James Anthony Froude.

The divorce of Catherine of Aragon : the story as told by the imperial ambassadors resident at the court of Henry VIII : online

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everywhere, from school manuals to the grave works of elaborate
historians. For me, it is enough to tell the story as it presents itself
to my own mind, and to leave what appears to me to be the truth to speak
for itself.

The English nation throughout their long history have borne an honourable
reputation. Luther quotes a saying of Maximilian that there were three
real sovereigns in Europe - the Emperor, the King of France, and the King
of England. The Emperor was a king of kings. If he gave an order to the
princes of the Reich, they obeyed or disobeyed as they pleased. The King
of France was a king of asses. He ordered about his people at his will,
and they obeyed like asses. The King of England was king of a loyal nation
who obeyed him with heart and mind as loyal and faithful subjects. This
was the character borne in the world by the fathers of the generation whom
popular historians represent as having dishonoured themselves by
subserviency to a bloodthirsty tyrant. It is at least possible that
popular historians have been mistaken, and that the subjects of Henry
VIII. were neither much better nor much worse than those who preceded or
came after them.


Prospects of a disputed succession to the crown - Various claimants -
Catherine incapable of having further children - Irregularity of her
marriage with the King - Papal dispensations - First mention of the
divorce - Situation of the Papacy - Charles V. - Policy of Wolsey -
Anglo-French alliance - Imperial troops in Italy - Appeal of the Pope -
Mission of Inigo de Mendoza - The Bishop of Tarbes - Legitimacy of the
Princess Mary called in question - Secret meeting of the Legates' court -
Alarms of Catherine - Sack of Rome by the Duke of Bourbon - Proposed reform
of the Papacy - The divorce promoted by Wolsey - Unpopular in England -
Attempts of the Emperor to gain Wolsey.

