Anne of Cleves: In Fact and Fiction

The contemporary evidence about Anne is largely second hand, as it is for Henry’s other wives but there is a handful of letters from her to her family, one to Mary I (dating to Edward VI's reign), a letter from her step-daughter, Elizabeth, and her will. Other than that, knowledge of Anne is derived from ambassadors’ reports, written by people assessing her worth as a spouse, rather than considering her as an individual. The first recorded mention is a notice of her birth, in the Chronicle of Johann Wassenberch, by a chaplain in the Order of St John in Duisberg. Wassenberch noted local events in the period 1474 – 1517, but is not absolutely specific about the date of Anne’s birth. So far as we know, the chronicle has never been translated into English.

The negotiations for her marriage, the ambassadors’ reports and the information about Henry’s reactions to her, the annulment and the financial settlement, can all be found in Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII.  In addition, there is the correspondence of the ambassadors – that of the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, in the Calendar of State Papers: Spain, and that of the French envoy, Marillac, in the transcriptions (in the original 16th century French) in the Inventaire Analytiques des Archive d'affaires Etrangères: Correspondance Politique, Angleterre (1537 - 1542).  For Edward and Mary’s reigns, the Calendar of State Papers: Domestic, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. The English sources are all available from British History Online, although they are behind a paywall.  For background on the time in Calais, there is The Lisle Letters, the six-volume masterpiece of transcription by Muriel St Clare Byrne.

Moving closer to our own time, Anne appears, along with all the other queens-consort of England in the Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England.  The Strickland sisters had a relentlessly romantic outlook, and tended to give more credence to apocryphal stories than was warranted, but they also had access to voluminous quantities of archives, and were diligent in their investigations.

Reflecting the views of the time, Anne was presented as a Protestant queen – which, the Stricklands thought, was a Good Thing, although disappointingly she converted to Catholicism. Probably all we can infer about Anne’s religion was that she was brought up Catholic by her mother, but imbibed the tolerant views of her father, and was happy to go along with whatever Henry, Edward VI and Mary required in the matter of religion.

The treatment of Anne in J J Scarisbrick’s magisterial Henry VIII is disappointing. It repeats the canard that Henry called her a Flanders mare (a much later interpolation) and is rather dismissive of the fact that Anne accepted the annulment with apparent good grace – it is hard to know what else she could have done. Scarisbrick sees these as a demonstration of her ‘flat personality’. 

Later in time, are the three variants on the Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Antonia Fraser, David Starkey and Alison Weir.  For Weir, writing in 1991, Anne was a woman of courage and common sense – although her new fictional account gives an interesting slant after a further thirty years of broadening research.

Fraser sees Anne as genuinely naïve, and quite unaware until it was sprung upon her, that her relationship with Henry would never result in a child, but as acquiescing with sense and dignity.  Starkey too, believes her to have been naïve, and, interestingly, he notes Anne’s original fear of returning to Cleves, lest she be ‘slain’ – presumably by her brother for humiliating them all.

It is only recently that Anne has been given biographies of her own – the first, by Elizabeth Norton, Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s discarded bride, dates from 2011, and like all Dr Norton’s books, is very readable – clear, concise and comprehensive.  The latest work on Anne, is by Heather Darsie, entitled Anna, Duchess of Cleves: the King’s Beloved Sister. Where this book scores well is in the information on the political background in Cleves and Germany as a whole – it is very useful to see Anne in the context of the alliance with the Schmalkaldic League, and the ins and outs of the alliance of the late 1530s.

Not a biography, but an interesting insight into what Anne’s marriage can tell us about royal protocol and the role of women in alliances, is Retha Warnicke’s The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England.


Just as Anne has not been well covered by non-fiction, so there are not many fictional portrayals of her life, although the increasing interest in her may change this. 

An early example, which I love, is by Margaret Campbell Barnes, a novelist of the post-war years, whose My Lady of Cleves, also published under The King’s Choice, paints a delightful picture of a humourous and affectionate woman.  

Mavis Cheek’s Amenable Women is a completely different type of book – although Anne is a protagonist, telling her own story, it is set within a tale of a modern woman, recently widowed, whose husband had not always been complimentary about her. Cheek’s style is wittily observant.

Finally, there is the new, and rather controversial, offering by Alison Weir, continuing her much-praised fictional accounts of Henry’s wives. This one, Anna of Kleve: the Queen of Secrets, takes an unlikely possibility, hinted at by a couple of sources, and runs with it.  Keep an open mind!


The Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII – Brewer,J S 

Anna,Duchess of Cleves: the King’s Beloved Sister – Darsie, Heather

The Six Wives of Henry VIII – Fraser, Antonia

Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride – Norton, Elizabeth

The Lisle Letters – ed. St Clare Byrne, Muriel

Henry VIII – Scarisbrick, J J

The Lives of the Queens of England – Strickland, A & Strickland, E.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII – Weir, Alison

Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII – Starkey, David

The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England – Warnicke,Retha M.

Die Chronik des Johann Wassenberch - Aufzeichnungen eines Duisburger Geistlichen über lokale und weltweite Ereignisse vor 500 Jahren – Wassenberch, J


My Lady of Cleves – Campbell Barnes, Margaret

Amenable Women – Cheek, Mavis

Anna of Kleve – Weir, Alison