At five o’clock in the afternoon of 27 December 1539 a young German princess, Anne of Cleves, stepped onto the shore at Deal in Kent. She was met by Sir Thomas Cheyne, who took her to Deal Castle – a rather Spartan fortress on the south coast of England. The castle, which was newly built, was inadequate for a royal visit and was merely used as a base for Anne and her retinue to change their clothes and refresh themselves.
Shortly after Anne’s arrival, Henry VIII’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Suffolk, and his wife, Catherine Willoughby, arrived, as did the Bishop of Chichester and a large knights, esquires and ladies. Everyone was curious to meet the princess. She presented herself well, greeting them cordially and allowing her visitors to take her to the more comfortable Dover Castle, a little further down the coast. She arrived at eleven o’clock that night and gladly retired to her bed for her first night in a country that would be her home for the rest of her life.
Everyone in England was interested in the young woman who had sailed from Calais that morning, enjoying an uneventful and speedy voyage. Anne, who was twenty-four years old and the sister of the Duke of Cleves, was to become the fourth wife of Henry VIII, a man who, by 1539, was the most notorious husband in Europe. She had not, in fact, been Henry’s first choice as a bride.
When Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, died following childbirth on 24 October 1537, the king found himself in the unusual position of not having a new bride ready and waiting. Within days of her death Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, had written to the French ambassadors suggesting that either the French king’s daughter or his kinswoman, Mary of Guise, would make suitable replacements. At the same time, the Imperial ambassadors offered the king the princess of Portugal.
Although Henry had known all three of his previous wives before marriage, it was never in doubt that his fourth would be a diplomatic match. This was, after all, the usual way that royal marriages were arranged and would help to ally England with a foreign power. By the end of 1537 ambassadors had been instructed to search the courts of Europe for a potential bride. John Hutton, the English ambassador to the Netherlands, provided an early report from Brussels, listing the eligible women in the Holy Roman Empire. As well as their accomplishments. He ended, rather unflatteringly, with the comment that ‘the duke of Cleves has a daughter, but there is no great praise either of her personage or her beauty’.
This was the only time that Anne would be mentioned in negotiations until 1539. Instead, Henry first looked for a French bride, seeking to marry Mary of Guise, who was already engaged to his nephew, James IV of Scotland. Upon receiving reports of the tall and beautiful Mary Henry was mitten, declaring that ‘he was big in person and had need of a big wife’. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to win Mary, however, with her soon marrying the King of Scots.
Henry next considered Mary’s sister, who was reported to be ‘as beautiful and graceful clever and well fitted to please and obey him as any other’, while the French ambassador assured him that ‘France was a warren of honourable ladies’.
Henry perhaps took the invitation to take his pick of the French ladies too literally when he requested that they all be brought to Calais so that he could select the woman that he liked best. Such a request was met with outrage by the French king, who declared that they were not horses to be made to promenade on show. When Henry insisted, the scandalised French ambassador asked whether he also wanted to try out the ladies before he made his choice, causing the English king to blush with shame.
With his failure to secure a French bride, Henry instead looked towards the family of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. His choice fell on the beautiful fifteen year old, Christina of Denmark, widowed Duchess of Milan, who was the Emperor’s niece. While Henry was charmed by her portrait, the princess was less than certain, declaring that ‘she had but one head, if she had two, one should be at his Majesty’s service’.
On 12 January 1539 Francis I of France and the Emperor Charles V signed the treaty of Toledo, making peace with each other. This meant that England was dangerously isolated and, with no possibility of a French or Imperial marriage, Henry instead looked around for other allies. His choice fell on Cleves.