Wednesday, 25 January 2012

January 25th, 1533: Anne Boleyn's wedding day?

Anne Boleyn is Henry VIII's most famous wife and she was crowned queen in a magnificent ceremony that fused medieval pageantry with political propaganda, spectacle and royal extravagance. However, the details of Henry and Anne's actual marriage are less well-known and considerable confusion surrounds when, where and by whom they were joined together as man and wife.

The traditional version of events, and one oft-repeated in biographies and textbooks, is that they were married on this day in 1533 - the twenty-fifth of January. The story goes something like this: after nearly six years of abstaining from sexual relations until she could be certain it would lead to marriage, Anne Boleyn finally allowed Henry VIII into her bed sometime around November 1532. The couple first slept together at the end of a state visit to Calais, on the voyage back across the Channel or, at the latest possible date, in Dover Castle shortly after their return to England. For years, Henry had been stuck in interminable battles with Rome and Spain to try and divorce his post-menopausal Spanish queen, Katherine of Aragon. Now, with the backing of the English clergy and the French monarchy apparently within her grasp, Anne Boleyn at last felt confident enough to abandon her much-vaunted moral principles and have sex with the man she'd famously been saying "no" to since 1527. Whether she did this because she finally felt secure in her position as queen-to-be or because she planned to use her sexuality to manipulate Henry into speeding up his plan to break with Rome for her sake is still a matter of debate. Either way, some time around Christmas or New Year, Anne must have realised that her new found sex life has resulted in pregnancy. Panicked at the prospect of his longed-for heir being born out of wedlock, Henry rushed ahead to make Anne his wife, by fair means or foul. In the pre-dawn darkness he, Anne and a few of their closest confidantes gathered in a small chapel in Anne's splendid new palace at Whitehall and were secretly married, either by the future Bishop of Lichfield or by the future Archbishop of Dublin. With this secret, bigamous marriage ceremony carried out, Henry could then proceed to shamelessly bully the English episcopacy until it made his union with Anne legal, after the fact, in May. Anne was then crowned in June and gave birth to the future Elizabeth I in September, who had been a surprise guest of sorts at her parents' furtive wedding nine months earlier.

This is the version of events that most students of British history, and a fair number of actual historians, all know. But is it credible? Some kind of wedding ceremony probably did take place at Whitehall on January 25th 1533. However, almost everything else about this traditional version of events invites questions when looked at more closely. Psychologically, historically and even biologically, there are major flaws in the idea that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn commenced a sexual relationship in November 1532, conceived a child in December 1532 and were married in January 1533. Whilst such a timeline is undoubtedly of great use to those historians who wish to present Anne either as a manipulative Jezebel who withheld her sexual favours only out of pragmatism rather than morality, or as a feminist icon who boldly used every weapon at her disposal, even her own body, to ensure political victory, it is unfortunately riddled with holes and improbabilities. 

The first problem is circumstantial. It's a question of probability and it's bugged some of Anne's more recent biographers. In 2004, Professor E.W. Ives hit this problem on the head in his book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, when he asked: "Is it likely, given the obstacles still in the way of any marriage, that Henry would abandon five years of heroic chastity and chance a son by Anne being born illegitimate? Suppose the pope refused to accept Cranmer? And why should Anne agree, even if Henry did now want to take the risk?" Put simply: why should Anne have taken the great risk of sacrificing her virginity in November, when she had already waited so long for a wedding ring? The second problem is one of basic human biology and it blows apart the myth that Henry and Anne's marriage was prompted by Anne's sudden discovery that she was pregnant with Elizabeth.

The future Elizabeth I entered the world at Greenwich Palace on September 7th, 1533, less than nine months after her parents' apparent marriage at Whitehall. If we assume that she had the normal nine months in the womb, then she was conceived sometime around the first week of December, probably within the first fortnight or so of her parents' starting their sexual relationship with one another. However, there is some evidence from the ceremonies surrounding Elizabeth's birth that she was actually conceived slightly later that than - probably around new year's. And if she wasn't, it was still her mother's belief that Elizabeth had been conceived in January. 

Royal etiquette demanded that a pregnant queen "take to her chamber", isolating herself from male company and the world outside for a month or a month and a half prior to her child's birth. Queen Anne, however, took to her chamber a mere ten days before Elizabeth's birth in September. This means either that Elizabeth was born anywhere between three and five weeks prematurely or that her mother and her mother's servants had miscalculated when they first guessed the date of her conception. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume the latter for the time being. If Anne and her women had miscalculated, which was perfectly possible given the vagaries of sixteenth century medicine, then it follows that by taking to her chamber at the end of August, Anne was expecting a delivery at the end of September. This means she and those around her assumed she had first fallen pregnant at the end of December or the beginning of January. Anne may very well have actually fallen pregnant sometime before that, but if she assumed her baby would be born in late September or early October, then it seems highly unlikely that she could have suspected she was pregnant as early as the third week of January and the theory that her pregnancy became a motivating factor for her marriage ceremony thus becomes a good deal less convincing.

What about the argument that Elizabeth I was a premature baby? Well, such an idea is certainly possible. However, it doesn't change the circumstances of what happened on January 25th. Whether Anne miscounted or whether Elizabeth was actually born three to five weeks early, the point remains that it is practically impossible that in the days leading up to January 25th, Anne Boleyn suddenly realised she was pregnant and, armed with this certainty, Henry rushed into a secret and possibly illegal marriage ceremony with her at Whitehall.

If we assume that pregnancy was not the reason for the royal wedding in 1533, what of the timeline that has Henry and Anne's relationship being consummated two months earlier in mid-November? Whether Anne miscalculated or Elizabeth arrived early, it's almost certain that she was conceived before January 25th, just not far enough before for it to be the reason for the wedding date. Given that, we must accept that sometime around the second or third week of November, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn finally slept together and that they continued to have a normal, active sex life, which resulted in their daughter's conception in either late December or early-to-mid January. How then do we explain the glaring psychological improbability that Anne and Henry embarked on sexual intercourse, pre-marriage, when they had already waited so long?

The answer to the problem comes from two sixteenth century accounts, both of which have radically different interpretations of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn - Edward Hall's loyalist Chronicle and the vituperative account of the break with Rome by the Jesuit priest, Father Nicholas Sander. Both of them suggest a different date for the royal wedding - November 14th 1532, over two months before the traditionally-given date. Hall wrote, "The king, after his return [from the state visit], married privily the Lady Anne Boleyn on Saint Erkenwald's Day, which marriage was kept so secret that very few knew of it, till she was great with child, at Easter". Sander, who characterised Henry as an incestuous monster and Anne an heretical witch, had no reason for supporting the view that they waited until marriage before sleeping together or that Elizabeth I, whom Sander loathed beyond all reason, had been conceived in wedlock, unless he believed it to be true. 

If Henry and Anne were married on November 14th 1532, then it is most likely that they were married in Dover Castle, within a day or so of their return from France. Hall and Sander agree on almost nothing in their accounts, but the fact that the usually well-informed Hall and habitually misleading Sander both pinpoint November 14th as the date of the marriage, makes it hard to ignore. Particularly when one considers that it is by accepting this date that we can resolve all the other "problems" with Henry's second marriage - namely the psychological problem of believing Anne Boleyn would risk sex before marriage and the confusing timetable of Elizabeth I's birth.

What then of the other service - the one which took place on January 25th at Whitehall? Well, a ceremony of sorts took place, which leaves us with the apparent problem of two wedding services. However, in the sixteenth century, two ceremonies, even two weddings, were not necessarily so unusual. Eric Ives concludes that there was some kind of commitment ceremony in November, quite possibly a binding pre-contract, a watertight legal declaration of intent to marry each other. After such a ceremony had taken place, sixteenth century canon law stated that it was permissible for the couple to commence sexual intercourse with one another - a murky stipulation which meant all engagements were treated with suspicion in future brides. (It was on grounds of pre-contract that Henry VIII's subsequent marriages to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard were declared invalid.) With the pre-contract formally ratified in November, Henry and Anne began sleeping together, conceived Elizabeth and the full nuptial Mass took place at Whitehall on January 25th. David Starkey has a slightly different take on events and cites medieval royal etiquette to explain the mystery of the two wedding dates. When kings or princes married foreign princesses, it was customary for there to be a proxy service in that bride's own homeland or right after she landed in her new country. This was what had happened with Katherine of Aragon when she married Arthur Tudor in 1501 and the future Henrietta-Maria of France when she married Charles I in 1625. Anne had been brought up in France and Starkey therefore argues, "Anne had been doing her research. She had already ... informed herself widely on the debate about the Divorce. Now she wanted to make sure that her own title as Queen was unimpeachable. This meant that everything would have to be done in the proper form set out in the bible of ceremony known as The Royal Book ... It was these stipulations, at least as much as the pressure of contemporary events, which governed Anne and Henry's actions over the next few months... The circumstances of the Calais interview reinforced all this. She had re-entered the world of the French Court; she had danced with the French King and talked privately with him. Now she was sailing to English soil where soon she would be crowned. It was just as The Royal Book prescribed. What more natural therefore than to marry Henry as soon as they landed?" Henry and Anne would then have a second marriage service at a later date, just as foreign royal brides of the Middle Ages had done.

