21 April 2014 - 07:20
Why did Henry VIII seek an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon?


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One of the most talked about issues in royal history, and British history in general, is the relationship of Henry VIII and his six wives.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon

In 1525, after 18 years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, daughter to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille, the Spanish king and queen, Henry VIII began to seek an annulment of his marriage.

This was not unheard of. In fact, the Pope had previously allowed annulments in multiple cases, including Henry’s own sister, Margaret of Scotland in 1527. However, Henry’s case was not straightforward as he believed it to be.

Many historians and royal enthusiasts question his motives and reasoning for the seeking of the annulment, and whilst that is a question that can never be objectively answered, based on evidence, we can make assumptions and discover what the most likely case was.

One reason often cited as a motive behind the annulment was Henry’s need for an heir to the throne. When they were married, Catherine was about 23, and Henry was about 18. Eighteen years of marriage later, Catherine was well into her forties, and it became evident she was past childbearing age.

Over the years, Catherine had actually given birth to six of Henry’s children, three of whom were boys, over a 15-year period; however, only one of the six, their daughter Mary (later Mary I), born in 1516, was able to survive. Catherine had many stillborn children, and the first of their three sons, Prince Henry (born 1511), died soon after he was born.

Having only a daughter wasn’t good enough for Henry, who thought that only a male could succeed him – females could only inherit the throne if they had no brothers (and this remained true until the passing of the succession act in 2013, allowing female royal babies to inherit the throne even if they had a younger brother).

In fact, the last female to inherit the throne was Matilda in the 11th century, leading to bloody civil war, and Henry was conscious of this. His father had been the one to end the ongoing civil war of the 15th century between the houses of York and Lancaster, and he did not want another one.

Desperately seeking a son to lay claim to his throne, Henry began a relationship with Anne Boleyn, hoping she would be able to give him the son he desired. However, matters were more complicated than this. Anne refused to be Henry’s mistress, and insisted the only way she would be with him was if they were married, and she became his queen.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

Henry’s relationship with Anne is another reason often cited for motivation behind the annulment. It is without doubt that he had fallen in love with Anne somewhere between 1525 and 1527, and he was infatuated with her, often writing her love letters (17 of which are archived for viewing by people today), and even employing Wolsey to break up her relationship with Henry Percy.

Perhaps Henry had tired of Catherine, six years his senior, who was now well into her 40s, and this spurred his infatuation with young Anne. It is probable that Anne’s refusal to be his mistress tempted him even further. Many historians believe Henry did not love Anne, but rather lusted after her, and certainly one of his letters, reading ‘I will take you for my only mistress’ suggested this.

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However, there was no guarantee Anne would have a son either, so perhaps he did love her, and the one remaining letter of Anne’s to Henry is quoted to say ‘being loved by a King whom I adore’, suggesting even if he did not love her, she believed he did.

Despite this, these are not the only reasons for wanting an annulment. Henry is often referred to as having an enormous ego, and by 1527, he was convinced his marriage to Catherine was unlawful in terms of divine law, and would not move from this position. This belief was based on the Biblical verse of Leviticus stating that “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: It is thy brother’s nakedness” (xx, 21), and “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity: He hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless” (xxv, 5).

Catherine’s inability to produce children certainly suggested this was true, as Catherine had been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur first of all, but not wanting to pay her dowry when Arthur died, Henry VII encouraged the marriage of his second son to Catherine.

Additionally, the text was manipulated to suit Henry’s case even more snugly. He had heard that the Hebrew translation of the final line of the verse came out as “He shall be without sons,” rather than “They shall be childless’, and as Henry had no sons, he clearly felt that the reason for this was God’s displeasure with him for marrying his brother’s wife.

Yet, this argument itself was not clear cut. The verse of Leviticus was contradicted by another Biblical verse, Deuteronomy, which stated “When brethren dwell together, and one of them dieth 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.” (xxv, 5).

Henry needed to find a way to neutralise this verse, in order to uphold Leviticus, and the only way he could do this was through proving consanguinity. This meant Henry needed to prove that Catherine had consummated her marriage to Arthur in order to prove their marriage was against divine law as Leviticus stated, which proved more difficult than he had thought, as Catherine insisted she came to Henry a virgin.

Whether Henry truly believed the verse of Leviticus, or whether it was conveniently available to aid his case, is something we will never know; however, as a deeply religious man, it appears he truly believed his marriage was sinful.

He went so far as to say that the Papal dispensation (approval of the pope) allowing him to marry Catherine to begin with was invalid, which countered the idea of Papal infallibility by which the Pope is always right.

Of these reasons, it is likely a combination of the three. Catherine’s inability to produce any more children became a pressing issue when they had yet to have a healthy, surviving son, and perhaps this lead to Henry’s relationship with Anne Boleyn.

Alternatively, Henry’s religious background and desire to uphold Leviticus could have been a reason for the relationship with Anne, however, based on the logic that Catherine’s consummation of marriage with Arthur made her related to Henry, Henry would have then been related to Anne, due to the affair he had with her sister, Mary.

This clearly did not deter him, as he declared the papal bull allowing him to marry a woman he was already related to as worthless, due to the need to declare his marriage to Catherine invalid first, and married Anne in January of 1533 despite all previous issues.

The truth of the matter is that we will never know the true reasoning for seeking an annulment, but we can make a reasonable judgement that all three factors played a large role.

photo credit: mharrsch via photopin cc
and lisby1 via photopin cc



Spotted an Error?
Edited by Martin




  • Elizabeth

    I’m a little confused by this statement: “Having only a daughter meant Henry had no real heir to the throne, as females were unable to inherit the throne (and this remained true until the passing of the succession act in 2013, allowing female royal babies to inherit the throne even if they had a younger brother).”

    I thought that prior to 2013, England and then the UK had male-preference cognatic primogeniture, in which succession passes first to an individual’s sons (by birth order) and subsequently to daughters (by birth order).

    Is that incorrect?

    Thanks! I enjoyed this post, as with all at Royal Central.

    • Royal Central

      Correct; amended.

  • Kyle

    The doctrine of Papal Infallibility was only given official status as a Dogma of the Catholic Church in 1870 and prior to this, one did not have to believe in it in order to be in communion with the Church. Further, though certainly unofficially widely applied as a tradition prior to this, it only ever referred to Papal decrees which were issued “Ex Cathedra”; that is to say decrees on doctrine or theology which must be held by the whole church (the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin declared to be Dogma by Pius XII in 1950 is one such and the sole use of Papal Infallibility since its official recognition). In these circumstances, a Papal annulment would never have have been regarded as infallible and Henry’s challenge to its legality was entirely valid even if Henry had accepted the Doctrine of infallibility…which he didn’t have to.

  • adamB1

    Also the last female to inherit the throne was Victoria. Then before that we had queen Anna , queen marry II , queen Elizabeth I , queen Mary 1 and queen jane. So your fact about female succession is wrong

  • Jennifer Clark

    The overwhelming factor, in my opinion, was Henry’s belief that, as King, he could not be dictated to. After his grandmother died, there were no senior family members to restrain him. He was King, and he could do as he damn well pleased. The affair with Anne made him mean, like teasing a puppy will create a dog much more willing to bite. I have great respect for Henry; he was a intelligent, if not brilliant, man. But he behaved like a spoiled brat with far too much money and people willing to indulge him.


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