In the recent past I've seen two televised depictions of the life-and-times of Henry VIII: The Tudors and Wolf Hall. Henry VIII wanted out from his marriage to Anne Boleyn because she failed to produce a male heir, and his romantic interests had veered to Jane Seymour.

Granted, these dramatizations take creative liberties, but I think it's more or less accurate that a campaign to find a treasonable wrongdoing by Boleyn was undertaken (possibly largely spearheaded by Thomas Cromwell, and possibly at Henry's instigation).

Question: Why didn't Boleyn grant the king a divorce, to spare her life when it became apparent that she was being investigated for crimes punishable by death? Wolf Hall, particularly, depicts Cromwell as imploring the queen to accede to a divorce.

Was she actually unaware of what was going on? Did she not know or believe that Henry himself wanted her gone? Did she believe Henry would come along at some point before the actual execution to spare her life? Or was divorce not an option for her? I'm curious to learn if there's evidence of her rationale to not accept or offer divorce when it became evident - as I'm sure it eventually must have - that the alternative was execution.

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    I haven't seen the dramas you mention, but Anne was accused of adultery, which in a Queen Consort was high treason. I doubt if divorce was an option!
    – TheHonRose
    Mar 17, 2019 at 12:04
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    Are you perhaps confusing Thomas Cromwell imploring Queen Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII's first wife) to accede to a divorce to allow Henry to marry again, with the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII's second wife) for 'Adultery, incest and treason'? Mar 18, 2019 at 2:52
  • @sempaiscuba - Possibly; I thought he also did so with Anne Boleyn, but absolutely I could be confusing the two events, as you suggested. Per TheHonRose's comment, with an accusation of adultery, divorce may not have been an option offered to Anne. I wasn't aware of that and am willing to accept that as an answer; an evidenced/cited answer from a knowledgeable answerer would be nice.
    – StoneThrow
    Mar 18, 2019 at 3:37
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    @StoneThrow Isn't it comprehensively covered, with citations, in the Wikipedia article? Mar 18, 2019 at 12:59
  • @sempaiscuba - My half-baked understanding had been "Henry wants Anne gone so he can marry Jane Seymour; so he asks Cromwell to 'make Anne go away'; so Cromwell initiates a 'find any fault` witch-hunt against Anne from which he cooked up adultery charges (whether true or not)" Within that understanding, I assumed Cromwell would have offered and accepted a divorce because the goal was just to un-make Anne queen so that Henry could marry again. But now I understand that because the charge was adultery, it was treason so a non-capital punishment exit for Anne was not an option.
    – StoneThrow
    Mar 18, 2019 at 18:59

4 Answers 4


Why didn't Anne Boleyn consent to divorce?

King Henry didn't require Anne Boleyn's consent for divorce. Katherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, never consented to divorce. Law at the time, was an engine of state, not a mechanism for justice. Henry was the state.

Anne Boleyn never had the opportunity to seek divorce because the window between when she was secure as Queen and then not was so small. She was pregnant when Henry's first wife Katherine of Aragon died. She and Henry were still on good terms based upon their joint reaction to this news. They both wore matching yellow upon hearing the news. Yellow is a color of mourning in Spain, Katherine's childhood country. it wasn't in England. By the time of Katherine's funeral, Anne had a miscarriage of a child she had carried for 4 months. Before she had recovered from the miscarriage, Henry had already publicly separated himself from her. He had publicly charged her with seducing him for marriage by sortilege, a French term which means deceit or witchcraft. Jane Seymour was then immediately moved into Henry's personal rooms. The shift was dramatic.

So even if Anne realized her life and position was immediately dependent upon her pregnancy, something historians with 20/20 hindsight acknowledge; She really had no opportunity to call for divorce before Henry both cast her out and publicly maligned her. Even then though, it is reasonable to believe, that if Anne could become pregnant by Henry and give him the son, her personal safety and title could probable have been saved.



I'm not sure if an answer from the community is forthcoming, so I'll take a stab at an answer based on newly-read information including comments to my original post. This answer comes comes with the caveat it's pieced together by me - a non-expert in this milieu of history - from only recently-read articles and a little reading between the lines.

It is the disputed claim that Anne Boleyn had become a political opponent or obstacle to Thomas Cromwell, suggesting that his investigation of her was personally-motivated and biased. In spite of that, a cited statement in Wikipedia says that Cromwell did not manufacture the adultery accusation against her - suggesting that the rumor was making its rounds independent of and prior to Cromwell's investigation.

