Read CHAPTER VII - THE ORIGIN OF THE DIVORCE of Henry VIII. , free online book, by A. F. Pollard, on

Matrimonial discords have, from the days of Helen of Troy, been the fruitful source of public calamities; and one of the most decisive events in English history, the breach with the Church of Rome, found its occasion in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Its origin has been traced to various circumstances. On one hand, it is attributed to Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn, on the other, to doubts of the validity of Henry’s marriage, raised by the Bishop of Tarbes in 1527, while negotiating a matrimonial alliance between the Princess Mary and Francis I. These are the two most popular theories, and both are demonstrably false. Doubts of the legality of Henry’s marriage had existed long before the Bishop of Tarbes paid his visit to England, and even before Anne Boleyn was born. They were urged, not only on the eve of the completion of the marriage, but when it was first suggested. In 1503, when Henry VII. applied to Julius II. for a dispensation to enable his second son to marry his brother’s widow, the Pope replied that “the dispensation was a great matter; nor did he well know, prima facie, if it were competent for the Pope to dispense in such a case". He granted the dispensation, but the doubts were not entirely removed. Catherine’s confessor instilled them into her mind, and was recalled by Ferdinand on that account. The Spanish King himself felt it necessary to dispel certain “scruples of conscience” Henry might entertain as to the “sin” of marrying his brother’s widow. Warham and Fox debated the matter, and Warham apparently opposed the marriage. A general council had pronounced against the Pope’s dispensing power; and, though the Popes had, in effect, established their superiority over general councils, those who still maintained the contrary view can hardly have failed to doubt the legality of Henry’s marriage.

So good a papalist as the young King, however, would hardly allow theoretical doubts of the general powers of the Pope to outweigh the practical advantages of a marriage in his own particular case; and it is safe to assume that his confidence in its validity would have remained unshaken, but for extraneous circumstances of a definite and urgent nature. On the 31st of January, 1510, seven months after his marriage with Catherine, she gave birth to her first child; it was a daughter, and was still-born. On the 27th of May following she told her father that the event was considered in England to be of evil omen, but that Henry took it cheerfully, and she thanked God for having given her such a husband. “The King,” wrote Catherine’s confessor, “adores her, and her highness him.” Less than eight months later, on the 1st of January, 1511, she was delivered of her first-born son. A tourney was held to celebrate the joyous event, and the heralds received a handsome largess at the christening. The child was named Henry, styled Prince of Wales, and given a serjeant-at-arms on the 14th, and a clerk of the signet on the 19th of February. Three days later he was dead; he was buried at the cost of some ten thousand pounds in Westminster Abbey. The rejoicings were turned to grief, which, aggravated by successive disappointments, bore with cumulative force on the mind of the King and his people. In September, 1513, the Venetian ambassador announced the birth of another son, who was either still-born, or died immediately afterwards. In June, 1514, there is again a reference to the christening of the “King’s new son," but he, too, was no sooner christened than dead.

Domestic griefs were now embittered by political resentments. Ferdinand valued his daughter mainly as a political emissary; he had formally accredited her as his ambassador at Henry’s Court, and she naturally used her influence to maintain the political union between her father and her husband. The arrangement had serious drawbacks; when relations between sovereigns grew strained, their ambassadors could be recalled, but Catherine had to stay. In 1514 Henry was boiling over with indignation at his double betrayal by the Catholic king; and it is not surprising that he vented some of his rage on the wife who was Ferdinand’s representative. He reproached her, writes Peter Martyr from Ferdinand’s Court, with her father’s ill-faith, and taunted her with his own conquests. To this brutality Martyr attributes the premature birth of Catherine’s fourth son towards the end of 1514. Henry, in fact, was preparing to cast off, not merely the Spanish alliance, but his Spanish wife. He was negotiating for a joint attack on Castile with Louis XII. and threatening the divorce of Catherine. “It is said,” writes a Venetian from Rome in August, 1514, “that the King of England means to repudiate his present wife, the daughter of the King of Spain and his brother’s widow, because he is unable to have children by her, and intends to marry a daughter of the French Duke of Bourbon.... He intends to annul his own marriage, and will obtain what he wants from the Pope as France did from Pope Julius II."

