Anne Boleyn, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Wolsey, Carlos I of Spain, Catherine of Aragon, Emperor Charles V, King Francis I of France, King Henry VIII of England and Ireland, Pope Clement VII, Thomas Cranmer
During his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII conducted an affair with Mary Boleyn, Catherine’s lady-in-waiting. There has been speculation that Mary’s two children, Henry Carey and Catherine Carey, were fathered by Henry, but this has never been proved, and the king never acknowledged them as he did in the case of Henry FitzRoy. In 1525, as Henry grew more impatient with Catherine’s inability to produce the male heir he desired, he became enamoured of Mary Boleyn’s sister, Anne Boleyn, then a charismatic young woman of 25 in the queen’s entourage. Anne, however, resisted his attempts to seduce her, and refused to become his mistress as her sister had.
It was in this context that Henry considered his three options for finding a dynastic successor and hence resolving what came to be described at court as the king’s “great matter”. These options were legitimising Henry FitzRoy, which would need the involvement of the Pope Clement VII and would be open to challenge; marrying off Mary, his daughter with Catherine, as soon as possible and hoping for a grandson to inherit directly, but Mary was considered unlikely to conceive before Henry’s death, or somehow rejecting Catherine and marrying someone else of child-bearing age. Probably seeing the possibility of marrying Anne, the third was ultimately the most attractive possibility to the 34-year-old Henry, and it soon became the king’s absorbing desire to annul his marriage to the now 40-year-old Catherine.
Henry’s precise motivations and intentions over the coming years are not widely agreed on. Henry himself, at least in the early part of his reign, was a devout and well-informed Catholic to the extent that his 1521 publication Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (“Defence of the Seven Sacraments”) earned him the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) from Pope Leo X. The work represented a staunch defence of papal supremacy, albeit one couched in somewhat contingent terms.
It is not clear exactly when Henry changed his mind on the issue as he grew more intent on a second marriage. Certainly, by 1527, he had convinced himself that Catherine had produced no male heir because their union was “blighted in the eyes of God”. Indeed, in marrying Catherine, his brother’s wife, he had acted contrary to Leviticus 20:21, a justification Thomas Cranmer used to declare the marriage null. Martin Luther, on the other hand, had initially argued against the annulment, stating that Henry VIII could take a second wife in accordance with his teaching that the Bible allowed for polygamy but not divorce.
Henry now believed the Pope had lacked the authority to grant a dispensation from this impediment. It was this argument Henry took to Pope Clement VII in 1527 in the hope of having his marriage to Catherine annulled, forgoing at least one less openly defiant line of attack. In going public, all hope of tempting Catherine to retire to a nunnery or otherwise stay quiet was lost. Henry sent his secretary, William Knight, to appeal directly to the Holy See by way of a deceptively worded draft papal bull. Knight was unsuccessful; the Pope could not be misled so easily.
Other missions concentrated on arranging an ecclesiastical court to meet in England, with a representative from Clement VII. Although Clement agreed to the creation of such a court, he never had any intention of empowering his legate, Lorenzo Campeggio, to decide in Henry’s favour. This bias was perhaps the result of pressure from Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew, but it is not clear how far this influenced either Campeggio or the Pope.
After less than two months of hearing evidence, Clement called the case back to Rome in July 1529, from which it was clear that it would never re-emerge. With the chance for an annulment lost, Cardinal Wolsey bore the blame. He was charged with praemunire in October 1529, and his fall from grace was “sudden and total”. Briefly reconciled with Henry (and officially pardoned) in the first half of 1530, he was charged once more in November 1530, this time for treason, but died while awaiting trial.
After a short period in which Henry took government upon his own shoulders, Sir Thomas More took on the role of Lord Chancellor and chief minister. Intelligent and able, but a devout Catholic and opponent of the annulment, More initially cooperated with the king’s new policy, denouncing Wolsey in Parliament.
A year later, Catherine was banished from court, and her rooms were given to Anne Boleyn. Anne was an unusually educated and intellectual woman for her time and was keenly absorbed and engaged with the ideas of the Protestant Reformers, but the extent to which she herself was a committed Protestant is much debated. When Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, Anne’s influence and the need to find a trustworthy supporter of the annulment had Thomas Cranmer appointed to the vacant position. This was approved by the Pope, unaware of the king’s nascent plans for the Church.
In the winter of 1532, Henry met with King François I of France at Calais and enlisted the support of the French king for his new marriage. Immediately upon returning to Dover in England, Henry, now 41, and Anne went through a secret wedding service. She soon became pregnant, and there was a second wedding service in London on January 25, 1533. On May 23, 1533, Cranmer, sitting in judgment at a special court convened at Dunstable Priory to rule on the validity of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine null and void.
Five days later, on May 28, 1533, Cranmer declared the marriage of Henry and Anne to be valid. Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen, becoming instead “princess dowager” as the widow of Arthur. In her place, Anne was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. The queen gave birth to a daughter slightly prematurely on September 7, 1533. The child was christened Elizabeth, in honour of Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York.