On the same day that George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were executed on Tower Hill, the marriage of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was annulled.

At a special court at Lambeth Palace, in the presence of Sir Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor; Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk; John de Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford, and others, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared that the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was null and void. It was as if the couple had never been married.

Herald and chronicler Charles Wriothesley wrote that the marriage was annulled on the grounds that Anne Boleyn had been pre-contracted to marry Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland:

“And the same day, in the after-noone, at a solemne court kept at Lambeth by the Lord Archbishoppe of Canterburie and the doctors of the lawe, the King was divorsed from his wife Queene Anne, and there at the same cowrte was a privie contract approved that she had made to the Earle of Northumberlande afore the Kings tyme; and so she was discharged, and was never lawfull Queene of England, and there it was approved the same.”

But a pre-contract had been denied by Henry Percy in a letter sent to Thomas Cromwell on 13th May 1536 and in 1532 he had sworn on the Blessed Sacrament that there had never been a pre-contract.

Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded a different reason for the annulment. He wrote that “the said Archbishop had pronounced the marriage of the King and Concubine invalid on account of the King having had connection with her sister”. A sexual relationship with Anne’s sister, Mary, meant that there was an impediment of affinity to the marriage, but Henry VIII had applied for a dispensation from the Pope in 1527 to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn even if there was an impediment of “affinity arising from illicit intercourse in whatever degree, even the first”. Chapuys went on to say that the annulment didn’t necessarily affect Princess Elizabeth’s standing because “the good faith of the parents cannot make the said bastard legitimate”. Elizabeth was, however, officially declared illegitimate on 1st July 1536, when Parliament gave the Second Act of Succession its first reading.

Notes and Sources

Picture: Photo of Lambeth Palace, copyright Tim Ridgway.

  • Wriothesley,Charles. A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Volume 1, Printed for the Camden society, p. 41.
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume X, 909.

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7 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – The marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is annulled”
  1. Do you think that Henry the VIII ‘ s proverbial vas temper was caused by the pain in his leg after his accident or to his disatisfaction with his personal life or the polítical curcumstances of his time or the lack of a male heir

  2. All three, yes, but the whole thing stemmed from his lack of male heir. I believe he gave up on a son with Anne too soon and one would have come next time.

    Henry could have easily gotten an annulment of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, much easier than with Katherine as Anne couldn’t appeal to Rome and even if she put up resistance, he was the power now and Convocation and Parliament would come up with some reason why the second marriage was invalid. If Anne was agreeable maybe a deal could be struck which protected her daughter as legitimate, even if she was no longer his heir. Once a son came along Elizabeth would be down the pecking order in any case.

    The tragedy of this day was totally without just cause. Henry had even investigated canon law to leave Anne, but something had clearly moved him to authorise Cromwell down this line. With Anne dead, disgraced and shamed, there was nothing standing in his way for a new marriage and he wouldn’t have two living wives as he had with Anne and Katherine. Six innocent people were killed because Henry Viii wanted a nice simple uncomplicated married life. It was brutal and cruel but it achieved a clean break. It was not necessary, any of this bloodshed. It was the biggest stain on the King’s life, but things would get worse, as Henry became even more impatient, the pain he suffered took hold and his temper was shorter as time passed. Henry hit out at his friends and his wife. His life with Jane sadly would be short lived and she died giving him the son he craved. After mourning Jane he spiralled out of control, making the marital mistakes that followed. Just what exactly prompted all this is debatable but I believe Henry was actually losing the ability to think things through. He was showing signs of rash and strange and unpredictable behaviour and mood swings which made him into a dangerous tyrant. This is a sad, tragic and frightening miscarriage of justice which left six people who had once been right at the heart of Henry’s world dead and convicted of vile crimes which they were innocent of. Henry’s motivation, to be honest is self-serving. He could have gone another way, but he seems to have turned cold towards Anne, convinced himself these false charges were true and lashed out with hatred against a woman he swore he would rather beg his bread in the streets for, rather than leave her. This was a woman Henry had loved for a number of years. How could he do this? It really makes no logical sense.

    Henry even has to go one step further. Even with Anne dead he reasons he needs to ensure that his marriage is dead. Why void his marriage if Anne was going to be executed? Henry could only declare Elizabeth illegitimate if Anne agreed to an annulment, that their marriage was never valid. When Henry decided he wanted to start all over again and have no rivals to his legitimate heirs with Jane Seymour, he really meant it and this unorthodox annulment enabled him to do this. However, it was really just one more piece of cruelty to hit his much troubled, frightening wife with, as punishment for her imagined sins, before she was sacrificed and sent to her terrible death.

    When Susanna Lipscomb called 1536 the year which changed Henry Viii she hit the nail on the head. This was the year which really defined the darkness of his last decade as King. Henry fell apart after Anne’s last miscarriage, reacting with a mixture of despair and anger, to which Anne had also responded with angry reproach. Both of them were devastated by the loss of an unborn son and a breach was obvious between the couple. Although Anne and Henry were somewhat reconciled it was very easy for enemies to find a way to make trouble, which in the end that April was what happened, working on rumours of inappropriate behaviour and two careless conversations as the basis of a fake adultery case. This year saw the death of Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s fall and possible accident which changed his personality, the loss of a potential son and heir, the terrible events of the last 17 days, the execution of his second wife, four of his friends and a popular talented musician and the start of the Pilgrimage of Grace. The only bright spark as far as Henry was concerned was his marriage to Jane Seymour. His life after this year would be marked with more and more political and religious executions and four marriages in less than ten years. He was much more moody, angry, unpredictable, put on a lot of weight and he became impossible to live with. Henry turned paranoid and it was dangerous to cross him. Anne was the first of two wives killed because of that paranoid behaviour, Katherine Howard followed her cousin to the block on charges of adultery and presumption of treason, aged no more than 18 or 19, less than five years later. This was when he had a son which proves that his emotional instability and his growing short fuse had replaced the frustration he felt for lack of a son and that after 1536 he had become more and more volatile.

  3. Have always been fascinated with this era, with Henry VIII, and his court, the intrigue, the treachery, but most especially with Anne Boleyn and her tragic story, and the Elizabethan era which followed. Fascinating times!

  4. So, if the marriage is annulled, as if it never happened…why is she being charged with adultery? Makes zero sense.

    1. Henry was by this time paranoid and not capable of rational thought, in my view, but what he did made perfect sense to him. He had his marriage annulled in order to declare his daughter, Elizabeth, illegitimate, probably out of spite. He wanted a clean slate with Jane Seymour and that included the succession only being from the children he would have with his only legal wife, no three. Anne had made a fool of him, he might argue so his revenge was to erase their marriage, treat their daughter as if she was not lawfully born and then erase Anne’s memory. He now saw himself as both a widower and a bachelor. You are quite correct if the marriage wasn’t lawful she couldn’t commit adultery, but she was also charged with conspiracy and treason, plotting to kill the King, which she could be executed for anyway. Henry then contradicted himself by saying his Council had begged him to marry again. How can he marry again if he wasn’t lawfully married in the first place? Surely he is just marrying for the first time? Yes, it doesn’t actually make much sense and ration had well gone out of the window with these executions to begin with. In Henry’s mind it made perfect sense or at least he talked himself into believing it made sense. He may have gotten rid of poor Anne, but I bet he was accused by those eyes looking back at him through his daughter Elizabeth, who would go on to be one of our best rulers.

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