But the death of Louis XII. (January, 1515) and the consequent loosening of the Anglo-French alliance made Henry and Ferdinand again political allies; while, as the year wore on, Catherine was known to be once more pregnant, and Henry’s hopes of issue revived. This time they were not disappointed; the Princess Mary was born on the 18th of February, 1516. Ferdinand had died on the 23rd of January, but the news was kept from Catherine, lest it might add to the risks of her confinement. The young princess seemed likely to live, and Henry was delighted. When Giustinian, amid his congratulations, said he would have been better pleased had it been a son, the King replied: “We are both young; if it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow". All thoughts of a divorce passed away for the time, but the desired sons did not arrive. In August, 1517, Catherine was reported to be again expecting issue, but nothing more is heard of the matter, and it is probable that about this time the Queen had various miscarriages. In July, 1518, Henry wrote to Wolsey from Woodstock that Catherine was once more pregnant, and that he could not move the Court to London, as it was one of the Queen’s “dangerous times". His precautions were unavailing, and, on the 10th of November, his child arrived still-born. Giustinian notes the great vexation with which the people heard the news, and expresses the opinion that, had it occurred a month or two earlier, the Princess Mary would not have been betrothed to the French dauphin, “as the one fear of England was lest it should pass into subjection to France through that marriage".

The child was the last born of Catherine. For some years Henry went on hoping against every probability that he might still have male issue by his Queen; and in 1519 he undertook to lead a crusade against the Turk in person if he should have an heir. But physicians summoned from Spain were no more successful than their English colleagues. By 1525 the last ray of hope had flickered out. Catherine was then forty years old; and Henry at the age of thirty-four, in the full vigour of youthful manhood, seemed doomed by the irony of fate and by his union with Catherine to leave a disputed inheritance. Never did England’s interests more imperatively demand a secure and peaceful succession. Never before had there been such mortality among the children of an English king; never before had an English king married his brother’s widow. So striking a coincidence could be only explained by the relation of cause and effect. Men who saw the judgment of God in the sack of Rome, might surely discern in the fatality that attended the children of Henry VIII. a fulfilment of the doom of childlessness pronounced in the Book of the Law against him who should marry his brother’s wife. “God,” wrote the French ambassador in 1528, “has long ago Himself passed sentence on it;" and there is no reason to doubt Henry’s assertion, that he had come to regard the death of his children as a Divine judgment, and that he was impelled to question his marriage by the dictates of conscience. The “scruples of conscience,” which Henry VII. had urged as an excuse for delaying the marriage, were merely a cloak for political reasons; but scruples of conscience are dangerous playthings, and the pretence of Henry VII. became, through the death of his children, a terrible reality to Henry VIII.

Queen Catherine, too, had scruples of conscience about the marriage, though of a different sort. When she first heard of Henry’s intention to seek a divorce, she is reported to have said that “she had not offended, but it was a judgment of God, for that her former marriage was made in blood”; the price of it had been the head of the innocent Earl of Warwick, demanded by Ferdinand of Aragon. Nor was she alone in this feeling. “He had heard,” witnessed Buckingham’s chancellor in 1521, “the Duke grudge that the Earl of Warwick was put to death, and say that God would punish it, by not suffering the King’s issue to prosper, as appeared by the death of his sons; and that his daughters prosper not, and that he had no issue male."

Conscience, however, often moves men in directions indicated by other than conscientious motives, and, of the other motives which influenced Henry’s mind, some were respectable and some the reverse. The most legitimate was his desire to provide for the succession to the throne. It was obvious to him and his council that, if he died with no children but Mary, England ran the risk of being plunged into an anarchy worse than that of the civil wars. “By English law,” wrote Falier, the Venetian ambassador, in 1531, “females are excluded from the throne;" that was not true, but it was undoubtedly a widespread impression, based upon the past history of England. No Queen-Regnant had asserted a right to the English throne but one, and that one precedent provided the most effective argument for avoiding a repetition of the experiment. Matilda was never crowned, though she had the same claim to the throne as Mary, and her attempt to enforce her title involved England in nineteen years of anarchy and civil war. Stephen stood to Matilda in precisely the same relation as James V. of Scotland stood to the Princess Mary; and in 1532, as soon as he came of age, James was urged to style himself “Prince of England” and Duke of York, in manifest derogation of Mary’s title. At that time Charles V. was discussing alternative plans for deposing Henry VIII. One was to set up James V., the other to marry Mary to some great English noble and proclaim them King and Queen; Mary by herself was thought to have no chance of success. John of Gaunt had maintained in Parliament that the succession descended only through males; the Lancastrian case was that Henry IV., the son of Edward III.’s fourth son, had a better title to the throne than Philippa, the daughter of the third; an Act limiting the succession to the male line was passed in 1406; and Henry VII. himself only reigned through a tacit denial of the right of women to sit on the English throne.