In the year 1526 the political prospects of England became seriously
clouded. A disputed succession had led in the previous century to a
desperate civil war. In that year it became known in private circles that
if Henry VIII. was to die the realm would again be left without a certain
heir, and that the strife of the Roses might be renewed on an even more
distracting scale. The sons who had been born to Queen Catherine had died
in childbirth or had died immediately after it. The passionate hope of the
country that she might still produce a male child who would survive had
been constantly disappointed, and now could be entertained no longer. She
was eight years older than her husband. She had "certain diseases" which
made it impossible that she should be again pregnant, and Henry had for
two years ceased to cohabit with her. He had two children still
living - the Princess Mary, Catherine's daughter, then a girl of eleven,
and an illegitimate son born in 1519, the mother being a daughter of Sir
John Blount, and married afterwards to Sir Gilbert Talboys. By
presumptive law the Princess was the next heir; but no woman had ever sat
on the throne of England alone and in her own right, and it was doubtful
whether the nation would submit to a female sovereign. The boy, though
excluded by his birth from the prospect of the crown, was yet brought up
with exceptional care, called a prince by his tutors, and probably
regarded by his father as a possible successor should his sister go the
way of her brothers. In 1525, after the King had deliberately withdrawn
from Catherine, he was created Duke of Richmond - a title of peculiar
significance, since it had been borne by his grandfather, Henry VII. - and
he was granted precedence over the rest of the peerage. Illegitimacy was a
serious, but, it might be thought, was not an absolute, bar. The Conqueror
had been himself a bastard. The Church, by its habits of granting
dispensations for irregular marriages or of dissolving them on pleas of
affinity or consanguinity or other pretext, had confused the distinction
between legitimate and illegitimate. A Church Court had illegitimatised
the children of Edward IV. and Elizabeth Grey, on the ground of one of
Edward's previous connections; yet no one regarded the princes murdered in
the Tower as having been illegitimate in reality; and to prevent disputes
and for an adequate object, the Duke of Richmond, had he grown to manhood,
might, in the absence of other claims, have been recognised by Parliament.
But the Duke was still a child, and might die as Henry's other sons had
died; and other claims there were which, in the face of the bar sinister,
could not fail to be asserted. James V. of Scotland was next in blood,
being the son of Henry's eldest sister, Margaret. There were the Greys,
inheriting from the second sister, Mary. Outside the royal house there
were the still popular representatives of the White Rose, the Marquis of
Exeter, who was Edward IV.'s grandson; the Countess of Salisbury, daughter
of Edward's brother the Duke of Clarence, and sister of the murdered Earl
of Warwick; and Henry's life was the only obstacle between the collision
of these opposing pretensions. James, it was quite certain, would not be
allowed to succeed without a struggle. National rivalry forbade it. Yet it
was no less certain that he would try, and would probably be backed by
France. There was but one escape from convulsions which might easily be
the ruin of the realm. The King was in the flower of his age, and might
naturally look for a Prince of Wales to come after him if he was married
to a woman capable of bearing one. It is neither unnatural nor, under the
circumstances, a matter to be censured if he and others began to reflect
upon the peculiar character of his connection with Catherine of Aragon. It
is not sufficiently remembered that the marriage of a widow with her
husband's brother was then, as it is now, forbidden by the laws of all
civilised countries. Such a marriage at the present day would be held
_ipso facto_ invalid and not a marriage at all. An irregular power was
then held to rest with the successors of St. Peter to dispense, under
certain conditions, with the inhibitory rules. The popes are now
understood to have never rightly possessed such an authority, and
therefore, according to modern law and sentiment, Henry and Catherine
never were husband and wife at all. At the time it was uncertain whether
the dispensing power extended so far as to sanction such a union, and when
the discussion rose upon it the Roman canonists were themselves divided.
Those who maintained the widest view of the papal faculty yet agreed that
such a dispensation could only be granted for urgent cause, such as to
prevent foreign wars or internal seditions, and no such cause was alleged
to have existed when Ferdinand and Henry VII. arranged the marriage
between their children. The dispensation had been granted by Pope Julius
with reluctance, had been acted upon after considerable hesitation, and
was of doubtful validity, since the necessary conditions were absent. The
marriages of kings were determined with little reference to the personal
affection of the parties. Between Henry and Catherine there was probably
as much and as little personal attachment as there usually is in such
cases. He respected and perhaps admired her character; but she was not
beautiful, she was not attractive, while she was as proud and intractable
as her mother Isabella. Their union had been settled by the two fathers to
cement the alliance between England and Spain. Such connections rest on a
different foundation from those which are voluntarily entered into between
private persons. What is made up for political reasons may pardonably be
dissolved when other reasons of a similar kind require it; and when it
became clear that Catherine could never bear another child, that the
penalty threatened in the Levitical law against marriages of this precise
kind had been literally enforced in the death of the male offspring, and
that civil war was imminent in consequence upon the King's death, Henry
may have doubted in good faith whether she had ever been his wife at
all - whether, in fact, the marriage was not of the character which
everyone would now allow to attach to similar unions. Had there been a
Prince of Wales, the question would never have arisen, and Henry, like
other kings, would have borne his fate. But there was no prince, and the
question had risen, and there was no reason why it should not. There was
no trace at the outset of an attachment to another woman. If there had
been, there would be little to condemn; but Anne Boleyn, when it was first
mooted, was no more to the King than any other lady of the court. He
required a wife who could produce a son to secure the succession. The
powers which had allowed an irregular marriage could equally dissolve it,
and the King felt that he had a right to demand a familiar concession
which other sovereigns had often applied for in one form or another, and
rarely in vain.

Thus as early as 1526 certainly, and probably as much as a year before,
Cardinal Wolsey had been feeling his way at Rome for a separation between
Henry and Catherine. On September 7 in that year the Bishop of Bath, who
was English Ambassador at Paris, informed the Cardinal of the arrival
there of a confidential agent of Pope Clement VII. The agent had spoken to
the Bishop on this especial subject, and had informed him that there would
be difficulties about it.[1] The "blessed divorce" - _benedictum divorcium_
the Bishop calls it - had been already under consideration at Rome. The
difficulties were not specified, but the political features of the time
obliged Clement to be circumspect, and it was these that were probably
referred to. Francis I. had been defeated and taken prisoner by the
Imperialists at Pavia. He had been carried to Spain, and had been released
at Henry's intercession, under severe conditions, to which he had
reluctantly consented, and his sons had been left at Madrid as hostages
for the due fulfilment of them. The victorious army, half Spanish, half
German, remained under the Duke of Bourbon to complete the conquest of
Italy; and Charles V., with his already vast dominions and a treasury
which the world believed to be inexhaustibly supplied from the gold mines
of the New World, seemed advancing to universal empire.

