A Bergisch daughter on the English throne

The first German Queen of England lived in Castle Burg
A transfer talk with the historian Dr. Georg Eckert

In the late fall of 1539, 263 people and 228 horses set out from Düsseldorf for faraway England to deliver to King Henry VIII his fourth wife: Anne of Cleves. Almost forgotten in this country, the Duchess of Jülich-Kleve-Berg was distinguished by one characteristic in particular. She was the first queen on the English throne to come from what is now Germany - and to this day the only one from the Bergisch land. Dr. Georg Eckert, a historian in the School of Humanities at the University of Wuppertal, knows her story and, above all, the circumstances that led the Bergisch daughter to the island.

Childhood and youth at Castle Burg

Not much has been handed down about the duchess. But "we know she was English queen for six months, we know she was the second eldest daughter of an important player in the empire and throughout Europe, John III, Duke of Jülich-Kleve-Berg. The dukes of Jülich-Kleve-Berg held a key confessional and political position in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," Eckert explains, continuing, "the duchy framed the Catholic archbishopric of Cologne and bordered the reformed later Netherlands. And it was located on the Rhine, along a strategically as well as economically central stream." Anna shares the problem of a sparse source material with many rulers' wives, explains the native of Württemberg; in his view, the few surviving testimonies should be taken with a grain of salt, since they stem from domestic political disputes in England or are shaped by purpose-bound foreign perceptions. "At least everyone agrees that she was a kind and affectionate person who obviously took good care of her servants."

Dynastic marriage policy - Duchy plays in Champions League

But from the beginning: Born in Düsseldorf in 1517, Anne of Cleves spent large parts of her childhood and youth at Burg Castle in Solingen. Under the care of her mother, Maria von Berg, she enjoyed a rather conventional education in which Renaissance ideals had hardly been incorporated; languages, the fine arts or music played hardly any role, not even courtly dance. This makes it all the more difficult to explain why such an art-loving and worldly monarch as Henry VIII should have expressed an interest in Anne: "Here again, origin plays a decisive role," Eckert explains, "we are moving into dynastic marriage politics. Political alliances were arranged and reinforced by marriages between major European noble families. This can be seen quite well with Anne of Cleves." The marriage plans showed the enormous importance of the duchy of Jülich-Kleve-Berg at that time: "Actually, Anne of Cleves was already promised to the French Duke Francis I of Lorraine in her childhood. Her older sister Sibylle was married to the Elector John Frederick I of Saxony. In a way, that's Champions League in marriage connections," says Eckert, who teaches modern history as a private lecturer. "Henry VIII needed strong allies at the time, but that was somewhat problematic after the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The Danish princess Christina, to whom he first looked, is credited with the bon mot, 'she possessed only one head.' If she had two of them, one would be at Henry's disposal.'" The English king was looking for powerful allies to stand up to the emerging alliance between the King of France and the Habsburgs, who were already ill-disposed toward Henry after the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon - while Anne's older brother, Duke William V, for his part wanted to assert the just-inherited Duchy of Guelders against Emperor Charles V. Here the interests overlapped, "especially since both dynasties were also bound by confession, in that they had just not bound themselves," according to Eckert: "We are, after all, in the middle of the age of the Reformation." A Catholic marriage was hardly conceivable; Henry VIII had broken away from the Curia with the Anglican Church, and he had also been excommunicated in 1538. With his former polemics against Martin Luther, however, he had also turned his followers against him. "The circle of European high noblewomen who were conceivable as spouses was thus reasonably narrow. But Jülich-Kleve-Berg was an almost perfect fit; the dukes there took a middle course between the extremes: not strictly against the pope, but not in favor of the reformers either," Eckert explains.

