For seven years, Henry VIII actively sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. He had a good reason: he needed a male heir to inherit the throne because otherwise England would be plunged back into civil wars. Henry also had a strong argument: Catherine had been married briefly to his older brother, and Leviticus warns that a man who marries his brother’s widow will be childless. But Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry that annulment because Catherine had a powerful nephew – King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – whose armies surrounded Rome and pretty much held Clement prisoner. Too, Clement believed that if he could just delay long enough, Henry would tire of Anne and the situation would resolve itself. Clement was wrong.
Instead, the situation only convinced Henry that the papacy was corrupt – and spurred him to create his own church, one that would follow Catholicism in just about everything…except that Henry would be the pope.
Henry’s earliest salvo, in 1531, sought to have himself named “Supreme Head of the Church in England” but pushback changed the title to “Supreme Head of the Church in England Insofar as the Law of Christ Allows.” That didn’t do it. But then the chief opponent to the divorce, who as Archbishop of Canterbury was also the senior English Churchman, died. To serve as his successor, Henry nominated Thomas Cranmer him, and Pope Clement (happy to give Henry a “consolation prize”) agreed. Things proceeded quite quickly once they had the papal bulls in hand: Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury on March 30, and immediately convened the rest of the English Bishops who gathered in London on April 3 to rule that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid. This moment deserves to be recognized (hence this post!): it was the culmination of a fight that no one thought he could ever win, one he actually won only by changing the rules for all time.
Things would go quickly after this as well: by April 9, Catherine would be informed of her new title, on April 12 Anne Boleyn would attend Easter Mass as Queen of England, on June 1 she would be crowned – and on September 7 she would give birth to the promised heir…another girl. No one would have guessed right then that she would turn out to be one of England’s greatest rulers…
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