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Beware the mare! How a Holbein portrait was a warning for Henry VIII not to marry Anne of Cleves

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Beware the mare! How a Holbein portrait was long felt to have led Henry VIII to fall for Anne of Cleves… but it was really a warning not to marry her

  • Art historian claimed a portrait of Anne of Cleves was a warning not to marry her
  • The painting was commissioned by Henry VIII before he married Anne in 1540
  • Historian said artist Hans Holbein depicted her as flat, ‘a bit vanilla’ as a warning










It has long been thought to have been too flattering. 

But the portrait of Anne of Cleves commissioned by Henry VIII was really a subtle warning not to marry her, an art historian claims. 

Hans Holbein’s painting contained hidden messages that the prospective bride, whom Henry had never seen, was unattractive, Franny Moyle told the Cheltenham Literature Festival. 

When the king met Anne, he is said to have accused his ambassadors of bringing him a ‘Flanders mare’. 

This portrait of Anne of Cleves commissioned by Henry VIII was a subtle warning by artist Hans Holbein not to marry her, an art historian has claimed

This portrait of Anne of Cleves commissioned by Henry VIII was a subtle warning by artist Hans Holbein not to marry her, an art historian has claimed

They had been sent to Cleves in Germany to provide a written description but when they complained she wore veils and high collars, Henry sent court painter Holbein to do him a portrait. 

‘You don’t get many full-face portraits,’ Miss Moyle said. 

‘I think Holbein is saying she lacks dimension. She’s a little flat, she’s a bit vanilla.’ 

The diplomats told Henry that Anne couldn’t dance, couldn’t speak English and had no sense of humour. 

‘So here is Holbein trying to warn the king. But of course, he can’t, because if he puts the king off he’s in real trouble as well,’ Miss Moyle said. 

Despite his disappointment Henry took Anne, 24, as his fourth wife in 1540. 

The king, 49, was struggling with impotence and is said to have spent four nights failing to consummate their marriage, blaming her unattractiveness. 

The marriage was annulled six months later.

Despite his disappointment Henry VIII took Anne, 24, as his fourth wife in 1540, but their marriage was annulled six months later

Despite his disappointment Henry VIII took Anne, 24, as his fourth wife in 1540, but their marriage was annulled six months later

Anne had previously been set to marry the Duke of Lorraine’s son, but the marriage was cancelled in 1535 after being declared unofficial.

However, Henry got out of his own union by claiming Anne was still betrothed to the Duke’s son, because there was no document present which declared it dissolved. 

Following their separation, Anne was referred to as ‘the King’s Beloved Sister’ and received both Richmond Palace and Hever Castle as part of her settlement.

Henry and Anne became friends and she was invited to his court frequently by way of gratitude of her not contesting the annulment.

Anne was portrayed by British actress Joss Stone in the BBC drama The Tudors

Anne was portrayed by British actress Joss Stone in the BBC drama The Tudors

German-born Holbein travelled to England in 1526 in search of work and quickly built a good reputation for himself. 

Under the patronage of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, Holbein had become King’s Painter to Henry VIII in 1536. 

As well as producing the portrait of Anne of Cleves, he also depicted Henry himself in what became the monarch’s most famous image. 

He was seen standing in a heroic pose with his feet apart.   

HENRY VIII: THE ‘LARGER THAN LIFE’ KING WITH SIX WIVES AND A LAVISH LIFESTYLE 

Born at Greenwich Palace in 1491, Henry VIII was the third child and second son of Henry VII and his wife.

Only three of his six siblings survived infancy – and he succeeded his father as king following his death on 22 April, 1509.

Under Henry VIII’s reign, England turned in favour of Protestantism and split from Rome, the Royal Navy built up a fleet of about 50 ships and the country invaded France.

Henry VIII was well known for his six marriages, all of which ended in some sort of tragedy – divorce or death – but the Tudor king was also known for other, stranger things.

He was known to self-medicate, even going as far as making his own medicines.

Born at Greenwich Palace in 1491, Henry VIII was the third child and second son of Henry VII and his wife

Born at Greenwich Palace in 1491, Henry VIII was the third child and second son of Henry VII and his wife

A record on a prescription for ulcer treatment in the British Museum reads: ‘An Oyntment devised by the kinges Majesty made at Westminster, and devised at Grenwich to take away inflammations and to cease payne and heale ulcers called gray plaster.’

He was also a musician and composer, owning 78 flutes, 78 recorders, five bagpipes, and has since had his songs covered by Jethro Tull.

Many are unaware that he died while heavily in debt, after having such a lavish lifestyle and spending far, far more than taxes would earn him.

He also possessed the largest tapestry collection ever documented, and 6,500 pistols.

While most portraits show him as a slight man, he was actually very large, with one observer calling him ‘an absolute monster’.

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