The famous picture of Anne hangs in the Louvre

The king had his court painter Hans Holbein the Younger travel to Düren to paint portraits of the duke's daughters Anne and Amalia, both potential spouses. The painting of Anne, on the basis of which he chose her, can be admired today in the Louvre in Paris. But apparently the painter had portrayed Anne's face too flatteringly. Above all, however, the duchess's lack of knowledge of Tudor court rituals may have led to a ceremonial breakdown. "Henry was a Renaissance man who worked with sophisticated staging," Eckert relates, "He only approached Anne in disguise. He knew whom he was courting - but not her. He probably expected a different reaction. You have to imagine the scene like a small theater performance, the text of which was known to everyone involved: except Anne," who probably couldn't identify her future husband at all and turned her back on him after handing over his gift. The king is said to have been horrified by the fact that Anne was nowhere near as beautiful as she appeared in Holbein's portrait and withdrew, immediately postponing the marriage. However, this quibble should by no means be seen as a male whim, the scholar points out: "Henry was already enough of a power politician to know that highly political questions about marriage could not be answered solely by looking at pretty faces. His subsequent turning away from his future wife was probably also a staging. Some Englishmen, who would have preferred to see another Englishwoman as queen like Anne's executed predecessor, certainly belonged to its addressees, but also foreign countries. Freely according to the principle 'look what I can do and get away with'."

English queen for half a year

But a total withdrawal would have been politically unwise, if not impossible. So the marriage was finally consummated in Greenwich on January 6, 1540... and lasted half a year, no longer: In the meantime, essential initial conditions of the marriage had become invalid. The threatening alliance between the Habsburg emperor and the king of France had burst, in England the balance had shifted to Anne's disadvantage - Thomas Cromwell, mastermind of the marriage, was beheaded. So what happened to the first German queen on the English throne? "First things first: she was not executed," smiles Eckert, who admittedly points to the findings of research: "Henry VIII did not serially execute his wives. He had his relatively compelling political reasons for executing Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard; on top of that, they were Englishwomen, with no threat of international entanglements. Therefore, after annulling the marriage by mutual consent, Henry very well endowed Anne to keep the connection with Jülich-Kleve-Berg. Moreover, a marriage contract had determined what was due to her. This amicable solution signaled to other potential wives. 'You don't have to be afraid of me'. Heinrich still wanted to secure his dynasty, through further male heirs," says Eckert.

Beloved sister plays her role well

Anne retired to her country estate, but remained highly respected at the Tudor court. "At the coronation of Mary Tudor, she played a prominent role along with Elizabeth I: for all to see, and she was, after all, placed in a very honorable position as Henry's 'beloved sister.'" Anne of Cleves, as she was known in England, died a natural death, and according to Eckert, this was also due to her thoughtful behavior. "She acted skillfully by just not interfering in unmanageable intrigues of English politics, and thus survived the critical changes of rule quite well, first to King Edward VI, then to Mary Tudor. She was wise enough not to leave any compromising writings that could have been exploited against her. The role in which she now stood she played well." Admittedly, she had no influence on the education of the future Queen Elizabeth I: "What was desirable and chic at the English court Anne of Cleves simply did not master: neither contemporary foreign languages nor the classics nor music and dance: all elements that were quite characteristic of Tudor court life."

Tomb in Westminster Abbey

She is the only person from the Bergisch Land to rest to this day in Westminster Abbey, the English royal church where most English rulers are buried; Anne of Cleves House near Lewes in the county of East Sussex displays furniture and fittings of the period. "In Britain, the memory of this woman is present. Wherever Henry and his six wives are mentioned, Anne of Cleves immediately comes to mind. That's how the name has stuck in the cultural memory."
Incidentally, the court painter Hans Holbein the Younger was never again allowed to paint a member of the royal family.

Uwe Blass (Interview on November 15, 2019)


Dr. Georg Eckert studied history and philosophy in Tübingen, where he received his doctorate with a study of the early Enlightenment around 1700 with a British focus, and habilitated in Wuppertal. In 2009, he started as a research assistant in history and now teaches as a private lecturer in modern history.

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