Revealing Tudor Secrets: Thomas Cranmer’s Letter On Henry VIII’s Divorce

In this world I will confess myself to be the king’s true wife, and in the next they will know how unreasonably I am afflicted…My tribulations are so great, my life so disturbed by the plans daily invented to further the king’s wicked intention, the surprises which the king gives me, with certain persons of his council, are so mortal, and my treatment is what God knows, that it is enough to shorten ten lives, much more mine…

Joanna Denny (2006) Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen

King Henry VIII’s infamous marital failures are one of the most captivating chapters in English history, marked by secretive political maneuvering, extreme religious conflict, and deep personal desires. Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn stands as a pivotal moment that reverberated through the corridors of power. The intrigue surrounding these events not only shaped the fate of the monarchy but also left an irreversible mark on the landscape of England, forever etching Henry VIII’s name in history as a monarch whose pursuit of a male heir forever altered the course of a dynasty and a nation.

Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur’s widow, began in 1509. Despite an early happy marriage, their union faced challenges, primarily the absence of a male heir. Catherine bore several children, but only their daughter Princess Mary survived infancy. The lack of more children fueled Henry’s anxiety and set the stage for the tumultuous events that would follow. He became increasingly discontent with the marriage which would eventually have him seeking avenues in which to rid himself of Catherine.

Henry’s obsession with securing a male heir intensified as the years passed without success. This desperation drove him to consider drastic measures, leading to doubts about the validity of his marriage. Had Catherine consummated her marriage to Prince Arthur years before? Was the Papal dispensation valid? The king’s desire for a divorce became entwined with political and religious implications, creating a complex web of intrigue at court. The issues Henry had only solidified when it became apparent that Queen Catherine, through no fault of her own, wouldn’t be able to have any more children because she had surpassed child-bearing age.

Enter Thomas Cranmer, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Cranmer played a crucial role in navigating the legal and theological challenges of annulling Henry’s marriage to Queen Catherine. His support for the king’s cause, coupled with his influence at court, paved the way for the annulment and set the stage for Henry’s subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. In today’s post, I will be sharing a compelling letter written by Cranmer giving an inside look at Henry’s divorce struggles and his innate selfish behavior.

At the heart of Henry’s desire for an annulment was his long-standing infatuation with Anne Boleyn. Anne, a lady-in-waiting at court, managed to capture the king’s heart and imagination with promises of a male heir. Their clandestine romance which lasted for years eventually led to Anne’s probable pregnancy, accelerating the need for a swift resolution to Henry’s marital predicament.

Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void, allowing the king to marry Anne just days later. This audacious move by Henry and Cranmer led to England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church, as Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage. The excommunication that followed did little to deter Henry, who married Anne and had her crowned queen of England on June 1st, 1533.

Henry and Anne’s marriage marked a turning point in English history. The Church of England was established with the monarch as its supreme head, laying the foundation for the English Reformation. Despite the initial euphoria, Anne’s failure to provide a male heir resulted in her tragic downfall, emphasizing the unpredictable nature of Tudor politics and the dark nature of Henry VIII.

“Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right. Take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman, and a stranger, born out of your dominion. I have here no assured friend and much less indifferent counsel. I flee to you, as to the head of justice within this realm. Alas, Sir, where have I offended you? Or what occasion have you of displeasure, that you intend to put me from you? I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife, ever comfortable to your will and pleasure. I have been always well pleased and contented with all things wherein you had any delight or dalliance. I never grudged a word or countenance, or showed a spark or discontent. I loved all those whom ye loved, only for your sake, whether I had cause or no, and whether they were my friends or enemies. This 20 years or more I have been your true wife and by me ye have had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them from this world, which hath been no default in me. And when ye had me at first, I take God to my judge; I was a true maid, without touch of man.”

