The Letter that Saved Anne of Cleves’ Life

Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves is likely the most fortunate of all of Henry VIII’s wives; She was only married to him for six months before their marriage was annulled and declared void and she never consummated their marriage with him – that alone would have been worth avoiding. Just imagine what Henry smelled like with that festering ulcer on his leg. Like rotting flesh. Eww.

After reading this letter I believe it’s what saved her from a worse fate. The more I think about it, I’m not so sure that Henry would have beheaded a wife who came from another kingdom. That would’ve been political suicide on his part. The only other wife he had that wasn’t from England was Katherine of Aragon, and he didn’t dare execute her either.

Anne of Cleves was a smart woman, much smarter than she’s given credit for – she understood that living in England as the king’s sister was better than the life she would have had had she returned to Cleves.

Anne of Cleves to King Henry VIII: 11 July 1540

Pleaseth your most excellent majesty to understand that, whereas, at sundry times heretofore, I have been informed and perceived, by certain lords and others of your grace’s council, of the doubts and questions which have been moved and found in our marriage; and how hath petition thereupon been made to your highness by our nobles and commons, that the same might be examined and determined by the holy clergy of this realm; to testify to your highness by my writing, that which I have before promised by word and will, that is to say, that the matter should be examined and determined by the said clergy; it may please your majesty to know that, thought this case must needs be most hard and sorrowful unto me, for the great love which I bear to your most noble person, yet, having more regard to God and his truth than to any worldly affection, as it beseemed me, at the beginning, to submit me to such examination and determination of the said clergy, whom I have and do accept for judges competent in that behalf. So now being ascertained how the same clergy hath therein given their judgment and sentence, I knowledge myself hereby to accept and approve the same, wholly and entirely putting myself, for my state and condition, to your highness’ goodness and pleasure; most humbly beseeching your majesty that, though it be determined that the pretended matrimony between us is void and of none effect, whereby I neither can nor will repute myself for your grace’s wife, considering this sentence (whereunto I stand) and your majesty’s clean and pure living with me, yet it will please you to take me for one of your most humble servants, and so to determine of me, as I may sometimes have the fruition of your most noble presence; which as I shall esteem for a great benefit, so, my lords and others of your majesty’s council, now being with me, have put me in comfort thereof; and that your highness will take me for your sister; for the which I most humbly thank you accordingly.

Thus, most gracious prince, I beseech our Lord God to send your majesty long life and good health, to God’s glory, your own honour, and the wealth of this noble realm.

From Richmond, the 11th day of July, the 32nd year of your majesty’s most noble reign.

Your majesty’s most humble sister and servant,

Anne, the daughter of Cleves

To give you a little insight on the impact that Anne had, I’ll quote from On the Tudor Trail:

Half a century after her death, the chronicler Raphael Holinshed remembered her as a lady of right commendable regard, courteous, gentle, a good housekeeper, and very bountiful to her servants. He wrote that there had never been, any quarrels, tale bearings or mischievous intrigues in her court, and she was tenderly loved by her domestics.


Letters of royal and illustrious ladies of Great Britain, from the commencement of the twelfth century to the close of the reign of Queen Mary;by Green, Mary Anne Everett;Published 1846; pages 160-162

Anne of Cleves Henry VIII History Queens

27 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Although Anna may have been pressured into the wording of this letter, no it didn’t save her life, her life was never in danger.
    Henry wanted out of the marriage because of the dangerous political situation he was finding himself in as the months went by as well as his apparent failure to consummate it. Everything about his dissatisfaction with Anna, her appearance and even the first meeting was invented by Cromwell on the orders of the King and his Council to get this annulment done. His libido wasn’t affected during the first few months with Kathryn Howard.

