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Portrait of Anne of Cleves by court artist Hans Holbein the Younger. Source: Public domain

Court Artist Tried to Warn Henry VIII Not to Marry Anne of Cleves

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The German aristocrat Anne of Cleves was the fourth of Henry VIII’s six wives, marrying the king on January 6, 1540. Before Anne ever set foot on English soil, Henry dispatched his court artist, the German-born Hans Holbein, to the latter’s home country to paint a portrait of his future bride, who was the sister of an influential Protestant duke.

The portrait Holbein produced, now housed at the Louvre in Paris, has often been viewed as flattering. But, the art historian Franny Moyle disagrees with this judgment, reports the Daily Mail. In fact, she believes Holbein’s painting wasn’t intended to glamorize Anne at all, but was instead made intentionally drab so the King wouldn’t marry her.

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Public domain)

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Public domain)

Henry VIII Commissions a Portrait of Anne of Cleves

In 1539, the thrice-married Henry VIII sent his representatives to Germany to complete his latest marriage arrangement with Anne’s brother, the Duke of Cleves, a town in northwestern Germany. He’d asked his associates to send back a written description of Anne’s facial appearance. However, they were unable to do so because Anne frequently wore high collars and veils that prevented her face from being seen.

But Henry was determined to find out what his future bride looked like. He decided to send Holbein to Cleves to re-create her likeness on canvas, trusting his favorite artist to produce an accurate replication.

Holbein’s portrait showed Anne’s face clearly, although her hair was hidden beneath a headdress. Her expression was blank and her eyes were half-closed, which gave her a drowsy appearance. Since Henry didn’t postpone the wedding after seeing the painting, it has been assumed he must have been pleased with what he saw.

Anne of Cleves: A Little Flat, A Little Vanilla

But Moyle, who is the author of The King's Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein, doesn’t think Holbein was trying to portray his subject as attractive. She believes that Holbein was attempting to show Anne of Cleves the way she really was, with respect to her mood, personality, and physical appearance. Not necessarily unattractive, but still not what Holbein believed Henry VIII was expecting.

“You don't get many full-face portraits,” Moyle told listeners at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. “I think Holbein is saying she lacks dimension. She's a little flat, she's a bit vanilla.” Assuming this was Holbein’s intent, it would seem Henry didn’t get the message. Perhaps the artist’s approach was too subtle, or his qualities as a painter too advanced to produce anything truly unappealing. Even after he’d seen it, Henry VIII still arranged for Anne of Cleves to come to England, where she arrived on January 1, 1540.

Once he met her, however, by all accounts the King was severely disappointed. His representatives had warned Henry that Anne couldn’t speak English, didn’t dance, and had no sense of humor. For some reason Henry chose to ignore these warnings, just as he’d apparently overlooked the clues Holbein left in his painting.

After actually meeting Anne, he scolded his representatives for bringing him a “Flanders mare.” Such an insult says a lot more about the vanity and cruelty of Henry VIII than it does about the appearance of Anne of Cleves. But if Franny Moyle’s theory is correct, it shows that Hans Holbein understood the person he was working for very well indeed.

Portrait of Anne of Cleves by court artist Hans Holbein the Younger. (Public domain)

Portrait of Anne of Cleves by court artist Hans Holbein the Younger. (Public domain)

A Marriage—and Divorce—of Convenience

Despite Henry VIII’s disappointment, he still married Anne of Cleves five days after she arrived in England. He did so because the marriage was strictly a political arrangement from the beginning. Henry was anxious to form an alliance with William, the Duke of Cleves, because the latter was one of the leaders of the Protestant population of western Germany.

As of 1539, there were signs that the two greatest Roman Catholic powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire, might be on the verge of launching a combined attack against England. It was actually Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who proposed that Henry marry the Duke of Cleves’s sister, as a way to secure the military and political support of German Lutherans who were the arch-rivals of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Within a few months of the wedding, however, it became obvious that Henry VIII’s paranoia had gotten the best of him. No alliance between the Catholic powers materialized and no attacks against England were launched, leaving Henry desperate to get out of his arranged marriage as quickly as possible.

Just seven months after the wedding, the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves was annulled by an Anglican Church decree on July 9, 1540. Henry was able to secure this annulment by proving that Anne of Cleves had been engaged to the Duke of Lorraine’s son in 1535, and that no official decree was ever issued canceling that engagement. In other words, Henry was claiming that the Duke of Cleves had tricked him into marrying his sister illegally, by hiding the fact that she had not really been free and available.

Much to the relief of Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves fully cooperated with this process. As a reward for her “service” to the King, Anne was awarded possession of Richmond Palace and Hever Castle, and she was also given the title of “the King’s Beloved Sister.” She was known to visit the King’s court on occasion, and her relations with Henry VIII in the years to come were known to be quite friendly.

A miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves, also by Hans Holbein. (The_Arty_Facts / CC BY-SA 2.5)

A miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves, also by Hans Holbein. (The_Arty_Facts / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Hans Holbein’s Redemption of Anne of Cleves

Hans Holbein’s original portrait of Anne of Cleves was not the only picture he painted of her. He completed at least one and possibly two more miniature portraits of Anne, each of which showed her as a warmer and livelier person than she’d appeared in Holbein’s first painting. One of these miniature watercolor-on-vellum portraits has always been recognized as Anne. It was made to fit inside a turned ivory miniature box, and is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The second miniature, dated to 1540, can be found in the Royal Collection of the British Royal Family, and is labeled as “Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Catherine Howard.” This is a reference to Henry VIII’s fifth wife, who he married in the latter half of 1540 following his separation from Anne.

But Franny Moyle disputes the accuracy of the label. She argues that this miniature actually portrays Anne of Cleves, and not Catherine Howard. If one carefully compares Holbein’s original painting of Anne with the miniature, she states, the resemblance is too obvious to ignore.

Moyle claims that this miniature from the Royal Collection of the British Royal Family is also a depiction of Anne of Cleves by the same artist. (Public domain)

Moyle claims that this miniature from the Royal Collection of the British Royal Family is also a depiction of Anne of Cleves by the same artist. (Public domain)

“They’re the same woman,” Moyle told The Observer in May 2021. “She has this soporific expression in both paintings.” She also says that the woman in the miniature is much too old to be Catherine, who was in her teens when Henry married her.

If Moyle is right, it would seem Holbein enjoyed painting Anne of Cleves quite a bit. Its possible his later portraits, which seem legitimately flattering, were his way of making amends for presenting her the way he did in his original picture. It is said that Henry VIII grew fond of Anne once he got to know her as a person, and perhaps Holbein had the same reaction.

Top image: Portrait of Anne of Cleves by court artist Hans Holbein the Younger. Source: Public domain

By Nathan Falde



Tonja's picture

I am sure Henry VIII had every intention to marry Anne of Cleves and then annul the marriage if he figured he did not want her as his queen. He was probably very well informed that she had been bethrothed and kept that to himself as his Ace in the Hole to annul their marriage. .........
Since Anne of Cleves was made His Beloved Sister, that kept her in high respect and did not disgrace her, satisfied any offence her family would have had regarding the annulment, and kept her on English soil. That in and of itself provided England with a German ally: Her family. Henry had it all figured out before he met her. Why else did he disregard the warnings?

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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