Henry VIII’s Political Marriage: Why Cleves?
Henry VIII’s fourth marriage was, for him, an exception. It was the first, and only, time he married a complete stranger for the sake of international diplomacy.
Although Henry’s first marriage had been to a foreign princess, Katherine of Aragon, she was far from a stranger. Katherine had lived in England for eight years and was the object of the young prince’s romantic dreams of love and chivalry.
Henry had courted his second wife, Anne Boleyn, for eight years – the attraction was very personal indeed! Far from bringing advantages to England, the marriage had introduced unprecedented religious and social turmoil.
Wife number three, Jane Seymour, had also been chosen for personal reasons. Henry greatly appreciated her calm and quiet demeanor, an enormous contrast to wife number two!
Now, however, Henry was taking a step that had been usual for earlier kings of England but was, for him, completely unprecedented.
What did Henry seek to gain? What advantage was worth the risk of personal disappointment? Why did he turn to the small duchy of Cleves?
The answer can be found in England’s attempts to leverage its assets and ability to affect European politics.
During the reign of Henry VII (Henry VIII’s father), England played a diplomatic game, allying first with one and then the other of the rival Continental monarchies of France and Spain. By the middle of Henry VIII’s reign, this became impossible.
Both the Valois (France) and the Hapsburgs (Spain and Holy Roman Empire) were strongly Catholic. Henry no longer was. In 1534, he had renounced the pope and named himself head of the Church of England. In 1537, a papal delegation led by the English Cardinal, Reginald Pole, a strong opponent of Henry VIII’s English Reformation, persuaded France and Spain to join in a Catholic League. The aim of the League was to restore papal authority and end heresy throughout Europe. Henry saw himself as the main target.
Henry’s fear that he was being squashed between Catholic superpowers was confirmed when Pope Paul III excommunicated him in December 1538. Two months later, the French and Imperial ambassadors were recalled from England. Ominous signs indeed! Henry also believed that a combined French and Spanish invasion force was mustering.
Henry VIII responded to this threat on many levels.
First, he targeted the few surviving descendants of the rival house of York, all strongly Catholic. The dominant Yorkist families were the Poles and the Courtenays. The Poles descended from Edward IV’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, and the Courtenays from Edward IV himself through his daughter Catherine.
In 1538, Henry attempted (unsuccessfully) to assassinate Cardinal Reginald Pole, then living on the continent. In England, he executed Reginald’s brother Henry Pole, Lord Montague, and imprisoned his elderly mother Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. She was executed in 1541. Henry also executed Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon and Marquess of Exeter.
At the same time, Henry took strong defensive measures. He prepared a fleet of warships. He held musters to assemble men and armaments, He constructed new coastal fortifications.
Henry also looked for allies among the Protestant powers of northern Europe. He had been without a wife since the death of Queen Jane Seymour in October 1537. A diplomatic marriage could now be yet another weapon in his arsenal.
Henry set his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, searching through the noble houses of Germany. Cromwell found the religiously unaligned Duchy of Cleves, with two unmarried daughters.
Cleves, situated in the lower Rhine River Valley in northwest Germany, was located at the convergence of French, Burgundian and German culture. Although technically part of the kingdom of Germany, it was in reality independent and financially stable, with its own army and foreign policy, and a ducal court that was open to new cultural, religious and political ideas.
The Duke of Cleves, John III, was a thoughtful man. Much like Henry VIII, but without the marital diversions, he had established his own moderate reformed church. He banned Lutheran writings but also rejected papal authority, proclaiming himself spiritual head of his duchy’s church. He consulted regularly with the great humanist scholar and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus, who approved of John’s practical view of religion.
As negotiations with Henry were beginning, John died and was succeeded by his son William, also anti-papal without being Lutheran
It seemed to Cromwell and to Henry VIII, that Cleves might provide a counterbalance to the Papal league of Valois and Hapsburg, without besmirching Henry with the Lutheranism that he detested. Henry could also expect a daughter of Cleves to be culturally informed, with a serious theologically inclined education.
In early 1539, therefore, negotiations began. Ambassadors were sent from England to the Cleves court at Dusseldorf. Henry received enthusiastic reports about Anne, the new young Duke’s sister. She was 24-years old to Henry’s 48. Henry sent his court artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, to paint her portrait. Henry was persuaded.
An embassy was sent from Cleves to England and a marriage treaty concluded in October 1539. The next month, Anne left for England, arriving in late December.
The couple’s first meeting on 1 January 1540 was disastrous. Henry told his minister Thomas Cromwell that, if matters had not progressed so far, and if he wasn’t afraid of driving Anne’s brother, the Duke of Cleves, into an alliance with the Emperor or the French king, he would call off the wedding. As it was, there was no turning back – but Henry was not at all happy.
On 6 January 1540, at 8:00 in the morning, Henry and Anne were married in the royal chapel at Greenwich.
The marriage was, on a personal level, a total and absolute failure. By his own admission, Henry was unable to consummate. He had, therefore, ample grounds when he had the marriage annulled several months later.
By this time, Henry was deep in a new relationship, which he wished to formalize. Fortunately for Henry, the international situation had also changed and the alliance with Cleves was no longer needed.
The fragile entente between Francis I and Charles V had broken down rapidly and the Catholic League had simply dissolved. Outright war did not resume between France and Spain until 1542, but the future was clear. Ultimately, Francis I allied with the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I and Charles V allied with Henry VIII. (Of course, neither of those alliances lasted either.)
Anne of Cleves’ brother William had, of course, also expected to gain by her marriage. In 1538, before his father’s death, William had claimed the duchy of Guelders. This was a direct challenge to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who claimed that Guelders was imperial territory. In 1541, in an attempt to forge an alliance with France that might combat the imperial claims, William married the 13-year-old Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre, niece of Francis I. Two years later, Charles V moved against William. Francis raised not one finger to help William, who was forced to surrender.
William ceded Guelders to Charles. He returned Cleves to Catholicism, renounced his alliance with the French and, annulling his marriage to Jeanne d’Albret, married instead a niece of Charles V. Cleves’ brief glorious moment as an important balance to the Catholic powers was over.