The King’s Great Matter: 1527


Over the next couple of weeks and months we’re going to dig into Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, moving through the laborious process year by year. We have covered in the past when it was that Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, and we have also covered the six-month period between Anne’s private wedding with Henry at the end of 1532 and her presentation at court as queen in the spring of 1533. These posts will essentially cover the years in-between, taking a look at the legal, theological and diplomatic issues prompted by, well, Henry’s personal life.

Before we get straight into 1527, we have to acknowledge a couple different factors that set the stage. The first is that at some point in 1524 Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon stopped sleeping together. We know this because such matters were public in a court utterly lacking in privacy, and for a couple who had still not produced a living son, it was arguably a matter of national security. Katherine turned 39 that year and had gone through seven pregnancies with only one daughter to show for it. Save a short-lived son who lived only a few weeks in 1511, there had not been any other living children and it had in fact been six years since she conceived.

That Henry stopped visiting her chambers at night does not mean that the marriage was over or that he was seriously questioning the legitimacy of it – instead it’s probably the more mundane reason that he simply was no longer attracted to his wife. Multiple pregnancies and heartbreak had stolen Katherine’s figure, aged her looks and prompted newfound religious fervor. Henry was five years younger and in his physical prime. In other words, this started out the old-fashioned way: they “grew apart.”

The timing of that, however, is key, for it means that their marriage – or at least the personal aspects of it – had already begun to break down prior to Henry’s infatuation with Anne. Ironically, he was sleeping with another woman at the time – Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn.

The second factor we have to consider is ongoing warfare between France, led by Francis I, and the Holy Roman Empire, led by Charles V. England’s role on the European stage at this point was essentially balancing out the struggle between the two largest powers and Henry and his government shifted their allegiance every few years based on what they were getting from who. As of the mid-1520s, England was allied with the HRE and Henry’s daughter, Princess Mary, was betrothed to none other than Charles himself. This was Katherine’s personal preference too, for as a Spanish princess Charles was her nephew.

In February 1525 Charles secured a resounding victory against the French at the Battle of Pavia, and though Henry was thrilled by his ally’s win he had in fact donated neither a penny nor a soldier. Henry’s chief councilor, Cardinal Wolsey, was in fact leaning towards an alliance with France and had grown increasingly hostile to Charles and his envoys. As such, when the English reached out about how to best take advantage of a broken France (Francis I was captured at Pavia), Charles’s response was ruthless. He demanded that nine-year-old Mary either be sent to Spain or that Charles should be absolved of the betrothal, terms to which he knew England wouldn’t agree. On August 30, England and France reached a separate peace treaty and that autumn Charles negotiated his marriage to Isabella of Portugal, another of his first cousins.

Francis I, meanwhile, was held in Spain for several months during which time he was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid and betrothed to Charles’s sister, Eleanor of Austria. In March 1526 he was allowed to return home, but he had to send his two sons to take his place in captivity. The remaining powers of Europe – England, France and the Vatican – were then aligned against Charles, fearing the power and breadth of the HRE. Spanish Katherine was no longer a useful diplomatic tool.

Back home, Henry was not longer acting like a devoted husband even in public. On June 7, 1525 he elevated his bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, to the peerage as the Duke of Richmond – Richmond being the title that Henry’s father, Henry VII, had held as an earldom, given to him in turn by his own father, Edmund Tudor. Not only that, he gave the young man precedence over all other English peers in the country, including his daughter. It seemed clear to many that Henry was at least considering legitimizing his son.

As for Mary, he sent her to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border against Katherine’s wishes. This was in fact not a sign of disrespect or cruelty, but rather standard practice for heirs to the throne. Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, had spent years at Ludlow as the Prince of Wales, as had Edward IV’s eldest son, Edward V. Still, he pointedly refused to name Mary Princess of Wales – Henry could not yet reconcile himself to his (or Katherine’s) failure to produce a male heir.

Finally, 1525 brought along the third factor we obviously have to consider: Anne Boleyn. There are countless theories on how and when these two began a relationship, some pinning it as early as Christmas 1524 and others late in 1525. Regardless, we can say with relative certainty that somewhere in 1525 Henry was aware of Anne and pursuing her.