The objection to female sovereigns was grounded not so much on male disbelief in their personal qualifications, as upon the inevitable consequence of matrimonial and dynastic problems. If the Princess Mary succeeded, was she to marry? If not, her death would leave the kingdom no better provided with heirs than before; and in her weak state of health, her death seemed no distant prospect. If, on the other hand, she married, her husband must be either a subject or a foreign prince. To marry a subject would at once create discords like those from which the Wars of the Roses had sprung; to marry a foreign prince was to threaten Englishmen, then more jealous than ever of foreign influence, with the fear of alien domination. They had before their eyes numerous instances in which matrimonial alliances had involved the union of states so heterogeneous as Spain and the Netherlands; and they had no mind to see England absorbed in some continental empire. In the matrimonial schemes arranged for the princess, it was generally stipulated that she should, in default of male heirs, succeed to the throne of England; her succession was obviously a matter of doubt, and it is quite certain that her marriage in France or in Spain would have proved a bar in the way of her succession to the English throne, or at least have given rise to conflicting claims.

These rival pretensions began to be heard as soon as it became evident that Henry VIII. would have no male heirs by Catherine of Aragon. In 1519, a year after the birth of the Queen’s last child, Giustinian reported to the Venetian signiory on the various nobles who had hopes of the crown. The Duke of Norfolk had expectations in right of his wife, a daughter of Edward IV., and the Duke of Suffolk in right of his Duchess, the sister of Henry VIII. But the Duke of Buckingham was the most formidable: “It was thought that, were the King to die without male heirs, that Duke might easily obtain the crown". His claims had been canvassed in 1503, when the issue of Henry VII. seemed likely to fail, and now that the issue of Henry VIII. was in even worse plight, Buckingham’s claims to the crown became again a matter of comment. His hopes of the crown cost him his head; he had always been discontented with Tudor rule, especially under Wolsey; he allowed himself to be encouraged with hopes of succeeding the King, and possibly spoke of asserting his claim in case of Henry’s death. This was to touch Henry on his tenderest spot, and, in 1521, the Duke was tried by his peers, found guilty of high treason, and sent to the block. In this, as in all the great trials of Henry’s reign, and indeed in most state trials of all ages, considerations of justice were subordinated to the real or supposed dictates of political expediency. Buckingham was executed, not because he was a criminal, but because he was, or might become, dangerous; his crime was not treason, but descent from Edward III. Henry VIII., like Henry VII., showed his grasp of the truth that nothing makes a government so secure as the absence of all alternatives.

