Few figures of British history are as well known in modern society as are the figures of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Both were intriguing people in their own regard and the secret romance between them, which in turn became a ‘legitimate’ marriage, had an enormous effect on the political scene of their day.
Henry had been crowned king directly after his eighteenth birthday in 1509. At the same time, Henry chose to marry Catherine of Aragon and make her his queen. As his reign matured, Catherine gave birth to several children, all of whom were stillborn or died shortly after birth. In 1516 she had her first surviving child, Mary. By this time, however, Henry had taken up the habit of having mistresses, a habit of which Catherine was aware.
Henry’s first son was born in 1519. The only problem was that the son was illegitimate since he was born by Henry’s mistress Elizabeth Blount. The son, Henry FitzRoy, was made Duke of Richmond in 1525, a move that some thought signaled Henry’s intent to make the illegitimate heir a contender for succession. By 1520 Henry had become impatient with Catherine’s inability to produce a male heir.
It was shortly after the birth of Henry FitzRoy that the king began his first affair with a Boleyn, though not one named Anne. Mary Boleyn, Queen Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, became Henry’s mistress even though she was married, and the two children she bore during that time were of uncertain birth. What is certain is that Henry did not treat them as his own children. While Henry carried on his affair with Mary Boleyn, he got his first glimpse of Mary’s younger sister Anne. He was immediately taken with her and began his attempts to seduce her, attempts that the younger Boleyn sister initially refused.
When faced with the options of pushing for his illegitimate son’s succession or hoping against hope that his daughter would produce a grandson before his death, Henry decided to pursue a third option: gain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. It was this third option that resulted in Henry’s ultimate break with the Catholic Church.
Although Henry had resolved himself to obtain an annulment whatever the cost, Anne was not so quick to return the show of affection. It is widely assumed that she continued to withhold her consent to Henry’s advances until it was made clear that she would become his queen. Before then, Henry had to obtain an annulment, something that the pope refused to give him. Henry hatched a plan whereby he hoped to obtain the annulment and make Anne his second wife.
With the pieces of his plan in place, in 1831 Henry banished Catherine from his court and gave her place to Anne Boleyn. Shortly thereafter Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer obtained the position in large part because the king knew he would agree to support Henry’s marriage to Anne. Henry obtained the word of the French king that he would also support the marriage, and upon Henry’s return to Dover he was secretly married to Anne.
Historical accounts vary as to the date of this first secret wedding. It is thought that following their ‘wedding’ Anne became pregnant. This fact, combined with the fact that Henry’s marriage to Catherine had not yet been annulled, led the couple to participate in a second wedding ceremony. This private ceremony took place on 25 January 1533 in London. Within a few months, Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and recognized the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. She was crowned queen shortly thereafter, but Henry was still left with the task of legitimizing his actions to the pope.
Henry chose to take matters into his own hands in a way that would obviate his need to deal with the pope in the future. Through Parliament Henry passed laws that removed Catherine’s daughter from the line of succession. Other laws then recognized the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne. The famous Act of Supremacy declared Henry to be the head of the church in England. The pope reacted to this move by excommunicating both Henry and Thomas Cranmer.
As for Anne, shortly after her coronation she gave birth to a daughter whom she named Elizabeth. The marriage was not what Henry had hoped it would be. When Henry was pursuing Anne in the heat of their illicit affair, her strong will and lively nature made her all the more attractive. After she had been crowned queen and the reality of royal life set in, Henry did not appreciate her independence nearly as much.
Only eighteen months after their secret marriage Henry had returned to his habit of taking mistresses. Anne’s inability to produce a male heir further contributed to his discontent with the marriage. Anne’s miscarriage in 1536 and the death of Henry’s first wife pushed Henry to the end of his patience. Anne was imprisoned following her final miscarriage, while Henry turned his attentions to his mistress and Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped up charges of treason and only a day later Henry was engaged to Jane Seymour.
In what would be an interesting addition to the story of Henry VIII and his six wives, modern research has suggested that Henry may have been the reason that he had so few heirs over the course of his many marriages. A large majority of the children that his partners did produce were either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Scientists claim that Henry may have had a rare blood type that caused serious health and fertility problems. We can never know for sure if Henry was truly to blame, but it would be a cruel footnote in history if it were true.