Books: “The Divorce of Henry VIII”

July 4, 2012


The story of Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn is widely known in its broad essentials. But such a thing as the divorce and remarriage of a king of England is not simply done — particularly when the nuptial rearrangement is frowned upon by the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry’s decision to put aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne Boleyn came at the dawn of the Renaissance when the political life of Europe could not have been more complicated. It was that complexity rather than any such goal on Henry’s part that protracted and inflamed the matter to the point that it resulted in a permanent breach between the English crown and the papacy and, of course, the founding of what we know as the Church of England.

In her history, “The Divorce of Henry VIII,” Catherine Fletcher puts Henry’s case in the context of Europe in the mid 16th century in terms of both the shifting relationships among kingdoms and other political entities and in terms of the  swarm of diplomatic agents who scurried around the continent eavesdropping, spying, stealing, bribing, kidnapping, crossing and double crossing, and often living the high life that went along with representing a monarch.

Catherine of Aragon

In fact, the author tells the story largely in terms of these last, these “diplomats,” with particular attention to Gregorio Casali, a native of Rome who represented Henry at the papal court when the divorce issue began to brew. Fletcher, who seems to have done a lot of detective work to trace the activities of this relatively obscure character, explains that it was not unusual in Europe in that era for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors for countries other than their native land. In fact, she writes, it wasn’t unusual for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors to more than one crowned head at a time. This kind of activity was an industry in itself — a family business for the Casali clan that included Gregorio and several siblings who pursued the same career.

Because of the slow pace of communications, envoys working at a distance from their patrons were often given wide latitude in the conduct of their offices; particularly while Cardinal Wolsey was Henry’s chancellor, Gregorio often acted on his own when the circumstances seemed to demand it. On the other hand, in the days before electronic cash transfers, people in Gregorio’s line of work frequently had to shell out their own cash to keep up appearances or even to keep eating and hope that the payments due would be forthcoming. And these diplomats, as it were, had their work cut out for them, what with the constant warfare in Europe and the resulting ebb and flow of military and political power. Gregorio’s course in representing Henry before the pope wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Catherine of Aragon was the emperor’s niece. When the issue of a divorce first arose, the pope and the emperor were seriously at odds, which theoretically weighed in Henry’s favor in the Vatican, but while the matter dragged on, Clement and the emperor made peace. And that complication was superimposed on many other considerations involving the major powers in Europe and the many states, including the papal ones, that made up what is now Italy.


The question Henry raised was tricky. He had married Catherine in the first place with a papal dispensation because she was the widow of his brother. But in his frustration over Catherine’s failure to provide a male heir, and in his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, Henry now decided that the marriage to Catherine was null because it conflicted with a principle stated in the Book of Leviticus, and he wanted the pope to say so. Clement had to deal with  both the philosophical and moral issues raised by that request and balance his decision against what effect it would have on his position in the grand scheme of European politics. For most of the six years that Henry’s campaign went on, Clement stalled.

As Henry became more and more impatient and less and less concerned about the authority of the pope, Gregorio’s position became increasingly tenuous. But that seemed to be an almost inevitable experience for those who wanted to play in the high stakes games Fletcher describes in this book.


2 Responses to “Books: “The Divorce of Henry VIII””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    The first thing that caught my attention here was the portrait of Clement VII. There was something about it – that appraising, slightly detached and wholly secular look in his eye, for one thing – that made me curious. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was a Medici, the nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the beneficiary of a Canon Law loophole himself!

    At that point, the book went on my “must read” list. And I was equally intrigued by the author’s website. I particularly enjoyed skimming her working paper, “Those who give are not all generous: Tips and bribes at the sixteenth-century papal court.” After reading recent accounts of events at the Vatican, I could use a little more context, and I think Fletcher’s work will help.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      In later portraits of Clement he wore a long beard, a style he adopted while he and his coterie were under seige by fighters sympathetic to the Holy Roman Emperor — the episode that begins the book. The beard apparently was the mark of a person who had been the object of some kind of persecution.

      A history like this reminds us that we can’t entirely judge the people and events of epochs like the Renaissance by the metrics we use today. The circumstances and mores were far too different. For instance, Fletcher explains how bestowing favors on people you wanted favors from was a normal part of doing business and was discussed openly. The Casali family was up to its ears in that kind of horse trading. But that was different from bribery. An interesting piece of this story involves the campaign to bribe theologians at some of the great Catholic universities to issue opinions in Henry’s favor.

      One thing that is certain is that Garibaldi did the Church and Europe in general a great favor in the 19th century when he seized the Papal States and made them part of the kingdom of Italy. The states that occupied the peninsula before that were the focal points of constant fighting among the larger powers, including the popes. As Fletcher explains, one of the weights in Clement’s scale during the period covered in the book was his determination to regain control of Florence for the Medicis — not exactly the kind of enterprise Jesus had in mind when he gave Peter his commission.

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