France in the preceding centuries had been the hereditary enemy of
England; Spain and Burgundy her hereditary friends. The marriage of
Catherine of Aragon had been a special feature of the established
alliance. She was given first to Prince Arthur, and then to Henry, as a
link in the confederacy which was to hold in check French ambition. Times
were changing. Charles V. had been elected emperor, largely through
English influence; but Charles was threatening to be a more serious danger
to Europe than France had been. The Italian princes were too weak to
resist the conqueror of Pavia. Italy once conquered, the Papacy would
become a dependency of the empire, and, with Charles's German subjects in
open revolt against it, the Church would lose its authority, and the
organisation of the Catholic world would fall into hopeless decrepitude.
So thought Wolsey, the most sharp-sighted of English ministers. He
believed that the maintenance of the Papacy was the best defence of order
and liberty. The only remedy which he could see was a change of partners.
England held the balance between the great rival powers. If the English
alliance could be transferred from the Empire to France, the Emperor could
be held in check, and his supposed ambition neutralised. Wolsey was
utterly mistaken; but the mistake was not an unnatural one. Charles, busy
with his Italian wars, had treated the Lutheran schism with suspicious
forbearance. Notwithstanding his Indian ingots his finances were
disordered. Bourbon's lansquenets had been left to pay themselves by
plunder. They had sacked monasteries, pillaged cathedral plate, and
ravished nuns with irreverent ferocity. The estates of the Church had been
as little spared by them as Lombardy; and to Clement VII. the invasion was
another inroad of barbarians, and Bourbon a second Attila. What Bourbon's
master meant by it, and what he might intend to do, was as uncertain to
Clement as perhaps it was to Charles himself. In the prostrate, degraded,
and desperate condition into which the Church was falling, any resolution
was possible. To the clearest eyes in Europe the Papacy seemed tottering
to its fall, and Charles's hand, if he chose to raise it, might
precipitate the catastrophe. To ask a pope at such a time to give mortal
offence to the Spanish nation by agreeing to the divorce of Catherine of
Aragon was to ask him to sign his death-warrant. No wonder, therefore,
that he found difficulties. Yet it was to France and England that Clement
had to look for help in his extremities. The divorce perhaps had as yet
been no more than a suggestion, a part of a policy which was still in its
infancy. It could wait at any rate for a more convenient season. Meantime
he sent his secretary, Sanga, to Paris to beg aid; and to Henry personally
he made a passionate appeal, imploring him not to desert the Apostolic See
in its hour of extreme need. He apologised for his importunacy, but he
said he hoped that history would not have to record that Italy had been
devastated in the time of Clement VII. to the dishonour of the King and of
Wolsey. If France and England failed him, he would himself be ruined. The
Emperor would be universal monarch. They would open their eyes at last,
but they would open them too late. So piteous was the entreaty that Henry
when he read the Pope's letter burst into tears.[2] Clement had not been
idle. He had brought his own small army into the field to oppose Bourbon;
he joined the Italian League, and prepared to defend himself. He was
called the father of Christendom, yet he was at open war with the most
Catholic king. But Wolsey reasonably considered that unless the Western
powers interfered the end would come.

If England was to act, she could act only in alliance with France. The
change of policy was ill understood, and was not popular among Henry's
subjects. The divorce as yet had not been spoken of. No breath of such a
purpose had gone abroad. But English sentiment was imperial, and could
endure with equanimity even the afflictions of a pope. The King was more
papal than his people; he allowed Wolsey to guide him, and negotiations
were set on foot at once for a special treaty with France, one of the
conditions of which was to be the marriage of the Princess Mary - allotted
like a card in a game - either to Francis or to one of his sons; another
condition being that the English crown should be settled upon her should
Henry die without a legitimate son. Sir John Russell was simultaneously
despatched to Rome with money to help the Pope in paying his troops and
garrisoning the city. The ducats and the "kind words" which accompanied
them "created incredible joy," encouraged his Holiness to reject unjust
conditions which had been offered, and restored him, if for the moment
only, "from death to life."[3] If Russell described correctly what he saw
in passing through Italy, Clement had good cause for anxiety. "The
Swabians and Spaniards," he wrote, "had committed horrible atrocities.
They had burnt houses to the value of two hundred million ducats, with all
the churches, images, and priests that fell into their hands. They had
compelled the priests and monks to violate the nuns. Even where they were
received without opposition they had burned the place; they had not spared
the boys, and they had carried off the girls; and whenever they found the
Sacrament of the Church they had thrown it into a river or into the vilest
place they could find. If God did not punish such cruelty and wickedness,
men would infer that He did not trouble Himself about the affairs of this

The news from Italy gave a fresh impulse to Wolsey's policy and the
Anglo-French Alliance, which was pushed forward in spite of popular
disapproval. The Emperor, unable to pay, and therefore unable to control,
his troops, became himself alarmed. He found himself pressed into a course
which was stimulating the German revolt against the Papacy, and he
professed himself anxious to end the war. Inigo de Mendoza, the Bishop of
Burgos, was despatched to Paris to negotiate for a general pacification.
From Paris he was to proceed to London to assure Henry of the Emperor's
inalienable friendship, and above all things to gain over Wolsey by the
means which experience had shown to be the nearest way to Wolsey's heart.
The great Cardinal was already Charles's pensionary, but the pension was
several years in arrear. Mendoza was to tell him not only that the
arrears should be immediately paid up, but that a second pension should be
secured to him on the revenues of Milan, and that the Emperor would make
him a further grant of 6,000 ducats annually out of the income of Spanish
bishoprics. No means was to be spared to divert the hostility of so
dangerous an enemy.[5]

Wolsey was not to be so easily gained. He had formed large schemes which
he did not mean to part with, and in the matter of pensions Francis I. was
as liberal in promises as Charles. The Pope's prospects were brightening.
Besides the English money, he had improved his finances by creating six
new cardinals, and making 240,000 crowns out of the disposition of these
sacred offices.[6] A French embassy, with the Bishop of Tarbes at its
head, came to England to complete the treaty with Henry in the Pope's
defence. Demands were to be made upon the Emperor; if those demands were
refused, war was to follow, and the cement of the alliance was to be the
marriage of Mary with a French prince. It is likely that other secret
projects were in view also of a similar kind. The marriage of Henry with
Catherine had been intended to secure the continuance of the alliance with
Spain. Royal ladies were the counters with which politicians played; and
probably enough there were thoughts of placing a French princess in
Catherine's place. However this may be, the legality of the King's
marriage with his nominal queen was suddenly and indirectly raised in the
discussion of the terms of the treaty, when the Bishop of Tarbes inquired
whether it was certain that Catherine's daughter was legitimate.

Mr. Brewer, the careful and admirable editor of the "Foreign and Domestic
Calendar of State Papers," doubts whether the Bishop did anything of the
kind. I cannot agree with Mr. Brewer. The Bishop of Tarbes was among the
best-known diplomatists in Europe. He was actively concerned during
subsequent years in the process of the divorce case in London, in Paris,
and at Rome. The expressions which he used on this occasion were publicly
appealed to by Henry in his addresses to the peers and to the country, in
the public pleas which he laid before the English prelates, in the various
repeated defences which he made for his conduct. It is impossible that the
Bishop should have been ignorant of the use which was made of his name,
and impossible equally to suppose that he would have allowed his name to
be used unfairly. The Bishop of Tarbes was unquestionably the first person
to bring the question publicly forward. It is likely enough, however, that
his introduction of so startling a topic had been privately arranged
between himself and Wolsey as a prelude to the further steps which were
immediately to follow. For the divorce had by this time been finally
resolved on as part of a general scheme for the alteration of the balance
of power. The domestic reasons for it were as weighty as ever were alleged
for similar separations. The Pope's hesitation, it might be assumed, would
now be overcome, since he had flung himself for support upon England and
France, and his relations with the Emperor could hardly be worse than they

