The "Ugly Wife," Anne Of Cleves

Anne of Cleves (1518-1557), circa 1550. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In his crazed quest for male heirs, King Henry VIII of England famously married six women, the luckiest of whom was arguably Anne of Cleves, even if she may not have felt like it at the time. Though he referred to her as his "ugly wife," among other cruel sentiments, she was one of the few to escape marriage to the king without dying or even really being married to him.

Political Paramours

Though Henry was noted as partial to romantic and lustful whims, his marriage to Anne of Cleves was primarily political. After two years of grieving the death of his beloved third wife in childbirth, his chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell, suggested it might be time to take another, and it might be particularly prudent to form an alliance with the Duke of Cleves, a prominent German Protestant, by marrying one of his sisters.

Portrait Miniature of Anne of Cleves, 1539, Hans Holbein the Younger. (Victoria and Albert Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

The "Ugly Wife"

Still, Henry had his standards, askew as they may have been, so he tasked the renowned artist Hans Holbein the Younger with traveling to Germany and bringing back portraits of the women so he could pick the prettiest one. He selected Anne, and the wedding planning commenced, but when Henry finally met his bride, he was so underwhelmed by her that he started throwing around wild accusations of exaggeration of her beauty by his advisors and the artist, who had been instructed to portray the sisters as accurately as possible, any existing warts and all. The king also found her personality and intellect lacking, and while it's true that Anne had no formal education, it's also true that Henry was fickle and prone to temper tantrums. Others described her as perfectly pleasant and pleasant-looking. It's entirely possible that Henry was just turned off because the sheltered young woman failed to shower him with the adulation he felt he deserved.

A portrait of Anne in the 1540s. (Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder/Wikimedia Commons)

The Queen Who Wasn't

Whatever the reason, Henry explored canceling the wedding to his "ugly" bride, but Anne's dowry had already been paid and the political risk of insulting her family was too great. The wedding went ahead as scheduled on January 6, 1540, but Henry couldn't seem to bring himself to consummate the marriage and Anne was asked to leave court on June 24. Their marriage was annulled within the month. For her troubles, Anne was granted several properties and the title of "the King's Beloved Sister." Without the pressure of an intimate relationship, Anne and Henry actually became friends, and unlike most of his wives, she lived out her days in peace and security well into her forties. The real loser was Cromwell, who soon found his head on a spike, mostly for treason, though "tricking" the king into marrying an "ugly" woman didn't help.