All that said, adultery was one of the treasonable charges Anne was accused of, and I gather that the seriousness of that accusation (and the others, including plotting the king's death) meant that divorce or other such "easy" exits from her title and marriage were out of the question.

So it appears the answer to "why didn't Anne Boleyn consent to divorce?" is that divorce was never offered to her because of the seriousness of the charges against her. It looks to me that Henry VIII himself might simply have been chiefly interested in getting out of his marriage to Anne so he could remarry Jane Seymour, and perhaps was not personally invested in her death as the means to achieve that. It would seem that Cromwell made use of the opportunity of the king charging him with finding an "out" from his marriage to pursue his personal vendetta against Anne, e.g. by pursuing or inflating treasonable charges against her. I.e. instead of "scaring her" with the threat of charges and offering divorce as an option to save her neck.


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    You might find this video on the Fall of Anne Boleyn from the University of Roehampton of interest. It explains the main theories, and the evidence (or lack of it) for each of them. It's part of the FutureLearn course The Tudors with lead educators Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and Gillian McIver. Mar 19, 2019 at 3:34

There are good answers to this already, but I've got some recently unearthed evidence in mind which is also relevant for this topic. Namely, it turns out that Henry specified the detail of the would-be execution in a warrant book:

“We, however, command that… the head of the same Anne shall be… cut off.”

Clearly Anne's wishes, whether for divorce or some other option, were not in Henry's consideration when he made that statement. Hence, the answer to the question is "Anne wasn't given a say in her fate" rather than what she would have wanted (possibly divorce, possibly something else, but we really can't know).

Further relevant information from the same article indicating that Tracy Borman at least sees this as lifting culpability for the execution from Thomas Cromwell to the King (even if Cromwell had helped manoeuvre Anne into the position she found herself in):

The warrant book reveals that Henry worked out details such as the exact spot for the execution (“upon the Green within our Tower of London”), making clear Kingston should “omit nothing” from his orders. ...

Henry’s instructions were not followed to the letter, though, partly due to a series of blunders, Borman said. “The execution didn’t take place on Tower Green, which is actually where we still mark it at the Tower today. More recent research has proved that… it was moved to opposite what is today the Waterloo Block, home of the crown jewels.”

[Borman] added: “Because we know the story so well, we forget how deeply shocking it was to execute a queen. They could well have got the collywobbles and thought we’re not going to do this. So this is Henry making really sure of it. For years, his trusty adviser Thomas Cromwell has got the blame. But this shows, actually, it’s Henry pulling the strings.


Henry did want an annulment from her at first. he was looking into that possibility in february 1536 (Jane had already moved into the chambers right next to his rooms by then and he was openly courting her), so that mustve been his original plan. I don't know why it didnt happen then tho. another thing I heard was that the charges of adultery and everything was brought to Henry by a nobleman from the Catholic faction, not Cromwell.

so what I think happened was that Henry told Cromwell he wanted an 'out', and then either -

  1. Cromwell and the Catholic noblemen at court worked together in making the charges and one of the noblemen brought the charges to Henry, who had Cromwell investigate them, or
  2. While Cromwell was looking for an out, the Catholic nobleman who's said to have brought the charges to Henry did it without Cromwell's knowledge, and Henry had Cromwell investigate.

The only thing I'm sure of, whether Cromwell and Henry had any part in inventing the charges or not, is that these charges were very convenient for both of them to believe, since they both wanted to be rid of her.

Which is why even before her trial, her death sentence had already been decided and the swordsman had already been called. Boleyn defended herself in the trial, saying that she had proof that on most of the dates she was accused, she was with other people who could confirm that she didn't do it. It was so blatantly clear that many of the charges were false, yet she was sentenced. so obviously Henry knew she hadnt done it, it was just convenient for him to believe the charges. I hope the way ive written this isn't confusing.

Henry did get an annulment from her, tho, which I'm not sure why he did, bc he was rid of her anyway. His marriage to Anne Boleyn was declared null and void on 17th may, and Elizabeth was declared a bastard on 1st July and Henry didn't see her for months

But in any case, Henry didnt need Anne's consent. he could have just gotten an annulment like he first planned in February. He had Cranmer who'd do whatever he said and find some way to annul the marriage, which he did. but once he had the charges brought to him, maybe he thought it was easier to dispose of her this way? or he probably was so done with her that he forced himself to believe the charges

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    Source would improve this answer. Oct 31, 2020 at 18:21

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