On September 9, 1539, Henry VIII and Anna von Kleefes were officially betrothed.
Henry had started searching for a replacement as soon as his third wife, Jane Seymour, was buried after her death in childbirth. While it sounds heartless to modern ears to begin hunting for a new bride before the previous one is cold in the ground, it was a ordinary part of royal life in the era. While Henry now had his male heir, it was important to have a handful of “spares.” A king shouldn’t be without a queen. His country could benefit from new alliances and the dowry a princess would bring. Secondly, a royal court without a queen lacked positions for the ladies. Essentially, half of the court’s economy and patronage stalled.
But Henry had a problem when it came to finding a suitable bride. Catholic Europe viewed him as a heretic. Protestant Europe saw him as clinging too much to the old faith’s traditions. And to put it bluntly, everyone saw him as an uncouth, brutal man. His deplorable treatment of Katharine of Aragon and his daughter – not to mention the shocking execution of an anointed queen – had made many kingdoms reluctant to join their house to his.
There’s an apocryphal story that Christina of Denmark declined the king’s suit by saying if she had two heads, one would be at Henry’s disposal. Ordinarily, most royals would be unmoved if their daughters didn’t want to marry their chosen spouse. (Anna von Kleefs’s sister-in-law, Jeanne
d’Albret, was purportedly beaten into submission and literally carried to the altar.) But in Henry’s case, they agreed. The man was a terrible marriage prospect.
Henry himself was reluctant to behave like a king when it came to his marriage. He whined that the thing “touched him too near.” For over a thousand years, monarchs had arranged marriages via intermediaries, and introduced the spouses through exchanges of portraits. Henry thought he should be an exception.
Admittedly, his approach to marriage doesn’t seem odd today – he wanted to know his bride beforehand and be “in love” with her before they sealed the deal – but in the sixteenth century, it was bizarre, especially for a king. In an era in which monarchs were expected to marry for dynastic reasons of bloodline and alliances, wanting to marry on such ephemeral basis as physical attraction seemed self-indulgent and childish.
At one point, Henry suggested that willing nations should send their princesses to him to be looked over before he selected one of them to marry. The French ambassador supposedly asked him if he also wanted to “try” them out, too, to see which of them was the sweetest. Henry at least had the grace to blush at that. The point was made – Europe would not be trotting its princesses out for Henry to browse over, something that would cause deep personal embarrassment for the rejected ladies and for their nations.
Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s ever-capable minister, eventually convinced Henry he should act like a king. He arranged a union with the Duke of Cleves. henry would marry one of the Duke’s two sisters, Anna or Amalia. Hans Holbein, Henry’s most skilled portrait artist, was dispatched to take a likeness of both young women.
It should be noted that Holbein was known for his almost mathematical accuracy in portraits. Some have speculated that Holbein used some sort of tracing device because of his uncanny precision. Holebin did choose flattering angles for his subjects, and may have done things such as evening out the skin tone, but one could expect every single contour of the person’s likeness to be accurate.
Holbein’s portrait of Anna shows a moderately attractive young woman with gentle features. He painted her head-on, which somewhat disguised her long nose. Ambassador Wotton, who had gone with Holbein, pronounced the finished portrait “a very lively [life-like] image.” On the basis of the two portraits, Henry chose Anna as his bride.
How did Anna feel about this? No histories mention her opinion, but at the time, it wasn’t considered important. Anna’s brother was Reformist in his religious views, and her brother-in-law was known as the “Champion of the Reformation.” Anna’s mother, however, had been a strict Catholic, and Anna still adhered to her faith. But she said she was willing to obey her husband in regards to religion. Anna was a good, dutiful girl, trying to obey her brother and benefit her kingdom, but she had to be frightened. She had been sheltered, but it’s doubtful she was completely ignorant of what her new husband was like.
Until Henry made a fuss, no one ever commented negatively on her appearance. She wasn’t supremely educated like Anne Boleyn, nor was she skilled in the courtly arts of dancing and witty conversation, but those mild eyes hid a sharp intelligence.
The Duke was reluctant. He said he didn’t want to let his sister go and feared she would be unhappy. He said he was too poor to afford a suitable dowry for her. Cromwell had done his job well in convincing Henry of Cleves’s strategic importance. They worked out a dowry of 100,000 florins, but it was privately agreed that Henry would never ask for it to be paid.
Once Henry settled on Anna, the contracts were signed and a proxy marriage performed. In the eyes of the church and civil law, the couple was legally wed. Usually, the bride would go through a second wedding when she arrived in her new homeland, but that was mostly ceremonial, and a celebration for the people to enjoy. Proxy marriages could be annulled, just like any marriage could be, but Europe viewed them as an almost sacred trust. It was a symbolic seal on the contract to ensure the bride would be safe, treated with the utmost respect on her journey, and be recognized as queen upon her arrival.
As Henry would discover, breaking that trust was something even he, with his utter contempt for rules and traditions, could not do.
Henry’s first meeting with Anna was an utter disaster and he decided immediately he disliked her. He said she was ugly and he had been fooled by false reports of her beauty, but he never included Holbein among the ranks of those who had deceived him. Cromwell would end up bearing the brunt of his wrath.