The “Marriage” (Jan 25, AD 1533) of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) to Anne Boleyn (1507 – 1536)

[#21 in the series This Week in English Catholic History: Week of January 20 – 26]


HIS week in English Catholic History, on January 25th, 1533 the execrable Henry VIII, King of England, consummated his break with the Catholic Church by taking the extreme step of marrying his pregnant mistress Anne Boleyn, without obtaining an annulment from Rome of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This action, in direct defiance of the Pope, precipitated Henry’s declaration of himself as the Head of the Church of England (1534), and guaranteed Henry’s excommunication (1538) over his annulment of his marriage to Catherine for Anne.

The sad truth is that in medieval Europe, annulments were frightfully easy to obtain for the rich and powerful, and were granted on dubious grounds in many cases. To cite just one example connected to English History, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 – 1204) had been married to Louis VII of France, but the couple had their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity (they were fourth cousins). In fact, the marriage was “annulled” because Eleanor failed to produce a male heir for Louis, though she had produced two daughters. But Eleanor was the wealthiest woman in all Europe. So just eight weeks later, Eleanor married Henry II of England – her THIRD cousin, and her junior by eleven years! – and would become the mother of the celebrated Richard the Lionheart, the infamous King John and six more children by Henry. Many, many more examples of dubious annulments could be given.

So, considering the moral cesspool in which most of the European nobility swam, ennabled by a corrupt church, Henry VIII might have expected the Pope to grant his request for what amounted to Catholic rubber-stamped divorce from Catherine.

Yet two circumstances prevented the Pope from acquiescing. Alas, the fact that Catherine insisted she was Henry’s wife and the mental state of either spouse at the time of their marriage probably did not factor into Pope Clement VII‘s decision, as it would in an annulment today.

First, Catherine was the aunt of the most powerful man in Europe, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles had Pope Clement in a military stranglehold. Approving the divorce was a slight against Charles’s family, and the Pope was unwilling to do this.

Secondly, the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine had already been granted through a special exception by the Pope, since Catherine had been Henry’s brother Arthur’s wife, ordinarily a canonical bar. But the would-be couple asserted that Catherine had not been able to consummate her marriage to Henry’s brother before his death, and therefore that marriage was not valid. Asking the Pope to invalidate the new marriage on the grounds Catherine had been Henry’s brother’s wife, that the Pope had already allowed at Henry’s request on the basis that she was not, was unprecedented and would further damage the Papacy’s already crumbling credibility. The Pope wouldn’t do it.

The marriage to Anne Boleyn was accomplished secretly, officiated by Thomas Cranmer who had been recalled from Germany four months earlier. The place is unknown, and there are even some contradictory accounts about the date, though most sources agree the marriage happened on this day. Unfortunately for Anne, the child born eight months and two weeks later on 7 September the same year would be female, the future Queen Elizabeth I, who would seek a middle way between the religion of her radical Puritan Protestant subjects and the Catholics and Catholic sympathisers to many of whom she was an illegitimate ruler, making reconciliation with the Catholic Church a practical impossibility.  

Condemners of their own error, Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer would themselves annul the marriage to Anne on May 14th, 1536 in order for Henry to marry Jane Seymour. Anne was executed three days later by beheading for treason, adultery and witchcraft on May 17th, her body buried in an unmarked grave. Just thirteen days after on May 30th, Henry married Jane.


Here’s to you, Anne Boleyn:


Written by Dr. Foster Lerner of Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida; a parish of The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter © 2019.

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Foster holds a Doctorate in Medicine from  Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in medicine.


2 thoughts on “The “Marriage” (Jan 25, AD 1533) of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) to Anne Boleyn (1507 – 1536)

  1. For those who are interested, the single best book on Henry VIII’s four “matrimonial trials,” that is (1) the Roman annulment case which finished (after long delays) in 1543 by upholding the validity of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, (2) Cranmer’s declaring null the marriage of that same marriage in May 1533, (3) Cranmer’s declaring null in May 1536 the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and (4) Cranmer’s declaring null in July 1540 the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, is *The Matrimonial Trials of Henry vIII* by Henry Ansgar Kelly (Stanford University Press, 1976). Kelly (b. 1934), a quondam Jesuit laicized in ca. 1967, subsequently became a Professor of English and Medieval/Renaissance Studies at UCLA.

    The book delves deeply into the Canon Law (both the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, and the English Law of Marriage after the breach with Rome in 1533/34) of these various annulments (and how Henry altered that law more then once after 1534 to “rationalize” his later annulments). Among other matters of interest it demonstrates how impossible Henry’s case, as he insisted on its being argued, was from a Canon Law perspective.

    A “scandalous” annulment rather more relevant to Henry ‘s case than that of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 was the annulment in December 1498 by Pope Alexander VI of Louis XII of France’s first marriage to Joan of France (who was canonized in 1950 as St. Jeanne de Valois, and who went on after the annulment to become a nun and found a religious order). The “scandal” in that case revolved around the pope’s accepting Louis XII’s claim, almost certainly false, that he had been unable to consummate the marriage due to Joan’s “physical deformity.”

    In short, Henry VIII’s argument, the only one which he allowed his advocates to advance on his behalf, was that a marriage to a deceased brother’s widow (whether or not it had been consummated) was “against the Law of God,” and that therefore the papacy could not grant a dispensation for any such marriage. Such an argument was, canonically, a “non-starter,”as Rome had been granting dispensations for such marriages for well over a century by the time that annulment was granted in 1503 (although the marriage did not take place until June 1509, after Henry had become king).


    • I made an error here:

      “(1) the Roman annulment case which finished (after long delays) in 1543 by upholding the validity of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon,”

      “1543” should be “1534.”

      Curiously, Elizabeth I remained, in English Law, of illegitimate birth throughout her whole life and reign. An Act of Parliament of 1543 authorized Henry VIII to bequeath the Crown to whomever he wished by Letters Patent, and he did so to, successively, (1) his son Edward (and to Edward’s legitimate offspring, of whom there were none in the end), (2) his daughter Mary (and to Mary’s legitimate offspring, of whom there were none in the end),(3) his daughter Elizabeth (and to Elizabeth’s legitimate offspring, of whom there were none in the end) and (4) the heirs of his younger sister, Mary Tudor (d. 1533) – by which he intended to exclude the descendants of his elder sister, Margaret Tudor (d. 1541) the wife of James IV (d. 1513) of Scotland. Edward was undoubtedly legitimate by any reckoning when he became king in 1547. Mary was “legally of illegitimate birth” when she became queen in 1553; however, the first act of her first parliament declared null and void Cranmer’s annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and went on to declare Catherine to have been Henry’s “true, lawful, and undoubted wife,” which made Mary of legitimate birth in English Law. By contrast, when Elizabeth became queen the first act of her first parliament (in 1559) merely recognized her as “lawful queen” and said nothing about the status of her parent’s “marriage,” and when her great-uncle, Sir James Boleyn, died in 1561 an act of parliament had to be passed declaring Queen Elizabeth to be his “lawful heir,” which would not have been necessary if she had been legally the legitimate child of her parents. Naturally her legitimacy was not a topic of acceptable public discussion during her reign, although I have come across veiled references to it in private correspondence (even among Protestants).


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