Whether Anne was following contemporary sexual etiquette in having a pre-contract ceremony binding her to Henry or an actual marriage in imitation of medieval royal etiquette is impossible to know for certain. Given that several candidates were later suggested as the priest who had married the couple, I am inclined to believe that there were two actual marriage services with two different priests, but that is pure speculation and guess-work. What is clear is that the general timeline of Henry and Anne's relationship, and the final five months preceding England's Break with Rome, is wrong - both in chronology and in interpretation. To recap: -

November 1532 - Henry and Anne begin sexual relations with one another
December 1532 - Anne conceives Elizabeth
Early January 1533 - Anne realises she is pregnant
January 25th 1533 - Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are secretly married at Whitehall Palace
Easter 1533 - Anne is publicly proclaimed Queen
June 1533 - Anne's coronation
September 7th 1533 - Birth of Elizabeth I at Greenwich

However, looked at anew it becomes clear that Anne's pregnancy, which is often given as the main (if not sole) motivating factor for the date of her wedding, in fact played absolutely zero role in her rise to the throne. Anne was following custom, not panicking about biology, on January 25th 1533. What happened between 1532 and 1533 when Anne went from aristocrat to queen is difficult to say with absolute certainty, but the overwhelming weight of the frustratingly circumstantial evidence would all suggest to my mind that things actually happened in this general order: -

November 1532 - Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's official visit to Calais and France
November 14th 1532 - The couple are either married to one another or commit to a binding pre-contract at Dover Castle. Sexual relations begin.
Early January 1533 - Anne falls pregnant with the future Elizabeth I
January 25th 1533 - Henry and Anne undergo their second service at Whitehall - either the wedding promised by the pre-contract back in November or the second wedding Mass mandated by royal etiquette. Owing to the well-publicised letters of the diplomat Eustace Chapuys, who knew only about this service and was widely published by enthusiastic historians centuries later, it is later assumed that this was the only service the couple underwent to legalise their matrimony.
February 1533 - Anne begins to suspect she is pregnant.
Easter 1533 - Anne is publicly proclaimed as queen.
June 1533 - Anne's coronation.
Late August 1533 - Anne takes to her chamber
September 7th 1533 - Birth of Elizabeth I.


  1. Always interesting to read about Anne.

  2. Thank you, Elena Maria. The fantastic part about the subject is being able to constantly wonder and re-evaluate what you think about it!

  3. Brilliant article as always, Gareth, I've linked to it from The Anne Boleyn Files FB page. I think that Hall's St Erkenwald Day marriage date may have been some kind of betrothal which was then obviously consummated. I think I worked out that Elizabeth would have been conceived between 11th and 19th Dec 1532 if she was born on time but it's hard to know if she was born early hence Anne going into confinement so late or whether Anne purposely went into confinement late so that it looked like Elizabeth had been conceived later - so many questions and what-ifs!

  4. i cannot see anne giving up her virginity that easily either,i dont expect we will ever know for sure...

    1. Thanks, Claire, that's very kind of you. I did consider the possibility Anne held back from taking to her chamber in order to prove (or mislead) Elizabeth had been conceived later, but thought it was a bit of a risk for her to take given the medical benefits that taking to one's chamber were supposed to bring in guarding against deformity or miscarriage?

  5. Very well written! I've always disliked the idea of Henry and Anne having a shotgun wedding. Henry took such care in protocol in every part of his life and his reign that it seems unlikely that he would rush headlong into a marriage to avoid having a bastard. He had already elevated Henry Fitzroy to a position that made him a possible successor to the throne, and there was already a precedent for later legitimating children born out of wedlock. Also, the Second Succession Act, passed in 1536, permitted the king to designate a successor whether legitimate or not. A quickie wedding for the sake of legitimacy just doesn't make sense. What does make sense is a precontract and later nuptial mass.

  6. Gareth, do you know when your biography of Anne is likely to come out? As I'm sure it will make interesting reading.

  7. This makes perfect sense that there may have been 2 ceremonies. Anne knew there was also danger in waiting too long. They were handfasted, which was a binding and allowed for intercourse. Then a formal marriage. Just because they has sexual relations didn't mean see conceive right away. It's actually harder to get pregnant than one would think. There are only 2 days during a cycle for conception, and excluding relations during the menstrual cycle, she could have had at least 3 weeks where is was free from threat of conception. Anne was not young remember. Also there were no pregnancy tests. One had to wait a whole month for a missed period. There's 7 weeks right there. I think they had a handfasting in front of a priest and ten a ceremony. Henry was patient, but Anne must have felt pressure to hold hos interest even further as she was so close to her goal. Henry was so anxious for a son, she knew the gamble would be worth it as he would recognize the child at this point. A very interesting piece of research

  8. Thank you, Conor, that's kind of you, although it will be years in the pipeline. I've only just finished my research and study into the household of Catherine Howard, which means she'd come before Anne. Right now, I'm still researching Anne's family and their links to the Netherlands!

  9. On a biblical base of marriage & divorce, it might be that Henry believed he had divorced Catherine before 1533, when the official divorce was stamped. (In any event I'm inclined to disagree that he rightly divorced Catherine - my sympathies are with her.) Again, biblically, marriage is a covenant witnessed, not made, by third parties, though interpersonal sex ought not begin until so witnessed. If they believed Catherine to be biblically divorced, subjectively Henry/Anne would have been justified to IPS without even the objection of bigamy (not itself always unbiblical), as soon as married, though preferrably after a wedding had taken place. They were once married, even if twice wed. I wrote about them in my book, Israel's Gone Global.


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