister”, a good relationship with the King and his children and she outlived Henry and his other wives, dying on the 15th July 1557 (although she was only 41). So, she can be seen as the one who survived, the one who got away, the lucky one, BUT I wonder if she was really happy. Elizabeth Norton writes of Anne:-

“Despite her acquiescence, Anne always believed herself to be the legitimate wife of the king and the true queen. In spite of this she was, first and foremost, a survivor and, if the price of that survival was a denial of her true status in exchange for a life of opulent retirement, she was prepared to play along, even if that meant accepting a new lower status beside her former maid, Queen Catherine Howard.”11

She sacrificed a part of herself when she submitted to Henry’s request for an annulment and I wonder if money and status really made up for what she lost, the chance of marriage and children. It’s hard to say.

Royal Blood

Like all of Henry’s wives, and Henry himself, Anne of Cleves was descended from Edward I, but, Anne was also descended from the French Kings, being related to Louis XII of France on her father’s side.

Half-horse and half-human

When I was researching myths about Anne of Cleves, I actually stumbled on someone asking “Was anne of cleves half horse and half human?” on Wiki Answers.com! Someone had answered, saying “No, no she was not”,  thankfully!

Notes and Sources

  1. Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride, Elizabeth Norton, p31
  2. Ibid., p36
  3. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir, p382
  4. Ibid.
  5. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, David Starkey
  6. Weir, p367
  7. Norton, p11
  8. Norton, p146
  9. Norton, p71
  10. LP xvi. 1441
  11. Norton, p112

Further Reading

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap