The Tudor Society

1 January – Henry VIII’s disastrous meeting with Anne of Cleves

In today's "on this day in Tudor history talk", Claire Ridgway, author of several Tudor history books, puts you out of your misery from the cliffhanger she left you with on 27th December, by telling you all about Henry VIII's first meeting with his bride-to-be, Anne of Cleves, on 1st January 1540.

This meeting between King Henry VIII and the woman who would soon become his fourth wife, was a bit of a disaster, but exactly how much of a disaster was it? The accounts differ and in the video I share two slightly different contemporary accounts, one given in a chronicle and one shared in the annulment proceedings a few months later in 1540.

What happened on New Year's Day 1540 at Rochester? Find out all about Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves' first meeting in today's talk.

And here's my video from last year about 1st January 1511, the birth of a son for King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon...

Also on this day in Tudor history:

  • 1463 – Probable birthdate of Silvestro Gigli, diplomat and Bishop of Worcester, at Lucca in Italy. Gigli was nominated as Bishop of Worcester in December 1498, and enthroned in April 1499.
  • 1515 – Death of Louis XII of France, less than three months after his marriage to Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII. He did not have a son, and so was succeeded by Francis I, his cousin's son and the husband of Louis' daughter, Claude. Louis was buried in Saint Denis Basilica.
    1537 – Marriage of James V of Scotland and Madeleine de Valois, daughter of Francis I, at Notre Dame in Paris.
  • 1556 – Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York, became Mary I's Lord Chancellor.


Today is a bit of a milestone for me as it’s the one year anniversary of my “on this day in Tudor history” series of talks. I challenged myself to do a daily video for my YouTube channel based on my book “On This Day in Tudor History” and I had no idea that it would be so popular and become podcasts too. And here I am for another year! Thank you so much for following.

This year I will be bringing you even more Tudor events and people, and what’s really good is that I’ll also be linking to last year’s talks so you can be reminded of those or enjoy another “on this day” event for the first time.

Today, I’m carrying on from my cliffhanger of 27th December 1539, the day that Anne of Cleves landed on English soil, to tell you what happened at her first meeting with King Henry VIII. I mentioned how historian Amy Licence had noted that Henry VIII really should have learned from the disastrous first meeting of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjoy, so let me first tell you a bit about that.

Henry VI was desperate to see his future bride, Margaret, who’d been fetched from France by William de la Pole, but Margaret was ill. The king just couldn’t wait so he disguised himself as a squire bearing a letter from the king. He knelt in front of her and she completely ignored him, leaving him on his knees, while she read the letter. After he had left, de la Pole had to explain to her that the squire had actually been the king. Margaret was described as being “vexed… because she had kept him on his knees.” Of course, as historian Lauren Johnson has pointed out, Margaret may have been fully aware of what was going on and was just playing the innocent lady as part of this game of courtly love. It’s hard to say, but history repeated itself on 1st January 1540 when Henry VIII decided to play the game of courtly love.

Like Henry VI before him, Henry VIII was excited about meeting his bride to be for the first time and couldn’t wait for her official reception at Greenwich, so decided to disguise himself and travel to Rochester to surprise her.

Chronicler and Windsor Herald Charles Wriothesley gives an account of this first meeting:

“[…] and on New Year’s day at afternoon, the King’s Grace, with five of his Privy Chamber, being disguised with cloaks of marble with hoods, that they should not be known, came privily to Rochester, and so went up into the chamber where the said Lady Anne looked out at a window to see the bull baiting that was that time in the court, and suddenly he embraced her and kissed, and showed her a token that the King had sent her for her New Year’s gift, and she being abashed, not knowing who it was, thanked him, and so he communed with her, but she regarded him little, but always looked out of the window on the bull baiting, and when the King perceived she regarded his coming so little, he departed into another chamber and put off his cloak and came in again in a coat of purple velvet, and when the lords and knights did see his Grace they did him reverence, and then she, perceiving the lords doing their duties, humbled her Grace lowly to the King’s Majesty, and his Grace saluted her again, and so talked together lovingly, and after took her by the hand and led her into another chamber where they solaced their graces that night and till Friday at afternoune […]”

As we can see from this account, Anne was not expecting a visit from the king, Henry was in disguise and she did not realise who he was and so treated him just like a servant. Ooops! However, it doesn’t sound like it was too disastrous as the king and Anne then talked lovingly together after the misunderstanding.

But, in the depositions taken a few months later, during the annulment proceedings, Sir Anthony Browne, Henry VIII’s Master of the Horse, gave a slightly different account:

“The said Sir Anthony saith how at the arrival of the Queen at Rochester, the King’s Highness appointed to go thither to see her upon New Year’s day, and ordered the said Anthony to wait upon him: and at his coming thither, to go before him with this message, how he had brought her a New Year’s gift, if it liked her to see it. And when the said Sir Anthony entered the chamber where she was, and having conceived in his mind, what was by pictures and advertisements signified of her beauty and qualities, at the general view of the ladies he thought he saw no such thing there, and yet were thother of better favour than the Queen. But when he was directed unto herself, and advisedly looked upon her, he saith, he was never more dismayed in all his life, lamenting in his heart, which altered his outward countenance, to see the Lady so far and unlike that was reported and of such sort as he thought the King’s Highness should not content hiself with her. Nevertheless, at his return to the King’s Majesty with her answer, the said Sir Anthony said nothing, he durst not. Then when the King’s Highness entered to embrace her, and kiss her, the said Sir Anthony saith, he saw and noted in the King’s Highness countenance such a discontentment and misliking of her person, as he was very sorry of it. For the said Sir Anthony saith, he much marked that the King’s Highness tarried not to speak with her twenty words, but called for her council, and with his council and them devised communication all that night, the King’s Highness without showing any cheerful or merry countenance disclosed not his heart. But whereas the King’s Majesty had brought with him a partlet furred with sables and richly garnished, sable skins garnished to wear about her neck, with a muffle furred, to give the Queene, and a cap, the King’s Highness passed over the execution of his intent that night, and in the morning sent them by the said Sir Anthony Browne with as cold and single a message as might be.

The said Sir Anthony saith also, how the King’s Majesty returning in his barge from thence to Greenwich, said to the said Sir Anthony, by his Highness’s commandment, then sitting by him, these words very sadly and pensively: 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. With which words the said Sir Anthony was abashed, fearing lest anything should be objected to my Lord of Southampton his brother, for that he had written to her praise.”

So, this first meeting was used as evidence of the king’s unhappiness and his view that he had been deceived into marrying Anne by those who had made false reports about her.

So which account is true?

Well, it is likely that the king was humiliated by this meeting. According to chivalric tradition, the woman was mean to be able to see through a disguise and recognise her true love. Anne was meant to fall in love with Henry at first sight, she was meant to be bowled over by him, but she had ignored him and carried on watching the bull baiting. This must have been a blow to Henry VIII’s pride, particularly as this happened in front of Anne’s ladies and the king’s men. He may have been able to cover up his embarrassment, but I do think that this had a major impact on how he felt about Anne.

However, I don’t think he’d been deceived at all. Nobody else found Anne unattractive or questioned Holbein’s depiction of her or reports on her looks and personality, and I’m sure those that fetched her from Calais would have been worried and done something to warn the king if they had found anything wrong with his bride to be. After all, those sent to greet her in Calais had included the king’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Surely he would have sent an urgent message to the king if something had been wrong.

My own personal view is that Henry VIII just needed to blame someone else for setting him up with a woman who hadn’t been ‘wowed’ by him on their first meeting. He couldn’t get over that initial humiliation, and it left him unable to consummate the marriage, which was even more humiliating. It couldn’t be his fault!

If only Anne had been warned of Henry VIII’s love of dressing up, if only someone had whispered in her ear that the servant in front of her was the King of England, if only Anne had swooned and sunk to her knees, recognising her husband to be, if only… I’m sure she would have made a wonderful queen consort if the king had given her a chance.

Only 1 comment so far Go To Comment

  1. R

    Sir Anthony Browne and Henry invented the whole thing to end a marriage which wasn’t wanted and put England in a dangerous situation. It wasn’t great for him personally, but really the situation in Europe was a hot potato and Henry was in the middle of the fire. Hall and the German accounts are the most accurate.

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1 January – Henry VIII’s disastrous meeting with Anne of Cleves