Today in History: the anniversary month of separation of the Church of England from Rome:

The Undoing of a Royal Marriage 


In 1525, Henry VIII became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, a maid-of-honour to Queen Catherine, who was between 10-17 years younger than Henry. Henry began pursuing her.[17] By this time Catherine was no longer able to undergo further pregnancies. Henry began to believe that his marriage was cursed and sought confirmation from the Bible, which said if a man marries his brother’s wife, the couple will be childless.[18] If she had lied when she said her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, it meant that their marriage was wrong in the eyes of God. It is possible that the idea of annulment had been suggested to Henry much earlier than this, and is highly probable that it was motivated by his desire for a son. Before Henry’s father, Henry VII, ascended the throne, England was beset by civil warfare over rival claims to the English crown, and Henry may have wanted to avoid a similar uncertainty over the succession.[19]

It soon became the one absorbing object of Henry’s desires to secure an annulment.[20] Catherine was defiant when it was suggested that she quietly retire to a nunnery, saying “God never called me to a nunnery I am the King’s true and legitimate wife”.[21] He set his hopes upon an appeal to the Holy See, acting independently of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, whom he told nothing of his plans. William Knight, the King’s secretary, was sent to Pope Clement VII to sue for an annulment, on the grounds that the dispensing bull of Pope Julius II was obtained by false pretences. When Henry spoke to Queen Catherine of Doctors’ and Lawyers’ opinions on their annulment, telling her that he had been assured that he was not her legitimate husband by learned doctors and lawyers, Katherine retorted :

Doctors! You know yourself, without the help of any doctors that your case has no foundation! I care not a straw for your Doctors! For every Doctor and Lawyer that upholds your case I could find a thousand that would find our marriage good and valid![22]

After the argument, Henry went to seek consolation in Anne Boleyn, but she told him that:

Did I not tell you that whenever you argue with the Queen she is sure to have the upper hand?! I see that one fine morning you will succumb to her reasoning and cast me off![23]

Catherine had the support of the people, in particular women. They were generally opposed to the annulment and the prospect of the King’s mistress becoming Queen.

Catherine and Henry’s daughter Mary never accepted Anne as Queen

As the Pope was, at that time, the prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V, following the Sack of Rome in May 1527, Knight had difficulty in obtaining access to him. In the end, Henry’s envoy had to return without accomplishing much. Henry now had no choice but to put his great matter into the hands of Thomas Wolsey, and Wolsey did all he could to secure a decision in Henry’s favour.[24] How far the pope was influenced by Charles V, it is difficult to say, but it is clear Henry saw that the Pope was unlikely to give him an annulment from the Emperor’s aunt.[25] The Pope forbade Henry to marry again before a decision was given in Rome. Wolsey had failed and was dismissed from public office in 1529. Wolsey then began a secret plot to have Anne Boleyn forced into exile and began communicating with the Pope, to that end. When this was discovered, Henry ordered Wolsey’s arrest and, had it not been for his death from terminal illness in 1530, he might have been executed for treason.[26] A year later, Catherine was banished from court and her old rooms were given to Anne Boleyn. When Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, the Boleyn family’s chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, was appointed to the vacant position.[27] In November 1531, Catherine wrote to her nephew:

My tribulations are so great, my life so disturbed by the plans daily invented to further the King’s wicked intention, the surprises which the King gives me, with certain persons of his council, are so mortal, and my treatment is what God knows, that it is enough to shorten ten lives, much more mine.

In the Legatine Trial of 1529, which was appointed to make a decision regarding the annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage (although it never did) Catherine wore an expensive red and yellow dress, made a brave speech, ignoring the summons of the crier and counsellors, she went up to Henry, bowed, then dropped to her knees and said:

Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right. Take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman, and a stranger, born out of your dominion. I have here no assured friend and much less indifferent counsel. I flee to you, as to the head of justice within this realm. Alas, Sir, where have I offended you? Or what occasion have you of displeasure, that you intend to put me from you? I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife, ever comfortable to your will and pleasure. I have been always well pleased and contented with all things wherein you had any delight or dalliance. I never grudged a word or countenance, or showed a spark or discontent. I loved all those whom ye loved, only for your sake, whether I had cause or no, and whether they were my friends or enemies. This 20 years or more I have been your true wife and by me ye have had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them from this world, which hath been no default in me. And when ye had me at first, I take God to my judge; I was a true maid, without touch of man. And whether this be true or no, I put it to your conscience [Catherine paused, then continued] If there be any just cause by the law that you can allege against me, either dishonesty or any other impediment, to put me from you, I am well content to depart to my shame and dishonour. If there be none I must lowly beseech you, let me remain in my former estate and receive justice at your princely hands. The King your father was accounted in his day as a second Solomon for wisdom, and my father Ferdinand was esteemed one of the wisest Kings ever to rule Spain, It is not therefore to be doubted but they gathered such wise, as learned men, as there is at present time in both realms, who thought the marriage between you and me good and lawful. It is a wonder to hear what new inventions are invented against me; who never intended but honesty that cause me to stand the order and judgement of this new court, wherein you may do me much wrong, if you intend any cruelty. For ye may must understand that they cannot be indifferent counsellors which be your subjects, and taken out of your counsel beforehand, and dare not, for your displeasure disobey you will and intent. Therefore, I humbly require you to spare me the extremity of this new court and if ye will not, to God I commit my cause.

She then walked out, the crier shouted three times for her to come back into Court, she ignored him and said “It is no indifferent court therefore I will not tarry”.

Catherine’s speech would later be represented in art many times over the centuries.

472px-family_of_henry_viii_c_1545_detailHenry with his son, who barely survived his enthronement and was followed by Elizabeth I and Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s wife