On 9th July 1540, after just six months, Anne of Cleves’ marriage was over.
She’d arrived in England from Germany at the start of January, and married the ageing Henry VIII, who had instantly taken against her. After a strained few months, Anne had been removed from court and sent to Richmond Palace, “because of plague” but really so that Henry could have his marriage annulled. On 24th June, when councillors arrived to tell her this, and that there was to be an inquiry into the validity of the marriage, Anne refused to co-operate. But, whether out of fear, pragmatism or something else, she did consent to the inquiry and a couple of weeks later, she was a single woman once more, no longer forced to share a bed with that bloated, rotting old man.
This is the part of the story we all know, and whether you see her life as a humiliation or triumph, Anne of Cleves’ short reign is a fascinating one for what it shows us about the court and about Henry himself.
But what happened after that? In the rhyme, she’s down as “divorced”, but what did she do once the paperwork was finalised and the payment came through?
Henry gave Anne a generous settlement – she was given £4,000 a year, several beautiful homes including Hever Castle and Richmond Palace, and got to keep all of her royal jewels, plate and goods. Anne of Cleves was now a very wealthy woman. She stayed on friendly terms with the King (sensible) and was given precedence over all other women in the court, except for his wife and daughters.
Anne didn’t live at court, but she did come to visit. One notable visit was the first Christmas after her annulment, where she came to see the King and his new wife, Catherine Howard, the girl who had taken her place. Whatever Anne’s private feelings, she behaved with absolute grace: bringing lovely gifts for the royal couple and dancing with Queen Catherine.
Anne’s behaviour showed in stark contrast to Catherine Howard’s: within the year Catherine would be arrested for having an affair with a handsome courtier Thomas Culpepper and in February 1542, the young queen was beheaded. Tudors were obviously much less squeamish than the modern world: upon Catherine’s execution both Anne and her brother, Duke William, pressed Henry to re-marry her. But, whatever his fond feelings for Anne, the King refused.
It doesn’t play into the new narrative on Anne of Cleves feeling relieved and emancipated by the end of her marriage, but Anne was said to be bitterly disappointed when Henry chose to marry Catherine Parr, cattily commenting “Madam Parr is taking a great burden on herself”. Anne didn’t seem to like the new queen, but kept her head down, and lived quietly in her great houses, despite rumours occasionally surfacing that she had had a secret baby (either with Henry or someone else).
On 28th January, 1547, Henry VIII died, leaving his nine year old son Edward as the new King. Anne of Cleves had stayed in touch with all of her one-time step-children, but Edward’s rise triggered her own decline. While Catherine Parr still had status as the Dowager Queen and step-mother to the new King, Anne’s own role as the King’s sister had suddenly disappeared.
The Privy Council now saw Anne as irrelevant and a drain on resources, as the King had to continue to support her. In March 1547 they asked Anne to vacate one of her favourite palaces, Bletchingly, to make space for the Master of Revels.
Anne established her own small court at Hever Castle, where she lived comfortably. She also remained close to Mary and Elizabeth, Henry’s daughters, and had Elizabeth to stay as a guest several times. When Edward died and her friend and former step-daughter Mary took the throne, it was another chance for Anne to restore some of her position.
Anne had a place of high honour at Mary I’s coronation. The new queen invited her half-sister Elizabeth and Anne to ride in an open chariot, wearing gorgeous gowns of silver, and to walk directly behind Mary on her procession to Westminster Abbey.
This picture of family harmony didn’t last, however. The tensions between the sister flared up quickly, and Anne’s affection for Elizabeth looked as though it might soon get her into trouble. There were rumours that she was conspiring with Elizabeth to overthrow Mary, which is highly unlikely, but could have been very dangerous for Anne. Perhaps if that had occurred later in Mary’s reign, it wouldn’t have worked out very well for Anne, but not that long after Mary’s coronation, Anne decided to leave court.
She lived in her properties in Hever and Chelsea quietly, keeping her head down and safe. She wrote a letter to Queen Mary congratulating her on her marriage to Philip of Spain, but didn’t return to the court.
On 16th July 1557, Anne of Cleves died. She was only around 41, but she had outlived Henry’s other wives by nine years, and her husband by ten. Her relationship with Mary was still strong enough that the queen arranged for Anne to be buried with full pomp and ceremony at Westminster Abbey, where she still lies, opposite the grave of Edward the Confessor.
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