Buckingham’s execution is one of the symptoms that, as early as 1521, the failure of his issue had made Henry nervous and susceptible about the succession. Even in 1519, when Charles V.’s minister, Chievres, was proposing to marry his niece to the Earl of Devonshire, a grandson of Edward IV., Henry was suspicious, and Wolsey inquired whether Chievres was “looking to any chance of the Earl’s succession to the throne of England." If further proof were needed that Henry’s anxiety about the succession was not, as has been represented, a mere afterthought intended to justify his divorce from Catherine, it might be found in the extraordinary measures taken with regard to his one and only illegitimate son. The boy was born in 1519. His mother was Elizabeth Blount, sister of Erasmus’s friend, Lord Mountjoy; and she is noticed as taking part in the Court revels during the early years of Henry’s reign. Outwardly, at any rate, Henry’s Court was long a model of decorum; there was no parade of vice as in the days of Charles II., and the existence of this royal bastard was so effectually concealed that no reference to him occurs in the correspondence of the time until 1525, when it was thought expedient to give him a position of public importance. The necessity of providing some male successor to Henry was considered so urgent that, two years before the divorce is said to have occurred to him, he and his council were meditating a scheme for entailing the succession on the King’s illegitimate son. In 1525 the child was created Duke of Richmond and Somerset. These titles were significant; Earl of Richmond had been Henry VII.’s title before he came to the throne; Duke of Somerset had been that of his grandfather and of his youngest son. Shortly afterwards the boy was made Lord High Admiral of England, Lord Warden of the Marches, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the two latter being offices which Henry VIII. himself had held in his early youth. In January, 1527, the Spanish ambassador reported that there was a scheme on foot to make the Duke King of Ireland; it was obviously a design to prepare the way for his succession to the kingdom of England. The English envoys in Spain were directed to tell the Emperor that Henry proposed to demand some noble princess of near blood to the Emperor as a wife for the Duke of Richmond. The Duke, they were to say, “is near of the King’s blood and of excellent qualities, and is already furnished to keep the state of a great prince, and yet may be easily, by the King’s means, exalted to higher things". The lady suggested was Charles’s niece, a daughter of the Queen of Portugal; she was already promised to the Dauphin of France, but the envoys remarked that, if that match were broken off, she might find “another dauphin” in the Duke of Richmond. Another plan for settling the succession was that the Duke should, by papal dispensation, marry his half-sister Mary! Cardinal Campeggio saw no moral objection to this. “At first I myself,” he writes on his arrival in England in October, 1528, “had thought of this as a means of establishing the succession, but I do not believe that this design would suffice to satisfy the King’s desires." The Pope was equally willing to facilitate the scheme, on condition that Henry abandoned his divorce from Catherine. Possibly Henry saw more objections than Pope or Cardinal to a marriage between brother and sister. At all events Mary was soon betrothed to the French prince, and the Emperor recorded his impression that the French marriage was designed to remove the Princess from the Duke of Richmond’s path to the throne.

The conception of this violent expedient is mainly of interest as illustrating the supreme importance attached to the question of providing for a male successor to Henry. He wanted an heir to the throne, and he wanted a fresh wife for that reason. A mistress would not satisfy him, because his children by a mistress would hardly succeed without dispute to the throne, not because he laboured under any moral scruples on the point. He had already had two mistresses, Elizabeth Blount, the mother of the Duke of Richmond, and Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn. Possibly, even probably, there were other lapses from conjugal fidelity, for, in 1533, the Duke of Norfolk told Chapuys that Henry was always inclined to amours; but none are capable of definite proof, and if Henry had other illegitimate children besides the Duke of Richmond it is difficult to understand why their existence should have been so effectually concealed when such publicity was given their brother. The King is said to have had ten mistresses in 1528, but the statement is based on a misrepresentation of the only document adduced in its support. It is a list of New Year’s presents, which runs “To thirty-three noble ladies” such and such gifts, then “to ten mistresses” other gifts; it is doubtful if the word then bore its modern sinister signification; in this particular instance it merely means “gentlewomen,” and differentiates them from the noble ladies. Henry’s morals, indeed, compare not unfavourably with those of other sovereigns. His standard was neither higher nor lower than that of Charles V., who was at this time negotiating a marriage between his natural daughter and the Pope’s nephew; it was not lower than those of James II., of William III., or of the first two Georges; it was infinitely higher than the standard of Francis I., of Charles II., or even of Henry of Navarre and Louis XIV.

The gross immorality so freely imputed to Henry seems to have as little foundation as the theory that his sole object in seeking the divorce from Catherine and separation from Rome was the gratification of his passion for Anne Boleyn. If that had been the case, there would be no adequate explanation of the persistence with which he pursued the divorce. He was “studying the matter so diligently,” Campeggio says, “that I believe in this case he knows more than a great theologian and jurist”; he was so convinced of the justice of his cause “that an angel descending from heaven would be unable to persuade him otherwise". He sent embassy after embassy to Rome; he risked the enmity of Catholic Europe; he defied the authority of the vicar of Christ; and lavished vast sums to obtain verdicts in his favour from most of the universities in Christendom. It is not credible that all this energy was expended merely to satisfy a sensual passion, which could be satisfied without a murmur from Pope or Emperor, if he was content with Anne Boleyn as a mistress, and is believed to have been already satisfied in 1529, four years before the divorce was obtained. So, too, the actual sentence of divorce in 1533 was precipitated not by Henry’s passion for Anne, but by the desire that her child should be legitimate. She was pregnant before Henry was married to her or divorced from Catherine. But, though the representation of Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn as the sole fons et origo of the divorce is far from convincing, that passion introduced various complications into the question; it was not merely an additional incentive to Henry’s desires; it also brought Wolsey and Henry into conflict; and the unpopularity of the divorce was increased by the feeling that Henry was losing caste by seeking to marry a lady of the rank and character of Anne Boleyn.

