The duration of his sovereignty, from 1509 until 1547, was a fascinating period in England’s history, due to the radical changes to the constitution and the church. He ruled with a rod of iron and usually quelled dissent by accusing anyone who stood up to him of treason or heresy and having them executed.
Born in June 1491, the second son of Henry VII, the premature death of his elder brother Prince Arthur in 1502 elevated him to heir apparent and he ascended the throne in 1509 at the age of just 17. Having been born a second son and having been given few official duties by his father, he had none of the skills or experience needed to be king.
Henry VII had been keen to continue a political alliance between England and Spain and had pledged Prince Henry would marry Catherine of Aragon, the youngest child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and widow of Prince Arthur. The marriage took place on 11th June 1509 – the day before the coronation.
His marriage to Catherine was described as “good”, but it was well-known he had numerous mistresses. However, their marriage became strained after their first child, a daughter, was stillborn in 1510 and their son, Henry, died in infancy in 1511.
Their daughter, Mary, born in February 1516, survived to become Queen of England in July 1553. However, relations between Henry and Catherine remained rocky. He became increasingly frustrated that he had no son and heir, so he had another affair – this time with his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Mary Boleyn.
When Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn (his mistress Mary’s younger sister) in 1525, his marriage was in a precarious state. It was said that the King, then 34, became besotted with 25-year-old Anne, a member of Catherine’s entourage.
Of Henry’s six wives, Anne Boleyn has always been the subject of fascination for historians. It was their fateful meeting that marked the beginning of the English Reformation and the King’s break with the Roman Catholic church, due to his determination to marry her.
By the time Catherine was 40, Henry was becoming increasingly vexed that he would probably never have the son he yearned for. The situation was well-known at court, where it was described as the King’s “great matter”. Henry became determined to annul his marriage, but this wasn’t permitted by the Catholic Church.
Anne grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. Her father, Thomas Boleyn, was a favourite of King Henry and was sent on many diplomatic missions. Anne had been well educated, learning arithmetic, English grammar, history, genealogy, reading, writing and spelling. She was also accomplished at dancing, music, singing, embroidery, needlework, household management and good manners. These were the typical skills of a young woman of her class at the time, although Anne also learned to play card games and chess and was proficient at falconry, archery, horseback riding and hunting. She has been called a “feminist” by modern social commentators.
As a maid of honour to Claude of France, the Duchess of Brittany, for almost seven years, her skills were honed further. She learned French and developed an interest in fashion, art, manuscripts, religious philosophy, literature, poetry and etiquette.
She was described as having a slender build, with long, straight, dark brown hair, dark eyes and an olive complexion.
How did their relationship start?
Anne was recalled to England from France in 1522 to marry her much older cousin, James Butler, the 9th Earl of Ossory, simply to settle a land dispute over the Earldom of Ormond. Sadly, aristocratic women of the era were often used as chattels to secure a liaison with another family. Sir Thomas Boleyn believed the title belonged to him and spoke to Henry VIII about the matter, bringing Anne to his attention.
However, for unknown reasons, the lengthy marriage negotiations eventually ground to a halt and Butler later married Lady Joan Fitzgerald. Anne remained in England and resided with her sister Mary at King Henry VIII’s court, where she was one of Catherine’s maids of honour. Anne soon caught the King’s eye with her beauty and charm.
However, she secretly got engaged to another aristocrat, Henry Percy, son of the 5th Earl of Northumberland, but he broke off the engagement in 1524, when the Earl refused to give his blessing. Alone again, Anne was sent back home to Hever Castle.
When did Henry and Anne marry?
Henry VIII began to pursue her in earnest, at a time when she was vulnerable emotionally following a broken engagement with Henry Percy, son of the 5th Earl of Northumberland. Henry tried repeatedly to seduce her, but she resisted his persistent advances, determined not to become his mistress. As a devout Christian, even though she was attracted to the young king, she would not give in to his charms.
At some time in mid-1526, after Anne made her moral position clear, Henry decided he must annul his marriage to Catherine to marry Anne. However, Pope Clement VII, head of the Catholic church, refused to consent to an annulment, enraging Henry, who was used to getting his own way.
The King instructed his advisers, including his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, to start breaking the Catholic Church’s power in England, including closing the convents and monasteries. In the meantime, he created the title of Marquess of Pembroke especially for Anne.
The Catholic Church still refused to annul his marriage to Catherine, so blaming his Roman Catholic Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry charged him with treason in 1530. He died while awaiting trial.
Henry took on governing England himself, before appointing Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor and Chief Minister, and Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. With his annulment in progress, Henry and Anne wed in secret on 14th November 1532.
Catherine was moved out of the palace and Anne moved in, although they weren’t formally married until 25th January 1533. Cranmer declared Henry and Anne’s marriage was valid. Soon afterwards, Cranmer and the King were excommunicated from the Catholic Church in Rome.
Anne was crowned Queen of England on 1st June 1533 and gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I in September 1533. Henry declared his love for Anne, although admitted he would rather have had a son. Although he had passionately wanted to marry Anne, sadly, their marital bliss was short-lived, as she didn’t bear him a son. He was already courting Jane Seymour, a former maid of honour to Queen Catherine, who was to become his third wife, by March 1536.
Demise of Anne Boleyn
The King needed to find a way to end his marriage to Anne in order to marry Seymour, a situation that mirrored his desire to get rid of Catherine and one in which he was ably assisted by his new Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell.
Henry had his wife arrested and jailed in the Tower of London on charges of high treason, adultery and plotting to kill the king, in May 1536. Historians have called the charges “unconvincing” but Cromwell had constructed sufficient evidence against her and those judging her knew better than to disagree with the will of the king.
She was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading on 19th May 1536.
The reign of King Henry VIII will go down as one of the most tumultuous periods in English history, largely as a result of his reckless and all-consuming desire to marry Anne Boleyn.
While not every meeting will change history, being able to meet in person again is something we’re all looking forward to in the future.