Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII: Did the king deprive himself of a son?

When the disappointed Henry VIII returned to Greenwich from Rochester after the meeting with Anne of Cleves, he summoned Thomas Cromwell to his quarters, wishing to see the man who floated the idea of marrying one of the Duke of Cleves’ daughters into his head.

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The king told his chief minister that he had gone to Rochester to surprise Anne, but instead he himself was surprised. Cromwell inquired whether Henry liked Anne, and the king’s reply didn’t lighten Cromwell’s mood for sure.

According to David Starkey, Henry’s reply to Cromwell was:

“Nothing so well as she was spoken of,’ answered Henry, speaking ‘heavily and not pleasantly’. Then he continued: ‘if [he] had known as much before as [he] then knew, she should not have come within this realm’.”

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Cromwell was asked by his liege what could be done to avoid the marriage with the German princess. It probably was the first time when Cromwell was lost and didn’t know what to say. In the end, he said the truth, without any hint of subterfuge or guile – he gave an honest reply that he didn’t know.

Several sources claim that Cromwell said:

‘I know none,’ he replied, adding lamely that ‘he was very sorry therefore’.

On Saturday, 3rd January 1540, Anne and Henry met for the second time. At Blackheath, he greeted her formally, and together they rode to Greenwich through long lines of whispering and watching courtiers. The meeting didn’t improve Henry’s opinion about his wife-to-bed, who was still considered by him an unaccepted candidate to be his next consort.

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Henry didn’t want to marry his German fiancée, and he was trying to find a way out of his marriage, which resulted in the first postponement of the wedding from 4th January 1540.

Henry commanded Cromwell to assemble the Privy Council to investigate whether he could find a legal creephole to call off the betrothal. They concentrated on Anne’s first betrothal to Francis, the eldest son and heir of Antoine, Duke of Lorraine. The shocked Cleves ambassadors assured the Council that the betrothal with the Duke of Lorraine’s son had been broken off in 1535 and had offered to remain as hostages in England until the official documentation of the betrothal cancellation was shown to the king.

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The king continued fighting tooth and nail to escape his legal obligation to marry Anne of Cleves. Next day, Anne was demanded to make a notarised declaration before the Council ‘that she was free from all contracts’. Anne must have been stunned with the events in England, which seemed strange and unfriendly to her. Henry’s final attempt to rid himself of her hit a huge snag: Anne did what she was asked promptly and with a pure heart.

Henry couldn’t extricate himself from his “odious” betrothal to Anne, and the wedding was scheduled for 8 o’clock in the morning on 6th January 1540, the day of the Epiphany. Henry told Cromwell on the way to the chapel:

“If it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.”

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What a graceful and gallant demonstration of kingly manners from Henry’s side, and only the greatest kings behave like our dear Henry did! Of course, this statement borders on the heaviest mockery and irony.

Henry had to wait for Anne’s arrival for some time, which didn’t dissipate his already foul mood but only worsened it. I wonder why Anne was late for her own wedding: maybe she was having some second thoughts due to all the humiliation Henry had put her through after her arrival in England, or maybe she was just fearful to marry him, knowing his history of expelling and murdering his unwanted wives.

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Then Anne finally came, and they were married in the Queen’s Closet. Starkey writes about her appearance:

“But eventually she came, arrayed magnificently like a bride. She wore a gown of cloth of gold, embroidered with flowers of pearls. Her hair, ‘which was fair, yellow and long’, hung loose, while on her head was a coronet of gold, jewelled and fashioned with sprigs of rosemary, for remembrance. When she met Henry, whose gown of cloth of gold was also embroidered with flowers of silver, she made three low curtsies. Then they entered the Queen’s Closet, where they were married by Cranmer. Henry said ‘I will’, and the wedding ring, engraved with the words, ‘GOD SEND ME WELL TO KEEP’, was set on Anne’s finger.

They were man and wife.”

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The ceremony was followed by a wedding banquet at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, although neither Anne nor Henry was looking forward to these festivities. The banquet was very weird: Henry’s ulcerated legs prevented him from dancing, and Anne couldn’t speak English very well, and the spouses didn’t talk much during the evening. However, no expense was spared on the wedding feast and masques.