The Boleyns were wealthy merchants of London, of which one of them had been Lord-Mayor, but Anne’s mother was of noble blood, being daughter and co-heir of the Earl of Ormonde, and it is a curious fact that all of Henry’s wives could trace their descent from Edward I. Anne’s age is uncertain, but she is generally believed to have been born in 1507. Attempts have been made to date her influence over the King by the royal favours bestowed on her father, Sir Thomas, afterwards Viscount Rochford and Earl of Wiltshire, but, as these favours flowed in a fairly regular stream from the beginning of the reign, as Sir Thomas’s services were at least a colourable excuse for them, and as his other daughter Mary was Henry’s mistress before he fell in love with Anne, these grants are not a very substantial ground upon which to build. Of Anne herself little is known except that, about 1519, she was sent as maid of honour to the French Queen, Claude; five years before, her sister Mary had accompanied Mary Tudor in a similar capacity on her marriage with Louis XII. In 1522, when war with France was on the eve of breaking out, Anne was recalled to the English Court, where she took part in revels and love-intrigues. Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet, although a married man, sued for her favours; Henry, Lord Percy made her more honest proposals, but was compelled to desist by the King himself, who had arranged for her marriage with Piers Butler, son of the Earl of Ormond, as a means to end the feud between the Butler and the Boleyn families.

None of these projects advanced any farther, possibly because they conflicted with the relations developing between Anne and the King himself. As Wyatt complained in a sonnet,

There is written her fair neck round about
Noli me tangere; for Caesar’s I am
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

But, for any definite documentary evidence to the contrary, it might be urged that Henry’s passion for Anne was subsequent to the commencement of his proceedings for a divorce from Catherine. Those proceedings began at least as early as March, 1527, while the first allusion to the connection between the King and Anne Boleyn occurs in the instructions to Dr. William Knight, sent in the following autumn to procure a dispensation for her marriage with Henry. The King’s famous love-letters, the earliest of which are conjecturally assigned to July, 1527, are without date and with but slight internal indications of the time at which they were written; they may be earlier than 1527, they may be as late as the following winter. It is unlikely that Henry would have sought for the Pope’s dispensation to marry Anne until he was assured of her consent, of which in some of the letters he appears to be doubtful; on the other hand, it is difficult to see how a lady of the Court could refuse an offer of marriage made by her sovereign. Her reluctance was to fill a less honourable position, into which Henry was not so wicked as to think of forcing her. “I trust,” he writes in one of his letters, “your absence is not wilful on your part; for if so, I can but lament my ill-fortune, and by degrees abate my great folly." His love for Anne Boleyn was certainly his “great folly,” the one overmastering passion of his life. There is, however, nothing very extraordinary in the letters themselves; in one he says he has for more than a year been “wounded with the dart of love,” and is uncertain whether Anne returns his affection. In others he bewails her briefest absence as though it were an eternity; desires her father to hasten his return to Court; is torn with anxiety lest Anne should take the plague, comforts her with the assurance that few women have had it, and sends her a hart killed by his own hand, making the inevitable play on the word. Later on, he alludes to the progress of the divorce case; excuses the shortness of a letter on the ground that he has spent four hours over the book he was writing in his own defence and has a pain in his head. The series ends with an announcement that he has been fitting up apartments for her, and with congratulations to himself and to her that the “well-wishing” Legate, Campeggio, who has been sent from Rome to try the case, has told him he was not so “imperial” in his sympathies as had been alleged.

