Anne and Henry communicated through an interpreter and the young woman can have noticed nothing amiss in her first meeting with Henry. She woke on Friday 2 January 1540 at Rochester, with the pair continuing to make each other’s acquaintance that morning. That afternoon, as soon as the tide had turned, Henry rode to Gravesend in order to return to Greenwich by water.
While, to outsiders, it appeared that the first meeting between the couple had been reasonably satisfactory, those who knew the king were concerned. Henry himself was unable to bring himself to give Anne her New Year’s gift personally, instead instructing Sir Anthony Browne to pass them to her. In the boat on the way home he was stony faced, complaining loudly that ‘I see nothing in this woman as men report of her; and I marvel that wise men would make such report as they have done’. He questioned Lord Russell, who sat with him, on his own opinion of Anne, before lamenting ‘Alas! Whom should men trust? I promise you I see no such thing in her as hath been showed me of her, and am ashamed, that men have so praised her as they have done, and I like her not’.
Although Henry probably never declared that he had been brought a ‘Flanders Mare’ instead of a woman as later claimed, there is no doubt that he was entirely unhappy with his fiance’s appearance.
Portraits of Anne show her favourably when compared with Henry’s other wives. To modern eyes, she certainly appears more beautiful that the double-chinned Jane Seymour or the long-nosed Catherine Howard – both supposedly the fairest of Henry’s wives. Henry never punished his court painter, Hans Holbein, for the portrait that he sent back from Cleves during the marriage negotiations, suggesting that it was a true likeness. In the portrait, in which Anne was depicted, unusually, facing forwards, she appears reasonably attractive, in heavy German dress. One clue to her appearance may be in the flattering angle of the painting, since another portrait of Anne has been x-rayed to reveal a larger nose that was painted over. This can hardly be the reason for Henry’s abhorrence of his bride however.
Another clue to Anne’s appearance may be found in a dispatch of the French ambassador, in which he declared that she ‘is not so young as was expected, nor so beautiful as everyone affirmed’. He considered that, while Anne carried herself well, she dressed badly and ‘looks about 30 years of age, tall and thin, of medium beauty, and of very assured and resolute countenance’. Since she was twenty-four years old, this may have been a disadvantage, although Henry’s tastes do generally seem to have favoured older women. Anne Boleyn was in her late twenties when she first caught the king’s eye, as was Jane Seymour, while Catherine Parr was past thirty.
Lord Russell, when pressed by Henry, admitted of Anne that ‘he took her not for fair, but to be of a brown complexion’, but so was the beautiful Christina of Denmark who the king had earlier sought to marry and who resembled a former mistress of his. Many men had seen Anne and made favourable reports of her appearance, while when Anne herself later declared that Catherine Parr was ‘inferior to her in beauty’, no-one seems to have disputed this. The Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, agreed, considering that Catherine was ‘by no means so handsome’ as the princess from Cleves.
Anne of Cleves, while clearly far from a beauty, appears to have been pleasing enough: tall, dark and older looking than expected, but with a queenly countenance. What then caused Henry’s immediate dislike for his bride? Perhaps it was in the circumstances of their meeting, in which the king, embarrassed by her inability to recognise him, found his romantic illusions shattered. Anne had never seen a picture of the king and her face may have betrayed her dismay at his appearance when she finally realised who the mysterious messenger actually was. Certainly, a near contemporary chronicle – of dubious reliability – claimed that she later referred to Henry’s obesity unfavourably. Henry was also used to choosing his brides for himself and it may simply be that he felt no attraction for her. There was just no chemistry between them.
Unaware of how the visit had gone, Thomas Cromwell sought the king out when he reached Greenwich, asking him how he liked his bride. The minister, who had played such a big part in recommending the match, was horrified to be told that the king found her ‘nothing so well as she was spoken of’. Ominously, he then declared that if he had known before what he knew now, ‘she should not have come within this realm’. The king demanded a remedy, but there was none that Cromwell could think of, declaring that he ‘was very sorry therefore’.
Henry wanted a way out of the marriage, not sympathy. While he discussed matters with his chief minister, the unsuspecting Anne made her way towards Dartford, a town which she would later recall fondly and the last stop before she finally reached Greenwich and her official meeting with the king.
The cover of my biography of Anne includes the portrait prepared by Holbein, which convinced Henry to marry her.