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The King's Great Matter

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The King's Great Matter

If you haven’t heard of King Henry VIII and his six wives, you are missing out on a story almost too fantastic to believe, complete with affairs, beheadings, and intrigue. But before all the madness began, king Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon for almost 20 years. Henry VIII’s conundrum in trying to divorce Catherine became known as the “King’s Great Matter” and ended with creating a new religion.

The “King's Great Matter”: Henry VIII

The Kings Great Matter Henry VIII SttudySmarterPortrait of King Henry VIII, The Kings Great Matter Henry VIII StudySmarterPortrait of Anne Boleyn,

King Henry VIII, born to King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1491, was the second king in the Tudor Dynasty. Henry VIII, however, was never meant to be king. His brother, Prince Arthur, was next in line for the crown, but Arthur passed away in 1502, just months after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. As a result, Henry VIII became the heir to the throne.

In 1503, Pope Julius II formally approved a marriage between Henry VIII and his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. A marital alliance between Spain and England was still attractive to both parties, and it seemed like the easy solution. Upon Henry VIII’s accession to the throne in 1509, he married Catherine of Aragon.

The “King's Great Matter” Causes

A male heir was very important to King Henry VIII. His father had fought hard for the throne in the Wars of the Roses, but the Tudors still need to prove their stability. Unfortunately, in around eight pregnancies, Catherine of Aragon only had one child survive: Mary. This greatly frustrated Henry VIII who, in 1525, gave his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, the title of Duke of Richmond. It seemed he was working towards legitimizing Henry Fitzroy and naming him an heir.

The Wars of Roses

a series of civil wars between the Lancasters and the Yorks that ended with the victory of Henry Tudor in 1487

The Kings Great Matter Anne Boleyn StudySmarterPortrait of Anne Boleyn,

Also in 1525, Henry VIII met a young woman named Anne Boleyn whom he began pursuing. It was by no means his first affair, but it was certainly his most significant. By 1527, he had decided he wanted to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon--but he wanted the Catholic Church’s blessing.

Henry VIII believed that he had found the perfect loophole for the no-divorce rule with Leviticus which forbade a man from marrying his brother’s wife. If the man disobeyed, the couple would have no children:

If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless. - Leviticus 20:21

Henry VIII argued that he had violated Leviticus and was living in sin. He appealed to the papacy and expected success but found himself waiting years before he decided to move forward without the Church’s support.

The “King's Great Matter” Timeline




Became king and married Catherine of Aragon


Named Defender of the Faith by the Pope


Daughter Mary born


Named illegitimate son Duke of Richmond; met Anne Boleyn

June 1527

Broke news to Catherine that he was trying to annul their marriage

May-July 1529

Legatine Court ruled the decision needed to be held in Rome

Nov 1529

Cardinal Wolsey arrested


Began openly living with Anne Boleyn against papal authority


Pope postponed a new hearing for at least another year

Jan 1533

Married Anne Boleyn

May 1533

Thomas Cranmer declared his marriage to Catherine of Aragon void

Sept 1533

Daughter Elizabeth born


Act of Supremacy and Oath of Succession

The “King's Great Matter” Summary

It is important to understand the side of the papacy in the matter. Pope Clement VII would have to go back on a previous pope’s decision in order to satisfy Henry VIII’s wishes, which was not a good look for the Church. There were already contradictions to Leviticus within the Bible itself. In addition, in 1527, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had sacked Rome, essentially taking Pope Clement VII as prisoner. Charles V was not going to allow an annulment because Catherine of Aragon was his aunt.

King Henry VIII, however, was determined to have his way. By 1527, he was trying to set things in motion with the help of Cardinal Wolsey, but it was not until the summer of 1529 that the Legatine Court convened to offer the Church’s decision. (The Pope had told his representative Cardinal Campeggio to stall as long as possible.) Both King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon appeared before the court and pled their cases, but in the end, Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio made no decision, stating it needed to be decided in Rome.

Henry VIII, furious with Lord Chancellor Wolsey for his lack of progress in the matter, arranged for his execution, but things continued to stall. In 1531, Henry VIII was clearly showing signs of impatience when he began living openly with Anne Boleyn. Papal disapproval no longer seemed as dire. Still without the answer he wanted two years later, Henry VIII finally moved forward with marrying Anne Boleyn in 1533 without the Church’s permission.

In 1534, Henry VIII made his split with the Catholic Church official with the Act of Supremacy that declared him the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Later, all subjects had to take the Oath of Succession proving their acceptance of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and any heirs they might have.

The “King's Great Matter” Effects

With the Act of Supremacy, King Henry VIII essentially started the English Reformation, formally splitting from the Catholic Church. The new Church of England was Protestant in name, but Henry VIII’s practices still mimicked those of the Catholic Church. This lack of clarity led to religious turmoil during the reigns of his children.

King Henry VIII as Defender of the Faith

Before the English Reformation, Pope Julius II had actually named Henry VIII Defender of the Faith for his treatise, The Defence of the Seven Sacraments. Henry VIII had no problem with the doctrine of the Catholic faith. It was the papal authority that upset him.

Henry's son, Edward, from a later marriage, attempted to fully transition to Protestant practices. However, Edward died young and his sister Mary, daughter of Catherine Aragon, started a reign of terror against Protestants as she tried to reinstate Catholicism. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth, Henry's daughter with Anner Boleyn, that a compromise, or religious settlement, began.

Did you know? The amount of bloodshed during her reign earned Queen Mary the nickname “Bloody Mary.”

The "King's Great Matter" - Key takeaways

  • The "King's Great Matter" is the term that described the complications surrounding King Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon.
  • Henry VIII wanted a divorce because Catherine had not given him a male heir and Henry VIII had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn.
  • Henry VIII wanted the Catholic Church's permission, but they were not going to give it to him. They stalled as long as possible.
  • Henry VIII finally moved forward with marrying Anne Boleyn without the Church's permission and created the Church of England in the process.

Frequently Asked Questions about The King's Great Matter

The "King's Great Matter" was the term for the complications surrounding King Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon.

The "King's Great Matter" began in 1527 with Henry's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and ended with the creation of the Church of England in 1534.

The "King's Great Matter" was resolved with England's split from the Catholic Church. That way, King Henry VIII didn't need the Church's permission to divorce Catherine of Aragon or marry Anne Boleyn. 

The "King's Great Matter" lasted around seven years, from 1527 to 1534.

Sir Thomas More refused to get involved in the "King's Great Matter" and was later beheaded for refusing to take the Oath of Succession.

Final The King's Great Matter Quiz


Which was not a reason why Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon?

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Catherine had produced no male heir.

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Who did Pope Clement VII send to represent him in England?

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Cardinal Wolsey

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How did the Book of Leviticus justify an annulment between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon?

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Catherine had been married to Henry VIII's brother, Arthur.

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What was the name of Henry VIII's illegitimate male heir that he elevated to Duke of Richmond?

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Henry Fitzroy

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Why was it an issue that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was able to control Pope Clement VII?

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Catherine of Aragon was Charles V's aunt. 

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What was the decision of the Legatine Court?

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There wasn't one. They decided the decision needed to be made in Rome.

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When did Henry VIII marry Anne Boleyn?

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What was the name of the new church Henry VIII created?

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The Church of England

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What did the Act of Supremacy do?

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It declared Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

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When was the Act of Supremacy passed?

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When was the Legatine Court?

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