Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, came to England in 1501 to marry Arthur, heir to the British throne and eldest son of Henry VII. The future King died the following year leaving his younger brother to take the throne and ask for the hand of his brother’s widow, in 1509.
The Spanish princess-turned Queen Consort of England was by all accounts a devoted wife, but the marriage bore no sons. Catherine had borne six children by this time including one surviving daughter, Mary Tudor, but there was no male heir. Henry came to believe, or said he believed, it was God’s punishment for marrying his brother’s wife.
The King carried on for a time with a succession of mistresses. Elizabeth Blount bore Henry the coveted male heir in the person of Henry Fitzroy, the only child born out of wedlock his father, acknowledged. Next came Margaret (Madge) Shelton and later her 1st cousin Mary Boleyn, who is reputed to have borne the King two children though Henry acknowledged, neither.
By late winter 1526, Henry had cast his eye on the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Anne. Henry in a pickle. Catherine considered her marriage to the King to be legitimate, and indissoluble. Anne Boleyn was not about to give it up as a mere mistress, as her sister had. She was going to be the King’s wife, or remain a Lady in Waiting.
Henry had written a book back in 1521, allegedly with the assistance of Sir Thomas More, a future saint of the Catholic church. The Book, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, attacked Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, then going on in Europe. The book earned Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, bestowed by Pope Leo X.
Half a decade later Pope Clement VII refused to grant, Henry’s annulment. Henry retaliated closing monasteries and nunneries, in England.
Henry and Anne were secretly wed in November 1532 and formally married on January, 25. The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void to which the Pope responded, with excommunication. The break with the church of Rome was now complete as Henry VIII became head, of the Church of England.
Later writers would label Anne Boleyn “the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had” but, the label would do her little good. In three short years of marriage, Anne bore King Henry a daughter who would live to adulthood to become Queen Elizabeth I, and three miscarriages.
Left: 20th century painting depicting Anne Boleyn deer hunting, with Henry VIII
Henry lost interest by 1534 following the birth of a stillborn male child. He began having affairs with other women. By April 1836 Henry had his sights on Jane Seymour while having Anne “investigated” for adultery, incest and plotting to kill the King.
Anne Boleyn was arrested on this day in 1536 and brought, to the tower of London.
In Tudor courts the accused were required to prove their own innocence, 180° opposite what we now regard as a system of “justice”. With no defense council nor even a clear idea of the charges laid against them, the defendant was made to provide their own defense in a spectacle before a crowd, numbering in the thousands.
Four supposed co-conspirators were tried before a special court of oyer and terminer. As members of the aristocracy Anne herself and her brother George were tried separately.
Even her detractors spoke well of Anne’s appearance in court. George’s openly speculating about Henry’s virility and questioning paternity of the baby Elizabeth, did little to help the defense.
A jury hand selected by the prosecution, each of whom had reason to favor conviction, delivered the verdict. Guilty on all charges. The sentence, death at the time, place and manner, of the King’s choosing.
In this case decapitation by sword, the sentence carried out on May 19. The following day, Henry VIII was engaged to Jane Seymour.
Henry would go on to have four more wives none of whom, bore the coveted male heir. Ironically, Henry himself may have been the problem. Researchers revealed in 2011 that Henry’s blood group may have been “Kell positive”, referring to the Kell antigen on the red blood cell of approximately 9% of all Europeans.
The presence of the Kell antigen would have initiated an auto-immune response in the mother’s body, targeting the blood of the baby inside of her. First pregnancies are unlikely to be affected but the mother’s antibodies would attack second and subsequent Kell-positive pregnancies, as foreign objects.
The science to prove or disprove the theory didn’t exist in the Tudor era, but it may not matter. Anyone attempting to bring such news to Henry VIII, very likely would have paid for it, with his head.