Anne of Cleves has gone down in history rather unfairly in my view as ‘The Flanders Mare’ on account of the fact that Henry VIII found his fourth bride distasteful; so distasteful in fact that he was unable to consummate the marriage. Eustace Chapuys the Imperial Ambassador recounted their first meeting:
On New Year’s Eve the duke of Norfolk with other knights and the barons of the exchequer received her grace on the heath, two miles beyond Rochester, and so brought her to the abbey of Rochester where she stayed that night and all New Years Day. And on New Years Day in the afternoon the king’s grace with five of his privy chamber, being disguised with mottled cloaks with hoods so that they should not be recognized, came secretly to Rochester, and so went up into the chamber where the said Lady Anne was looking out of a window to see the bull-baiting which was going on in the courtyard, and suddenly he embraced and kissed her, and showed here a token which the king had sent her for New Year’s gift, and she being abashed and not knowing who it was thanked him, and so he spoke with her. But she regarded him little, but always looked out the window…. and when the king saw that she took so little notice of his coming he went into another chamber and took off his cloak and came in again in a coat of purple velvet. And when the lords and knights saw his grace they did him reverence
Essentially the problem was not with Anne’s appearance nor even her clothing, after all her German style could have been changed for English fashion – no the problem was that no one had warned Anne about Henry’s favourite activity of pretending to be a lowly knight or Robin Hood and being recognised for his inner majesty…think sixteenth century pantomime. Accounts of court revels from periods when Katherine of Aragon was queen demonstrate that Henry was an ardent pursuer of this courtly pursuit but of course everyone at the English court was in on the secret. With Henry it was all about the show and the performance. Sadly although someone had taught Anne to play cards on the journey from Cleves to England no one had thought to tell her that a fat old bloke would in all likely hood burst in on her and expect her to fall in love at first sight as well as instantly recognising the heroic monarch.
It must have come as something as a shock when Anne failed to recognise Henry. It is easy to see that Anne not knowing who Henry was or what English customs were was embarrassed by the fat overfamiliar stranger who accosted her. Instead of true love Henry got the cold shoulder and he definitely seems to have taken umbrage as a consequence. The new year’s gift in question were some expensive furs. An indication of Henry’s frame of mind is seen in the fact that he took the gift away with him when he left. He said to Thomas Cromwell that he “liked her not.” He wanted to get out of the marriage and gave Thomas instructions to see that Anne didn’t become wife number four but it was not to be – on January 6th 1540 Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves at Greenwich.
Thomas found himself thrown to the wolves and Anne who selected for her motto the phrase “God send me well to keep” was pleased to escape her marriage with a new title of King’s Sister and a number of estates including Hever Castle. Meanwhile the duke of Norfolk took the opportunity to introduce Henry to his young niece Katherine Howard.