Did Anna of Kleve bear a child after her divorce?

by Alison Weir

'A Most Abominable Slander'

Rumours that Anna of Kleve bore a child after marriage to Henry VIII was annulled have always intrigued me and, when I was researching my new novel, Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets, I dug deep into the evidence and came up with some new information that brought me, literally, close to home – because I live in Carshalton, Surrey, close to where these rumours may have originated. 

It is quite clear from the historical sources, and the King’s own testimony, that Henry VIII’s fourth marriage, to the German Princess Anna of Kleve, remained unconsummated. It was dissolved after six months, in July 1540, on the grounds of non-consummation, the King’s lack of consent and the existence of the bride’s prior betrothal. Anna received a handsome settlement and retired from court. Yet, against all the odds, she and Henry became firm friends. He visited her several times, saw that she never wanted for money, and invited her to court in January 1541, where she was made most welcome and even danced with the King’s fifth wife, Katheryn Howard.   

Anna has often been depicted as an innocent who had no idea for a long time that there was anything amiss in her marriage. Why, then, did Henry VIII repeatedly insist that she had not come a virgin to her marriage bed? Was he telling what he believed to be the truth?

During the annulment proceedings, according to Henry’s seventeenth-century biographer, Lord Herbert, it emerged that ‘secret causes’ could have been used to prove the invalidity of the marriage, but were never put forward. ‘The King, without great necessity, would not have disclosed [them] because they touched the honour of the lady’. Could those secret causes have been connected with Henry’s oft-voiced doubts about Anna’s virginity? There can be little doubt that, if she had contested the nullity suit, he would have used them against her. And that may have been one good reason why she did not.

Was there some scandal locked away in Anna’s past?  The evidence is not conclusive, but you may find it convincing or that it makes you think again, as I did. I’m not going to elaborate on it here – you’ll have to read my novel and its Author’s Note to find out more.

But there was talk about Anna after her divorce. In October 1540, reporting extraordinary rumours that Henry would take her back as his wife, the French ambassador Marillac wrote: ‘It is false what has been said about the King leaving the new Queen [Katheryn Howard] to take the one whom he has repudiated, for he bestows so many caresses on her he now has, with such singular demonstrations of affection, that it cannot be. That which caused the report was that it has been said the other lady, who has been indisposed, was pregnant.’ There is no corroborating evidence, and while historians have been stated that Anna had suffered a gastric ailment, which mischievous persons at court had assumed was morning sickness, there is nothing to substantiate that either. Yet, clearly, some people had found the rumour believable, and perhaps with good reason, for, within sixteen months of her divorce, Anna had gained something of a reputation. 

In December 1541, after Katheryn Howard had been arrested for sexual misconduct before her marriage to the King, the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, reported: ‘As the Clerk of the Council [William Paget] has for a long time been on intimate terms with me, I did not hesitate to propound to him that, if the King separated himself from this Queen on account of her having had connexion with a man before her marriage to him, he would have been justified in doing the same with Mme de Cleves, for if the rumour current in the Low Countries was true, there were plenty of causes for a separation; for, considering that Queen's age, her being fond of wine, and of indulging in other excesses, as they [the English] might have had occasion to observe, it was natural enough to suppose that she had failed in the same manner. The Clerk did not deny the strength of my argument’ - as Anna’s former secretary, he was in a position to know the truth of it – ‘but said that he did not believe the King would again retake her, or marry another woman unless Parliament positively forced him to it.’

A strange episode occurred that same month. Katheryn Howard’s lovers, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper, were due to be executed on 9 December, but they were granted a short reprieve as the Privy Council was too busy to issue the order for the sentences to be carried out, being diverted by a new report that Anna of Klevewas in the family way by the King’. On 5 December, Richard Taverner, Clerk of the Signet, and Anna’s servant, Frances Lilgrave, had been imprisoned in the Tower, Lilgrave for having ‘slandered the Lady Anna of Cleves, and therein the King also’, and for not revealing the source of the slander, and Taverner ‘for concealing the said slander’.

On 6 December, the councillors informed the King  that they had ‘examined a new matter, viz., that the Lady Anne of Cleves should be delivered of a fair boy, and whose should it be but the King's Majesty's, and gotten [back in January] when she was at Hampton Court, which is a most abominable slander’. The baby had allegedly been born late in September. ‘This abominable slander was told to Taverner, of the Signet, more than a fortnight ago, both by his mother-in-law, wife of Lambert, the goldsmith, and by Taverner’s own wife, who saith she heard it of Lilgrave’s wife, and Lambert’s wife heard it also of the old Lady Carew. Taverner kept it [to himself], but they with others have made it common matter of talk. Taverner never revealed it till Sunday night [4 December], when he told it to Dr Cox’ - the same Richard Cox who would become tutor to Prince Edward – ‘to be further declared if he thought good, who immediately disclosed it to the Lord Privy Seal [the Earl of Southampton],’ which was how the matter had come to the Council’s attention. 

Richard Taverner was one of four clerks of the Signet, who attended the King’s Principal Secretary, ensuring that letters patent were correctly worded. A scholar – his translation of the Bible was printed in 1539 - and a secret Protestant who had been a protégé of the late Thomas Cromwell, to whom he owed his post, he now received a pension from the Duke of Norfolk. Cromwell’s fall and the swing towards religious conservatism in 1540 had made Taverner lay down his pen and placed him in a precarious position, and Norfolk, out of favour in the wake of Katheryn Howard’s fall, could not help him. 

Taverner was married to Margaret, the daughter of Walter Lambert of Chertsey and his wife, Margaret Gainsford. Frances Lilgrave may have been a court embroiderer, like her husband.

Old Lady Carew’ is harder to identify. It could not have been Martha Denny, the wife of Wymond Carew, Anna’s receiver-general. He was not knighted until 1547, so Martha would not have been styled Lady Carew in 1541. ‘Old Lady Carew’ may have been Malyn Oxenbridge, the mother of Sir Nicholas Carew, who had been executed for treason in 1539. Malyn was sixty-seven and blind; until her son’s property was confiscated, she had lived in retirement at Beddington Park, the Carew family seat in Surrey.    

It is more likely, however, that Sir Nicholas Carew’s widow, Elizabeth Bryan, a former mistress of the King, was ‘old Lady Carew’; at forty-two, she would have been considered old in Tudor times. She, like her mother-in-law, might not have scrupled to pass on gossip detrimental to the King. On her husband’s death, she had been evicted from his mansion, Beddington Park, and taken refuge with her children and Malyn in another Carew property in nearby Wallington, having begged Cromwellto be a mediator unto the King’s Grace for me, for my living and my children’s, and that your lordship would speak to his Grace, that I may enjoy that which his gave me, which is Bletchingley and Wallington’. Henry had permitted her to keep her house in Wallington, but had granted Bletchingley to Anna of Kleve. Thus both the elder Lady Carew and the younger had good reason to spread vile rumours about Anna, whom they had cause to resent, and the King who had sent Sir Nicholas Carew to the block.    

They may have heard local gossip about Anna, possibly from Margaret Gainsford or her father, Henry Gainsford, who lived at Stone Court – then known as Gainsford’s Place - in nearby Carshalton and at some point leased the manor to Walter Lambert. The Gainsfords had connections with the court – Henry’s cousin, Anne Gainsford, had served Anne Boleyn – and would have known the Carews, their near neighbours among the gentry.

Henry VIII took the report of Anna’s pregnancy very sternly, being most concerned to discover whether there was any basis to it. In the unlikely event that he had indulged in any dalliance with Anna, the news that she had perhaps borne a son would have given him much pause for thought, especially as he had a ‘great desire’ for more children. Yet it is hard to credit that he had been unfaithful to Katheryn Howard at the height of his infatuation for her. And, had Anna given birth to the King’s son, she surely would have made it known, especially to her brother, the Duke of Kleve, who wanted Henry to take her back. More likely, Henry was concerned to discover whether Anna had committed grave misconduct; he may have seen a way to being freed of his financial obligations to her.

The fact that the Privy Council went to such great lengths to investigate the matter shows how seriously it was regarded. What were the implications for the succession, if Anna had indeed given birth to the King’s son? If she had not, it was treason to slander the King. It may have been for this reason – and because it was treason to speak of his marriage to Anna as valid – that the councillors met with an apparent conspiracy of silence.

On 7 December, the King’s instructions were relayed to the Council: ‘His Majesty thinketh it requisite to have it groundly examined and further ordered by your discretions, as the manner of the case requireth, to inquire diligently whether the said Anna of Cleves hath indeed had any child or no, as it is bruited, for his Majesty hath been informed that it is so indeed, in which part his Majesty imputeth a great default in her officers for not advising his Highness thereof if it be true.’ 

After much deliberation, the councillors committed Taverner to the custody of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. Margaret Gainsford was placed in the custody of Sir Richard Rich, Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations. She ‘seemeth to have been a deuce [devil] in it’, which suggests that she had taken pleasure in spreading the tale. Frances Lilgrave, who appeared to be ‘the first author of the bruit’, remained in the Tower with Taverner. On 9 December, the Council reported that some of Anna’s officers had been sent for. Members of her privy chamber were also questioned. One, Jane Ratsey, admitted she knew of the gossip, but refused to say more. Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, kept her in his custody. 

Two royal scandals in the space of days - the court was agog. On 11 December, Chapuys reported: ‘Two honest citizens [Taverner and Lilgrave] were imprisoned three days ago for having said, since the Queen's misbehaviour was published, that the whole thing seemed a judgment of God, for the lady of Cleves was really the King's wife, and that, though the rumour had been purposely spread that the King had had no connection with her, the contrary might be asserted, as she was known to have gone away from London in the family way, and had been confined last summer - a rumour which has been widely circulated.’

On 10 December, as Dereham and Culpeper suffered on the scaffold, members of the Privy Council rode down to Richmond to question Anna and her household. The next day, a letter was sent to Sir William Goring, Anna’s chamberlain, Jasper Horsey, her steward, and Lady Wingfield of her privy chamber, ordering them ‘to repair to the Privy Council’.

It was not until after Christmas that Frances Lilgrave admitted to ‘having slandered the Lady Anne and touched also the King’s person, she affirming to have heard the report of others, whom she refused to name’. Her vague use of the word ‘others’ indicates that the rumour had come from at least two sources, and Frances Lilgrave’s refusal to name hers argues either that she had made up the story, or that she was protecting someone. Given that Jane Ratsey had also, independently, refused to divulge what she knew, it might have been the latter - or the sources they could have named would have led the investigation directly to Anna

In conclusion, the Council announced that, in regard to the rumours about Anna, ‘the King had not behaved to her like a husband’, and it was not true that ‘she was gone away from London and had a son in the country last summer’.

On 30 December, Frances Lilgrave was, ‘for her punishment, committed to the Tower, and Richard Taverner also, for concealing the same’. They would be detained only for as long as it took to teach them a salutary lesson about spreading slander. Unsurprisingly, Frances Lilgrave did not return to Anna’s service.

Although nearly all modern historians state categorically that Anna had not borne a child, the possibility remains that she had, although it was surely not the King’s. Her movements after the early spring are not documented, and she seems to have spent the year living quietly in the country. With the assistance of her women, she could have concealed a pregnancy and birth from the rest of her household. But, without further evidence coming to light, it is impossible conclusively to ascertain the truth of the matter.