Before Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon he received a Papal Bull from the Pope agreeing that Henry could marry his dead brother’s (Prince Arthur) wife. When Henry and Catherine married in June 1509 both were Roman Catholics. Everybody in England was – the penalty for heresy (being found guilty of being a non-believer) was death. Though Henry is portrayed as a powerful king who dominated his land, such was the tie to Rome and the Roman Catholic faith, that he felt it necessary to effectively get Papal permission to marry Catherine. In 1509 it would have been inconceivable that anyone would think that a break would occur with Rome and the power of the Papacy. However, within 25 years this is exactly what happened.
No one is sure when Henry decided that his marriage to Catherine had to end simply because the evidence does not exist that can pinpoint an exact date. There were rumours in court of Henry wanting a divorce as early as 1520 but this was probably nothing more than mere court gossip based on no fundamental facts. Physicians, either in 1524 or 1525, told Henry that Catherine was unlikely to give birth again – so these dates may be correct. By 1527, he had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn – so this year may be when he decided that a divorce was needed. The truth is that historians simply do not know. What can be stated is that when Henry decided that his marriage to Catherine should end, he was not a man who was willing to change his mind.
However, the beliefs within the Catholic Church were clear and simple. Only the Pope could annul a marriage and as the Church believed in the sanctity of marriage and family, this was a reasonably rare occurrence. In many senses, royal families in Western Europe were expected to set the standards that others should follow. Therefore, Henry’s belief that he should have a divorce simply because as king of England and Wales he wanted one was not shared by the Papacy.
Henry used his knowledge of the Bible to justify his request for a marriage annulment. Henry use the Old Testament (Leviticus Chapter 20 Verse 16) where it stated:
“If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”
Henry argued that his marriage to Catherine had been against God’s law from the start despite the Pope’s blessing for it to go ahead in 1509. He was therefore living in sin and that the Pope had to annul his marriage so that he could rectify this. As ‘Defender of the Faith’ – a title bestowed on Henry for his 1521 attack on the work of Martin Luther – Henry believed that such an annulment was almost a foregone conclusion. Whether Henry actually believed this is open to question especially as he was simply lusting after Anne Boleyn at the time, which clearly was not a sin in his mind despite his marriage. Henry gave a masterful speech to the country’s nobles at Bridewell, London, in November 1528, explaining that Catherine was noble and virtuous and that in other circumstances he would marry he again. But because of what had happened he lived in “detestable and abominable adultery”. Edward Hall, who wrote about the speech, stated that it was made with great passion. However, Henry also knew how to address an audience so to what extent this was ‘acting’ will never be known.
There is little doubt that Cardinal Wolsey gave Henry assurances that an annulment was simply a matter of course. Wolsey, as a Cardinal, had also been appointed ‘legatus a legere’ by the Pope – which made him the most powerful religious figure actually based in England. It is conveniently easy to imagine the scene of Wolsey convincing Henry that as he had contacts in Rome, what the king wanted would be easy to attain. Wolsey, of course, was willing to do anything to satisfy his master and he decided to use the argument that the original Papal Bull that sanctioned the 1509 marriage was invalid and that the marriage, to save an innocent King from eternal damnation, should be annulled to allow him to marry ‘properly’. Wolsey was certain that the Pope would annul the marriage as he was in a vulnerable position and needed the support of every Christian monarch – especially as the advance of the Muslim Turks in the Mediterranean was unpredictable and highly threatening. Both Henry and Wolsey must have assumed that their ‘campaign’ for an annulment would be a simple and short affair.
Neither got what they expected. There was no quick fix and the most immediate result of this was the end of the influence of Cardinal Wolsey who was ordered to leave London and live in much lesser circumstances in York (where he was the archbishop). The approach in Rome was to give the matter a great deal of theological thought, which explained the delay. The key was dissecting what Leviticus had actually written. The argument was that you should not marry your brother’s wife while he was still alive. As Arthur was dead, this was not an issue and certainly did not condemn Henry to eternal damnation by going against the will of God. Henry refused to accept this, as he believed that his interpretation was correct. He dragooned a large number of expert theologians to write essays that supported his view and they were well rewarded for doing so. The result of this was a series of essays written in Rome to support the Papacy’s viewpoint. However, there were those in England who supported the Pope’s viewpoint. One was the Bishop of Rochester, Bishop Fisher, who wrote seven books in support of Catherine and became her main defender in England.
As time moved on, both sides faced an obvious but challenging issue. If either side backed down, the loss of face would be immense. What had started as a king lusting after a young lady had now turned into a major issue with neither side being able to back down.