The "Ugly Wife," Anne Of Cleves

By | June 22, 2022

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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.

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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.