The outer world, and even the persons principally concerned, were taken
entirely by surprise. For the two years during which it had been under
consideration the secret had been successfully preserved. Not a hint had
reached Catherine herself, and even when the match had been lighted by
the Bishop of Tarbes the full meaning of it does not seem to have occurred
to her. Mendoza, on his arrival in England, had found her disturbed; she
was irritated at the position which had been given to the Duke of
Richmond; she was angry, of course, at the French alliance; she complained
that she was kept in the dark about public affairs; she was exerting
herself to the utmost among the friends of the imperial connection to
arrest Wolsey's policy and maintain the ancient traditions; but of the
divorce she had not heard a word. It was to come upon her like a

Before the drama opens a brief description will not be out of place of the
two persons who were to play the principal parts on the stage, as they
were seen a year later by Ludovico Falieri, the Venetian ambassador in
England. Of Catherine his account is brief.

"The Queen is of low stature and rather stout; very good and very
religious; speaks Spanish, French, Flemish, and English; more beloved by
the Islanders than any queen that has ever reigned; about forty-five years
old, and has been in England thirty years. She has had two sons and one
daughter. Both the sons died in infancy. One daughter survives."

On the King, Falieri is more elaborate.

"In the 8th Henry such beauty of mind and body is combined as to surprise
and astonish. Grand stature, suited to his exalted position, showing the
superiority of mind and character; a face like an angel's, so fair it is;
his head bald like Cæsar's, and he wears a beard, which is not the English
custom. He is accomplished in every manly exercise, sits his horse well,
tilts with his lance, throws the quoit, shoots with his bow excellent
well; he is a fine tennis player, and he practises all these gifts with
the greatest industry. Such a prince could not fail to have cultivated
also his character and his intellect. He has been a student from his
childhood; he knows literature, philosophy, and theology; speaks and
writes Spanish, French, and Italian, besides Latin and English. He is
kind, gracious, courteous, liberal, especially to men of learning, whom he
is always ready to help. He appears religious also, generally hears two
masses a day, and on holy days High Mass besides. He is very charitable,
giving away ten thousand gold ducats annually among orphans, widows, and

Such was the King, such the Queen, whom fate and the preposterous
pretensions of the Papacy to dispense with the established marriage laws
had irregularly mated, and whose separation was to shake the European
world. Pope Clement complained in subsequent years that the burden of
decision should have been thrown in the first instance upon himself. If
the King had proceeded at the outset to try the question in the English
courts; if a judgment had been given unfavourable to the marriage, and had
he immediately acted upon it, Queen Catherine might have appealed to the
Holy See; but accomplished facts were solid things. Her case might have
been indefinitely protracted by legal technicalities till it died of
itself. It would have been a characteristic method of escape out of the
difficulty, and it was a view which Wolsey himself perhaps at first
entertained. He knew that the Pope was unwilling to take the first step.

On the 17th of May, 1527, after a discussion of the Treaty with France, he
called a meeting of his Legatine court at York Place. Archbishop Warham
sate with him as assessor. The King attended, and the Cardinal, having
stated that a question had arisen on the lawfulness of his marriage,
enquired whether the King, for the sake of public morals and the good of
his own soul, would allow the objections to be examined into. The King
assented, and named a proctor. The Bull of Julius II. was introduced and
considered. Wolsey declared that in a case so intricate the canon lawyers
must be consulted, and he asked for the opinions of the assembled bishops.
The bishops, one only excepted, gave dubious answers. The aged Bishop of
Rochester, reputed the holiest and wisest of them, said decidedly that the
marriage was good, and the Bull which legalised it sufficient.

These proceedings were not followed up, but the secrecy which had hitherto
been observed was no longer possible, and Catherine and her friends learnt
now for the first time the measure which was in contemplation. Mendoza,
writing on the day following the York Place meeting to the Emperor,
informed him, as a fact which he had learnt on reliable authority, that

Online LibraryJames Anthony FroudeThe divorce of Catherine of Aragon : the story as told by the imperial ambassadors resident at the court of Henry VIII : → online text (page 3 of 36)