23 May 1533 – Archbishop Cranmer announces the sentence of the Dunstable Priory Trial

Thomas_Cranmer_by_Gerlach_FlickeOn 23rd May 1533, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer announced the sentence of the special court that had met at Dunstable Priory, Bedfordshire, to examine Henry VIII’s case for an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The trial had opened on 10th May 1533, following Convocation’s decision that the Pope did not have the power to dispense “in case of a marriage where the brother’s widow has been cognita” and Cranmer being issued a licence by Henry VIII “to determine his great cause of matrimony”. After hearing testimonies from people such as Dr John Bell, the King’s proctor; the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk and Lady Jane Guildford (both ladies refused to travel to Dunstable but depositions were taken), the opinions of universities and Convocation, and examining the proceedings of the Legatine Court at Blackfriars, the court came to a decision and Cranmer pronounced its sentence:

“My lord of Canterbury gave sentence this day at 11 o’clock in the great cause of matrimony; has declared it to be against the law of God, and has divorced the King from the noble lady Katharine. He has used himself in this matter very honorably, and all who have been sent hither on the King’s behalf have acted diligently and towardly. Sentence shall be given for the King’s second contract of matrimony before the Feast of Pentecost. The process is partly devised. 23 May.”

Cranmer then wrote to the King to inform him of the sentence. Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been annulled.

Notes and Sources

  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid (1998) Thomas Cranmer: A Life, p93-94
  • Kelly, Henry Ansgar (2004) The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII, p206-210
  • LP vi. 525, Letter from John Tregonwell to Cromwell, 23rd May 1533
  • Ibid., 529

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7 thoughts on “23 May 1533 – Archbishop Cranmer announces the sentence of the Dunstable Priory Trial”
  1. i read somewhere that Wolsey had actually found a loophole that could have been used to force the marriage to be ended but that Henry insisted that the only reason that could be used was Leviticus, which of course even the Rabbis in Jerusalem said was not applicable. It could be said that Henry caused all his own problems on this one.

    Imagine if Henry had just gone with the loophole! Anne and Henry could have married immediately and who knows? Maybe a son could have been born. Maybe the needed parts of the reformation could have happened gradually and peacefully with a queen who had sympathies toward intellectual debate, and a son to protect her against heresy charges.

    just awful that it went the way it did – so much suffering and destruction on all sides.

      1. Patrick Williams in his recent biography pointed out that Henry would have got further if he’d actually argued that the dispensation that had been issued was wrong. It had been issued on the understanding that Catherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated, when, at the time, it was thought that it hadn’t been. William says that Henry had told Chapuys at one point that Catherine had come to him a maid, Ferdinand and Isabella’s sources said that Catherine was still a virgin, Catherine herself said she was – so the dispensation was not valid.

        Which loophole do you mean Judith?

  2. As always, I’m interested in anything to do with Dowager Duchess Agnes – hadn’t realised she declined to travel to Dunstable. Do you think she was excused because of her age/health., but really she had declined because she may have felt sympathy towards Katherine of Aragon and wanted to be associated with her downfall as little as possible? I realise that she helped carry Anne’s train at her coronation and was godmother and step-great-grandmother to her daughter, but I often wonder what the old lady’s true feelings and fears might have been.