The secret of her fascination over Henry was a puzzle to observers. “Madame Anne,” wrote a Venetian, “is not one of the handsomest women in the world. She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King’s great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful". She had probably learnt in France the art of using her beautiful eyes to the best advantage; her hair, which was long and black, she wore loose, and on her way to her coronation Cranmer describes her as “sitting in her hair". Possibly this was one of the French customs, which somewhat scandalised the staider ladies of the English Court. She is said to have had a slight defect on one of her nails, which she endeavoured to conceal behind her other fingers. Of her mental accomplishments there is not much evidence; she naturally, after some years’ residence at the Court of France, spoke French, though she wrote it in an orthography that was quite her own. Her devotion to the Gospel is the one great virtue with which Foxe and other Elizabethans strove to invest the mother of the Good Queen Bess. But it had no nobler foundation than the facts that Anne’s position drove her into hostility to the Roman jurisdiction, and that her family shared the envy of church goods, common to the nobility and the gentry of the time. Her place in English history is due solely to the circumstance that she appealed to the less refined part of Henry’s nature; she was pre-eminent neither in beauty nor in intellect, and her virtue was not of a character to command or deserve the respect of her own or subsequent ages.

It is otherwise with her rival, Queen Catherine, the third of the principal characters involved in the divorce. If Henry’s motives were not so entirely bad as they have often been represented, neither they nor Anne Boleyn’s can stand a moment’s comparison with the unsullied purity of Catherine’s life or the lofty courage with which she defended the cause she believed to be right. There is no more pathetic figure in English history, nor one condemned to a crueller fate. No breath of scandal touched her fair name, or impugned her devotion to Henry. If she had the misfortune to be identified with a particular policy, the alliance with the House of Burgundy, the fault was not hers; she had been married to Henry in consideration of the advantages which that alliance was supposed to confer; and, if she used her influence to further Spanish interest, it was a natural feeling as near akin to virtue as to vice, and Carroz at least complained, in 1514, that she had completely identified herself with her husband and her husband’s subjects. If her miscarriages and the death of her children were a grief to Henry, the pain and the sorrow were hers in far greater measure; if they had made her old and deformed, as Francis brutally described her in 1519, the fact must have been far more bitter to her than it was unpleasant to Henry. There may have been some hardship to Henry in the circumstance that, for political motives, he had been induced by his council to marry a wife who was six years his senior; but to Catherine herself a divorce was the height of injustice. The question was in fact one of justice against a real or supposed political necessity, and in such cases justice commonly goes to the wall. In politics, men seek to colour with justice actions based upon considerations of expediency. They first convince themselves, and then they endeavour with less success to persuade mankind.

So Henry VIII. convinced himself that the dispensation granted by Julius II. was null and void, that he had never been married to Catherine, and that to continue to live with his brother’s wife was sin. “The King,” he instructed his ambassador to tell Charles V. in 1533, “taketh himself to be in the right, not because so many say it, but because he, being learned, knoweth the matter to be right.... The justice of our cause is so rooted in our breast that nothing can remove it, and even the canons say that a man should rather endure all the censures of the Church than offend his conscience." No man was less tolerant of heresy than Henry, but no man set greater store on his own private judgment. To that extent he was a Protestant; “though,” he instructed Paget in 1534 to tell the Lutheran princes, “the law of every man’s conscience be but a private court, yet it is the highest and supreme court for judgment or justice”. God and his conscience, he told Chapuys in 1533, were on very good terms. On another occasion he wrote to Charles Ubi Spiritus Domini, ibi libertas, with the obvious implication that he possessed the spirit of the Lord, and therefore he might do as he liked. To him, as to St. Paul, all things were lawful; and Henry’s appeals to the Pope, to learned divines, to universities at home and abroad, were not for his own satisfaction, but were merely concessions to the profane herd, unskilled in royal learning and unblessed with a kingly conscience. Against that conviction, so firmly rooted in the royal breast, appeals to pity were vain, and attempts to shake it were perilous. It was his conscience that made Henry so dangerous. Men are tolerant of differences about things indifferent, but conscience makes bigots of us all; theological hatreds are proverbially bitter, and religious wars are cruel. Conscience made Sir Thomas More persecute, and glory in the persecution of heretics, and conscience earned Mary her epithet “Bloody”. They were moved by conscientious belief in the Catholic faith, Henry by conscientious belief in himself; and conscientious scruples are none the less exigent for being reached by crooked paths.