Historian Alison Weir's New Novel Raises Controversial Theory: Henry VIII Divorced Anne of Cleves Because She’d Already Given BirthHistorians in the News
tags: British history, Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves, Tudor
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.”
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.