Castel Sant'Angelo where Clement VII sought
refuge from the troops of Charles V during the
Sack of Rome in 1527
Luther’s zeal, combined with German temper, led him to excoriate the unreformed Catholicism of the Bishops and especially of the Pope. The Papal insistence on pomp and the money to maintain the papal pomp led Luther to see the Pope(s) as the prophesied Anti-Christ who would set themselves up as false deities. Luther had anything but an irenic personality and his quick temper enflamed the minds and hearts of many who followed his reformed evangelicalism and they came to see the pope and papal Catholicism as a demonic cult.
Ok, here is where this story begins to affect Henry and his request for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.
The most powerful monarch of the day was Katherine’s nephew, Charles V. Charles was the son of Katherine’s sister—Juana the Mad. (Why she was called “mad” or crazy is a great story in itself but we aren’t going there.) Charles inherited from her the throne of Spain and the Spanish empire in the New World as well as Naples, southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia. Not a bad inheritance. But that was only part of it. Charles’ father—and Juana’s husband—was Philip the Handsome of Burgundy. Philip’s father died before he could inherit from his father, the Emperor Maximilian, the Holy Roman Empire—a vast empire consisting of today’s Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, and much of Northern Italy. This inheritance then passed to Charles. Charles was a devout Catholic and anxious to preserve the Church from Luther but many of his German subjects had embraced Luther’s reforms. In 1527 Charles led an army down into Italy to quell rebellions brewing there and solidify his power. In the process he found himself in conflict with a French backed anti-Imperial league consisting of Florence, Milan, Venice and the papacy. This put Charles at military odds with Pope Clement VII and Charles’ troops ended up sacking Rome. Clement fled the papal palace and took refuge in the Castle Sant’Angelo. But Charles’ troops were mostly Germans—and mostly Lutherans. For them their attack on Rome was an attack on the anti-Christ and the subsequent sack of the city was horrendous. Priests were murdered at their altars, nuns raped in their convents, and thousands of Romans—believers and non-believers alike—were put to the sword. The Pope’s Swiss guards were all but wiped out defending the Vatican. Tons of gold and silver were carried off as the Roman churches and basilicas were stripped of their treasures—and as the houses of Cardinals and bishops were pillaged alongside the monasteries and convents.
Charles himself was not in command of the army at the time of the siege. In fact the problem is that no one was in command. The designated leader, the Duke of Bourbon, had been killed in the opening skirmish; moreover the army was in mutiny because the emperor had been slow in paying them for their Italian campaign. The Lutheran troops particularly were in a blood frenzy as they saw themselves as God’s avengers. The 1527 sack of Rome effectively put an end to the Roman Renaissance and there was a tremendous slowdown in the vast programs of building and art that had characterized Rome for the previous three decades.
It was at this particularly poor time to ask a favor from the Pope that England’s King Henry wanted an annulment from his wife, Katherine of Aragon, aunt to the Emperor Charles. Clement was in no position to alienate the Emperor by sanctioning his aunt being dumped for a Trophy Wife and Queen. But there is more to the story—far more—and the real reason may have more to do with Medici politics than Clement’s fear of pissing off Charles.