Get Out of Jail Free Cards: The Many Annulments of Henry VIII (Guest Post)

By Jillianne Hamilton

Everyone knows Henry VIII was unlucky in love. Not nearly as unlucky as many of his wives, of course, but Henry would certainly have considered himself the most unfortunate man in England when it came to his married life.

The excuses he used to get out of his marriage varied from wife to wife. But he and his advisors were able to come up with excuses that never put the king at fault. Ever.

His first marriage was the most complicated to end because of a few factors. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, daughter to Fernando and Isabel of Spain, was permitted in the first place because of a special dispensation written up by Pope Julius II. Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur, the young man everyone assumed would be the next king of England. However, fate intervened and he died of illness a few months into the marriage.

So what was the problem? The Bible states that if a man marries his brother’s widow, it is sinful, bordering on incest. The punishment of this union would be childless. Julius II, God’s spokesperson on earth at the time, said it was fine so Catherine’s marriage to the newly created King Henry went on as planned. However, after years of unsuccessful pregnancies, no male heir showed up and Henry decided Julius had been wrong to allow the marriage to go further. God was not pleased with his choice of wife and this was his punishment.

After years of fighting with papal delegates sent from Rome, and with the new pope, Clement VII, Henry took matters into his own hands and cut ties with the traditional Catholic Church, making himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. Finally, with this move, Henry’s marriage to Catherine was decreed to be invalid and his marriage to his second wife was named valid.

Of course, we all know his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was not meant long for this world. Henry, once again, had his marriage dissolved quickly and easily. Days before Anne’s sad end, her marriage to the king was ended but the reason for it was not given on official court documents but it was likely because of Anne’s pre-contract to Henry Percy or because of the king’s relationship with Mary, Anne’s older sister.

The pope had previously given a dispensation stating that Henry could marry Anne (once Catherine had passed away, of course), even though Henry admitted to having a sexual relationship with Anne’s sister. It was basically the exact same situation as Catherine and Arthur except there was no marriage. Again, it was probably decided the pope was wrong to give that dispensation in the first place. Again, God was displeased with his marriage and was punishing him by not giving him a son. Again, the marriage wasn’t ended by divorce, it was annulled. It was like it had never happened. Again, Henry was free to take another wife.

New reasons for dissolving marriages came into play for Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry and Anne slept in the same bed at least a few times but never had sex. Henry tried, but it just didn’t happen. Again, Henry and his advisors found ways out of the marriage without calling into question Henry’s manhood. The marriage was eventually ended on the grounds of non-consummation (because Henry found Anne so unattractive) and pre-contract. Anne had previously been betrothed to Francis, the son and heir of the Duke of Lorraine back in Germany. However, the pre-contract had ended years before Anne’s arrival in England.

The annulment of Henry’s union to Anne of Cleves as not the last time pre-contract would be used as a way of saying a marriage had never happened because it wasn’t legal. During the catastrophic downfall of Katheryn Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, whispers and rumors about the young, vivacious queen reached the ears of Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer investigated these rumors and interviewed Francis Dereham, a former lover of Katheryn’s. Dereham claimed they had agreed to marry but there is little evidence that suggests Katheryn made such an agreement. Still, pre-contract was once again used to annul the marriage, soon before Katheryn was sent to the executioner’s block.

However, if she really was pre-contracted to Dereham, then Katheryn hadn’t actually been unfaithful to the king with Thomas Culpepper. She’d been unfaithful to Dereham. But reason and logic weren’t really part of the equation at that point, as Henry was so heartbroken and angry, he considered ending Katheryn’s life by his own hand.

Getting rid of wives became infinitely easier for Henry once he named himself Supreme Head of the Church even though many of his excuses weren’t religion based at all. If pre-contract, non-consummation and Bible passages weren’t available excuses, I’m sure Henry’s advisors would have come up with other ways of getting Henry out of his unfortunate situation.

Jillianne Hamilton is the author of The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII, now available on paperback and ebook. Check out her blog, The Lazy Historian, for more information.

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