The Anne of Cleves House Museum in Lewes

Preserved, Closed, Survived – much like its intended occupant, the Anne of Cleves House Museum has a knack for persevering. For over 500 years it has stood the test of time, and although the pandemic might have momentarily closed its doors, it is due to reopen this year by the beginning of April.


The Anne of Cleves House, as its name suggests, is connected to Anne of Cleves, the unfortunate bride of King Henry VIII. Unfortunate indeed, but not as unfortunate as her predecessors, for Anne survived her marital encounter with King Henry and was divorced rather than executed.


Anne was born in 1515 in Dusseldorf, Germany. Her father was the Duke of Cleves, and when Anne was eleven years old, she was betrothed to Francis, the nine-year-old son of the Duke of Lorraine. However, the betrothal only lasted a few years, and a little over a decade later, when the news arrived that King Henry VIII of England was in search of a new bride, Anne sat for the portrait that would change her life.


King Henry’s court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, went to Germany to capture the likenesses of both Anne and her younger sister Amelia. Holbein was famed for his portraiture, and when Henry received the two paintings, he was delighted with Anne’s appearance and her status as the older daughter who would be potentially more useful in a political alliance as this marriage would be. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister and close advisor, also pushed for the match as he believed it would be a strong union and beneficial for the kingdom.


Anne arrived in England and met Henry in person for the first time on New Year’s Day in 1540. It was not the triumphant union that all parties had hoped for. Henry was shocked at the difference between Anne’s portrait and her real appearance; she also spoke no English, only German, and had none of the courtly skills and education that Henry prized. Henry is said to have cruelly dubbed her “The Mare of Flanders” but other contemporary sources describe her as, at worst, unremarkable in appearance, and mention her gentle nature and long fair hair.


Either way, the marriage was not a success. Henry continued to express his dissatisfaction with Anne, and insisted that he could not even consummate their union. In the summer of the same year, he announced his intention to annul the marriage. Anne did not quibble, and she received a generous settlement, including the eponymous house in Lewes, which she gave her name to but never visited. Thomas Cromwell was later executed for treason, his fall from grace precipitated by his involvement in arranging the marriage.


Once annulled, Anne and Henry reportedly became good friends, and she was given the title of “the King’s Beloved Sister”. She remained in England for the rest of her life, outliving Henry and the rest of his wives, and eventually dying, probably of cancer, on 16th July 1557.


Find out more about the Anne of Cleves House Museum by visiting their website. It re-opens for visiting on April 1st.

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