The banquet was over, and the spouses were escorted with all applicable ceremonies to their marriage bed. The bed-head was dated 1539 and was decorated with the royal cipher ‘HA’, and it was carved with phallic symbols and scattered with rose petals. It was a perfect place to spend a divine wedding night, but it didn’t happen, as Henry told Cromwell next morning.

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Henry didn’t tell Cromwell directly about his failure to consummate the marriage, giving only hints:

‘Surely, as ye know, I liked her before not tell, but now I like her much worse. For I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid.’ ‘[The] which’, he continued, ‘struck me so to the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters.’

‘I have left her’, he concluded, ‘as good a maid as I found her.’

When Henry came to his physicians and debated over his problems with them in strict privacy, they recommended that he doesn’t enforce himself to sleep with his queen. As a result, the king didn’t sleep with Anne that night.

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Apparently, Henry tried to proceed to full intercourse during the next few nights, but he failed, saying that Anne was so ugly and her body was so badly formed that she failed “to excite and provoke any lust in him”But the king confessed to Doctor Butts that he had ‘two wet dreams” as he tried to sleep with her but thought of another.

Poor Anne of Cleves! We can only imagine how terribly humiliated and utterly despondent she was feeling at those dreadful moments! She was surrounded by the smirking people who treated her like a queen but probably laughed at her behind her back. She didn’t speak English very well, and she didn’t understand it well either. She must have been depressed and feared that she had probably done “bad” things in daytime, which could displease the king.

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Most importantly, Anne was married to the old and ailing king whose legs ulcerated and reeked badly. In public, her husband behaved towards her displaying his chilly, fake courtesy, but even that wasn’t the worst.

Henry must have treated Anne awfully in the privacy of their bedchamber when he undressed and his overweight body lay next to her, his hands roamed over her body. Then Henry positioned himself on top of “his victim”, tried to take her virtue, every time without success, and then rolled off of her to the other side of the bed, probably muttering curses under his breath. If it was really as I describe it, then he treated her terribly, even ignominiously in the darkness.

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It is difficult to say what really happened and why Henry had problems with consummating his marriage. He described Anne as ugly and unattractive because it suited his purposes: he could never be a bad guy and he could never fail, and he always needed scapegoats to whitewash his “glorious” persona and satisfy his self-enamoured nature. What is definite is that he wasn’t attracted to Anne and he didn’t want to remain married to her.

I think that Anne could become a dignified and intelligent queen. Despite not being taught to live in courts like English and French courts, Anne could have assimilated into her new life in England. She proved a quick learner: she already spoke English with her ladies a few months after her marriage. She learnt to play card games, which were fashionable in England and which probably lessened Henry’s dislike of her a little bit. She was getting along well with Elizabeth, although her relationship with Mary was strained.

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One interesting moment is that Henry seems to have ignored the fact that Anne of Cleves came from an extremely fertile lineage.

Her parents – John III, Duke of Cleves, and Maria of Jülich-Berg – had four living children in their marriage. Her mother couldn’t boast with an extremely fertility of her ancestors, but her father could: Anne’s grandfather – John II, Duke of Cleves – had three legitimate children and was called “The Babymaker” because he fathered sixty-three illegitimate children before his marriage with Mathilde of Hesse in 1490.

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Judging from the above, we may assume that Anne of Cleves should have been fertile, and she could give Henry a long-hoped-for second son. Henry’s reign was dominated by his obsessive and unhealthy desire to go to any lengths to have a male heir, and he had a real chance to sire a child on Anne. In spite of coveting to have a new son, later Henry would annul his marriage to Anne of Cleves and would call her “his sister”.

A Miniature of Anne of Cleves

Why didn’t Henry VIII want Anne of Cleves? 

Henry VIII didn’t need his beloved sons for England and the nation as much as he claimed he did – he needed them to prove his own virility and his ability to father them. He wasn’t able to be a man with Anne in a bed, which wasn’t her fault, and he couldn’t forgive her for that, like he couldn’t forget their disastrous first meeting in Rochester. Henry’s selfish, narcissistic, and egotistical nature dominated over everything else in his life – over all the needs of England, the nation, his nobles, and everyone else.