Joanna Denny (2006) Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen

Unraveling the Essence of Cranmer’s Letter on Henry VIII’s Divorce

In this illuminating excerpt from a missive by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, we delve into the heart of Henry VIII’s marital complexities and the momentous events that unfolded. Cranmer’s letter provides a detailed account of the determined pursuit of a divorce between Henry and Catherine of Aragon. Notably, the Archbishop’s role in the legal and theological aspects of this matter is underscored, offering a unique insight into the intricacies of the Tudor court.

The letter discloses Cranmer’s visit to Dunstable, where Lady Catherine, steadfastly resisting the annulment process, refused to acknowledge any judgment outside the Pope’s purview. Despite her objections, Cranmer, accompanied by distinguished legal minds, conducted a court proceeding that culminated in a final sentence, declaring the indispensability of papal approval for such marriages.

Beyond the divorce, Cranmer’s narrative extends to the coronation of Anne Boleyn. The vibrant depiction of the procession from Greenwich to the Tower, and eventually to Westminster Church, paints a vivid picture of the pomp and circumstance surrounding Anne’s ascension to queenhood. Cranmer dispels misconceptions about the timing of Anne’s marriage, clarifying that the coronation preceded the union, refuting false reports circulating throughout the realm. The letter thus unravels the complexities of Tudor politics and royal ceremonies, offering a glimpse into a critical chapter in English history. Below is the contents of Cranmer’s letter:

In my most heartie wise I commend me unto you and even so, would be right glad to hear of your welfare, etc. This is to advertise you that inasmuch as you now and then take some pains in writing unto me, I would be loathe you should think your labor utterly lost and forgotten for lack of writing again; therefore and because I reckon you to be some deal desirous of such news as hath been here with us of late in the King’s Graces matters, I intend to inform you a parte thereof, according to the tenure and purport used in that behalf.

And first as touching the small determination and concluding of the matter of divorce between my Lady Catherine and the King’s Grace, which said matter after the Convocation in that behalf had determined and agreed according to the former consent of the Universities, it was thought convenient by the King and his learned Council that I should repair unto Dunstable, which is within 4 miles unto Amptell, where the said Lady Catherine keepeth her house, and there to call her before me, to hear the final sentence in this said matter. Notwithstanding she would not at all obey thereunto, for when she was by doctor Lee cited to appear by [the end of] a day, she utterly refused the same, saying that inasmuch as her cause was before the Pope she would have none other judge; and therefore would not take me for her judge. Nevertheless the 8th day of May, according to the said appointment, I came unto Dunstable, my lord of Lincoln being assistant unto me, and my Lord of Winchester, Doctor Bell… with diverse others learned in the Law being counsellors in the law for the King’s part; and so there at our coming kept a court for the appearance of the said Lady Catherine, where were examined certain witnesses which testified that she was lawfully cited and called to appear… And the morrow after Ascension day I gave final sentence therin, how it was indispensable for the Pope to license any such marriages.

This done, and after our re-journeying home again, the Kings Highness prepared all things convenient for the Coronation of the Queen, which also was after such a manner as followeth. The Thursday next before the feast of Pentecost, the King and the Queen being at Greenwich, all the crafts of London thereunto well appointed, in several barges decked after the most gorgeous and sumptuous manner, with diverse pageants thereunto belonging, repaired and waited all together upon the Mayor of London; and so, well furnished, came all unto Greenwich, where they tarried and waited for the Queen’s coming to her barge; which so done, they brought her unto the Tower, trumpets, shawms, and other diverse instruments all the ways playing and making great melody, which, as is reported, was as comely done as never was like in any time nigh unto our rememberance. And so her Grace came to the Tower at Thursday at night, about 5 of the clock… In the morning there assembled with me at Westminster church the bishop of York, the bishop of London, the bishop of Winchester, the bishop of Lincoln, the bishop of Bath, and the bishop of Saint Asse, the Abbot of Westminster with ten or twelve more abbots, which all revested ourselves in our pontificalibus (robes of office), and so furnished, with our crosses and croziers, proceeded out of the Abbeu in a procession unto Westminster Hall, where we received the Queen apparelled in a robe of purple velvet, and all the ladies and gentlewomen in robes and gowns of scarlet according to the manner used before time in such besynes; and so her Grace, sustained on each side with two bishops, the bishop of Lincoln and the bishop of Winchester, came forth in procession unto the Church of Westminster… my Lord of Suffolk bearing before her the crown, and two other lords bearing also before her a scepter and a white rod, and so entered up into the high altar, where diverse ceremonies used about her, I did set the crown on her head, and then was sung Te Deum, etc….

