This painting was the indirect cause of a considerable amount of stress and unhappiness for King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) and even more for his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who would lose his head on Tower Hill a year after it was painted.
The sitter was Anne, the elder daughter of the Duke of Cleves, whose duchy was centred on Dusseldorf in northern Germany. The artist was Hans Holbein, the renowned court painter in the employ of King Henry.
Henry had lost his third wife, Jane Seymour, in October 1537. She died shortly after giving birth to Henry’s only surviving male child, who would succeed him as King Edward VI. Henry felt the loss very deeply and an unhappy Henry was a dangerous master to have. Thomas Cromwell therefore saw the need for Henry, and England, to have a new queen.
Another problem was that England was becoming dangerously isolated in terms of international politics. In 1538 the Pope had called upon Europe’s Catholic nations to unite against England, and Cromwell’s solution was to seek alliances with the Protestant princes of northern Europe, including the German states.
A marriage with an attractive German noblewoman would therefore have a double benefit, and the daughters of the Duke of Cleves were prime candidates. Henry had seen portraits of the sisters (Anne and Amalia) that had been painted by local artists, but he could not be sure that they did not flatter their subjects. He therefore sent Hans Holbein to do the job.
Holbein painted portraits of both women and the results were shown to Henry. He was impressed with Holbein’s work and, for a time, was unsure which sister to choose. His decision to go for Anne as his new queen was possibly prompted by the age gap – he was 48 and Anne was 24, so the gap would have been even greater had he chosen 22 year old Amalia.
Cromwell set the wheels in motion and Anne duly arrived in England on New Year’s Day 1540. Henry was horrified by what he saw, as he reckoned that the woman he greeted was “downright plain”. He stated: “I marvel that wise men could make such report as they have”. He clearly felt that the portrait he had seen was far removed from the reality of the woman he would later refer to as the “Flanders mare”.
However, there was nothing that he could do to stop the wedding going ahead and it took place four days later. The wedding night was a disaster, because Henry liked Anne undressed even less than he liked her dressed. He spared no detail in his report to Cromwell, even complaining about her body odour. Needless to say, in his own words: “I left her as good a maid as I found her”.
Henry had no wish to “try again” and the king and queen were soon sleeping in separate rooms.
Cromwell was now in huge trouble, not only for the Anne of Cleves affair but for his zeal in carrying out the religious transformation of the country in ways that produced a large degree of resentment. This was the final straw that led to charges of treason being laid against him.
Cromwell was offered a let-out clause – he could avoid the ultimate punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered, which was particularly barbaric, and instead be beheaded, if he provided Henry with the evidence he needed for a marriage annulment. This accounts for the clinical details obtained from both Henry and Anne as to the non-consummation of their marriage.
Although Henry could not abide the prospect of living with Anne, he did not treat her unkindly after the annulment. He granted her the status of “King’s sister” and they became firm friends, with Anne being a frequent visitor at court. She was granted a generous settlement that included several properties, Hever Castle and Richmond Palace being the most notable. Despite Henry’s softening of his attitude to her, he did not take kindly to the suggestion that he should remarry Anne after the execution of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, in 1541.
Anne survived into the reign of Queen Mary I, dying in July 1557 at the age of 41 and outliving all of Henry’s other wives.
As for Holbein, he does not appear to have been held accountable for any inaccuracy in his portrait of Anne. Indeed, most other people who saw both Anne and her portrait seemed to agree that he had done a pretty good job. It was only Henry who had a markedly different opinion.
© John Welford