|St John Fisher|
Let’s look at the annulment matter first. Henry began having serious doubts about the “rightness” of his marriage as early as 1524. His wife, Katherine, had borne him six children, including three sons. All but one, a daughter, did not survive infancy. By 1524 the royal physicians had told Henry that Katherine would have no more children. There would be no sons. That did not bode well for the Tudor dynasty. It did not bode well for England. The only previous time a woman had succeeded to the throne, the Empress Maude (sometimes known as Matilda) in the early 12th century, was a time of dynastic rivalry and civil war when various male claimants to the throne tried to seize it from her. One of them, her cousin, Stephen of Blois, was successful. Thousands died in the long wars between Maude and Stephen. Henry feared that should his daughter Mary ascend the throne, there could be another period of instability as the Tudors were a new dynasty and there were others whose claim to the throne had more legitimacy than that of the Tudors.
Henry’s marriage to Katherine was theologically problematic. Katherine was the widow of Henry’s older brother, Arthur. Katherine, and her chaperone, claimed that the marriage—between two teens and lasting only a few months—had never been consummated. The problem with the marriage is this: Deuteronomy commands that should a man die childless, his widow must marry his brother and raise up children to the dead brother’s memory; Leviticus prohibits such a marriage. In practice, the Christian Church had never followed the prescript of Deuteronomy that a widow should marry her brother-in-law and in fact the Church had always, following Leviticus, prohibited such marriages. Dispensations were given however when requested.
When Katherine and Henry had married, a papal dispensation had been obtained from Julius II to ensure that any improprieties in the marriage should not render it invalid. But could a Pope annul the Law of God as commanded in Leviticus? It would seem, to devout Catholics, that the Pope had such power, especially since the scriptural norms were ambiguous. But Henry began to wonder: was God punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow by depriving him of a viable heir.
Now politics get into every argument. Henry’s marriage to Katherine represented an alliance with Spain—Katherine’s parents being the famous Ferdinand and Isabella, the most powerful rulers in Europe in its day. England’s long time enemy was France. An alliance with Spain provided England with an alliance against their common enemy—France. But there were Englishmen who saw the future for England as being an alliance with France against Spain. Spain was gobbling up this new world of the Americas—there would be no room for England to grow and expand overseas. France and England together could check the growing power of Spain, a power that threatened to squeeze out everyone else and dominate the world. The French party in English politics saw their chance to break the Spanish influence over Henry if they could break his marriage to Katherine. They fed Henry doubts about his marriage. Maybe the King should take a new wife to provide the needed heir. Retire the Spanish princess and put a French princess in her place. The King of France had sisters who could provide an heir and ally England and France.
Nevertheless, for most people in 1525 or 1526 the idea that the King would renounce Katherine was beyond imagination. Katherine was popular with the people. She was a good wife who quietly tolerated her husband’s serial infidelities. She had left Spain with its wealth and luxuries, its sunny climate and orange groves for cold and dreary England where she had performed her duties with elegance and grace. Katherine and Henry were good Catholics. Moreover, his infidelities aside, they had a good marriage. They sincerely loved one another. How could she be cast off? What was really surprising is that Wolsey, the King’s chief minister, wasn’t more aware of the dangers to the marriage. Wolsey ran England. He normally anticipated Henry’s every whim and arranged matters accordingly. Wolsey’s attention to detail permitted Henry to play while Wolsey governed. But when Henry came to Wolsey and said he wanted to have his marriage annulled, it was a bolt out of the blue to Wolsey. Wolsey recovered quickly and promised Henry that it could be arranged.
And it probably could have been arranged save for European politics. Henry could not have picked a worse time to ask for an annulment. As seen in previous postings, it was just at this time (1527) that the troops of Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, sacked Rome and holed the Pope up in the Castel Sant’Angelo. And it was just at this time that the people of Florence expelled the Medici, leading the Pope to forge an alliance with the Emperor—the Sack of Rome not withstanding—to restore the Medici to Florence. Clement was in no position to satisfy Henry if he wanted to keep Charles on his side.
Clement didn’t come right out and say no to Henry. In April 1528 Clement declared that the matter would be referred to a commission to examine the matter and the following June he appointed Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio and Wolsey to be the ecclesiastical judges to examine the validity of the marriage.
Campeggio was an interesting choice. In 1524, with Henry’s encouragement, he had been elected Bishop of Salisbury. Of course he did not live in England. His English Vicar General administered the diocese, but Campeggio, living in Rome, collected the income—and it was a considerable income –of the diocese. So he was in Henry’s debt. But Campeggio had already written an opinion supporting the validity of the marriage. So how would he go on this matter? Would he stay true to his principles or would he be faithful to his English benefactor?
In fact, Campeggio had been given instructions from Clement that he was not to grant the annulment but neither was he to refuse it. He was to stall for time. It was a typically Italian strategy. Promise everything, but do nothing. Keep everyone happy.
By the autumn of 1528 Campeggio had arrive in England and convened the court at Blackfriars (the Dominican convent in London). Katherine made a dramatic appearance, declaring that she would not recognize its jurisdiction and producing the original dispensation permitting the marriage. She threw herself at Henry’s feet stating she had always been a good queen and a faithful wife and he had no reason to put her aside. She then left the court and refused any summons to return. Henry, for his part, gave a speech in November 1528 , praising Katherine as a good wife and declaring he would marry her again if circumstances were different. Henry was both sincere and false in making this declaration. There is no doubt that he had loved her and probably in 1528 loved her still—though more as a matter of gratitude and respect than in any romantic sense. Nevertheless, by this point, he was determined on a new marriage—though not necessarily to Anne Boleyn.
Katherine found a champion in John Fisher, the aged prelate who had been Henry’s childhood tutor and was now Bishop of Rochester. Fisher was an old man but he had fire in his belly. He defended the marriage and excoriated Henry, comparing him to Herod declaring that he, like John the Baptist, would surrender his head to defend the marriage. He would, in due time, be taken up on this offer but the irony is that John the Baptist had lost his head for attacking a king for marrying his brother’s wife and John Fisher was attacking a king for trying to separate from his brother’s wife. Rhetoric does not always follow logic.
Campeggio dragged the matter out for months and Wolsey was in a panic. He began to realize that there would be no annulment and the security of his own position depended on their being an annulment. Meanwhile, Henry had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn. We will say more about this in the next posting but suffice it to say that initially Henry had no intention of marrying Anne, only bedding her. But Anne was not about to be bedded and discarded by Henry as her sister Mary had been. Anne was bold enough to see a chance at becoming Queen and she led Henry on while fending him off at the same time. As Henry was not yet thinking of marriage to Anne he was willing to put up with Campeggio’s delays. The French princess or whoever else might be his bride could wait until this was all sorted out. Henry was still fairly young; there was still time for him to sire an heir.
In July 1529, after about nine months of hearings, Campeggio recessed the court until October but it never reconvened. It was not that Henry had become impatient and dismissed the Court, but Clement—afraid that pressure might be put on Campeggio to yield—reserved the matter to himself. Campeggio left England for Italy and as of Christmas 1529 there was still no resolution of “The King’s Great Matter.”