King Henry VIII and the Catholic Church (Part 1)

King Henry VIII and the Catholic Church were set upon a collision course from the outset of his reign.

The suit for nullity of marriage by King Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon was not the cause but merely the occasion of the break between England and Rome. We explore the circumstances which set King Henry VIII and the Catholic Church on a collision course. It calls into question one of the main reasons why Henry felt he had to press his case but no one could have predicted the chaos that would follow from his decision to separate England from Rome. (This subject is written across 2 posts, just click on the link at the bottom of this post to find out more).

The beginning of the divorce question 1524

Henry and Catherine were married in 1509 after the papal dispensation allowing their marriage was passed and eight years after her marriage to Prince Arthur, who had died. For ten to twelve years Henry and Catherine lived happily and contented together. They shared a love of hunting and could discuss foreign affairs, Catherine was a serious but good humoured woman and the two seemed to have a genuine fondness for each other. As Catherine grew older the chances of her having a male heir became less and Henry gave free rein to his passions. He had an illegitimate son by Elizabeth Blount, whom he publicly acknowledged and made Duke of Richmond. This ‘proved’ to Henry that he was capable of bearing a son and that it was Catherine’s fault he had no male heir (she had in fact given birth to three sons but none survived infancy). Henry decided that he was being judged by God for making an unlawful marriage with his brother’s wife and that he wanted his marriage to Catherine declared null.

The British Library have documents pertaining to what came to known as ‘The Great Matter’.

Wolsey’s view at the time

Cardinal Wolsey was by no means anxious to stir up problems in Europe, Catherine was the aunt of the powerful Italian emperor, King Charles V and for her to be ‘dumped’ by Henry in favour of a younger bride, was potentially, politically disastrous. Henry was happy to have an English ecclesiastical court declare his marriage null and to let the Pope and Europe bluster to their heart’s content, Wolsey however wanted Henry to make a political marriage and that would be impossible unless his union with Catherine had been annulled by the highest authority.

So it was determined, to apply to the Pope for an annulment.

King Henry VIII applied to Pope Clement VII to declare his marriage void. The Pope had voided such marriages before and Henry had no reason to believe his would be any different but it was. When Henry married his brother’s wife, against church law, his father King Henry VII had taken great steps, through the papal lawyers, to cover all possible circumstances by which the marriage could be declared illegal. Of course he had no idea then, that his son would seek to separate from Catherine. These legal documents, which would fortify and assure the match, now became an obstacle to its being called null. The work of Pope Julius II, confirming the original bull of dispensation for the marriage and guarding against all technical objections, would now have to be repudiated by his successor, Pope Clement, thus flying in the face of papal law, his own office and authority.

King Henry VIII and the catholic church

Pope Clement VII

Misfortunes of the Pope 1527 – 1529

Even so, Pope Clement would probably have found a way to circumnavigate the papal laws and declare the marriage void, had he not run into problems of his own. He had set himself against the emperor Charles and just as an English contingent was leaving for discussions with the Pope, he was taken prisoner by emperor Charles V.  He was not now free to make an independent decision. He was the political vassal of the emperor. Henry’s options to disengage from the marriage were blocked at every turn and Pope Clement likewise, should he wish to null the marriage, had few options either. Also if Catherine appealed to the Pope directly, he would have to decide in her favour. Clement knew if he refused Henry’s demands he would lose the allegiance of England but he knew equally well that if he granted them he would lose much more and be exiled in Italy. Wolsey and Pope Clement understood the problem well enough but for Henry, two years had passed, he had fallen desperately in love with Anne Boleyn and he was determined to have his will.

It was imperative, as far as Henry and Wolsey were concerned, not to allow an appeal by Catherine from being delivered to Clement but the Spanish Ambassador was too crafty for them and in April 1529, the appeal was in Clements hands. In July he acted upon it, deciding the appeal would be held in his own court in Rome.

The policy of Wolsey had failed.

He had tried to set aside the marriage by invoking the supremacy of the Pope but the appeal had been made to him as the supreme judge thus making it impossible for him to decide the question himself. Moreover, because he was a subordinate political sovereign as well as a supreme judge, if he were to decide the question at all he would have to submit to the wishes of his political superior, the emperor.

King Henry VIII and the Catholic church now stood on a precipice

Much more was now at stake than Henry’s marriage, the question was whether King Henry would be bound over by the ruler of the papal states who in turn was bound to carry out the wishes of the emperor of Italy?

Read part 2 of King Henry VIII and the Catholic church by clicking here.



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