Henry VIII is considered to be one of most infamous monarchs in the history of Western Civilization. That infamy stems from the six marriages he entered into during the course of his reign as the king of England. Of the six, the most pivotal was his marriage to Anne Boleyn. It would have social, political, and religious repercussions that would reverberate through English history for several centuries to come. The society in which Henry VIII lived in was one that adhered to strict guidelines about married life within the noble class and among royalty.
One of these guidelines was that marriage was a sacred institution. However, for many among the nobility, as well as among royalty, there was a severe case of ‘do as I say, not as I do. ’ This was the case with Henry VIII, who after more than twenty years of marriage, decided he no longer wanted to be married to Catherine of Aragon. Like many of his class, throughout the majority of his marriage, he engaged in extra-marital affairs. While they were an embarrassment to his wife, she remained at his side, most likely secure in the knowledge that he would never throw her over for another woman.
Unfortunately, she was wrong. In the early 1500s, Henry VIII became acquainted with Anne Boleyn. He had already engaged in an affair with her older sister, Mary, which had resulted in a pregnancy that he refused to accept responsibility for. While Anne was not the most beautiful of women, what she lacked for in beauty she more than made up for with her intelligence, wit, and extraordinary personality. What made her different from his other mistresses, however, was Anne’s refusal to simply fall into his arms.
She would not settle for the treatment her sister endured, and in the end, she would reach heights her sister never dreamed of. Along with the feistiness he found intriguing, Henry was interested in Anne because he felt that she could provide him with the son that Catherine had failed to produce. It would take six long years for Henry VIII to gain his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This long delay was due to political and religious difficulties. Politically, Henry VIII had to deal with one very important figure with the power to make or break his plan for divorce.
That person was Emperor Charles V, nephew of his wife Catherine. Charles V was a formidable ruler, having an empire that stretched from Spain to the Netherlands to Austria-Hungary. He also, during this period, had the ruling pope under his thumb. As a result, without the approval of either man, a divorce would not be feasible. Religiously, Henry VIII made decisions and had laws enacted that would forever change the religious landscape of England. Around the same time he was seeking divorce, Europe was experiencing the first stirrings of the fire that would be the Protestant Reformation.
Henry had written a treatise denouncing Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism. This had earned him the title ‘Defender of the Faith. ’ However, his tune changed when he decided divorce was his only option. The church that had bestowed him with the title was now an obstacle to what he wanted. To get rid of that obstacle, Henry VIII did the unthinkable by breaking away from the Catholic Church and declaring himself head of the church of England. Socially, the break with the Catholic Church as well as the callous way Catherine of Aragon was treated profoundly damaged the popularity of Henry VIII with his subjects.
The majority of his subjects refused to accept Anne as their queen, often calling her ‘the King’s Whore’ and viewing the child Anne and Henry had together as a bastard. It also resulted in anyone who refused to accept Henry as the head of the Church of England being imprisoned and executed. The outcome of this particular episode in English history is one no one expected. After the long process of obtaining a divorce, the actual marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn lasted for a short period of time, for several reasons. First, Anne failed to produce the male heir that Henry so desperately wanted.
Instead, their first child was a girl – the future Queen Elizabeth I. Subsequent pregnancies resulted in miscarriage or stillbirth, the last being the stillbirth of a dead male. Second, Henry began detesting the feistiness that he had initially found so appealing. This led him to begin his philandering ways, keeping company with other women, especially Jane Seymour. Once again, he became enamored of a lady-in-waiting that served the queen, much like the way he had become enamored of Anne while she served his first wife Catherine.
Third, with his newfound interest of Jane, Henry convinced himself that Jane could provide the son Anne did not. However, the manner in which he disposed of Anne was much different. Rather than attempt another divorce, he simply allowed false charges of incest, adultery, and treason to be brought against Anne, her brother, and a musician in her employ. All would be executed, but only Anne would have the luxury of being killed by a swordsman rather than the usual hatchet-wielding execution.
The entire Anne Boleyn episode paved the way for many of the social, political, and religious upheavals that would dog the remainder of the Tudor dynasty. Its legacy was to provide England with one of its greatest female rulers, as well as with the Anglican religion that continues to be the national religion of England. It also placed Henry VIII on the world stage, not just as the epitome of a Renaissance king, but also as a man who, despite being king, had the same human flaws as the average person.