23 October 2011

Anglican history, part one: Henry VIII and his divorces

On 25 October 2011 I made some minor additions and corrections to the text below for clarity's sake. Part two of this series, published 26 October 2011, can be read here. Part III, about the “founding” of Anglicanism, can be found here.

Here in Germany, the vast majority of people I have talked to about the history of Anglicanism – including, unfortunately, many Old Catholics – have only a very dim, and usually quite mistaken, idea of the history of the English Church, in particular the events around Henry VIII and his wives. The most common blunder is to say that Henry somehow "founded" the church, as if it was a new thing, and many also assume that the Church of England is Lutheran or something like it. Sad to say, but many Americans seem to have the same odd ideas about the origins of Anglicanism as a whole.

All of that is utter nonsense. I'll explain why.

In a series of articles, I will describe the events of the 16th century in detail, to make it clear just what really was going on. While Henry was no angel, he also wasn't the cynical sexually licentious brute people think of today.

In this first article, we shall examine the issue of Henry's "divorces" and having male children. A second article will look at the Acts of Supremacy and founding of the English Church, along with the theological positions taken by Henry, and his daughters Queens Mary and Elizabeth I.

Henry Tudor, the pious prince

The common mistake is to say that Henry was seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Usually the assumption is made that this was only because he wanted a son, and Catherine wasn't bearing him any, suffering repeated miscarriages and eventually producing one daughter who survived, Mary. It is also assumed that Henry was merely horny for Anne Boleyn and wanted to get rid of Catherine to hook up with Anne. This is at best wildly distorted, at worst downright slanderous.

Some background: Henry was not actually supposed to be king at all. His older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, was heir apparent and quite popular when he died suddenly in 1502 at the age of 15 of unknown causes, probably of consumption. He was, however, already betrothed to – and married – Catherine of Aragon. They married on 4 November 1501, and just five months later, Arthur was dead, and Henry suddenly was heir apparent.

Henry, unlike his older brother, was a rather studious and quite pious person, well-versed in Scripture and church doctrine. This is important to note – it is precisely because of his piety that the later events unfolded as they did, not because of cynical lust, as most assume. Henry then was pushed and bullied by his father, Henry VII, into marrying Catherine, since Henry père wanted to use the dynastic marriage for diplomatic and political reasons, namely to forge an alliance with the Spanish Habsburgs against France – and also didn't want to have to return the sizable dowry that Catherine had brought with her.

According to canon law at the time, the marriage of Henry and Catherine was forbidden on grounds of affinity. In particular, it was not allowed to marry one's brother's widow. Such an act required a dispensation (i.e. special permission) from the Pope, otherwise it was simply not allowed.

Henry VII and Catherine's mother, Queen Isabella of Castile, therefore intensely lobbied Pope Julius II to do just that. Julius was highly active in European politics, and no doubt saw a chance to gain influence with the English and Spanish courts, and thus agreed.

Henry junior wrote a letter to the Pope in protest. He specifically mentioned affinity as a reason not to marry Catherine, and quoted Scripture to back up the argument. In Leviticus, it says "If a brother is to marry the wife of a brother they will remain childless" – a curse that haunted Henry later on as he and Catherine repeatedly had children die early or be lost to miscarriage.

The marriage was duly performed, and Henry seems to have accepted it at first. But then troubles began that deeply troubled him.

Death of a child, again and again

All but one of his and Catherine's children died while still infants, with Mary the only one who made it to adulthood. Their first daughter died at the age of two days and was never even christened. Their second child, a son named Henry, lived a little over a month and a half, but then also died. A third child, another son also named Henry, died at about a month old. Then came Mary, their fourth child, and then another daughter who died after only a week.

Even the most secular of people would under the circumstances start to wonder about this, and a devout person like Henry naturally came to the conclusion that this was God's revenge for breaking the laws in Leviticus. It took some time, but he appears to have become convinced of this.

Royal randiness and (il)legitimate children

In the meantime, it is true that Henry had begun an affair with Anne, but there are some things about this which should be taken into account.

First, such affairs were considered quite normal in those days for royalty and was openly acknowledged. Some of Henry's own ancestors, the House of Beaufort, were in fact themselves illegitimate and had been regularized retroactively. That was common practice throughout Europe in all royal families, when the illegitimate children generally being awarded titles and treated as nobility, sometimes even becoming heirs to the throne.

Second, before Anne, Henry had a child by another woman, Elizabeth Blount, in 1519 – a son, Henry FitzRoy, who was given the title Duke of Richmond and who Parliament was preparing to acknowledge as heir to the throne in 1539, when Henry FitzRoy suddenly died. On top of all the other children lost, you can imagine what must have been going through Henry's mind at this point. He was completely convinced he was cursed, and had to do something to change that.

Third, Henry had affairs with several other women. Two of them are documented and were acknowledged – Mary Boleyn, Anne's older sister, and Elizabeth Blount – but while not conclusively documented, many others were claimed at the time, such as Anne Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, herself married to Lord Hastings, who in rage sent her to a convent. Thus there was nothing particularly special about Henry's relationship with Anne Boleyn.

Badly wanting a boy – with good reason

So here we have Henry, losing child after child, well aware of the Leviticus curse. I think it is only understandable that he should have felt his marriage to Catherine was a mistake under the circumstances. Not only that, but with Catherine now getting old, and thus unlikely to bear any more children at all, let alone a male child, Henry must have been utterly desperate.

Of course, this might seem all so vain – modern people would ask what the big deal is, and would assume Henry wanted a male child just for his own pride. But here too we have to look at the historical context.

The English at the time still had the Wars of the Roses fresh in their memory, when uncertainty over the succession to the throne caused havoc and war between the rival royal houses of Lancaster and York. The Tudors, related to both houses, eventually ended up managing to unite England again under their rule, but there was quite a lot of fear that the chaos of the wars would return, should there be another dynastic problem. This suited Henry VII just fine, as it dovetailed with Tudor propaganda about being the saviors of England from chaos.

If Henry VIII failed to have any male children, there would have been serious controversy and upheaval upon his death, since the succession would have been contested as rival factions would have tried to get "their" heir onto the throne – exactly the same problem that led to the Wars of the Roses in the first place.

So Henry had perfectly sensible reasons for wanting a male child that had nothing to do with venality or pride (though that too certainly must have played a role). Not only that, but Henry began the annulment proceedings in 1527, fully eight years after the death of their last child – which hardly sounds like he was rushing into anything on a whim. Most importantly, in 1527 Henry FitzRoy was still alive, at eight years old, and Parliament was willing to recognize him as heir, so Henry did not in fact need to have a boy when the proceedings started. In other words, his prime motivation seems to have been the Leviticus curse, not needing a boy.

Thus Henry had the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Wolsey, try to convince the Pope – by now Clement VII – to grant an annulment – not a divorce. The distinction is important, because the grounds for the annulment were that the marriage was unlawful to begin with, and therefore void, rather than simply being broken, as in a divorce. This distinction says much about Henry's motives, and makes sense in light of his earlier protests at the marriage when first pushed into it by his father and the following deaths of his children.

Henry and Wolsey provided ample legal basis for the request. Wolsey expressed his confidence that it would succeed, which under normal circumstances it would have.

Geopolitical games

The snag was that Clement VII was imprisoned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who just happened to be Catherine's nephew. Charles of course took a dim view of Henry dumping his aunt, by now far too old to easily be married off again – and thus in the eyes of the Habsburgs useless for their ambitious dynastic plans. In spite of the clear legal basis of Henry's request, backed up by the dons at Oxford and Cambridge and supported by Wolsey, and in spite of the fact that such annulments were at the time quite routine for royalty and higher nobility, Clement tried to dodge the question and dragged his feet in making a decision. This left Henry stuck without the annulment he wanted, and with his proverbial biological clock ticking.

Eventually, in 1528, the Pope at last agreed to let Wolsey decide the matter – on the condition that he make the decision jointly with another papal legate, Cardinal Campeggio. This was almost certainly a delaying tactic, and indeed Campeggio also dragged his feet, preventing Wolsey from approving the annulment.

Henry was now in a serious bind. He feared the return of war if he didn't get a male heir; his wife was unlikely to have any more children, and even when they had had children, they all died (except for Mary); he believed he was cursed; and the geopolitical problems surrounding the marriage made it impossible to go through the normal channels.

Henry gave his secretary, William Knight, a last-ditch mission to try one last time to convince the Pope to grant the annulment. This failed, and Henry was now forced to find another solution. Angered at Wolsey's failure and blunders, and suspecting him of being disloyal or at least beholden to the Pope (and thus Charles V), Henry removed Wolsey and had him arrested for treason. Henry's friend Sir Thomas More now took the lead in arguing Henry's case, and promptly denounced Wolsey in Parliament, backing up his arguments with support from Oxford and Cambridge.

