Henry VIII's infamous love life has been the subject of more than a few television dramas – Henry VIII's wives continue to be fodder fueling the historical rumor mill – but they often don't focus on the less-than-tragic aspects of his reign. The German Anne of Cleves, Henry's fourth wife, was one of the two he divorced – but not because she wouldn't give him a son. In his own words, she was "indisposed to excite and provoke any lust," and he was unable to consummate the marriage. In short, she was just too ugly to get Henry excited.
Six months after their wedding day, the two were divorced – experiencing both their marriage and its annulment in 1540 CE – yet they remained surprisingly good friends for the rest of Henry's rocky kingship. In fact, Anne would go on to be referred to – officially – as the "King's Beloved Sister" in the aftermath of their divorce. For a man infamous for his ruthless approach to love, marriage, and divorce, that's a pretty surprising ex-wife moniker.
After the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537, Henry VIII began actively looking for the next mother of his child. Across the Channel, a 22-year-old German royal named Anne was making the rounds of potential suitors as she was seen as a politically advantageous match. Because he heard "no great tales of her beauty," it took Henry until 1539 to pursue the union, and he sent his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to check Anne out. Cromwell returned from the exploratory expedition filled with praise for Anne's beauty, describing her as someone "[every] man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body… she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon."
Unfortunately, the truth of the matter looked a little... different to Henry. When Anne arrived at the English court for their nuptials, Henry disguised himself to surprise his blushing bride. However, when he saw her face, Henry is reported to have exclaimed: “I like her not! I like her not!” to Cromwell. And thus began divorce proceedings before the wedding day.
Despite Henry's vehement protestations, the wedding had to move forward, and Anne and Henry were married on January 6, 1540. That night, which should have included a consummation of the royal nuptials, did not really go as planned. In the words of Henry:
"Surely, as ye know, I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse. For I have felt her belly and her breast, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid… [The] which struck me so to the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters… I have left her as good a maid as I found her."
For her part, even though she was 24 when she married Henry VIII, Anne still thought she could get pregnant from kissing. After telling her handmaidens as much, they kindly informed her that it would take a little bit more than that and probably gave the new Queen of England (who still couldn't speak English very well) the most awkward "birds and the bees" talk in history. If their annulment is to be believed, sexy time most certainly did not happen that night.
Thomas Cromwell engineered the alliance with Anne of Cleves so that England would have another Protestant army to back them up in the impending war with France and Spain (which were both very Catholic). Theoretically, this was a great plan but, by the time Henry VIII saw his bride-to-be (and was repulsed by her), the threat of war had decreased significantly. So, after marrying an ugly wife and forming a now-useless alliance, Henry did what he did best: he charged Cromwell with treason and heresy and chopped off his head. Ironically, a descendent of Thomas Cromwell's, Oliver Cromwell, would chop off the head of a different king, King Charles I, in 1649.
If you wanted to get a divorce in Henry VIII's day, you had to get creative (see Henry chopping off his wives' heads as an example). In the event of sexual troubles on the part of the man, blame could be absolved from either party by citing the fact that a witch could have put a spell on the man and thus cursed the union, making him unable to perform. Bewitchment was actually cited as a cause for divorce in those days fairly frequently. Henry, however, was persistent that his troubles in this regard were selective, meaning that it was just Anne of Cleves, and there was nothing at all wrong with his manhood. So, they just went with the less supernatural reason of non-consummation.