Challenging the ‘Ugliness’ of Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves became known to posterity as the ‘Flanders Mare’ and Henry VIII’s ‘ugly wife’, thanks to disparaging descriptions by ambassadors and diplomats. What motivated them?

Portrait of Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539. The Victoria & Albert Museum.

When Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, died after giving birth to the long-wished-for prince in 1537, Thomas Cromwell immediately began enquiries into the marriageable ladies of the French royal family. The rapidity of this search reflected the reality of the situation: the realm needed a queen and brokering a dynastic marriage was a protracted business. Henry’s previous wives had not been strangers to him. Katherine of Aragon, although a foreign princess, was his older brother Arthur’s young widow; Anne Boleyn had been Katherine’s maid of honour; Jane Seymour had served both her predecessors in this role. But now Cromwell set out to find a potential partner among the princesses of Europe.

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