It was a royal union that changed England forever. The marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn followed years of legal wrangling by the king which led to a religious revolution and an international controversy. When they said ‘I do’, they did so in secret but five centuries on, the question remains – how many clandestine ceremonies did Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn take part in?
Their union was declared valid on May 28th 1533 at a special court held at Dunstable Priory by Thomas Cranmer, who had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury not long before. But this wasn’t their wedding day. The couple had exchanged vows in secret at least four months earlier when Henry didn’t even know if he was allowed to get married to Anne.
By then, his battle to free himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had gone on for five years. He had claimed that her marriage to his older brother, Arthur, meant their own union had no validity and cited the Bible to prove it. England’s finest legal minds as well as its religious and political hierarchies had argued the case as had the Papacy and other European powers. In the end, Cranmer declared the marriage between Henry and Catherine null and void on May 23rd 1533 before going on to proclaim the union with Anne Boleyn legal five days later. But May 28th 1533 merely marked the start of public recognition for a marriage that had already taken place.
The question remains, when? It is known for certain that Henry and Anne exchanged vows according to the Royal Book on January 25th 1533 in the Private Chapel at Whitehall Palace. This secret ceremony took place before the sun had even risen and there were just a handful of witnesses to the event that Henry had worked so hard to bring about. So clandestine was the marriage that the name of the officiating priest remains cloaked in mystery and everyone there, even the triumphant bride and groom, kept the ceremony secret until Cranmer had finally dispensed with the pesky problem of Henry’s first wife.
However, there is every indication that the couple had already gone through a marriage ceremony over two months before their chilly, January wedding. By autumn 1532, Anne had been made Marquess of Pembroke in her own right and had accompanied Henry on an official mission to France. Her role as consort was acknowledged in all but name and sometime during her return to England with Henry, it is thought they married in secret. The location of this mysterious ceremony isn’t known but its timing indicates that Anne was Henry’s wife before the start of 1533.
What makes it likely that this first wedding really did take place and was considered by both to be their marriage is the date, November 14th 1532. Exactly 31 years earlier, on November 14th 1501, Catherine of Aragon had married Arthur, Prince of Wales at the old St. Paul’s Cathedral with her loyal brother in law, Henry, accompanying her to the church. That wedding was seen as the beginning of a new era for the Tudors as the heir of Henry VII formed a union that would guarantee the dynasty. Henry VIII was now the head of that royal house and this marriage was the promise of its continuation, celebrated on the date chosen by his father all those years before. What’s more, Henry selecting the same wedding date as his dead brother underlined his conviction that his own union with Catherine had been an illegal error that never really counted. Her own marriage had taken place then and now that he knew he had been free to wed all along, Henry chose it as his wedding day, too.
Historians who argue Anne didn’t consummate her relationship with Henry until they were married also point to another interesting bit of timing. Anne gave birth to their child, Elizabeth, on September 7th 1533, just over seven months after the Whitehall marriage but at least nine months after the proposed earlier wedding. One school of thought holds that Anne realised she was pregnant around the start of 1533 and the second ceremony was held to ensure the child would be legitimate. Besides, if Anne and Henry had only consummated their relationship at the end of January 1533, their baby would have been very early arriving in the first days of September and contemporary records show that the new queen was visibly pregnant at the time of her coronation on June 1st 1533. Every indication points to the first secret marriage of Henry and Anne taking place in November 1532.
The fact that their marriage, however often it took place, was secret underlines the extreme controversy surrounding the event. However, for a man who married so often, Henry never went overboard with his nuptial celebrations. That much disputed wedding with Catherine had been a low key ceremony and the four unions that followed the brutal execution of Anne Boleyn were all private events. However, it is the second of his many marriages that continues to cause the most debate and the fact that he did it twice, in secret, only adds to its ongoing fascination.