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Historian’s New Novel Raises Controversial Theory: Henry VIII Divorced Anne of Cleves Because She’d Already Given Birth

Alison Weir acknowledges the claim, which pulls on previously unexplored evidence, is “inconclusive and speculative” but says it might make readers think

Hans Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves convinced Henry VIII of his bride-to-be's charms (Public domain)
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A new novel by Tudor historian Alison Weir outlines a controversial alternative to the oft-cited account of Henry VIII’s divorce from his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. As Sarah Knapton reports for the Telegraph, Weir’s Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait, the fourth installment in the non-fiction and fiction writer’s Six Tudor Queens series, theorizes that the notoriously mercurial king ended his marriage after discovering his new wife had already conceived a child with another man.

The traditional story widely accepted by historians is far less scandalous: Henry, enchanted by a flattering Hans Holbein portrait of his bride-to-be, was repulsed by the “tall, big-boned and strong-featured” woman who arrived in England at the beginning of 1540. Declaring “I like her not! I like her not!” after his first meeting with her, the English king only went through with the wedding to maintain diplomatic ties with Anne’s home, the German Duchy of Cleves, and other Protestant allies across the European continent.

After just six months of marriage, Henry, eager to replace his short-reigning queen with the young, vivacious Catherine Howard, had the union annulled on the grounds of non-consummation and Anne’s pre-contract with Francis, Duke of Lorraine. Anne, from then on known as the “King’s beloved sister,” spent the rest of her days in England, outliving not only her former husband, but both of the wives that followed her and her one-time stepson, Edward VI.

In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, Weir explained that her theory stems from a “hitherto unnoticed thread of evidence that merited further investigation.” Citing the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, as well as biographies by Elizabeth Norton, Mary Saaler and Retha M. Warnicke, the author acknowledges the unsubstantiated nature of her claim but points out, per a separate blog post for the Tudor Times, that while “the evidence is not conclusive, … you may find it convincing or that it makes you think again, as I did.”

Weir’s conjecture has already proven contentious, with fellow historian Dan Jones deeming the idea “incredibly silly and actually sort of weirdly misogynist”—a sentiment echoed by the Anne Boleyn Files, a popular Tudor history blog, in a Facebook post that calls the theory “poppycock” and “clearly a fictional device.” But as the author herself acknowledged during a recent session at the literary Hay Festival, the proposed explanation is meant to be “inconclusive and speculative.”

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After meeting Anne of Cleves for the first time, Henry reportedly declared, "I like her not! I like her not!" (Public domain)

Weir’s novel takes a closer look at claims Henry made on the morning after his wedding. As recounted by historian Tracy Borman in an article published by History Extra, the 48-year-old king told Thomas Cromwell, the advisor who arranged the marriage, that he had been too perturbed to do more than run his hands over Anne’s body. “She is nothing fair, and have very evil smells about her,” Henry reportedly said, adding that he “plainly mistrusted her to be no maid by reason of the looseness of her belly and breasts and other tokens.”

The king concluded, “I have left her as good a maid as I found her.”

Borman writes that the two most plausible explanations for the marriage’s lack of consummation are the well-documented distaste Henry felt for his bride—in Anne’s defense, it’s worth noting that no one had spoken negatively of her appearance prior to the king, who was himself far from the handsome, athletic prince of his youth—and the Tudor monarch’s own impotence, as brought on by old age, immobility linked with an ulcerated jousting wound, and his increasingly widening girth.

But in her novel’s author’s note, Weir questions whether Henry could have actually been telling the truth, or at least a version of events he believed to be true. As the historian argues, he had “vast experience” with women and “must have known the difference between a female body that had borne children and one that had not.” It’s possible, therefore, that Henry recognized signs of a previous pregnancy (perhaps resulting from an affair with a cousin during Anne’s youth) and failed to consummate the union for this reason. Weir further speculates that the king ultimately chose to hide his discovery—notwithstanding his post-wedding proclamations—in order to avoid scandal and preserve his alliance with Cleves.

A key piece of evidence cited by Weir dates to a 17th-century biography of Henry by one Lord Herbert. Said to have access to long-lost sources, Herbert wrote that there were “secret causes, which the King, without great necessity would not have disclosed, because they touch’d the Honour of the Lady,” surrounding the dissolution of Henry’s fourth marriage.

“Could those secret causes be connected with Henry’s oft-voiced doubts about Anna’s virginity?” Weir asked during her Hay Festival speech. “There can be little doubt that if she contested the case he would have used them against her, and that’s ... one good reason she did not.”

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This portrait of Anne of Cleves, painted by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, dates to the 1540s (Public domain)

Writing for the Tudor Times, Weir contextualizes her controversial theory by addressing rumors surrounding Anne’s conduct following the divorce. In October 1540, the French ambassador debunked gossip suggesting Henry wanted to leave his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, in favor of “the one whom he has repudiated.” The ambassador added, “That which caused the report was that it has been said the other lady, who has been indisposed, was pregnant.” (Most historians attribute this period of illness to a gastric issue, not pregnancy.)

In December 1541, another report of seeming impropriety surfaced; this time, the rumor suggested that Anne “was in the family way by the King” and had perhaps even given birth to Henry’s son. After an extensive investigation, however, the Privy Council concluded that “the King had not behaved to her like a husband,” and it was not true that Anne had “gone away from London and had a son in the country last summer.” Still, Weir writes, “Although nearly all modern historians state categorically that [Anne] had not borne a child, the possibility remains that she had, [though] it was surely not the King’s.”

Anne’s own account of her marriage refutes the idea that she had any knowledge of carnal affairs. At one point during her brief queenship, Anne asked her ladies-in-waiting how she could “be a maid and sleep every night with the king.” In response, one woman made a joking remark about how more than simply sleep was required to produce a prince—to which the queen said, “When he comes to bed, he kisses me and taketh me by the hand and biddeth me, ‘Goodnight sweetheart’; and in the morning kisses me and biddeth me, ‘Farewell, darling.’ Is that not enough?” The Countess of Rutland had to explain, “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York” (the second son required to fulfill the ideal of an “heir and a spare”).

Compared to the rest of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne of Cleves came out relatively lucky. She escaped the marriage with her head intact and enjoyed the king’s favor, likely earned by agreeing to the annulment, until his death in 1547. She survived Henry by 10 years, dying on July 16, 1557, at the age of 41.

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