At this point, however, Henry simply had no options left. The Pope was clearly not going to cooperate so long as he was under the control of Charles V; Charles was clearly not going to relent any time soon, and anyway Henry needed him for his alliance against France; and Wolsey was either powerless, traitorous, or both (from Henry's point of view).

Dusting off royal supremacy in the Church

It was then that the learned experts at Oxford and Cambridge began to revive doctrines of royal supremacy in the Church. Today people often assume that this was Henry's idea entirely, and that it was cynically manufactured and manipulated just for the occasion. That is once again wildly distorted.

Historically, there were often clashes between the Papacy and kings and emperors across Europe over who had what control over the Church. The best-known and most obvious example is the Investiture Contest, where the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope at the time battled over who had the right to appoint and control bishops. This had in fact been the normal practice until the 11th century, since bishops were normally also secular lords in their own right, and thus firmly woven into the politics of their countries. Bishoprics were also routinely sold by kings, which brought in substantial revenue – anyone who wanted to be a bishop would simply pay the king a bribe, and hey presto, they became bishop. Thus they owed feudal homage to their king as lord, and were therefore in practice answerable to him, rather than to the Pope.

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII began to insist on changing this so that the Pope, not the Emperor or kings, would be the one to appoint and control bishops. In hindsight, of course, this only makes sense, but at the time it was highly controversial and unpopular with the kings, who of course stood to lose a lot of power and income if they let the Pope get away with it. After an intense political struggle, an agreement was reached, the Concordat of Worms, in 1122. This was essentially a compromise, but the wording was such that each side could readily bend its meaning to suit themselves, leaving the issue unresolved in reality, and periodically conflicts would erupt again and again. Thus it was still quite normal for kings to feel they had the right to interfere in church polity and control the Church in their kingdom as an arm of the state, and indeed the language used at the time made it clear that that was the general assumption – one spoke of "the French church" and "the English church", not "the Church in England". The distinction made it clear that the church was (and is) organized at a national level, not supranational. The supranational tendency in the Roman church only came to the fore during and after the Counter-Reformation. The Orthodox Church, meanwhile, remains plainly national today ("Greek Orthodox", "Serbian Orthodox", "Russian Orthodox"), just as it always was.

This is precisely what the experts at Oxford and Cambridge argued, based on ample ancient precedent, going right back to the 4th century when Christianity became the state religion in the Roman Empire. Indeed, this was the case in Byzantium – the successor state to the Roman Empire – right up until its downfall just before Henry was born: The Byzantine emperors generally did exert enormous control and influence over the Orthodox Church, installing and deposing patriarchs at will. So the notion that the King had that kind of power over the Church was by no means far-fetched at all – in fact it could be argued that it was indeed the normal and legal practice at the time, regardless of how we would judge it today.

The case for the defense

So to sum up for this part, Henry was at this point well within his rights to have the marriage to Catherine annulled, but those rights were blocked strictly for reasons that were political, not legal or theological. Henry also had perfectly good reasons to believe that the marriage was in fact harmful and should be annulled. Furthermore, once Henry realized the Pope was not going to follow precedent and canon law, he was perfectly well in tune with other monarchs throughout Europe for centuries in believing that the Church in his kingdom was subordinate to him. I don't know about you, but to me that all looks rather different from the stereotyped image of the horny Henry obsessed with getting a boy and breaking the rules to get one.

This brings us to the subjects of royal supremacy (see Part II here) and of the "founding" of the Church of England (see Part III here), which we will explore in the next instalments of this article. Hope you enjoyed it so far and come back for more. Comments are more than welcome, so please do chime in.


  1. But Henry married AFTER his father died...surely he could have posponed or cancel once king himself...

    1. @Unknown: True. But at that point the treaty with Spain was a done deal and he didn't really have a lot of choice at that point. Not marrying Catherine would have ruined the Spanish alliance that his father had worked hard on — an alliance that gave the upstart Tudors substantial political legitimacy. Remember, the Tudors were pretty paranoid about losing the throne again, and not without reason — their claim to it was at best wobbly.

    2. Hence getting the recognition of the most powerful monarchy in Europe at the time was vital for the Tudors to stay on the English throne.


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