Royal Divorce down the Ages

anne-boleyn-in-the-tower-by-edouard-cibot-1799-1877

At the dawn of humanity, marriage was deemed to be sacrosanct. Divorce in most societies – especially at the instigation of a female – was not permitted. Royalty – men only – were usually entitled to have a lover as their wife was usually married for political and not affection reasons. In these circumstances, divorce was never considered as the wife was the baby production machine whereas romantic love was reserved for their mistress. What happened when the wife could not deliver a male heir or, like in more modern times, when mistresses were no longer tolerated, how did the king or the royalty get their divorce? 

This blog dissects four vastly different royal divorces each of which exposes much about the milieu in which each occurred. Included in this blog will be the vignette on how [Bessiewallis] Wallis Simpson obtained her divorce from her second husband in order to marry King Edward VIII.

Main picture: Anne Boleyn in the Tower awaiting execution by Edouard Cibot (1799–1877)

A thoroughly modern divorce

Prince Charles’ divorce from Diana bore all the hallmarks of a thoroughly modern marital dissolution. No longer was the ancient tradition of monarchs marrying for political purposes in vogue and hence the notion that the royals could “legitimately” have both a wife and a mistress – often great friends – was no longer permitted.

Prince Charles ancestor, King George II, even took the unusual step of refusing to have a mistress because he loved his wife. His royal staff were most distressed at this break in royal etiquette insisting that he take a mistress. Traditions were immutable – they insisted. In order to uphold the tradition, he selected Henrietta Howard as his “mistress”. King George II who had been born and raised in Germany, would punctiliously enter her chamber at the appointed hour. As if to underscore his real intention, he did confide to one of his royal retainers what they did every day. Instead of engaging in a licentious sex as was expected, they merely played a sedate game of cards. That was George’s story and he stuck to it throughout his life.

Henrietta Howard-the purported "lover" of King George II

Henrietta Howard-the purported “lover” of King George II

By the time of Prince Charles’ divorce, Diana’s infidelity was an open secret but as it now the law, these indiscretions were not the reasons for the divorce but rather incompatibility – mutually agreed of course. It made the dissolution no less salacious but it was without the titillating, lewd and prurient details that previous generations would have been obliged to disclose.

This was a thoroughly modern divorce.

SOUTH KOREA - 1992: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, are at loggerheads during their tour of South Korea in 1992. Diana is wearing a mauve sheaf dress by Catherine Walker with a bolero of embroidered pastel flowers. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/WireImage)

SOUTH KOREA – 1992: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, are at loggerheads during their tour of South Korea in 1992 displaying a marriage in tumult. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/WireImage)

The Wallis Simpson Affair

As we well know, love is blind. So it was with Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David – known as David to his siblings and Edward VIII to us plebeians. Edward had always been the quintessential playboy having many married women as lovers. With an obsequious press in their thrall, such indiscretions – sexual and otherwise – never came to the fore.

“After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months” the gruff George V, father of Edward, is reputed to have remarked to the Prime Minister, Stanley, Baldwin, about his eldest son and successor, the future Edward VIII who was 41 years old.

Though scarcely a boy at the time when the candid remark was made, the King’s prediction was hardly inaccurate as Edward VIII’s reign was to last a total of 324 days before he announced his abdication.

Wallis Simpson with King Edward VII Governor Of The Bahamas...Huty 17195 008

Wallis Simpson with King Edward VII
Governor Of The Bahamas…Huty 17195 008

In an era when duty was still paramount, his decision to relinquish the throne was akin to shirking his duty. Until that time Edward VIII had been a popular figure – unstuffy, charming and unpretentious. At least that is the image that the newspapers of the time conjured up.

Thanks to the newspaper proprietors, Beaverbrook and Rothermere, both friendly with the King, the British public were ignorant of Edward’s wayward womanising behaviour.  In many ways, Bessiewallis – Wallis’ full name – was a surprising choice. Not regarded as beautiful nor particularly charming, yet Edward was infatuated with her. Like the complaisant cuckold husband’s of Edward’s married paramours, Wallis’ dull husband – Ernest Simpson – must have consented to Wallis accompanying Edward on a yacht cruise in Croatia, Greece & Turkey.

A forlorn Wallis Simpson looking out her window during Trooping The Colour in 1972

A forlorn Wallis Simpson looking out her window during Trooping The Colour in 1972 almost in sepulchral solitude

The truth always has a way of being revealed. So it was with to be with King Edward VIII and his married lover, Wallis Simpson. In this case, it was the rather aptly named, Bishop Blunt of Bradford who on 1st December 1936 called on Edward to live a more Christian life. This call at a diocesan synod had nothing whatsoever to do with his living in sin with Mrs. Simpson but rather the more mundane issue that Edward should set the tone for church attendance by attending church more regularly himself.

Pressure was now applied from all quarters including the censorious Neville Chamberlain.

Now for the trickier part: the divorce. In an era when divorce had to be on the grounds of adultery, Wallis’ compliant husband had gallantly consented to poise as the adulterer. Ernest Simpson took a family friend, Mary Raffray, to the Hotel de Paris at Bray, near Maidenhead, where they were duly spotted in bed together by hotel staff on two successive mornings.

Ernest Aldrich Simpson

Ernest Aldrich Simpson

The hotel was accustomed to such ruses and willingly agreed to supply staff as witnesses in such divorce cases. Nevertheless, the Simpsons had to be careful as any suggestion of collusion could derail their well-concocted plan, resulting in the divorce being denied.

