Happy Birthday, Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII!

by Heather R. Darsie

On this day of 28 June in 1515, a little baby girl was born in the Holy Roman Empire whose life would be dramatically shaped by international politics. The baby was christened, “Anna,” after her paternal aunt. “Anna” was a family name on her maternal side, as well. Anna of Cleves’ great-grandmother through Maria of Juelich-Berg was Anna of Saxony. Anna of Saxony, who died in 1512, was the wife of Elector Albrecht Achilles of Brandenburg. Anna von der Mark, known to English speakers as Anne of Cleves, was born into a powerfully connected family in the Holy Roman Empire.

The marriage of little Anna’s parents created a unified powerhouse in Germany that would later threaten the Empire’s hold on the area. After defeat, the United Duchies of Juelich-Cleves-Berg would become wealthy in land holdings and remain stable during the long reign of Anna’s brother Wilhelm V, known as Wilhelm the Rich. Far from being an almost random German bride for the powerful Henry VIII of England, Anna was valuable for her family’s landholdings and connections within the Empire. For Anna, it all started on 28 June 1515, her future husband’s 24th birthday.

Anna of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Henry VIII was King of England for a little over six years by the time Anna was born. Henry’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon, had so far birthed four children, who were either stillborn or died after only a few days. In the summer of 1515, sometime after Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII’s birthday, Katharine announced another pregnancy. This pregnancy resulted in the birth of Mary I in February 1516, making Anna a mere eight months older than her future stepdaughter.

Please note that the remainder of this article was posted on History of Royal Women

When I first began researching Anna, I questioned whether her name was indeed “Anne,” which would have a similar pronunciation in German to “Anna,” or if her name was Anna. After sorting out that Anna’s true name was indeed Anna, I wanted to learn from where her September 21 or 22, 1515 or 1516 date of birth came. I looked at several English secondary sources, and not one source for Anna’s date of birth was cited. Around this same time, I became aware of Die Chronik des Johann Wassenberch, or, The Chronicle of Johann WassenberchDie Chronik was a contemporary chronicle written in Duisburg, which was part of the Duchy of Cleves. It spans from the late 15th century, then abruptly ends in 1517. It is thought that Johann Wassenberch died of plague.

I purchased the book and later forgotten that I had so done until Die Chronik came in the mail. It was around 19:00 on 27 June 2017. I skimmed through the book and was happy to see that the dates of Anna’s parents’ wedding, birth of her sister Sybylla, and birth of Wilhelm were all correct and properly listed, amongst other important dates. I knew Amalia was born a few days after Die Chronik ended, so I was not surprised that her birthdate was not in Die Chronik.

When I leafed to September 1515, there was no mention of Anna. I checked September 1516, then 1513 and 1514, and still nothing. I thought that perhaps her birth was not listed because she was a second child and second daughter. I was disappointed, but still happy to have the valuable resource.

A couple hours later, I was still skimming through the book and starting preliminary translation when I received a huge surprise: Anna’s date of birth was recorded, and it was given as 28 June 1515! Though I am not one who believes in fate, I looked at the clock and noted that in Germany at that moment it was the early morning of 28 June 2017, Anna’s 502d birthday. I could not believe it! Chills went down my spine. This also meant that Anna was exactly twenty-four years younger than Henry VIII, making him exactly twice her age when they married.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, c. 1540.

After conducting more research into German sources and critically thinking about the births of Anna and her brother, a June 1515 or possibly very early July 1515 birthdate seemed to make more sense than a September 1515 birthdate. Following please find an excerpt from my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, discussing my argument for Anna’s true date of birth being 28 June 1515.

“This year [of 1515], on [28 June,] the day before Saints Peter and Paul, a second daughter was born to the eldest son of Duke John II of Cleves, Duke Johann III of Jülich and Berg…. The child was baptized in the name of Anna….”

As far back as 1844 in English sources, Anna’s date of birth has been given as 21 or 22 September in either 1515 or 1516. Agnes Strickland gave Anna’s date of birth as 22 September 1516 in Volume II of her Lives of the Queens of England, published in the mid-1800s, citing Part I of the Royal Genealogies by James Anderson, D. D., and published in 1732. Anderson simply gives Anna’s date of birth as being in 1516, with no citation…Strickland also relies on Maur-François Dantine’s L’Art de Vérifier les Dates, published in Paris in the early 18th century. It gives…Anna’s birth as 22 September 1515 with no citation to any source.

The archives in Germany do not possess any documentation about the birth of Anna. It is possible that the documents showing it have been lost…. [The] one primary source that does exist, Die Chronik des Johann Wassenberch, or Chronicle of Johann Wassenberch, is recognised as a contemporary source for events in the Lower Rhine region between 1492 and 1517….A review of other dates pertinent to Anna’s family, such as the marriage of her parents, and births of her older sister Sybylla and brother Wilhelm, correctly correspond with other known dates in the Chronicle of Johann Wassenberch.

…When taking into consideration the primary source, births of Anna’s siblings, Catholic tradition, and German secondary sources, there is ample support for Anna’s true date of birth being earlier than September 1515, on 28 June 1515 at the earliest and 1 July 1515 at the latest.”

Select excerpt from Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, pp. 17-20.

Love learning about the Reformation or Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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  3. My Adventures with the Duchess of Cleves!
  4. The First Cracks in Anna of Cleves’ Marriage to Henry VIII
  5. Death of Johann III of Cleves and Ascension of Wilhelm V: Anna of Cleves’ Future Changes
  6. When Henry Met Anna: The German Account

Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley (2019).

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