After declaring his first marriage, to his brother's wife, illegitimate, beheading his second bride, and having his third spouse die soon after childbirth, Henry VIII was ready to waddle down the aisle once again. Picking out his fourth wife wasn't an easy decision, but he chose one of the smartest women in Europe.
Jane Seymour, the one wife who gave Henry a living son, kicked the bucket on October 12, 1537. Unusually for him, Henry wore a lot of black and waited three whole years before looking around for another Mrs. He scoured Europe high and low for a young, fertile princess, sending out his court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, to capture the candidates' likenesses.
One such was Christina of Denmark, the widowed Duchess of Milan. She had familial connections to half of Europe (her uncle was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, also the nephew of Henry's first wife). Henry fell in love with Christina's portrait, but she wisely refused his advances. She supposedly quipped that, if she had two heads, one of them would be at the king's disposal...but since she didn't, she'd marry someone else. Another candidate was Marie of Guise, a Frenchwoman who wound up marrying Henry's nephew, James V of Scotland.
Holbein's portrait of Christina of Denmark. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Finally, Henry settled on Anne of Cleves. The sister of the Protestant Duke of Cleves, she brought the King of England a much-needed alliance at a time when Catholic Europe had shunned him. Like the royals of Cleves, Henry wasn't a Catholic - he'd founded the Church of England, after all; however, he definitely wasn't a Protestant (although his daughter, Elizabeth, made some strides in that direction decades later). Henry needed an ally in the middle of Europe, still dominated by Catholic kings and emperors. It didn't hurt that Henry's pro-Protestant minister Thomas Cromwell was at the head of these negotiations. So Anne it was!
A Match Made in Hell
The portrait Henry received of Anne portrayed her as decent-looking, but her so-called "good looks" didn't live up to her painting. When she arrived in England, her clothes were seen as dowdy, and she looked a bit older than she actually was. Upon seeing her for the first time (surprising her disguised as a humble man, thus not eliciting the favorably shocked reaction he loved), Henry complained, "I like her not."
Despite himself, Henry acted chivalrously to his new bride-to-be. They tied the knot on January 6, 1540, but it's unlikely the marriage was ever consummated. He was revolted by her looks, Henry claimed, that he couldn't bear to touch her; Anne smelled terrible and was so ugly he called her the "Flanders Mare." Henry blamed Cromwell for not vetting his new wife well enough, leading to his number one courtier's eventual downfall. The king knew he wanted out, so he alleged that it was her fault and she was a turn-off. He claimed, "I left her as good a maid as I found her."
In reality, the problem was that Henry was too fat and sick to get it up. He said he could still get wet dreams, but she was so unattractive he couldn't have sex with her. Modern scholars seem to think, though, that he was impotent, thanks to a traumatic brain injury from an earlier jousting accident that affected both his brain and his penis. Embarrassed, Henry blamed it on his wife...and decided to get rid of his wife once again.
Henry and Anne's marriage annulment. Image via HistoryExtra.
Like he did with Catherine and the first Anne, Henry found a pretext to kick Anne of Cleves to the curb. Anne had once been engaged to Francis of Lorraine, and in the pre-modern world, betrothals were often seen as legally binding (never mind the fact that they were broken all the time in favor of other alliances). Although Henry had ignored that information when they got married, he now used it to his advantage. He granted himself (as head of the Church of England) an annulment on the grounds of a pre-contract and non-consummation, meaning he was a free man, and Anne was a free woman, as of July 9, 1540.
Unlike any of Henry's other wives, Anne remained in England after her marriage ended...and received great honors. Sure, she had to give up the title of "Queen of England," but she was dubbed "the King's Sister" (honorarily, of course) and given a place at court and £4000 a year, along with lands and manors. Three weeks after their marriage was over, Henry married his young, nubile mistress, Katherine Howard, and wed again after she cheated on him.
Anne survived her hubby and lived out her days in luxury and in a place of great respect in England. She managed to stay on a maniac's good side and, although she couldn't marry again (as her "pre-engagement" to Francis of Lorraine was still valid, even though Francis later wed), Anne kept her head on her shoulders.