The romance and marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn was perhaps one of the most consequential in history. Indeed it appears that every English schoolkid will have studied it and the surrounding consequences at some point.
The result of the romance was of course the English Reformation and the establishment of Protestantism in England. Whilst certainly not the sole cause, it was a deciding factor.
Henry VIII infamously had six wives. Anne Boleyn was the second, Catherine of Aragon the first.
Henry met Anne whilst married to his first wife. She was a courtier gracing his court. Surprisingly, Anne was perhaps not the most beautiful of the ladies within his court. Indeed Henry may have initially been attracted to her sister Mary.
However Anne, who had spent seven years on the continent in France, possessed about her a certain charm and wit that eventually infatuated Henry. Within a year he had proposed.
However the problem was that Henry was already married.
Trying for annulment
Henry tried to get his marriage to Catherine annulled by the Pope. She had not borne him an heir, and coupled with his infatuation with Anne, he had grown disenchanted with Catherine. He claimed his marriage was cursed in the eyes of God, due to Catherine being his brother’s widow.
However the Pope refused. This may have been due to the Pope’s fear of Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This fear was understandable considering Charles had previously taken the Pope hostage for a year. Regardless of the reason, an annulment was not given.
Henry called a Parliament in order to achieve an annulment. Due to the prior execution of his Catholic Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, this Parliament was dominated by prominent reformers. Notable amongst them was Thomas Cromwell.
Cromwell and Anne pushed Henry to ignore the Pope, but a meeting of lawyers and clergy advised against it. Thus began a process which culminated in Henry becoming the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and splitting from Rome entirely.
Henry still wanted support for his marriage. So he went to France and sought the approval of Francis I, the French king. Gaining an implicit approval, he then held a private ceremony in London on the 25 January 1533. The Archbishop of Canterbury then declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void, and five days later the marriage to Anne was declared valid.
This may not have been their first wedding however. Some sources point to them having married in another secret ceremony in November 1532, shortly after they returned from their meeting with Francis I in Calais.
It is possible that Anne had misgivings about this first wedding, she didn’t want to give anyone cause to doubt her legitimacy as queen. The marriage in January was done exactly by the book so there could be no doubting Anne’s position.
The need to legitimise their union at this time was particularly important because Anne was already pregnant. Supporters of Elizabeth I later highlighted the earlier ceremony of 14 November 1532 to prove that Elizabeth was not conceived in wedlock.
The not so happily ever after
After all this Henry and Anne were finally married. Yet it would not last. the forthrightness and intelligence which had so enamoured Henry as a mistress, were not deemed to be fit for a wife. The lack of a son was the final blow.
Just 3 years later, in 1536, she was beheaded after being found guilty of adultery, incest, and treason. She maintained to her death that she had not been unfaithful. It is possible that this is true.
However the machinations of her enemies (including her former ally Thomas Cromwell) and Henry’s relentless search for a son made this irrelevant. Henry soon married his next mistress Jane Seymour, who would finally fulfil his desire for an heir.
Henry’s final mercy was to have her beheaded by an expert swordsman, and not with an axe. The romance that shaped the nature of Christianity in England thus came to a tragic conclusion.