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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

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