But now Sir you may not imagine that this Coronation was before her marriage, for she was married much about saint Paul’s day last, as the condition thereof doth well appear by reason she is now somewhat big with child. Notwithstanding, it hath been reported throughout a great part of the realm that I married [them after the Coronation]; which was plainly false, for I myself knew not thereof a fortnight after it was done. And many other things be also reported of me, which be mere lies and tales.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, to Mr. Hawkyns the Ambassador at the Emperor’s Court; upon the Divorce of Queen Catherine, and the Coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn. 1533.

Shaping History: How Henry VIII and Cranmer’s Bold Move Redefined England

The decisions made by both Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer during this period had a lasting impact on England’s identity and governance. The Church of England, born out of its bold moves, continues to shape the nation’s cultural and religious landscape. Their collaboration, marked by political savvy, religious reform, and personal desires, altered the very essence of Tudor England.

Queen Anne Boleyn’s coronation in the summer of 1533, orchestrated by Cranmer, served as a symbolic pinnacle of the Reformation era. The elaborate ceremonies in an unprecedented move reflected not only Anne’s ascent to the throne but also the broader shifts in religious dynamics, marking a departure from centuries-old traditions. The mood of the public was one of deep shock and uncertainty.

The break from Rome, the establishment of a brand new Church of England, and the coronation of an unfavored queen would change the destiny of the nation. This decisive act not only asserted England’s religious autonomy but also laid the groundwork for a reformed faith that embraced a unique blend of Protestant and Catholic traditions; however, divided the two more than ever.

The dissolution of catholic institutions, guided by the Crown, reshaped the economic and political atmosphere. The redistribution of wealth from monasteries to the Crown contributed to the centralization of power and further solidified the monarchy’s influence. Archbishop Cranmer’s role in navigating the complexities of divorce became integral to the Reformation narrative. His legal and theological knowledge provided the intellectual grounds for challenging the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Cranmer’s unwavering support emboldened Henry’s resolve, leading to a rupture that would redefine England’s religious identity.

Did Cranmer regret the role he played?

“If it be true that is openly reported of the Queen’s Grace… I am in such perplexity that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in woman than I had in her; which maketh me to think that she should not be culpable… Next to Your Grace, I was most bound to her of all creatures living… I wish and pray for her that she may declare herself inculpable and innocent… I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel…”

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, after hearing about Anne’s arrest.


SYNOPSIS: Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, was the archbishop of Canterbury who guided England through the early Reformation and Henry VIII through the minefields of divorce. This is the first major biography of him for more than three decades, and the first for a century to exploit rich new manuscript sources in Britain and elsewhere. Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of the foremost scholars of the English Reformation, traces Cranmer from his east-Midland roots through his twenty-year career as a conventionally conservative Cambridge don.

He shows how Cranmer was recruited to the coterie around Henry VIII that was trying to annul the royal marriage to Catherine, and how new connections led him to embrace the European Reformation and, ultimately, to become archbishop of Canterbury. By then a major English statesman, living the life of a medieval prince-bishop, Cranmer guided the church through the king’s vacillations and finalized two successive versions of the English prayer book.

MacCulloch skillfully reconstructs the crises Cranmer negotiated, from his compromising association with three of Henry’s divorces, the plot by religious conservatives to oust him, and his role in the attempt to establish Lady Jane Grey as queen to the vengeance of the Catholic Mary Tudor. In jail after Mary’s accession, Cranmer nearly repudiated his achievements, but he found the courage to turn the day of his death into a dramatic demonstration of his Protestant faith.


© Samantha James and The Chronicles of History: Reading Into Our Past, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Samantha James and The Chronicles of History with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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