The unthinkable nearly did happen. When the divorce hearing was placed on the roll at the Ipswich assizes, the judge who had not been forewarned of the “case’s significance” suspected that something was amiss. This forced Mrs Simpson’s barrister to “steer” the judge to approve what was blandly termed “ordinary hotel evidence.” On this basis, the decree nisi was granted but the couple had to wait six months before it became absolute.

Wallis Simpson

Wallis Simpson

Change the Rules of the Game

King Henry VIII unexpectedly got the nod to become the new monarch on the premature death of his brother who was married to Catherine of Aragon. At the age of 16, Henry VIII, the new monarch, decided to marry her. By doing so, he would be maintaining the political alliance with the Spanish.

For the first ten years of the marriage, it was bliss, sweetness and reason. Then as Henry approached his thirties, the question of the production of a male heir, the sole function of the queen, was brought into sharp focus. Henry fretted that Catherine was unable to fulfil her royal duty. In reading the Bible, Henry experienced an epiphany that he was being damned for marrying the wife of his brother.

By now, Henry VIII was no longer the lithe young man but a man of considerable girth

By now, Henry VIII was no longer the lithe young man but a man of considerable girth

Henry demanded an annulment from the Pope. Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was “blighted in the eyes of God”. Catherine had been his brother’s widow, but the marriage had been childless, thus the marriage was not against Old Testament law, which forbids only such unions if the brother had children. Moreover, a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been given to allow the wedding. Henry argued that this had been wrong and that his marriage had never been valid. In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, but the Pope refused. According to Catholic teaching, a validly contracted marriage is indivisible until death, and thus the pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment  previously  dispensed.

Pope Clement VII despatched an elderly Cardinal by the slow road from the Vatican City to Britain. After numerous journeys to-ing and fro-ing, the Papal verdict was issued. No annulment would be made.

A rather plain mousy Catherine of Aragon

A rather plain mousy Catherine of Aragon

What was Henry VIII to do?

Many people close to Henry wished simply to ignore the Pope; but in October 1530 a meeting of clergy and lawyers advised that the English Parliament could not empower the Archbishop of Canterbury to act against the Pope’s prohibition.

Ultimately, Henry would do the unthinkable.  Henry led the English Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy (1534) that established the independent Church of England and thus fracturing from the Catholic Church.

Pope Clement VII who denied Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon

Pope Clement VII who denied Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon

The death of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, a stalwart friend of the Pope, came to Henry’s assistance. Henry persuaded Clement to appoint Thomas Cranmer, a friend of the Boleyn family, as his successor. Cranmer was prepared to grant the annulment.

By the simple expedient of creating a new church, the Church of England, of which he was the head, Henry had obtained an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Thomas Cranmer -Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Cranmer -Archbishop of Canterbury

If all else fails, off with their heads

For me, Catherine of Aragon was always a forlorn figure. Piously imploring God to assist her, the pathos of the letters begging for King Henry to return to the marital bedroom and the poignancy of the meetings with the Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, are all heart wrenching.

Even though Anne Boleyn would be beheaded by Henry’s acolytes, one cannot be as distressed about her death. Anne’s relationship with Henry possessed different foundations from that of Henry’s matrimony to Catherine. The former was for cementing political relationships with the Spanish court whereas the latter was for love. The only onus placed on the female when marrying for duty was to provide a male heir to the throne. Catherine had born the consequences of non-performance in this regard.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

It goes without saying that a royal wife based upon love would still have to produce the male heir but an additional obligation was imposed upon them. They had to captivate, seduce & enamour the monarch in perpetuity.

As regards the primary duty, Anne was able to perform. Shortly after their marriage, Anne Boleyn conceived. Much to Henry’s annoyance, it was a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth I. After numerous miscarriages, Henry’s roving eyes has fixed themselves upon Jane Seymour.  Moonlight trysts with Jane captivated Henry. As yet, Anne was still unable to reprieve herself from Catherine’s fate.

As Anne recovered from her miscarriage, Henry declared that he had been seduced into the marriage by means of “sortilege“—a French term indicating either “deception” or “spells”. His new mistress, Jane Seymour, was quickly moved into the royal quarters.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

The exact sequence of events leading to Anne’s execution is still subject to conjecture. Inasmuch as the identity of the primary instigator is concerned, there is no quibble. It was Henry himself. What makes the exact roles turgid, is the verbal sparring between Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn about the redistribution of church revenues. Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex KG PC, was an English lawyer and statesman who served as Chief Minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540. Cromwell was one of the strongest and most powerful advocates of the English Reformation.

Due to this and other disagreements, Anne became a major threat to Thomas Cromwell. By all accounts, it was Henry himself who issued the crucial instructions. His officials, including Cromwell, then merely executed them.

Among those arrested for adultery and treason was Anne’s own favourite brother, George Boleyn. He was falsely accused & subsequently charged with incest and treason. Finally, on 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by barge.

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

In her final speech, it is speculated that Anne avoided criticising Henry in order to save Elizabeth and her family from further consequences, but even under such extreme pressure, Anne did not confess guilt, and indeed subtly implied her innocence, in her appeal to those who might “meddle of my cause”.

Anne knelt upright, in the French style of executions. Her final prayer consisted of her repeating continually, “Jesu receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul.”

The execution consisted of a single stroke. It was witnessed by Thomas Cromwell; Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk; the King’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy; the Lord Mayor of London, as well as aldermen, sheriffs, and representatives of the various craft guilds. Most of the King’s Council were also present.

Fortunately, the modern Royals no longer live in such barbarous times. At worse, they face social ostracization but no more. Even that can be ameliorated with time.

Just ask Camilla Parker Bowles.

Camilla Parker Bowles

Camilla Parker Bowles


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