Henry VIII and Katherine of AragonNow we’re leaving the “bloody days” of 1536 and going back in time to 1533 when Anne Boleyn was queen consort and waiting to be crowned.

On 23rd May 1533, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared that Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had been annulled:

“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.”1

Cranmer had been consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury on 30th March 1533 and his first duty as Archbishop had been to preside over the convocation meeting to discuss the validity of the Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow. On the 5th April 1533, Convocation determined “1, that the Pope has no power of dispensing in case of a marriage where the brother’s widow has been cognita. The house consisted of 66 theologians. The proxies were 197; the negatives 19. The second question was, whether Katharine was cognita. The numbers present, 44; one holding the proxies of three bishops. Decided in the affirmative against five or six negatives.”2

On the 11th April, Cranmer wrote to the King, “Beseeching the King very humbly to allow him to determine his great cause of matrimony, as belongs to the Archbishop’s spiritual office, as much bruit exists among the common people on the subject”3 and the King replied the next day:

“Received on the 12th April his letters dated Lambeth, 11th April desiring leave to determine his great cause of matrimony. Cannot be displeased with Cranmer’s zeal for justice and for the quieting of the kingdom; and although Henry is his King, and recognises no superior on earth, yet as Cranmer is the principal minister “of our spiritual jurisdiction,” and is so in the fear of God, cannot refuse his request. Gives him licence accordingly by these letters under the sign manual, sealed with the King’s seal.”4

This gave Cranmer the official permission he needed to open a special trial into the annulment proceedings, which he did at Dunstable Priory, Bedfordshire.5 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 gave their sentence on 23rd May. Archbishop Cranmer sent the King notification of the sentence:

“Notification of the sentence of divorce between Hen. VIII. and Katharine of Arragon pronounced by archbishop Cranmer. Dated in the monastery of Dunstable, 23 May 1533. Present, Gervase prior of the said monastery, Simon Haynes, S.T.P., John Newman, M.A., and others.
The matrimony between the King and the lady Katharine being dissolved by sufficient authority, all pactions made for the same marriage are also dissolved and of none effect. That is, the jointure shall return again to the King’s use, and the money paid to him by her friends shall be repaid to her.
The matrimony being dissolved, the lady Katharine shall return to the commodity and profits of the first matrimony, and the pactions of the same, made with prince Arthur, and shall enjoy the jointure assigned to her thereby, notwithstanding any quittance or renunciation made in the second pact. For as these renunciations were agreed unto for a sure trust and hope to enjoy the commodities and pactions of the second marriage, which now she cannot enjoy, unless without fault she should be deprived of both, equity and right restore her to the first. This, we think, by our poor learning, to be according both to canon and civil law, unless there are any other treaties and pactions which we have not seen.
For the more clear declaration hereof, we think that when a matrimony is dissolved, if there is no paction of a further bond, then by law the money paid by the woman or her friends shall be restored to her, and the jointure return to the man and his heirs. In this case there is an especial pact that she shall enjoy her jointure durante vita, so that the said jointure is due to her by the pact, and the money paid by her and her friends by the law.”6

On 28th May 1533, Cranmer declared the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn valid and on the 29th May the coronation pageantry began, culminating with the crowning of Anne Boleyn at Westminster Abbey on 1st June 1533.

Notes and Sources

  1. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume VI. 525, Letter from John Tregonwell to Cromwell, 23rd May 1533.
  2. Ibid., 311.
  3. Ibid., 327.
  4. Ibid., 332.
  5. Ibid., 463.
  6. Ibid., 529.

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23 thoughts on “23 May 1533 – The annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon”
  1. Dear oh Dear, I’ve tried and failed to get into Katherine’s mind on hearing about this. I can only think she would have been stunned in disbelief. It is just not believable that Henry would go to these lengths to be rid of her. She must have stood there, shaking her head, and then experienced the long agonising dark night of the soul. It was the end of her entire world. And I can’t get my head round it. It is impossible for me, a 21st century woman, to get into her shoes and even walk a minute. I simply cannot imagine how she felt.

  2. I’m always struck by Cranmer – was he an opportunist, merely afraid of Henry, or did he really believe the marriage was illegitimate? He was after all a great Reformer – even though he recanted everything when pressed by Bloody Mary with fear of execution & it was only when he knew all was lost, that he would be one of the Oxford Martyrs, that he recanted his recantation.

  3. It is repulsive the double standards of Crammer and Henry , so The Pope had not authority on the matters of matrimony but Crammer being an archbishop he had authority to disolve the matrimony of The righful queen
    What a joke !! It was just a matter of convenience , hatred towards Queen Catherine , power hungry Clergy and lusfull King and Mistress , but it only lasted 3 years . They destroy Queen Catherine’s life but she still die a dignified Lady . So much hypocrisy.
    On Crammer , The Boleyns, Henry and Anne Boleyn !!

