Anne of Cleves
She’s been the butt of a thousand jokes but the ‘Flanders Mare’ was a canny survivor
Henry went shopping for a new wife, fell in love with Holbein’s flattering portrait of Anne, and was thrown into a rage by the reality. The marriage (lasting just seven months in 1540) was a disaster.
In reality, Henry’s failure to find Anne attractive – and consummate the marriage – had a political element. An alliance with her German brother, a reformed Catholic, held political attractions that faded as the situation in Europe shifted.
Anne’s biographer Retha Warnicke argues that her full figure made Henry believe her to be sexually experienced, tainted, and thus unworthy of him. But historians also point out that their sexual incompatibility could have stemmed from Henry – was the fat old king now impotent?
Either way, the ‘fault’ for the failure of this marriage did not lie with Anne, and she made a dignified exit by agreeing to a divorce. Her survival skills have been underestimated.
She lived until 1557 – the last of the six wives to die – and has a grander resting place, too, right by the high altar of Westminster Abbey.