The Great Matter and Rome

It still amazes me how one man could be denied a divorce that was easily obtained by most nobles by means of various loopholes in the canon law. The intense corruption of the Catholic Church meant that such dispensations were easily achieved by rich and powerful nobles, but the same backfired on Henry. The Great Matter was divided in two phases, one when Henry tried to get Rome’s support for his divorce, and the next phase when he tried to get the work done in England by Englishmen. Wolsey was in charge of the first phase, and Cromwell of the second, bringing about the fall of the former and the rise of the latter.

The most important point of the entire Great Matter, as the King’s divorced came to be called, hinged upon a bedroom mystery that has not been solved up to this day. One Robert Wakefield ascertained that the Deuteronomy commandment applied only if the original marriage had not been consummated. In other words, if Catherine and Arthur had had sex, then her marriage with Henry would indeed be invalid. According to Richard Rex, the crux of the matter was to decide whether to qualify Leviticus with respect to Deuteronomy or to qualify Deuteronomy with respect to Leviticus. This led to a six year long conflict between the two positions.

The matter was handed over to Cardinal Wolsey who was originally in favour of the divorce. For Wolsey, this was merely an opportunity to make a fresh foreign alliance with the French, and he had no idea of the King’s ardour for Anne Boleyn. Everyone was reasonably sure that the Pope would solve the King’s problems in return for royal support. This was the relationship between the Church and the monarchs since the time the Church gained power, so there was no reason to suppose that the Pope would thwart King Henry over what was essentially a domestic issue. But then, it got complicated.

Henry romancing Anne behind Katherine’s back while the Spanish Ambassador looks on in disgust
Painted by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1846.

May 1527

On 6th May 1527, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, thought it would be a good idea to attack Rome. This led to the defeat of the Papal forces and the imprisonment of Pope Clement VII, who remained the prisoner of Charles V for six months. Though he escaped after that, he was only able to return back to Rome in October 1528.

Around the time that the Sack of Rome was happening, Henry had assembled a group of bishops, lawyers and statesmen and kicked off proceedings on 17th May 1527, to give a quick verdict of annulment of his marriage with Queen Catherine on grounds that it was invalid due to her being the King’s brother’s wife. This was not informed to the Queen, but she found out and sent word to the Emperor immediately. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was judge, Archbishop William Warham was the assessor, and Richard Wolman was the presenter. With such a devoted group of servants handling the situation, it is a wonder that the divorce dragged on for eons.

On 31st May, Wolman presented a watertight case in front of this court demanding that the King be granted a divorce. Wolman had included depositions from Bishop Fox who had been present during the intricate marriage negotiations between Arthur and Catherine, in his presentation. And here, Wolsey made his first mistake. Instead of pronouncing annulment of the divorce, he pronounced that it was too difficult a matter for him to decide and recommended it to be referred to a panel of theologians. With this judgement, he pronounced not only the King’s fate, but his own as well as that of England.

June 1527

Henry confronted Catherine and informed her that he wanted a divorce. Henry explained his reasons, which Catherine refused to listen to and protested that they had not been living in sin. No one can blame her for taking this stance as she just had too much to lose to do anything else.

July 1527

Catherine sent her Spanish servant, Francisco Felipez, to Spain to inform Charles V of her predicament and request for support. According to Rex, this was when Henry busied himself in finding a solution to his own problem.

November 1527

The King’s Book was written, a detailed paper with references stating the King’s case for divorce succinctly. This was again a top secret undertaking, and was to be sent to Pope Clement in presentation of the King’s case. However, Catherine somehow heard about it. There had been a leak!

October 1528

Cardinal Campeggio, assigned by the Church in Rome to resolve the issue of the divorce, set out for England in August and arrived in October in London. According to Starkey, he was given clear instructions to delay the proceedings until the situation in Rome could resolve itself. By the 23rd, the discussion was underway between the two Cardinals and the King.

At first, Campeggio tried to coax the Queen into giving a divorce and retiring quietly into a nunnery. Catherine rebuffed him and on the 26th Catherine confessed to Campeggio that she never bedded Arthur in a religious session, thus passing on a discreet message to the Pope. Campeggio procrastinated for almost a year until June 1529.

