by Heather R. Darsie, JD
For decades, if not centuries, it has been assumed that Henry VIII of England and Anna of Cleves never consummated their marriage. The Secret Council that met to devise a way for Henry to have an annulment of his marriage to Anna, rather than a divorce, knew that they had to create air-tight documents to support the idea that Henry was virile, but simply could not bring himself to enjoy amorous congress with Anna.
To bolster the annulment, the Secret Council drafted an Attestation, spelling out all the alleged troubles Henry had during his short marriage to Anna. Thomas Cromwell, who was already imprisoned, signed the Attestation and then drafted a letter that echoed everything within the Attestation, including Henry exclaiming, “I like her not!” Sworn affidavits taken during the Convocation to support the annulment included Henry’s, wherein he claimed to not be attracted to Anna, and that she had “foul smells” coming from her body. On top of that, Henry testified that Anna’s body did not seem maidenly, and more like that of a woman had experienced pregnancy. Overall, these were tactics to support Henry’s position for why an annulment was appropriate; namely, that the marriage was not consummated, that Anna was legally the wife of Francis of Lorraine, and that Henry’s kingly heart had not consented to the marriage even if he gave the outward appearance of consent.
Since the annulment, it is assumed that Henry and Anna did not know each other carnally. However, during his correspondence back to Cleves, ambassador Karl Harst revealed that Anna and Henry did indeed know each other carnally,
“Anna… was preoccupied with three things in April 1540. First, that Henry had not fully settled upon her Anna’s possessions as queen, because he was waiting for parliament to finalize it. Secondly, that her coronation probably would not take place in 1540, which displeased Anna and might have made her sad, fearful, or both. Finally, despite her exertions, Anna was not pregnant….
… [I n early June 1540]Anna remained in as good of spirits as she could, requiring Harst to share a meal with her and her ladies. … Harst updated Chancellor Ghogreve on Cromwell’s tribulations. It seems that Harst suspected things were not going to go well for Anna in the coming days. To that end, he suggested to Ghogreve that marriages be secured for Amalia and Wilhelm as soon as possible….
…Harst’s worry over Anna being cast aside by Henry continued to increase throughout June. He worried that, because Anna was not pregnant, Henry would treat her like Katharine of Aragon. Anna, for her part, did not outwardly appear to share Harst’s worries.
Things took a turn by 26 June 1540, such that Harst wrote to Duke Wilhelm directly. … Harst began worrying that Anna was being pushed away because she still had not conceived a child with Henry, and Harst was even more worried that Anna would be labeled as infertile….
Harst was notified by 8 July 1540 over the alleged concerns of Anna’s precontract to Francis of Lorraine, and that any children Anna conceived with Henry could be deemed illegitimate. Harst balked at the accusation, especially after so much proof was provided to show the contract was canceled. …On 10 July, Harst expressed outrage at learning that Anna was presented with a set of documents which were virtually incomprehensible to her, and that the poor woman was “hoodwinked” by Henry and his officials. Henry duly informed Anna that if she complied with Henry’s wishes, she would be treated well. If not, then Henry could not make her any promises. Anna shed bitter tears and told Henry that he was the only husband she had ever had. Henry was unmoved.
Anna did express some resistance to the annulment, namely when Henry wanted her to agree that he never touched her. Anna told Harst that Henry, “has lived with her like husband and wife aught to live together.” Anna further reiterated her position by stating she would rather be decapitated than agree to such a falsehood. Unfortunately for Anna, Henry swore on a Bible that the two never consummated their marriage.
After this series of heavy blows, Anna consented to the annulment. …Harst described Henry as a tyrant, poor Katheryn Howard as a whore, and pleaded for a delegation from Cleves and Saxony to come to Anna’s aid. Harst was possessed of the fears…that Anna would be poisoned or that Henry would try to conceive a child with Anna despite their marriage being annulled. This shows two things, first, Harst’s nihilist attitude, and second, the unfettered wildness of Henry’s actions.”
Again, the German account of what happened to Anna of Cleves is very different from the English, emphasizing that it is usually the victor who writes the historical account.
If this excerpt piqued your interest, consider reading Children of the House of Cleves: Anna and Her Siblings, set for release in the UK on 15 June 2023 and in the US/Internationally on 12 September 2023. Can’t wait until September? The US Kindle version is released on 15 June, too! You might also like to read Heather R. Darsie’s biography on Anna of Cleves, the first researched and written from the German perspective, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister. Links below.
- Children of the House of Cleves, Anna and Her Siblings hardcover (15 June 2023): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Children-House-Cleves-Anna-Siblings/dp/1445699427/ref=sr_1_1?crid=19OOEUO2EX5PV&keywords=heather+darsie&qid=1686571230&sprefix=heather+darsi%2Caps%2C190&sr=8-1
- Children of the House of Cleves, Anna and Her Siblings Kindle (15 June 2023): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Children-House-Cleves-Anna-Siblings-ebook/dp/B0C74VTCR3/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1686571230&sr=8-1
- Children of the House of Cleves, Anna and Her Siblings hardcover (12 September 2023): https://www.amazon.com/Children-House-Cleves-Anna-Siblings/dp/1445699427/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5K793F0IN117&keywords=heather+darsie&qid=1686571143&sprefix=heather+darsie%2Caps%2C87&sr=8-1
- Children of the House of Cleves, Anna and Her Siblings Kindle (15 June 2023): https://www.amazon.com/Children-House-Cleves-Anna-Siblings-ebook/dp/B0C74VTCR3/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1686571143&sr=8-1
Sources & Suggested Reading
- Darsie, Heather R. Children of the House of Cleves: Anna and Her Siblings. Stroud: Amberley (2023).
- Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister. Stroud: Amberley (2019).