Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trials and Deaths of Anne Boleyn & Katherine Howard

Fiery Passions & Ruthless Actions

Ann Boleyn, sketch by Hans Holbein
Ann Boleyn, sketch by Hans

Like many of the men in his court, Henry was beguiled by the witty and mysterious Anne. Henry made his interest known to her, expecting her to return his affection, but she was by no means easy prey. She learned from her sister Mary, who was temporarily a mistress to the king, that the quicker you surrendered yourself to the king's advances, the quicker you were discarded and replaced by a new female interest. Anne was more ambitious and had no intention of being conveniently disposed of by the king, especially one she admired so greatly.

Anne encouraged Henry's attention, but was careful how she played the courting game. The stakes were high and her reputation was at stake. She had everything to lose. Yet, she also had everything to gain.

Henry's affections for Anne became increasingly passionate during 1526 and 1527. She was not like any other woman he had known. She played hard to get with Henry, which was a dangerous game to play with the king. Nonetheless, it was one she mastered and her reward was handsome.

Portrait of Henry VIII
Portrait of Henry VIII

Henry acted like a love-smitten schoolboy. The degree of his fondness for Anne was apparent in his love letters, which he often signed "H seeks AB and no other." To keep Henry on his toes, Anne would at times not respond to his letters. She went so far as to stay away from the court for brief intervals, which resulted in a quickening of Henry's passions. In short, Anne drove Henry crazy with lustful desire that was further heightened by refusing to have sex with him. That is, unless he married her.

This posed a problem for the king because he was already married to Spain's Catherine of Aragon, and had been for 18 years. Catherine was no ordinary princess: she was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain and the aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. She could not simply be discarded because of Henry's lust. But Henry was obsessive and was determined to find a way to divorce his wife so that he could marry his beloved Anne. It would be a more difficult task than either ever imagined.

Catherine of Aragon as a young woman
Catherine of Aragon as a
young woman

Henry began to look for ways out of his marriage with Catherine. He believed that he might be granted an annulment due to the unusual circumstances surrounding his marriage. Catherine had previously been married to Henry's older brother Arthur. Unfortunately, Arthur died several months into the marriage and Catherine was then betrothed to the next in succession to the throne, which was Henry. However, there was one stipulation made before the marriage could go through. Catherine would have to swear that she was a virgin and had never consummated her marriage with Arthur. If she had consummated her marriage with him, then the marriage to Henry would not be approved.  

Henry believed this was as good an argument as any to get out of his matrimonial problem. He questioned her virginity at the time of marriage, thus throwing into speculation its validity. The problem was proving that she was not a virgin at the time of his marriage. There was no physical evidence to support his argument. Moreover, any physical exam of Catherine was ruled out because there was no doubt that she and Henry had long since consummated their marriage. They had a young daughter named Mary to prove it and she had given birth to other children who had not survived. Although he knew it would be difficult to prove, Henry was confident he would succeed in convincing the church. After all, he was the king.

Portrait of King Ferdinand of Spain
Portrait of King Ferdinand
of Spain

In 1527, Henry came across a passage in the Bible that further convinced him that his marriage to Catherine was no good. The passage that disturbed the king was found in the text of Leviticus (20:21), which stated that "if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing" resulting in the wrath of God and the penalty of a childless marriage. One might find it difficult to believe that Henry's marriage was childless, since he had a daughter. However, a girl was seen as an unsuitable candidate to "man the throne" and a male heir was considered a necessity for the survival of the kingdom. Thus he believed himself to be childless, which was likely a result of God's wrath for sleeping with his dead brother's wife.

Portrait of Arthur, Henry's brother
Portrait of Arthur, Henry's

Henry ordered his minister, Cardinal Wolsey, to arrange a secretive inquiry into the validity of his marriage. According to David Starkey's book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, the court secretly convened on May 1527 to determine if Catherine had in fact consummated her marriage to Arthur, prior to her marriage to Henry. However, court officials were unable to come to a conclusion concerning the case. The investigation was temporarily suspended and sent to Rome to be examined by the pope.

The secretive activities were revealed to Catherine soon after proceedings began. She was informed by the Spanish ambassador to London of her husband's intent to end the marriage. She was devastated and refused to accept any form of divorce. She contested the unreasonable divorce action, not just for her sake but also for their daughter's.

The "Great Matter" was eventually out in the open. Henry personally pleaded with Catherine to withdraw from court while the marriage was being investigated. Starkey stated that she adamantly refused to leave and responded to her husband's pleas by sending a secret message to Europe's most powerful ruler, her nephew, Emperor Charles V. She asked Charles to help defend her against her husband, to which he readily agreed.

Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey
Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey

International tensions at this time began to steadily increase: England and France declared war on Charles V, which was more a verbal dispute than a military battle. However, as Starkey wrote, "the phony war gave the opportunity to break diplomatic immunity," which allowed Henry to further separate himself from Catherine and her native country.

Meanwhile, the pope had responded to Henry's request by dispatching his special representative Cardinal Campeggio to England to examine the case and continue with the trial. Campeggio worked alongside Wolsey in the investigation of Henry's case against his wife, which greatly angered Catherine. It was clear to her that the pope was allowing the unreasonable trial to continue, likely at her expense. There was no doubt that Catherine was facing a losing battle.

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