    1. Of course there was hypocrisy but I don’t think we can lay the blame at Cranmer’s feet, he was just doing his job and convocation and the trial at Dunstable had found in the King’s favour too. When the King said “jump”, your answer had to be “how high?”.

    2. I think you are making a too easy conclusion.

      Katherine and Henry’s marriage was before all a political alliance and such had been often dissolved when it no longed served its purpose.

      Henry should not condemned on the basis of morality but on the basis of poor judgment: if he had died before Edward’s birth, there would have been a war of succession.

    3. Maria,

      I don’t know whether you managed to watch Diarmaid MacCulloch’s recent series “Sex and the Church” but in episode 2 he looked at the Church’s involvement in marriage. He talked about the case of Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, and his wife Maude in the 11th century. At the time, Church law was that no-one could marry within seven degrees of consanguinity. This made it difficult for the Norman in England because it meant that everyone they knew was out of bounds. Robert and Maude were Normans and were distant cousins affected by this law so they got a dispensation for their marriage. The marriage turned sour within two years due to Robert rebelling against the king and being branded a traitor. Maude wanted out of the marriage and so appealed to the Pope for a dispensation, alleging that as they were cousins that their marriage was against Church law and so should be annulled. She was granted an annulment and then went on to apply for another dispensation to marry another of her cousins, Nigel d’Aubigny. Maude was unable to provide Nigel with an heir so he promptly argued for an annulment so that he could remarry.

      Henry’s request for an annulment actually wasn’t that unusual and the Pope would have granted it if Catherine had not opposed it as she did, and if she hadn’t been the Emperor’s aunt. It’s why Campeggio tried to convince her to enter s convent.

      1. Henry’s request for annulment was not unusual but his methods were. Some other monarch would have begun to think when the resistance was so hard that if it was a danger to a daughter to inherit the crown, it was as much a danger to a son born of a marriage whose was not regarded legal by all, especially if Henry died when he was was not pf age.

        However, Starkey seems to think in Six wives that Henry had a real chance to get a divorce and remarriage recognized by Pope in New York’s Day 1528 but then he threw the chance away by listening to Wolsey to whom his own position was more important that he rather damaged the King’s case than let the another succeed to get what Henry wanted.

  4. “he was just doing his job”.

    Oh dear. How many times have men used that excuse to wiggle out of responsibility? 🙂

    Cranmer was a man of elastic morality. Perfect for the times. And certainly responsible for his actions and for the vows he broke.

    1. Cranmer did not want to become an Archbishop. In order to avoid the task, he traveled in the fall 1532 across Europe so slowly he only could.

      But having made an Archbishop, why would he not have made all he could for Reformation? And that could only be made through the king.

  5. Yes, I agree with the notion of Cranmer’s moral elasticity, but he did make extremely important contributions to Anglicanism and the English language. Just as Luther’s translation of the New Testament had a significant impact on the German language, so did Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, of which he was at least the primary editor, have on English. Furthermore, the BCP has driven the world-wide Anglican Communion for over 400 years. And as we Anglican’s hold – our rule of prayer is the primary driver of our theology.

  6. Hi Claire – do you think I am being a tad oversensitive towards Catherine? Do i see her too much as a woman and not as a 16th century queen? She often seems to divide opinion along religious divides. And Dr. John, you were up early!

    1. No, I don’t think so. I really feel for Catherine. She’d been Henry’s wife for over twenty years and they’d been very much in love, it must have been so hard for him to reject her after all the pregnancies and lost babies. She’d done her best and she’d been a good wife and queen. I do think it’s important to realise that Henry wasn’t abnormal in his request for an annulment, even citing the dispensation as being invalid, and an annulment didn’t need to threaten Mary’s position because she was conceived in good faith. How different things would have been if Catherine had agreed to the annulment, which is what Henry and the Pope wanted her to do. I can see why she didn’t though!

      1. The real problem for Catherine, however, (IMO) is that, if the marriage was invalid, she had been Henry’s concubine for twenty years … and she couldn’t accept that.

        However, I think she also doubted Henry’s claimed reasons for terminating the marriage. She was the daughter of. Isabella of Castile a great medieval monarch in her own right; she also led the country as regent during a Scottish invasion (Flodden). Catherine simply couldn’t understand Henry’s belief that a woman couldn’t rule.

        Also, Henry’s claim to be concerned about the succession rings a little hollow in light of his treatment of Mary, since (as Claire pointed out) he didn’t need to do so to end his marriage to Catherine; that he left the country without a legitimate heir for nearly a year and half (from the death of Henry Fitzroy to the birth of Edward) also casts doubt on his good faith.

        1. In history, one cannot explain something that has happened earlier with something that happens later. Henry was not the same man in 1536 as he was in 1527.

          In 1527 Henry could not know that he his son would not be born only 1537. Instead, he believed that he could remarry soon and get a son in one year or two.