Early in 1526 Henry began discreetly reaching out to theologians questioning the validity of his marriage, his primary concern being that Katherine had once been married to his brother and was God now punishing him by depriving him of a son? It was against this backdrop that Charles V began pillaging Rome in September 1526, punishing the Pope for his alliance with France, his slowness to crown him the Holy Roman Emperor and advancing his territorial goals in Italy. So now, 1527:


In January 1527 Wolsey holds a lavish banquet celebrating an agreement just reached by England and France that would marry Princess Mary to either the widowed Francis I or his second son, the Duke of Orleans (the future Henry II). The newly appointed Spanish ambassador is left off the guest list.

At some point around this time, Henry has a conversation with Wolsey in which he shares with him for the first time his fears that his marriage is invalid. Wolsey is reportedly shocked and spends over an hour trying to dissuade Henry from this course of action. By then, Wolsey would have been well-aware of Anne’s presence in Henry’s life, however it would have been unfathomable that the King meant to make her queen. In the meantime, Wolsey is left with a task: build a case for why Henry should be granted an annulment from the Vatican.


Pope Clement VII issues an annulment to Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor, for her second marriage to Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus on the grounds that he had been previously committed to marry Lady Jane of Traquair and was therefore not free to marry Margaret.


England and France sign the Treaty of Westminster cementing Mary’s marriage, upping Francis’s annual pension to Henry and agreeing to apply joint pressure on Charles. The two monarchs agree that Charles has to pay his debts to England and release Francis’s two sons, still captive in Madrid. If he refuses, then both kings are prepared to declare war. Mary’s husband depended on Charles’s response – if he agreed then Mary would marry Orleans; if he refused then she would marry Francis I, who would sever his betrothal to Charles’s sister, Eleanor.


From May 6-17, the Imperial army sacks Rome in a brutal and bloody attack that the Vatican couldn’t quite fathom Catholic soldiers would carry out, and the Pope is captured. On May 21, Charles’s wife, Isabella, gives birth to a son, Philip, securing the Hapsburg succession.

Meanwhile, on May 17, Wolsey holds a secret meeting in his chambers within the Palace of Westminster in which Henry is invited to “justify” his marriage to Katherine to Wolsey and William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The meeting is then repeated on May 20, 23 and 27. Wolsey “charges” Henry with having lived unlawfully with his brother’s widow for 18 years and points to Leviticus 18:16:

“If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.”

It is worth noting another Old Testament passage from the Book of Deuteronomy which states the exact opposite:

“When brothers live together, and one of them dies without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry to another: but his brother shall take her, and raise up seed for his brother.”

Catholic canon law stated that Leviticus has precedence over Deuteronomy, hence Henry’s preoccupation with the former, however it wasn’t an open and shut case. Katherine wasn’t barren – not only was Mary alive and well, but she had given birth to a living son. Then there was the fact that Katherine had maintained since 1502, the year Arthur Tudor died, that their marriage had never been consummated.

On May 27, the same day as the last secret meeting, news reaches London that Rome was sacked and Clement VII is effectively imprisoned. At this point, Wolsey could have declared that Henry’s marriage was invalid and forced a very distracted Clement VII to accept their judgment. For whatever reason, he chose not to – instead he said that the matter was so serious that it needed to be decided by senior theologians and lawyers.

It is worth considering that Wolsey may not have wanted Henry to annul his marriage to Katherine – particularly if he had guessed Anne was waiting in the wings. He also early on spotted a stronger argument than the case Henry wanted to build around Leviticus – the legality of the dispensation granted by the Vatican in 1503 that allowed Henry and Katherine’s marriage. The dispensation was purposefully vague due to uncertainty around whether Arthur and Katherine had slept together – even more, it had been issued to Henry VII and Isabella of Castile, Katherine’s mother, both of whom were dead by the time the wedding took place six years later. This notably provided the Vatican with an out that didn’t cast aspersion on the judgment of the papacy (though the dispensation had been granted by Clement VII’s predecessor).