June 1529

On the 16th of June, Catherine made use of the delay and made a formal appeal to Rome against the divorce.

Catherine kneeling in front of Henry and making her famous speech
Painted by Frank O. Salisbury in 1910

On the 21st, she delivered her speech and publicly proclaimed her stance, kneeling before Henry, and then walked out of the court in spite of being called back. This, in effect, would be contempt of court in today’s parlance.

Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, 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 friend and much less indifferent counsel. I flee to you, as to the head of justice within this realm. 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 being always well pleased and contented with all things wherein you had any delight or dalliance. 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. And whether this be true or no, I put it to your conscience. Therefore, I humbly require you to spare me the extremity of this new court. And if ye will not, to God I commit my cause.

July 1529

Once the trial started in June, Catherine once again tried to derail proceedings by demanding that her case be taken to Rome because she could not expect justice in England. But unfortunately for her and fortunately for everyone else, the trial continued. However, Campeggio once again dithered and on 31st July, he adjourned the session citing that he had to follow the Roman legal calendar. This court never reconvened because Rome accepted Catherine’s appeal and revoked the case.

From this moment, Wolsey’s fate was sealed and England’s break with Rome was unavoidable.  Exit Thomas Wolsey; Enter Thomas Cromwell. But that will be part 2.


David Starkey: Six Wives – The Queens of Henry VIII

Richard Rex: Henry VIII and the English Reformation

4 thoughts on “The Great Matter and Rome

  1. I’ll have to read Richard Rex’s book; he seems to disagree with Scarrisbrick on the applicable canon law. Under Scarrisbrick’s theory, though, Catherine’s claim that the marriage to Arthur was not consummated should be given a great deal of weight … because her case was actually weaker if it was not consummated.
    Also, I know that when Catherine said, during her great speech, that “And when ye had me at first, I take God to my judge, I was a true maid, without touch of man. And whether this be true or no, I put it to your conscience”, Henry did not respond, but did he ever testify that Catherine wasn’t a virgin? Or did he just rest on people who heard Arthur’s post-wedding night comments?
    The consummation (if any) shouldn’t be that big a deal, though, as I don’t think that the strength or weakness of Henry’s case had much bearing on the result. If Henry brought the same case a year earlier, when Rome was not in danger from Charles V, he would probably have gotten a different verdict. I think the real difference between Henry’s case and the others was that Henry alone was trying to divorce the Emperor’s aunt .

    • Henry did not testify on Catherine’s virginity, and I don’t even see how he could do so. The evidence mainly came from those who were stationed in Prince Arthur’s household after his marriage to Catherine.

      And you are completely right that the timing was off by a long shot. But I was also considering that if Wolsey had not hesitated to bring in a verdict himself, it may actually have been just another royal divorce. He was pretty qualified to do so too. Starkey says that Wolsey just found it too big for him, but he certainly opened a can of worms.

      Originally, I had thought the Sack of Rome happened weeks after Wolsey gave the case over to Rome. But that’s not true. So I was surprised that anyone as astute as Wolsey would have left such an important matter to fate.

  2. Henry took the wrong approach with Catherine. If he had implored her to agree to a divorce because he was desperate for a son, she might perhaps have yielded. But all that stuff about his conscience troubling him etc naturally put her back up.

  3. I’m not sure that Catherine would have yielded to Henry’s claim that he needed a son; the daughter of Isabella of Castile would not doubt a woman’s ability to rule. I think, though, if a husband had been found for Mary before this blew up, such that her status as a wife wouldn’t be affected, Catherine might have reacted differently. Henry wasn’t seeking a modern divorce (which ends a valid marriage, with the children still legitimate and their inheritance rights intact); he was seeking what we now call an annulment (marriage was never valid, so the children are not legitimate). Catherine may have felt differently about bastardizing Mary if Mary had an “alternative status”, based on her marriage (especially if it was likely to last, as would be the case if she had a son) than about bastardizing Mary when she would have nothing left.


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