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The Great Divorce

What led Henry VIII to tear England from Catholic Europe?

Joy rang throughout the realm when Henry VIII ascended the throne of England in 1509. He was only eighteen years old but well-educated, with a solid command of Latin and theology. He was a talented poet and musician, and if he did not compose the song we call “Greensleeves,” as is occasionally claimed, he did write melodies of equal merit. A tall, broad-shouldered man, he was an exceptional hunter, horseman, jouster, tennis player, and dancer. He had been destined for the priesthood until his older brother, Arthur, died. Moreover, England was wearied by the Wars of the Roses, and Henry—being the offspring of the union of the rival houses of Lancaster and York—represented the promise of true peace.

Although Henry’s father, Henry VII, had brought an end to the Wars, he had done so by taking the crown by force from men who had a better claim to it. He suppressed the nobility of England with punitive taxes, a network of informers, and a system for confiscating the property of his political rivals. He brought order, but it was the uneasy order of tyranny.

Still, the Faith was vigorous in merry old England. Whereas heresies had brought war to France and Bohemia, and clerical scandals had plagued the whole continent, Henry inherited a country with a thriving Catholicism. The English nobility supported hundreds of monasteries that looked after the corporal needs of the poor and the spiritual needs of all English souls. “England, more perhaps than any other country in Europe abounded in” monasteries, abbeys, and priories. Foreign travelers in England reported that it was “the happiest country, perhaps that the world has ever seen” (William Cobbett, Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation, 33).

All this, Henry would destroy.

At the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, senior devil Screwtape is the guest of honor at a banquet celebrating the newest graduates from the Tempters Training College for Young Devils. Screwtape is disappointed with the banquet fare: The “human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality,” he laments. “Oh to get one’s teeth into a Henry VIII! There was a real crackling there, something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own.”

It is remarkable that Lewis, an anti-Catholic Anglican, locates in darkest hell the man without whom there would have been no Anglican Church. What led this promising young monarch to tear England from Catholic Europe? It was his passion for Anne Boleyn that drove him to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Catherine’s Story

In 1501, to forge an alliance with Spain, Henry VII married his first son, Arthur, fifteen years old, to Catherine of Aragon, sixteen years old, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Within a few months of the wedding, both Catherine and Arthur contracted malaria or tuberculosis: Catherine recovered but Arthur died. The marriage was never consummated.

Henry VII, fearing a lost alliance with Spain and perhaps the loss of Catherine’s enormous dowry, resolved to marry her off to his second son, Henry. Two things stood in the way: First, Henry was only eleven years old and the legal limit was fourteen—but time would solve that problem. The larger difficulty was that canon law forbade marriages between persons related by affinity or quasi-affinity.

In the summer of 1503, a request for dispensation was sent to Rome. Pope Julius II issued the dispensation, but he delayed publishing it. Spain’s Queen Isabella, who was approaching death, wanted to see her daughter betrothed to the future king of England (she couldn’t possibly know what a skunk he was going to turn out to be), so she pressed Julius to make his decision known. In 1504, he sent a hastily prepared brief to her in Spain and then, several months later, issued a public bull permitting the marriage. So there were two papal documents permitting the marriage.

Henry willingly took Catherine as his wife when he ascended the throne in 1509. Catherine faithfully bore Henry four children who died in infancy. Then Mary (later maligned as Bloody Mary by Protestant detractors) was born in 1516. Why after so many years with Catherine did Henry wish to be rid of her? He was deeply troubled that their marriage had not produced a male heir. Moreover, perhaps, he was enchanted with Lady Anne Boleyn, his latest mistress.

Wolsey Has a Cunning Plan

Henry could not simply put away his wife. Although a first-class adulterer, he was still a Catholic. Indeed, the pope had conferred on him the title Defender of the Faith for writing Defense of the Seven Sacraments in response to Martin Luther’s heresies. The probable author of the scheme to divorce Catherine was Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s Lord Chancellor and the Cardinal Archbishop of York. Wolsey found justification for Henry’s divorce in the bewildering code of the ancient Jewish law found in the Book of Leviticus: “The man who takes his brother’s wife in marriage does a forbidden thing, bringing shame on his own brother; children they shall never have” (20:21).

The passage seems to be contradicted by the command in Deuteronomy 25 that a man sire children for his childless brother’s widow. Moreover, the Levitican curse did not apply to Henry. He was not childless. He had a healthy and intelligent daughter of eleven, the princess Mary. No matter—Henry grasped it as the justification to divorce Catherine.

Where did this cheap ploy originate? Wolsey first suggested that the idea came from the French king, Francis I, who allegedly raised the question out of concern about the legitimacy of Mary, whom he was considering marrying. This was pure fabrication. Later, Wolsey maintained that Henry’s doubts about his marriage stemmed from his own private Scripture study. At least this was believable; for all of his dalliances, Henry was devout.

To give the appearance of innocence, Henry secretly arranged for Wolsey and Archbishop Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to summon Catherine and him to an inquiry at which they were asked to defend their marriage. The charade confirmed Catherine’s suspicion that Henry meant to be rid of her. But she was a fighter. She took advantage of the inquiry to testify again that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated; the inquiry could do little but find Henry’s marriage to Catherine valid, and the suit was dropped.

Secret Embassy to Rome

Henry, without telling Wolsey, made his next move: an appeal to Rome. He sent his ambassador, William Knight, to Pope Clement VII with orders to request permission from the pope to have two wives simultaneously. Should that fail, Knight was to obtain permission for the king (in the event that his marriage to Catherine was declared null) to marry any woman, even one with whom he had contracted an affinity and even if that affinity were contracted through an illicit union.

Wolsey did Henry a great favor by intercepting Knight in France and modifying the request. He instructed Knight to ask for a declaration of nullity of the king’s marriage to Catherine on the grounds that the bull issued by Pope Julius II was obreptitious, that is, obtained under false pretenses. Julius had dispensed the impediment of affinity on the grounds that the marriage between Henry and Catherine would serve the greater peace of Christendom. Wolsey was now suggesting, probably dishonestly, that no such threat to international relations existed at the time. Wolsey left in Henry’s request seeking dispensation from any affinity, even one contracted through fornication, but the request made clear to the Cardinal something he had until now not known: that the specific object of Henry’s desire was Anne Boleyn. Whatever enthusiasm Wolsey had mustered for the divorce now began to fade.

Henry’s second request puts to rest any argument defending his alleged scruples, and it needs to be unpacked to understand the full nature of the king’s duplicitousness and treachery. Even as Henry sought to put away his first wife based on the argument that it was forbidden by Leviticus, he was seeking permission from the pope to contract a marriage that would have been forbidden by the same passage. He sought permission to marry Anne Boleyn even though he had fornicated with her older sister, Mary. Which is more incredible? Henry’s candor about his adultery? Or his request for Clement to declare that Julius should not have granted a dispensation of the very kind that Henry now wanted from Clement?

How could Henry, a man of such learning, fail to see such obvious contradictions in his own schemes? The answer is in St. Thomas Aquinas, who reminds us that lust darkens the powers of reason: “Unchastity’s firstborn daughter is blindness of the spirit,” he writes. Anglican apologists for Henry have argued that his motives were political and that a male heir was necessary for the continuation of the Tudor dynasty, without which continuity the prosperity of the realm would be in jeopardy. The argument withers in the face of Henry’s appeal for this conditional dispensation, the obvious goal of which was Anne Boleyn.

Besides, Henry had an heir in Mary. The succession was not in doubt. And Henry had a male heir also: Henry Fitzroy, the spawn of an adulterous affair with his teenage mistress Elizabeth Blount, whom Henry set up as Duke of Richmond. An act of Parliament could have declared Fitzroy the heir to the throne despite his illegitimacy.

So, Knight went to Rome. But the pope had his own problem. He was the prisoner of Emperor Charles V, the unhappy outcome of his unwise allegiance with the king of France against the emperor. Since Charles V was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, Clement, not a man history remembers for his quick and firm decisions, delayed.

Wolsey Has Another Plan

Henry’s ambassador returned to England with a conditional dispensation but nothing more. Henry then put the matter back in Wolsey’s hands. Wolsey had a second tactic: He attacked the legal merits of Julius’s bull. Specifically, had there been an impediment of affinity? Or had there been an impediment of public decency, the result of a betrothal or unconsummated marriage? Julius had dispensed from affinity, which can result only from the consummation of the marriage. Thus, Wolsey argued, the wrong dispensation had been given. But if the wrong dispensation had been given, was it nevertheless sufficient to permit the new marriage? Yes, if quasi-affinity (public decency) is contained within affinity and all parties acted in good faith. But Henry and Wolsey argued otherwise.

Armed with this specious argument, a second delegation went to Rome. Stephen Gardiner and Edward Foxe—two bishops who would soon betray the Church by declaring Henry head of the Church in England—browbeat Clement until he assigned his legate to preside with Wolsey at a commission in England on the subject of Julius’s bull.

The commission permitted Wolsey to render judgment only on Julius’s bull. But there were two documents issued by Julius, the formal bull and the brief he had sent to Isabella a few months prior. The commission had no authority to pass judgment on the brief. What is more, the brief did not specify, as the bull had, particular reasons for the dispensation. Once Catherine produced the brief, the commission was brought to a standstill.

Catherine, strengthened by this small victory, and with the aid of her nephew Charles V, persuaded the pope to revoke the case to Rome. The matter was out of Wolsey’s hands. He was sacked by Henry and stripped of his office and lands. He died ill and disgraced, saying that if he had served his God as faithfully as he had served his king, God would not have left him naked in the face of his enemies.

Heresy Rushes In

Wolsey’s replacement as chancellor was Sir Thomas More. More’s scholarship, wit, and good humor were known throughout Europe. We might ask why a man of More’s moral character would accept a post in the service of a monarch so vigorously pursuing so unjust a divorce. First, More and Henry were friends; second, Sir Thomas could draw a distinction between service to his country and cooperation in the wicked designs of his king. Finally, in 1529 supporters of Queen Catherine still had the upper hand in Parliament. Nearly everyone opposed to the divorce believed that Henry’s desire for Anne would pass. Henry had discarded mistresses aplenty. Catherine wrote the pope telling him that if Henry were restored to her for a mere two months, she could make him forget Anne.

Knowing this, Catherine’s enemies—Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and the Boleyn family—kept Catherine away from the King and introduced a new game plan: directly challenge the pope’s authority not only on the question of the divorce but also his authority as head of the Church.

Their playbook was a tract called The Obedience of a Christian Man, written by a heretical priest named William Tyndale. Tyndale was a Cambridge student who, like Cranmer, fomented heresy at the White Horse Inn, a tavern in Cambridge nicknamed “little Germany” for the budding heretics who gathered there.

Tyndale, like Luther (much of Tyndale’s work is Luther in English), argued that Scripture should be available to every man in his own tongue and that God spoke directly to any man through his prayerful consideration of Scripture. In Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale carried this argument into political life. Where once the princes of Europe acknowledged that their power to rule came from Christ through the pope, Tyndale argued that a king’s authority came directly from God.

Anne gave a copy of this book to Henry. Although Henry had earlier condemned the works of Tyndale, his vision was now clouded.

Scholars for Hire

Sir Thomas More nevertheless was determined to save Henry from himself. There was reason to hope. Although the divorce effort had been under way for more than three years, Henry still sought the moral authority that would come with a favorable decision from Rome. In an effort to influence such a decision, Cranmer suggested that Henry obtain opinions on his divorce from scholars throughout Europe.

What Cranmer really meant, and what Henry did, was to pay for the opinions of what we would today call expert witnesses. While many of these hired guns supported Henry’s aims, at least one Italian rabbi, Jacob Rafael Yehiel Hayyim Peglione of Modena, concluded that Henry was married to Catherine in the eyes of God and that the marriage could not be dissolved.

The expert opinions carried no weight in Rome, so to get the pope’s attention, Henry, with a complicit Parliament, attacked the whole English clergy. For months Cromwell had been fomenting public opinion against the clergy with the tracts of Tyndale and other heretics. Now Cromwell suggested to Henry that since the clergy were obedient to Rome they were only “half citizens of the realm.” Charged with praemunire, a kind of treason, the clergy were forced to pay Henry a sum of 100,000 pounds to purchase a pardon for the imagined offense and were forced to acknowledge Henry as the “protector and Supreme head of the Church in England.” Bishop John Fisher attempted to salvage the bitter moment by seeing that the words, “so far as the law of Christ allows” were added, but the end was obviously near.

In 1532 Henry made a personal visit to Parliament and influenced the lawmakers to pass an edict forbidding English clergy to make their annates or “first fruits” payments to Rome, an important source of income for the Holy See. On the heels of that edict came the Submission of the Clergy, in which the clergy lost all right of legislation except through the king. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, prepared a stirring rejection of this suppression of Church authority, but he failed to deliver it in Parliament, prompting Bishop Fisher to tell More that the “fort had been betrayed even by those who should have defended it.”

The Storm Breaks

The suppression of the clergy was the last straw for More. He told his king that he was “not equal to the work” and resigned his post. Keeping his opinion about the divorce to himself, save in private conversations with the king, More hoped to escape the gathering storm by retreating from public life to the quiet of his home in Chelsea. Even then it seemed possible: After More’s resignation, twice, and in the presence of Parliament, Henry praised More for his service as chancellor. But Henry’s handlers could not leave More alone.

A man with More’s profound understanding of the law and his reputation for honorable conduct could not be allowed to be silent. His was a silence heard throughout Europe, and it was silence that encouraged others to resist the king’s divorce and ever-expanding power.

Then Anne got pregnant and the storm broke with fury. Henry married her in secret. She bore a child, Elizabeth. Archbishop Cranmer declared Henry’s first marriage null. He had no power to do so, but on the day that he was made Archbishop of Canterbury he made a private oath not to submit to the authority of the pope. Anne was crowned queen. Pope Clement finally condemned the divorce.

More had refused to attend the wedding. But the greater matter was More’s refusal to swear to the Act of Succession, which declared Catherine’s daughter, Mary, a bastard and the issue of Henry and Anne heirs to the throne. More did not object to Parliament ruling on the succession of the throne, but he refused to take the oath because the Act rejected papal authority. In February 1534, Henry requested More’s indictment on charges of treason. The House of Lords refused three times. He was interrogated repeatedly by Cromwell, Cranmer, and the new chancellor, Lord Audley, who were unsuccessful in their attempts to bribe him, ensnare him, and link him with known traitors. Henry then cut off More’s salary and his family was thrust into poverty. On April 13, 1534, More was taken to Lambeth Castle and, in the company of other nobles and clerics, asked to swear to the Act of Succession. He refused. Having been convicted of no crime and without any legal grounds for arrest, he was confined to the Tower of London.

His trial was held on July 1, 1535. He was convicted on the basis of the perjured testimony of Richard Rich. “In good faith, Master Rich,” More said, “I am sorrier for your perjury than for my own peril.”

Death and Destruction

On July 6, 1535, St. Thomas More was martyred for his defense of the sanctity of Christian marriage and his defense of the authority of the Vicar of Christ. He was beatified by Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized on the fourth centenary of his death by Pius XI.

In the spring of 1536, less than a year after More’s death, Queen Catherine was dead, the divorce affair over, and Anne Boleyn was not far from the scaffold herself, though only Henry knew it.

Thus it was that Henry VIII brought sorrow to merry old England.

The brutal suppression of the monasteries would soon follow. More than 1,000 monasteries and convents were destroyed and monks and nuns turned out into the street to find, in Cromwell’s words, “real work.” In destroying them, Henry introduced the modern welfare state. Once, the poor were cared for in dignity and charity by men and women religious. Now they were dependent on the state. Anyone with a passing familiarity with public housing projects can appreciate this bitter fruit of the Protestant rebellion in England.

Indeed, because England was destined for “a unique good fortune in the leadership of the world it is through its effect in England that the Reformation survives today as a world force” (Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation, 161), and the worst manifestations of it, from Christendom’s first state-sanctioned regicide, to the ugliness of industrialization, to the treatment of indigenous peoples, including American Indians, are this so-called Reformation’s darker legacy. With the exception of literature, English intellectual life declined, and even within English literature, it is the Catholics—Shakespeare, Dryden, Chesterton—who shine. English philosophers are more political theorists, and their ideas sparked the errors of the Enlightenment. The suppression of the Church in England was the dress rehearsal for the French Revolution, the Italian Risorgimento, the Mexican Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War. Henry VIII’s divorce is the reason America is a Protestant country.

It is not fitting, however, for Christians to end with even a hint of despair. Thomas More prayed for the men who sent him to his death, saying that he hoped they would all share eternity together. Catholics, with such charitable and courageous advocates as Sts. Thomas More, John Fisher, Augustine of Canterbury, and all the English martyrs, have good cause to hope and pray for the unification of all Christians in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.


Quick Lesson in Canon Law

Canon Law acknowledges a number of impediments to marriage. The three dealing with family relationships are:

  • Consanguinity deals with the possibility of marriage between blood relatives. Nowadays, brothers and sisters and first cousins may not marry.
  • Affinity deals with the possibility of marriage between a person and the relatives of his or her spouse (presuming the bond with the spouse has ceased to exist, usually by death).
  • Public decency (some medieval authors called it quasi-affinity) deals with the possibility of marriage between one person and the relative of another with whom the first person has been engaged or has had an unconsummated marriage.

Both affinity and public decency were at issue in Henry’s divorce.

So far as affinity is concerned, Canon Law today forbids marriages between persons related by affinity in the direct line (that is parent to child.) So, if my wife dies, I can’t marry her mother, but I could marry her sister. Interestingly, the Church allows that such a second marriage (to my wife’s sister) might, in fact, benefit my children—that is, in the event of their mother’s death, the Church is open to the possibility that it could be better for my children to have their aunt, whom they know, as their new mother. In the sixteenth century, the impediments of affinity were more restrictive. A man could not marry his dead brother’s widow without a dispensation from this Canon Law.

The question is what kind of dispensation was required. Catherine testified that the marriage between her and Arthur had never been consummated. Henry accepted the testimony and later said that he found Catherine a virgin. Thus, a dispensation of quasi-affinity or public decency would have been sufficient. In other words, the first marriage was never consummated, but for the sake of public appearances, a dispensation to marry should be granted.

One more detail about affinity in the Canon Law tradition: Marriage is the consent of the partners to be conjugally united. If they are baptized, it is also a sacrament. Consummation expresses the intimate sense and purpose of the marital consent. Consequently, the Church held that any act of intercourse, whether conjugal or illicit (as in fornication or adultery), created a relation by affinity among the relatives of the persons involved. Thus, a man who fornicated with a woman was not free later to marry her sister. This restriction no longer exists in Canon Law, but it did in the sixteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Characters of the Reformation by Hilaire Belloc
  • How the Reformation Happened by Hilaire Belloc
  • Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage by Gerard B. Wegemer

Lady Anne Boleyn

“Lady” is the title that courtesy and history have bestowed on Anne, but to the Spanish ambassador to England, Eustace Chapuys, she was the king’s “concubine.” To the common people of England, who loved Catherine, Anne was “the goggle-eyed” whore and a “sorceress,” names routinely flung at her when she appeared in public. Henry VIII had kept a string of mistresses, but Anne was not content to be another one of these. She wanted to be queen. The fact that there was already a queen in place was just a matter to be overcome. Anne was an unattractive creature. She had a wart and six fingers on one hand, and, according to contemporary accounts, a pronounced goiter. She was too skinny. She did possess, however, a pair of large, dark eyes and fantastic powers to seduce. Her father was Thomas Boleyn, first Earl of Wiltshire, a member of the new nobility created by wealth and ambition rather than blood and tradition. Anne took her formation as a lady in waiting in the notoriously anti-Catholic court of Marguerite of Navarre, sister to Francis I, king of France. At court, Anne and her older sister Mary would have reveled not only in the salacious writings of Marguerite but also in the heretical ideas so popular in that French court. When she returned to England in 1522, she was, in Chapuy’s words, “more Lutheran than Luther.” Anne and her sister took positions as attendants to Queen Catherine. First Mary, and then Anne, sometime around the beginning of the year 1527, captured the king’s attention. Mary was content to be Henry’s concubine for a time. Anne had bigger plans.

Repugnant to the Laws of God

After being convicted, St. Thomas More had this to say about the Act of Parliament which made Henry VIII head of the church in England:

Inasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his Holy Church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior Himself, personally present upon the earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, bishops of the same See, by special prerogative guaranteed, it is therefore in law among Christian men insufficient to charge any Christian man. (Gerard Wegemer, St. Thomas More: A Portrait in Courage, 215; cf. William Roper, Lives of St. Thomas More, 45)

“Enslaved by Your Passion for a Girl”

After Catherine’s death and shortly before Anne’s execution, Henry received a letter “written in genuine anxiety for Henry’s fate in eternity” from Reginald Pole, an English cleric who weathered the storm on the continent and later became the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury during the brief period of Catholic revival under Mary Tudor:

At your age of life and with all your experience of the world, you were enslaved by your passion for a girl. But she would not give you your will unless you rejected your wife, whose place she longed to take. The modest woman would not be your mistress; no, but she would be your wife. She had learned, I think, if from nothing else, at least from the example of her own sister, how soon you got tired of your mistresses; and she resolved to surpass her sister in retaining you as her lover . . .

Now what sort of person is it whom you have put in the place of your divorced wife? Is she not the sister of her whom first you violated? And for a long time after kept as your concubine? She certainly is. How is it, then, that you now tell us of the horror you have of illicit marriage? Are you ignorant of the law which certainly no less prohibits marriage with a sister of one with whom you have become one flesh, than with one with whom your brother was one flesh? If the one kind of marriage is detestable, so is the other. Were you ignorant of this law? Nay, you knew it better than others. How do I prove that? Because, at the very time you were rejecting your brother’s widow, you were doing your utmost to get leave from the pope to marry the sister of your former concubine. (Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England, I.159; cf. Pole, Pro Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione III.LXXVI.LXXVII)

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