Monday, June 23, 2008


Henry VIII's Divorce: The Real Story

It is sometimes sneeringly said that the Church of England was founded because Henry VIII wanted a divorce and the Pope would not give it to him. That is the true story that lay under the surface (or, going further, perhaps the true story is that Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Emperor Charles's aunt, and the Emperor objected). The principle at issue, however, seems not to have been divorce, but whether the Church trumped the Bible, exactly the principle that split other Protestants from Rome. Here's what seems to be the story. I'd have to do library research to find if it is correct, however--- web sources are frustratingly vague.

The heir to the English throne, Arthur Tudor, married Catherine of Aragon but died some months later. His brother, the future Henry VIII, wanted to marry the widow. Church law, however, forbade a man to marry his brother's widow, based (somewhat dubiously) on a verse from Leviticus. Henry applied to the Pope for permission to break the rule, and the Pope granted that permission.

The issue was whether the Pope had the authority to grant Henry permission to break divine law.

The Papacy said Yes. Henry said No. Henry submitted the question to various university faculties, and many of them, including ones in France and Italy, agreed with him. The one Protestant university that I've read of him consulting, Marburg, replied that Henry was correct on that narrow issue, but wrong on whether his marriage was invalid, because the underlying church law was wrong.

Update (June 26): I found the key book, Edward Foxe's 1531 The determinations of the moste famous and mooste excellent vniuersities of Italy and Fraunce, that it is so vnlefull for a man to marie his brothers wyfe, that the pope hath no power to dispence therewith. I've posted it at It's out of copyright, and I think merely scanning it in doesn't count as adding enough to copyright it. It says right at the start:

NOt longe syns there were put forth vnto vs the college of doctours regent{is} of the vniuersitie of Orlea~ce, these .ij. questions, that folowe. The fyrste, whether it be leful by the lawe of god for the brother to take to wyfe that woma~ / whom his brother hath lefte. The seco~de, and if this be forbydden by the lawe of god / whether this prohibition of the lawe of god maye be remytted by the pope his dispensation
Not long since there were put forth unto us, the college of doctors regent of the University of Orleans, these ii questions that follow. The first: whether it be lawful by the law of God for the brother to take to wife that woman whom his brother hath left. The second: and if this be forbidden by the law of God whether this prohibition of the law of God may be remitted by the Pope his dispensation.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Henry VIII’s “Great Matter”, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was for him a matter of political necessity as Catherine had failed to provide him with a male heir. Henry considered that a male heir was essential to avoid rival claims to the crown like those which had caused the Wars of the Roses before Henry's father, Henry VII; (1485 – 1509) became king. Another factor, which could have affected his thinking was that although England had no Salic Law preventing a female from taking the crown there had only been one Queen Regnant, the Empress Matilda, four hundred years earlier, and that had led to rival claims to the crown as well as a prolonged period of civil war and anarchy.
The way in which Henry VIII chose to pursue his “Great Matter” was for him primarily a matter of conscience but in following this path it meant that the principle, which was at issue, was indeed whether the Church trumped the Bible. Henry, however, raised this principle, not in a general way, as Martin Luther had done, but rather as a specific and personal request to the current Pope Clement VII (1523 – 1534).
Henry was asking Clement VII to acknowledge that one of his predecessors, Julius II (1503 – 1513) had made a mistake in granting a Bull of Dispensation to allow him to marry Catherine of Aragon, when it was forbidden by Holy Writ. Henry did not mean it as a challenge to Papal authority, but it was such, and, with the Reformation rapidly gaining strength in northern Europe, even for a vacillating figure as Clement VII, it was a challenge to which he could not give in, particularly as the case, which Henry VIII presented, was a weak one.
Henry VIII’s case was based around the Biblical verse from Leviticus (Leviticus 18:16), which 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 could cite that in over a decade and a half of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, there had been approximately 13 pregnancies that had ended in stillbirths, miscarriages and infant deaths soon after birth. The marriage was not entirely childless, however, as it did produce one surviving child, a daughter, Princess Mary but this would not have counted in Henry’s mind.
For Henry, this was clear evidence that his marriage to Catherine was cursed by God and should never have taken place. His conviction may even have been strengthened by the fact that in 1519, Elizabeth Blount, his mistress at the time, gave birth to a healthy son, Henry FitzRoy, who Henry recognized as his own.
The weakness in Henry’s case was that in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 25:5-6) it stated “that if a man dies without heirs his surviving brother should take his wife and their children shall be considered the issue of the dead brother”. This meant that whilst one book in the Bible forbade a man from marrying his brother’s widow another book commanded that such a union take place. Thus the dispensation could be said, to be Julius II’s interpreting Divine Law rather than a contravening of it.
Henry VIII was no stranger to interpreting Divine Law himself. In 1521, he had published a book, “Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments)”, which attacked Luther’s teaching and defended the sacramental nature of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. The Pope of the day, Leo X (1513 – 1521) was so pleased with the work that he awarded Henry with the personal title, Fidei defensor (Defender of the Faith), which is still used by the British Monarch.
Henry VIII’s way of attempting to get over the obstacle presented by Deuteronomy was to follow the suggestion of Thomas Cranmer and consult the universities for their opinion. An example of one such opinion is set out in the article. Another argument, which Henry developed, was that whilst Leviticus applied to all men, Christian and Jew alike, Deuteronomy applied only to Jews. He failed to see or appreciate that the reverse could also be the case.
Henry VIII’s “Great Matter” dragged on from 1525 until December 1532 and could have dragged on longer but for a new development. Anne Boleyn, the lady, who Henry had chosen to be the successor of Catherine of Aragon, became pregnant and it now became a matter of urgency that the matter be settled quickly to ensure the legitimacy of the unborn child. In order to break the impasse, Henry had no choice but to break with Rome and set up on his own. Hence the Church of England came to be founded.
Henry VIII would have been better advised to follow the advice given to him in 1525 by his Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, who was a lawyer as well as churchman, and challenge not Julius II’s right to grant a dispensation but rather the Bull of Dispensation itself. Here he had a stronger case.
Catherine of Aragon had originally married Henry’s older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales in November 1501, at the behest of Henry’s father, Henry VII in order to cement an alliance between England and Spain. She had brought with her a large dowry. In early April 1502, Prince Arthur died of “Sweating Sickness” at the age of fifteen and there is strong reason to believe that the marriage was never consummated.
In order to maintain the Spanish alliance and keep Catherine’s dowry, Henry VII proposed to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, that Catherine marry the new heir, Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Henry. The Spanish monarchs agreed but Catherine’s marriage to Arthur had created an affinity between her and Prince Henry regardless of whether or not the previous marriage had been consummated. For the new marriage to be allowed to take place, under the Canon Law of the time, a Papal Dispensation was required and its wording would depend on whether or not the previous marriage had been consummated.
For reasons of prestige Henry VII assured Pope Julius II that it had. Julius II suspected that he was being lied to but, in order to avoid a diplomatic incident, he issued a Bull of Dispensation with a compromise form of wording, which did not cover the circumstances and could be said to be obreptitious, i.e. obtained by false pretences. So, when Henry married Catherine of Aragon in 1509, he did so without knowing that he did not have the proper authority and, therefore, under the Canon Law of the time such a marriage could be deemed to be invalid.
Clement VII could, therefore, have been approached and asked to annul an invalid union, whose invalidity had been caused because one of his predecessors, Julius II had been deliberately misled by members of the English court, who were long since dead. A practical solution, but, however, Henry VIII decided to follow the dictates of his conscience rather than the advice of his lawyer.
For library study, a good place to start to gather further information on this topic is the book, “Henry VIII” by JJ Scarisbrick, 1968. (Yale University Press 1997) ISBN:-13 9780300071580. Of particular interest is Chapter 7: The Canon Law of the Divorce and Chapter 8: The Struggle for the Divorce.

August 30, 2008 3:18 AM  

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