On June 22, Henry summons Katherine to his chambers and tells her that their marriage is invalid. Katherine begins to sob, then composes herself and tells him (again) that she never slept with Arthur. He responds by showing her manuscripts arguing his case, to which she says that she will wait for an official verdict from the Church.

Katherine’s tears were likely a genuine reaction to hearing her husband say the worst, but her words make it clear she had long been tipped off as to what was happening and had begun building her defense.

Wolsey, meanwhile, was pushing Henry to focus on the legality of the dispensation, but Henry refused, begging the question: Did he sincerely believe that his marriage was invalid? Henry is usually charged with hypocrisy for concocting a case that allowed him to discard his older wife in favor of a younger one, but he was also deeply pious and occasionally paranoid. It is altogether possible, if not likely, that he sincerely feared he had sinned in marrying Katherine – whether his mind had the ability to acknowledge where that fear ended and self-interest began is debatable.


Wolsey travels to France to meet with Francis I with two goals: 1) hammer out the implementation of the Treaty of Westminster and 2) discuss the idea of appointing Wolsey Papal Vicar-General. With Clement VII still held captive by Charles, the appointment, which would need the backing of a council of cardinals, would empower Wolsey with the authority of the Vatican. He would then be able to annul Henry’s marriage without consulting Clement.


Wolsey and Francis meet at Amiens and the treaties are ratified with Mary due to marry the Duke of Orleans.


On September 10, Wolsey is visited by William Knight, an Englishman in Henry’s employ en-route to Rome. He shows Wolsey a document he has been asked to have Clement sign that allows Henry to remarry even if his first marriage isn’t annuled and even if he has already slept with the woman or the woman’s sister. This, my friends, is how Anne Boleyn made her international debut.

The language in this document is key – it acknowledges Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn, but it also raises questions about the nature of his relationship with Anne. The traditional view is that Henry and Anne didn’t sleep together until 1532, however by asking for permission to marry a woman with whom he has had premarital sex with he seems to be indicating he had in fact already slept with her. This has prompted some speculation that Henry and Anne consummated their relationship in 1525/6 and then stopped once Henry became set on annuling his marriage and remarrying Anne. Under those circumstances, Anne’s reputation had to be spotless and they couldn’t run the risk of a pregnancy.

Wolsey is horrified for two reasons: 1) the stupidity of the argument itself, which tips off the Vatican – and Europe – that Henry is motivated by less than intellectual desires and 2) that Henry is strategizing with others besides him and without his knowledge.

It is the first sign that Henry doesn’t have complete confidence in Wolsey’s ability or intention and it prompts the Cardinal to write an impassioned letter to the King assuring him that securing an annulment is his foremost objective. But Wolsey’s council of cardinals is a failure and only four show up – he is empowered with nothing and within days he returns to London.


Henry invites Thomas More to examine the state of his marriage and makes his case to him. More promises to consider the evidence, but otherwise makes no commitment to support Henry.


Henry summons scholars to Hampton Court Palace, prompting public discussion of the legality of his marriage. From then on out, the case is no longer a closely-guarded secret.

Back in London, the treaty with France is ratified and Henry is invested with the Order of St Michel. This is celebrated with tournaments, feasts and masque balls. Twelve-year-old Mary has been summoned to the capital from Wales and she is feted in anticipation of her marriage to Orleans. A play is staged that presents Henry and Wolsey as the saviors of Europe, the Pope and the French princes, in no particular order, while Charles and the Spanish are called “barbarians.” Katherine is present for the spectacle.


Wolsey sends three Italian churchmen to the Vatican to ask Clement to confer authority on him to judge Henry’s marital case. The request is for Clement to call a court to sit in England and rule. The Vatican’s reaction is one of surprise, for in their mind Wolsey has enough evidence to try the case himself.

Charles V releases Clement, who immediately leaves Rome for Orvieto. One of his first acts is to grant William Knight the dispensation empowering Henry to remarry, and to agree to a commission for Wolsey to judge the case in England. It pointedly allows Katherine to appeal any decision given by Wolsey to the Vatican, thus rendering it useless for Henry’s purposes.

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