  2. I loved reading this! Finally, someone expressed the notions I felt after reading about Anne. I felt Henry would never have executed her because she was a foreign princess. She was wise to sign, though I dont believe her was fluent enough in English to compose such a letter. Too bad she didnt remain queen. Knowing Henrys luck, Anne could have been the queen to given him many sons

    • All stuff that Henry VIII fabricated to say why he couldn’t consummate the relationship. It’s been reported at this time that he was also most likely impotent. This was referenced in the trial of George Boleyn. What it comes down to was the fact that he just wasn’t attracted to her and would say anything to cover up his impotence, even going to far as having his doctor report that he has “wet dreams” so it must have been Anne.

      • I agree Henry probably did have some impotency but the earlier reference to it during the trial of George Boleyn isn’t evidence of anything. That Anne told her brother or sister in law this is meaningless. She probably said it after one of the many arguments with him and there is no other evidence for it back in 1536. By 1540,_however, Henry’s weight and ill health was causing many problems and he probably was partially impotent. He doesn’t seem to have continued to be so during the first months of marriage to Kathryn Howard. I agree he made everything else up so as he could get out of this marriage but there was also the political crisis in Europe which played a big part in the timing of the annulment as well as his affair with Kathryn Howard.

  3. Where did these letters come from? How did any letters from that century and earlier survive? Were they found in castles? Put away with other correspondences from said person, passed down by family? It’s amazing how much history we get just from letters. And imagine all the letters we didn’t get to see, all the homes and castles destroyed that maybe held something important… I think about this a lot and often wish I had a time machine to be a fly on the wall during this time period. Imagine what we don’t know… Gives me chills.

  4. It would have been better for Katherine of Aragon to have accepted divorce from Henry as Anne of Ceves did. Its a shame that her religion and the political situation with her nephew prevented it. She wouldnt have died such a sad and lonely woman

  5. That letter has to stand as one of the cleverest ever written by a wife. A wife to a man whose volatile personality made the said wife’s future by no means certain. Anne of Cleves knew this and, in a brilliant letter, both clever, humble and flattering, she managed to acquire for herself, as the king’s dear sister, a fine independent and prosperous life in England. I cannot imagine her wishing to return to Cleves to become just another female with few rights in the court of her brother. She was clever political and had a healthy sense of self preservation in a very dangerous time. Good for Anne.

  6. This is a wonderful, informative article. I do have one comment.

    Raphael Holinshed was three years old when Henry VIII died, and his description of Anne came 30 years after Henry’s death. Holinshed, as far as I’ve been able to determine, was also the first to describe Anne as “the Flanders Mare.” Holinshed would not have known Anne personally, and there’s no evidence any former members of Henry’s court availed themselves as primary sources, nor have I found referenced in Holinshed’s writings citations from their journals, letters, or diaries. For information about Anne’s appearance, disposition, and practices I think we need to look elsewhere; and, thankfully, private dispassionate correspondences about Anne are extant.

  7. She was not pleased to be divorced by Henry, and later she apparently hoped he would remarry her after katherine Howard was executed.

      • There was no political entity called “Germany” at the time. There were instead dozens of little independent duchies (like Cleves) and principalities, some nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, some not.

        Germany came into existence politically centuries later.

    • It does not appear so. She could have left and returned home but chose to stay in England as the king’s sister.

    • I don’t believe it’s correct to assume that Anne wanted to return to Cleves.

      First, there exists correspondence indicating she was somewhat fearful about how she’d be received by her brother.

      Second, and this is speculative, in England, Anne was remarkably independent and certainly one of the wealthiest women of the time. Had she returned to her brother, she’d have lost all autonomy.

  8. Can we have a translation of her letter into “modern” english ? Unless you can understand the language of the time it’s *very* hard to understand what she’s saying in the letter.

    • She is essentially saying that she is happy to allow a clerical conclave to decide on the validity of her marriage, and although she loves Henry will readily accept that their marriage is not legal given that it wasn’t consumated. She is happy to be one of his subjects, and happy to accept the title of ‘sister’ to him. Basically, the complete opposite to what Katherine of Aragon did; she will not argue with Henry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *