The Divorce of Henry VIII
The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican
The figure of Henry VIII is iconic in English history. The second king of the House of Tudor, Henry VIII is famous for marrying six times, for causing the break with
, establishing the
Church of England and allowing the growth of the English Reformation. Rome
Historians of the early modern period have written extensively about Henry's loves, politics, religion and his precarious relationships with his courtiers and government officials. A true tyrant, it became evident early in his reign that no one close to him was deemed 'safe'. When Cardinal Wolsey, the king's most influential and powerful cleric, failed to secure a papal dispensation for the annulment of Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon, excuses were found to dispense with him. When Thomas More refused to bow to Henry's Act of Supremacy, he faced a similar fate. Thomas Cromwell, the king's chief minister, could not sustain his safe position as one of the most powerful men in the realm. A conspiracy saw his removal with Henry's approval. Two of Henry's wives faced execution, while he sought the affections of his next consort. David Starkey has stated that:
If Henry died, like so many, of he sweating sickness in 1525, he would have barely registered in history, his reign a feeble coda to the story of England.
Henry, however, lived to cause and be part of a revolutionary time in English history. The most crucial period of his reign (a period which came to define him) was that of the years when Henry sought the annulment of his marriage with his first wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon.
To most people, the story is a familiar one. Having failed to obtain a male heir with Catherine, and having fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, Henry initiated the process of achieving an annulment with his first wife. Yet, few are fully aware of how complicated and frustrating negotiations were for the men employed in Italy specifically for securing this one end. Catherine Fletcher, in her illuminating, accessible, and thoroughly researched book Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican, relates the intriguing and complicated tale surrounding Henry VIII's quest for divorce from a wider, external angle. Fletcher tackles the subject from a new perspective, taking the reader through the enshrined halls of the Vatican to demonstrate how Henry's quest for divorce resulted in a religious schism and the formation of the Church of England.
The reader is introduced to a multiplicity of characters, each playing a vital role in the pursuit of securing what became an impossible mission. The protagonist of this tale is no less than a 'wily Italian diplomat named Gregorio Casali who drew no limits on skullduggery including kidnapping, bribery, and theft to make the king a free man.' In her preface, Fletcher states that:
Through Casali's eyes, we see England from the outside: from Rome, from Italy, from Europe. There, Henry VIII is not the caricature fat tyrant, nor yet the virtuous Renaissance prince, but a mid-ranking northern monarch, a player on the European stage but far from the star of the show.
As a historical study, Fletcher is painstakingly thorough. Every detail is uncovered, analysed and woven into a masterful yet accessible narrative. As a compelling and intriguing story, it rivals any work of fiction. From the moment I picked it up, I found the page-turning impulse irresistible. Fletcher offers us an insight into the personalities, lives and political context of the Casali family and all those who took part in the protracted negotiations leading up to the break with Rome. In addition, we obtain a greater and, perhaps, a new-found understanding of the reactions and dilemmas experienced by pope Clement VII in the face of Henry's relentless demands, Catherine's refusal to submit to the will of her husband, and her nephew's (the emperor Charles V) powerful and threatening influence.
For scholars of Tudor history, Fletcher's book is nothing short of vital. For anyone interested in Henry VIII, this book provides a revealing insight into the reality of the impossible mission that became the king's Great Matter in Rome.
"A glittering debut.
Fletcher's book is at its best in her account of precisely what it meant to be an ambassador in those treacherous times." Miranda Seymour reviews Our Man in Rome in The Sunday Times.
The full review is available at www.thesundaytimes.co.uk
Catherine Fletcher holds a PhD in history from the University of London. She is the recipient of many awards and fellowships at the British School at Rome and the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches history at the University of Durham. This is her first book.