  7. I think had Catherine gone quietly and caused no fuss then Henry wouldn’t have treated her so bad later but her marriage meant everything to her and she was still in love with Henry, it’s very sad because I believe Henry respected Catherine and wished her no ill will but he was desperate for a son and thought if he had a chance with another wife it would be best for England, I think it was because Anne was in the shadows that got Catherine’s back up, he was thinking of replacing Catherine before Anne came on the scene but then when he fell in love with her she became the driving force behind the divorce and it must have been extremely hard for Catherine to know the King wanted to replace her with one of her own ladies in waiting, she had been brought up to be Queen had been for over twenty years then Henry decided she had to go I think every woman can feel for her whilst still being sympathetic towards Henry because of his need for a son and heir.

  8. Thanks Claire and Christine for the advice. When we concentrate on just one human drama the whole picture gets a bit lost perhaps. Catherine seems so well adapted to her catholic world of christendom at a time when Cranmer and Henry are opening up another door into a whole new world. I have a fear of fire that is almost irrational and could never blame the academic Cranmer for recanting his life’s work under threat of such an awful death. He was old and mentally crushed. And yet we are responsible for our deeds. We can only hope that those who come after us are not too judgemental!

    1. I know what you mean I have a fear of fire to and so I don’t blame him either for recanting, it’s all very well people saying hundreds of years later or even his own contemporaries what a turncoat he was, but why? Death by fire is the most awful of all and how do many of us know how we would react in similar situations? To be afraid doesn’t mean your weak, it’s a perfectly natural human emotion, all it means is you are acknowledging your own fears, when I think of all the people who were burnt under the heresy laws I like to believe that they were suffocated by the smoke first before the flames got to them, hopefully that was so as smoke is lethal and it goes into the lungs and causes scarring, I hope for all their sakes they died of smoke inhalation before the could feel the flames and quite possibly the sheer terror gave them heart failure to which would have been a blessing.

  9. I don’t think that our sympathies for Catherine are unfounded. Her existence became quite miserable, essentially being incarceration and separated from Henry, court & Mary. She was trapped in a maelstrom of strong personalities and strong agendas. It is rather ironic that she died of a diseased heart.

    By the way, I live in America & thus, I’m a bit out of sync with time. I have only recently found this wonderful site.

  10. I do feel for Catherine, but I also think that she made things way harder than they needed to be. People tend to forget that she wasn’t just humble and pious, being an Infanta of Spain, she was also very proud and stubborn. She might have thought that she was doing her daughter a favor, but personally I feel like things would’ve turned out more kind for Mary in the long run if Catherine had agreed to the annulment.

  11. I must confess that I have great difficulties to understand Katherine. From today’s perspective, it seems weird to want to stay married with a man who did not want you and with whom you had had no sexual relationship for years, who lived openly with another woman and finally sent you away.

    Also, if I were in the same situation, I hope I would not cling stubbornly to such outer things as the “position” but put first the children’s happiness and therefore their relationship with their father.

    Of course, it is an elemental difference being a Katherine who was born to be a Queen but was utterly dependent on her husband and today’s woman who can create her own life and earn her own and her children’s living.

    Therefore, I was greatly astonished that many in Tudor show forum dealt Katherine and Henry as if it was a divorce of today’s middle class couple where a husband abandoned his aged wife and tried to leave her child by her without inheritance. They also insisted that Katherine should have fought Henry more, even rising a rebellion against him, without thinking what damage it would have done to England.

    It is just that she did made me admire Katherine for she put her adoptive country England’s best before her own position and feelings.

    Otherwise, although I admit that Katherine fought cunningly and bravely and suffered with dignity, it is hard to me to understand that she did not understand that, although there are things that are worth fighting even without hope of winning, there are others matters where you must ask yourself if you rather want to be right than to see your child happy.

    1. We can’t get into the mind of a 16 th century Queen or indeed any of them, but Catherine was born a Royal and she was without doubt very proud of her Spanish heritage, Spain was then a mighty power and maybe Henry was asking to much of his wife to agree to an annulment but she would have kept her dignity intact and made life a lot easier for herself and Mary, for a daughter of Spain to have to stand aside for one of her ladies in waiting was unthinkable in her eyes, and this was why she fought so hard and so bitterly, Ann was low born next to her and she was probably hoping that Henry would tire of Anne and return to her, i wonder would she have been so much against the annulment if Henry had his eye on a French marriage as Wolsley hoped? Did Catherine know that Henry was thinking of divorcing her before Anne came on the scene? Henry could well have wanted to marry a member of the French Royal Family, Catherine called Anne the scandal of Christendom but it was only because she refused to be his mistress that Henry offered her marriage and then people blamed Anne for the affair of the divorce, but Henry couldn’t help falling for Anne and wanting a son anymore than Catherine could help not being able to produce a son and heir, and having a son was always paramount in his mind, I think Catherine was to rigid in her thinking which led to her last years being very lonely.

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