  3. Does not David Starkey in his long study on this for the series that he made Henry Mind of a Tyrant; which was meant to be made into two books; the first of which was published Henry Virtuous Prince a few years ago and the second we still await with interest; that to be on the safe side two dispensations were made: one that said the marriage was consumated; the other it was not? Anyway, I agree with your comment above: I have read the same thing in Patrick Williams book and it does not surprise me that other arguments would be more appropriate and that had Henry just asked about the dispensation being wrong he may have gotten further. But this is Henry and as Cardinal Wolsey once said himself once he had set his mind to a purpose he could not be turned from it. Henry had embarked on the argument using Leviticus and it was clear he had become entrenched in it and would not be persuaded that better arguments existed. It must also have been clear to Henry, who prided himself on knowing the Hebrew Scriptures and being trained in theology, that Deutoronomy contradicted his purpose in uising Leviticus that appeared to curse his marriage for marrying his brothers widow. Deutoronomy says that if two brothers dwell together and the wife of one (the eldest) dies then it is the duty of the other (the younger) to take her to wife and that their eldest son should have the name of the first so his name will not be blotted out. It was this argument that could be explained canonically to make his marriage to Katherine lawful. In fact canonically there are a whole load of declarations on this matter being made from the 7th century onwards concerning if a brother should marry his brothers widow: some Popes were in favour; others were not. But the sworn statements of Isabella and Ferdinand and others that the marriage to Arthor was not consumated helped to persuade Pope Julius II that he could grant the dispensation. For him not to have done would be to impungne the honour of the Most Catholic Majesties of Spain: the champions of all Christendom and that of their daughter. For simular reasons, plus political need, Clement VII put off making a decision in the marriage of Henry and Catherine.

    Henry of course as we all know lost patience and would not wait for the Pope to make a final decision, and due to the pregnancy of the Lady Anne, had married her in January 1533; and now that question was to be finalised in an English Court by an English Archbishop. The irony of Cranmers appointment was that Henry actually asked the Pope to sign the bull that gave his appointment official canonical legality from Rome. Clement had given Cranmer ironically his clerical authority so he could do his job correctly as he saw it. Now 23rd May 1533 and he declared the marriage of Anne and Henry valid and the marriage to Katherine null and void. He did open the court on 10th as above which means that some deliberation had gone on over a couple of weeks before the assembled bishops, not just Cranmer decided on the marriage. Cranmer expressed regret that people he had summoned to give evidence; I assume some for Katherine had not done so; in order to make it seem at least a fair deliberation, so he could only decide on the evidence before him. It was Cranmer who gave the final sentence and so he was held responsible for the ending of the marriage, but he was doing his duty and had been appointed by Henry for this purpose. He may have been in favour of the marriage for Henry and Anne but he also had to consider other arguments and the bishops also gathered would have voted and come to the same conclusion as he decalred upon. It was not Cranmer standing up and making the decision himself; although I think at times this is the impression history has presented to us.

    Finally, as a last irony; not long after this the Curia in Rome concluded its own findings and the Holy Father, who in the eyes of the Catholic world should only have the power to have done so, especially as Katherine appealled her cause to Rome in the first place; handed down and confirmed his own conclusion based on the findings o the Curia. The bull that came giving the sentence declared the marriage of Henry and Katherine legal and good and that nothing could say otherwise. In his sentence: a copy of the bull going to Henry and one to Katherine Pope Clement also ordered the King of England to return to Katherine; but it was already too late.

    How confusing for the people of England now forced into a choice of which sentence to accept and whose laws they obeyed on this matter!

  4. I think Katherine of Arragon was much braver than Anne.She would not give into Henry,she was the rightfull queen ,she was also fighting for her daughters destiny.It was hideous that Henry treated her the way he did.Putting her with Annes blessing in a cold ,damp castle ,and not allowing Katherine or Mary to be together.On the night Katherine died Henry with Annes great approval held a ball and Anne wore a yellow dress.I think Anne was a cold hearted woman.Henry probaly had the pox as well that is why so many of his babys died or were stillborn.

    1. I’ve never heard of Henry holding a ball to celebrate Catherine’s death and we don’t know who wore yellow – see https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/8-january-1536-joyful-yellow-triumphant-parading/.

      Henry VIII did not have “the pox”. He did not have the symptoms of it and we know from records of his medical expenses that he was not treated for it. The treament of the time was mercury (Francis I was treated with it) but there is no mention of it in Henry’s records. It is a myth he had it and modern historians don’t believe that he did. See https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/henry-viii-birthday-post-kyra-kramer/ for more on the myth.

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