The romance and marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn was perhaps one of the most consequential in history. It has gone on to fascinate people for centuries as they wonder exactly what drove Henry to such extreme actions in order to marry Anne.
Whilst nearly 500 years later, we will never know the exact course of their relationship, we can certainly examine the consequences: the English Reformation and the establishment of Protestantism in England. Anne and Henry’s courtship may not have been the sole cause, but it was certainly a major factor in shaping England for the centuries to come.
Henry VIII infamously had 6 wives: but he was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for nearly 24 years. Henry met Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, around 1522: Anne was not the most beautiful woman at court, but she was well-educated, witty, attractive and exotic, having spent many of her teenage years at the French court.
By 1526, Henry was infatuated with Anne. Unlike her sister Mary, Anne refused to become Henry’s mistress, saying she would only sleep with him when they were married. The pair played at courtly love, exchanging ardent love letters and courting until Henry proposed marriage to Anne.
Trying for annulment
Henry tried to get his marriage to Catherine annulled by the Pope. She had not borne him a son and heir, and years of pregnancies and miscarriages had not been kind to her. Coupled with his infatuation with Anne, Henry began to quote Biblical verses, claiming his marriage was cursed in the eyes of God, due to Catherine being his brother’s widow.
The Pope, Clement VII, was reluctant to grant Henry’s wish. Catherine was a Spanish princess and aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V: annulling her marriage would have serious political consequences. An ecclesiastical court was summoned to judge the matter in England, but after months of debate, the request for an annulment was denied.
Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister, had spearheaded his attempts for the annulment and failed. He quickly, and dramatically fell from favour, leaving room for the quick-thinking, legally-minded Thomas Cromwell to take his place.
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.
Long awaited marriage
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 25 January 1533. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, then declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void, and 5 days later the marriage to Anne was declared valid. Henry couldn’t be labelled a bigamist because his marriage to Catherine was, he claimed, invalid.
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. Nor could Henry be labelled a bigamist because his marriage to Catherine was, he claimed, invalid.
The need to legitimise their union at this time was particularly important because Anne was already pregnant. Supporters of Elizabeth I, Anne and Henry’s only surviving child, 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, fiery temper and intelligence which had so enamoured Henry as a mistress were not the qualities he wanted in a wife. Anne’s inability to provide him with a son and heir was the final nail in the coffin.
Just 3 years later, in 1536, Anne was beheaded after being found guilty of adultery, incest, and treason. She maintained to her death that she had not been unfaithful, and on her execution, she declared
God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.
Regardless of Anne’s guilt, or not, Henry had decided that she had to be gone. Whether or not she was actually unfaithful to him was virtually immaterial. However the machinations of her enemies (including her former ally Thomas Cromwell) and Henry’s relentless search for a son made this irrelevant. Henry quickly married Jane Seymour, who would finally fulfil his desire for an heir.
Henry’s final mercy was to have Anne beheaded by an expert swordsman, and not with an axe, bringing to a tragic enemy that love affair that would go on to shape the nature of Christianity in England right up until the present day.