|Pope Clement VII|
Historians often say that Clement refused Henry his annulment because he was afraid that Charles—the nephew of Henry’s Queen, Katherine of Aragon—would return and revenge his aunt’s disgrace. But the story is a bit more complicated. We need to remember that Clement, like Luther’s Pope Leo X, was a Medici. And the Medici were, as usual, “up to something.”
The Medici had been country folk from the Mugello, an area just north of Florence, who moved into the city sometime around 1200. It was a time of urban expansion in Europe, and in the cities of Italy in particular. From the very beginning the Medici began advancing up the social ladder. They married into some of the better families. They forged business alliances with some of the more successful families. Little by little and generation after generation they did better and better. Actually their rise was comparatively rapid. In 1397 Giovanni di Bicci Medici established a bank which soon became the leading Bank not only in Florence but in Europe. The family had had some previous experience in banking but it was when Giovanni di Bicci took his operation in Rome and moved it back to Florence that it really took off. In the fifteenth century it was Florence that was the center of the Renaissance and indeed the economic center of Europe. And the Medici were bankrolling it to their profit.
The Medici knew not only how to run a good bank but how to use a bank to advance themselves not only socially to become the premier family in Florence but politically to control the policies of the Republic. Ironically few Medici ever held civil office and yet the family were the puppet masters of the great Republic. Florence had longed been governed as a republic but with a rather clumsy governmental structure of a Council known as the Signoria and composed of representatives of the various guilds. Members of the Signoria were chosen by the respective guilds to serve terms of two months during which they were sequestered in the municipal palace with little or no contact with the outside world so that they could not be influenced in their decision making by individuals or corporations that might want the city government to go this way or that. So it worked in theory. In practice the Medici were always able to make their will known to the officials and officials dutifully followed Medici policy. So important was their position in society that Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) became known as Pater Patriae (Father of the Fatherland) though the highest office he ever held was a brief term as Priore della Republica—one of the “priors” or members of the Signoria, the city council. Cosimo’s grandson was Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492)
On Easter Day 1478 Lorenzo and his brother Guiliano were attacked while they were at Easter Mass in the Cathedral of Florence by a coalition of political rivals under the leadership of the Pazzi Family and with the support of Pope Sixtus IV. Guiliano died, Lorenzo survived. The plot failed and the Medici emerged victorious. Lorenzo’s son went on to become Pope Leo X, the Pope with whom Luther struggled. Giuliano’s illegitimate son, Giulio, became Pope Clement VII, the Pope Henry would petition for his annulment.
While they successfully staved off the attack by the Pazzi and Pope Sixtus, the Medici eventually ran afoul of the Republic and were banned from the city from 1494 until 1512 when Leo X Medici was able to use his power as pope to have the ban lifted and the family return from exile and restored to power. They were again sent into exile in 1527 as the Florentines realized that their political machinations were a danger to the Republic.
Now this is where the story will intersect with the Annulment—or lack thereof—requested by Henry VIII.
When the Medici were exiled from Florence in 1527 there was a Medici—Clement VII—on the papal throne. He was determined to have his family restored to power in Florence as his cousin Leo X had managed to have them restored after their earlier exile. But how? Rome was in ruins after the sack by the troops of Charles VII. Clement’s Swiss guards had been all but wiped out and indeed the papal armies were not only beaten but decimated. There was no money to hire mercenaries. What did Clement have to use as a bargaining chip.
Well, fortunately he had a bastard son, Allesandro (1510-1537). And fortunately for Clement, the Emperor Charles V had an illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Austria (1522-1586). Now illegitimate children, especially daughters, can be a bit tricky to place as far as marriages go and Clement—a bastard himself—was not one to quibble about which side of the blanket one had been born on (or actually conceived). Charles had, of course, just beaten Clement silly in the Sack of Rome but Clement wasn’t one to hold a grudge when it came to family politics. And besides, Charles himself was horrified that his troops had behaved so sacrilegiously and he needed to make things up to the Pope. Of course the girl was only five or six, but marriages were arranged that early. The wedding itself wouldn’t take place until 1536 but negations were underway throughout this period and the deal was this: Charles should take his army and beat the cr** out of Florence just as he had Rome. Then he should put an end to this pesky Republic and install the young couple in Florence as the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of a Florence that was now, in name, a fief of the Empire. Thus the Medici would be restored to Florence and secure in their position. There was only one problem. That pesky King of England kept petitioning for an annulment of his marriage to Charles’ aunt. For the Pope to grant an annulment to Henry would scotch his ambitions for the Medici to be restored in Florence. Florence or England? Hmmm. Which should it be? In the end Clement was willing to give up England rather than for his family to lose Florence. As Jesus said, “A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” (John 10:12-13)