Anne of Cleves was born in 1515 – on either 22 September1 or 28 June2 – in Dusseldorf as the second daughter of John III, Duke of Cleves and Maria of Jülich-Berg. Their first daughter was Sybilla, later Electress of Saxony, and Anne’s birth was followed by that of a brother named William in 1516 and another sister named Amelia in 1517.
The siblings were educated together under their mother’s care until William was removed to be educated as the future Duke. The girls received a rather restricted education, and they were raised to become wives of German princes. Anne learned to read and write but spoke no other languages except for German. She was not taught to sing or to play an instrument. She was an expert needlewoman. It was far from an ideal education for a future Queen of England, but at that time, no one knew where Anne’s destiny would be. In 1527, Sybilla left the family to marry John Frederick I, the future Elector of Saxony.
By then, Anne’s father was also thinking of Anne’s future marriage, and she was betrothed to Francis, the future Duke of Lorraine. However, they never even met, and neither was called upon to give their consent to the match – which would have made it binding. Francis ended up marrying Princess Christina of Denmark who would also be considered by Anne’s future husband – King Henry VIII of England. She is perhaps best known for supposedly saying, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”
In October 1537, Jane Seymour – King Henry VIII’s third wife died shortly after childbirth – and thus began his search for a fourth wife. Several options were considered, such as the aforementioned Christina of Denmark, and even Mary of Guise – who would go on to marry James V, King of Scotland. Anne was on the list from the beginning, but she was certainly not a top pick, and she was not famed for her beauty. By January 1539, Anne turned out to be one of the few options left. Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell turned his attention to Anne.
In February 1539, Anne’s father died and was succeeded by her brother William, and the following month Henry sent instructions for Anne to be inspected. The English ambassadors were permitted to see both Anne and Amelia though only from a distance. When they were later confronted with paintings of the ladies, they were unable to confirm if they were lifelike. In the summer of 1539, Hans Holbein was dispatched to Cleves to paint both Amelia and Anne and the portraits were rushed back to England. Anne’s portrait has survived, but unfortunately, Amelia’s has not. By the end of September, the marriage treaty had been agreed. Anne was now set to become Queen of England. She would cross the sea to England without ever having seen the sea before.
On 27 December 1539, Anne landed at Deal in Kent, and she was taken to Deal Castle to rest and then on to Dover Castle. She then travelled to Canterbury, Sittingbourne and Rochester. Henry could not wait any longer to see his new bride, and he began to travel towards her as she approached London. He disguised himself per chivalric tradition, and she was meant to immediately recognise him because of the love between them. Unfortunately, Anne was not aware of this and her failure to recognise him shattered his romantic dream of her. He also took an instant dislike to her appearance. They were off to the worst start.
Nevertheless, the wedding had to go ahead, and Henry and Anne both played their parts. He did try to find a way out by raising concerns about her betrothal with Francis of Lorraine, but he was eventually forced to accept the inevitable. On 6 January 1540, Anne and Henry were married at the Royal Palace of Placentia in Greenwich. During the service, she was given a ring with the inscription, “God send me well to keep.” Afterwards, the newlyweds heard mass together. In the evening, they were ceremonially put to bed, but Henry failed to consummate the marriage. He claimed that she could not be a virgin because of the “looseness of her breasts.” He had found himself unable to “do as a man should with his wife.”3 A second attempt at consummation was made two nights later, but he was still unable. Henry even consulted his physicians as he continued his attempts. He certainly thought it was Anne’s fault. After just a few weeks of marriage, both gave up the pretence that everything was okay. Soon, Henry had his eye on one of Anne’s maids – Catherine Howard.4