[#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: