The King’s Great Matter

In setting out to end his long marriage, Henry VIII enmeshed himself in an impenetrable tangle of political, diplomatic, religious, historical, and even philosophical complexities. In trying to cut his way through that tangle, he found himself in conflict with what must have seemed almost the whole world: a pope willing to do nearly but not quite anything to avoid offending him, his nephew-by-marriage the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, a thousand years of English tradition, a great many of his best-known and most respected subjects, and indeed a very large part of his kingdom’s population. It was by plowing forward in the face of this opposition, by gambling that no one could stop him and responding to every setback by raising the stakes, that Henry had such an extraordinary impact on the world.

For the king himself, the question of his marital status was not difficult at all. The facts of the case were certainly simple enough in his eyes. When Henry was still a mere boy, his father, wanting to preserve an alliance with the royal house of Spain, had arranged his betrothal to his dead brother Arthur’s young widow, Catherine of Aragon. Everyone recognized that such an arrangement raised questions—under canon law, sexual intercourse created a blood relationship and marriage to a sister-in-law was tantamount to incest—but these questions had been settled with a papal dispensation, a decree to the effect that in this case the prohibition could be set aside. But Henry had decided, no later than 1527, that the law against marriages like his to Catherine was not man-made but divine, God’s own law, set down in the Bible for all to see. It was entirely consistent with Catholic belief for him to assert that not even popes could nullify the explicitly stated will of God. Therefore he and Catherine were not married and never had been.

Only to Henry and the most loyal of his supporters, however, was the situation that simple. Everyone else saw questions, complications—problems. First and most fundamental was the mystery of whether Catherine had actually been Prince Arthur’s wife. There had been a wedding ceremony, of course, but that alone was not enough, under canon law, to constitute marriage. Physical consummation was required, and the question of whether the union of Arthur and Catherine had in fact been consummated was shrouded in uncertainty. After the wedding festivities the two young people had with great ceremony been put to bed together at Baynard’s Castle, an old royal residence in London. Soon thereafter they were sent off to live as man and wife at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, where Arthur was to prepare to become king of England by participating in the government of Wales, and where he died. From her earliest widowhood until the end of her life, Catherine not merely said but swore under oath—no small thing for a person of her character and strong religious convictions—that she and Arthur had never had intercourse. Not even Henry’s most ardent champions ever attempted to deny that Catherine at all times and under the most trying circumstances showed herself to be a person of high integrity, and her credibility is reinforced by the little that is known about her young bridegroom. Arthur is a faint figure in history—the very fact that his contemporaries had so little to say about him raises the possibility that his appearance may have been a delicate subject—but he is reported to have been on his wedding day half a head shorter than Catherine, herself well below average in height. A question inevitably arises as to whether Arthur, who was born at least a month prematurely and appears to have developed slowly thereafter, had reached puberty by the time of his death. On balance it is improbable at best that he ever “knew” Catherine physically.

There were problems, moreover, with the biblical passage to which King Henry attached so much importance: “If a man takes his brother’s wife … they shall be childless.” One of the mentors of Henry’s youth, the learned and revered John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, pointed out that nothing in these words indicates that they refer to a dead brother’s wife. On the contrary, a reader’s natural inclination might be to assume the opposite. As for the warning about childlessness, nothing could be more obvious than that Henry and Catherine had a living child, Princess Mary. Henry, clutching at straws, suggested that a mistake had been made when Leviticus was translated from Greek into Latin, so that the word liberis (“children”) had been incorrectly substituted for filiis(“sons”). In an age when all educated people shared a knowledge of Latin and no one could have claimed to be a theologian without mastering it, this argument got him nowhere, having no basis in fact. Leviticus was in any case a peculiar foundation upon which to construct arguments about how Englishmen were supposed to conduct themselves in the sixteenth century. It included many rules, some of them intended for Hebrew priests, to which no one paid the least attention: instruction in the proper way of killing chickens, for example, along with prohibitions against the eating of rabbits and the incorrect trimming of hair and beards. The church had long taken it as settled that the relevance of Leviticus did not reach far beyond the time, place, and people for which it had been written.

Even worse for Henry’s case, Leviticus was directly contradicted by another Old Testament passage, one from a book written later and therefore arguably preemptive. Deuteronomy 25:5–7 declared it to be not only permissible but obligatory for a man to marry the childless widow of his dead brother: “He shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife.” Failure to do this would mean that the dead brother was “put out of Israel,” a deplorable fate, and therefore severe punishment was prescribed for those who did not comply. The straw that Henry clutched this time was the notion that the kind of marriage prescribed by Deuteronomy had been a mere ceremonial matter, and that in any case the Jews themselves had abandoned such practices many centuries before. About this, too, he was proved wrong.

No one saw more problems, or had better reason to see them, than the pope, Clement VII. He is too easily thought of as a kind of immovable and impersonal force against which Henry VIII threw himself uselessly—a sort of oriental potentate on a high golden throne, hurling anathemas down on all who displeased him, too insulated from reality and immersed in his own arrogance to respond understandingly to the needs of mere kings. In fact he was nothing of the kind, and undoubtedly would have been amused to see himself depicted in any such way. Almost fifty when word first reached him of the English king’s marital difficulties, the former Giulio de’ Medici had been pope for four years and had spent those years sinking steadily deeper into an ocean of troubles the likes of which Henry had never experienced—troubles that must have made him regret ever having been elected. A member of Florence’s fabled ruling family, son of a father who had been stabbed to death in his home city’s domed cathedral months before his birth, he had been raised by his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent and grew up to become not only an intelligent and conscientious cleric but, at least by the standards of the Renaissance papacy, a model of responsible behavior. As cardinal-archbishop of Florence he had made himself a force for reform, during the reign of his incompetent cousin Leo X he had been a constructive influence on the papal court, and he then became a supporter of the virtuous Dutchman Adrian VI after losing to him in the election of 1522.

Elected following Adrian’s death in 1523, just as the Treaty of London with which Wolsey had hoped to establish peace across Europe was falling apart, Clement was immediately caught up in a war between the emperor Charles and Francis I of France for control of northern Italy. (Not even the best-intentioned popes could keep out of such contests, because as rulers of the so-called Papal States they were themselves among the leading players.) Schooled in the Byzantine politics of Renaissance Italy but not nearly as shrewd or decisive as he needed to be, Clement made the mistake of allying himself with France and therefore shared in the disaster that followed Charles’s great victory at Pavia in 1525. The consequences included the most savage sack of Rome in the Eternal City’s long and bloody history, the humiliation of the papacy, a rearrangement of alliances, and finally the resumption of war. Until Henry VIII sent his request for a judgment on the validity of his marriage, England had not been a problem for Clement at all. Even after Henry filed his suit, it must have seemed an almost minor matter compared to the multiple nightmares that now faced the papacy: disorder almost to the point of chaos in Italy, the Ottoman Turks’ conquest of Hungary and threat to Christian central Europe, and the upheavals resulting from the successes of Martin Luther and other radical reformers. The Vatican was in desperate need of friends, England had been among its best friends as long as anyone living could remember, and Clement had no reason to want the relationship to change.

King Henry, even as his doubts about his marriage hardened into a determination to be rid of Catherine, tried to conceal from her his plans for securing a divorce. (Henceforth we will follow convention in using the word “divorce” although, strictly speaking, that was not what the king sought. He was asking not for the termination of his marriage but for an annulment, a finding that he and the queen had never been married. Canon law contained no provision for divorce: marriage was forever. But annulments—findings to the effect that a couple had never entered into a valid union—were not at all rare.) The secret, inevitably, was soon out, and when the queen learned of it she was angrier than she had ever been in all the years of her marriage—angrier, even, than when her husband had raised his illegitimate son Fitzroy to the highest rank of nobility, possibly positioning him to inherit the throne. Court and clergy began to pull apart into two camps, one supporting the dignified little woman who after a quarter of a century in England could be faulted for nothing except her failure to produce a living son, the other rallying to the king. The dispute, at this point, was about the marriage only. It had not yet metastasized into an epic struggle over bigger issues.

Henry, characteristically, thought himself entitled to everyone’s support because right was so obviously on his side. Cardinal Wolsey, as chancellor, was with the king from the start—from the point, at least, at which it became clear that Henry was not going to relent. Catherine blamed Wolsey for everything, believing that the idea of a divorce had originated with him rather than with the king, and that his motive was revenge for her criticism of his lavish way of life. About this she may very well have been wrong; in years to come Henry and Wolsey would both state publicly that it was the former who had first raised questions about the Spanish marriage. Though both would have had reasons to lie (Henry to assert his independence, Wolsey to show that he was never more than the king’s good servant), it seems unlikely, all things considered, that they did so. Henry was neither a habitual liar nor a very good one, appearing rather to believe his own most outlandish untruths, and his years in royal service had shown Wolsey that he had little to fear from the queen’s disfavor. He would have needed no better reason to go along with the king than simple self-interest—his expectation that a divorce could be obtained without great difficulty and would please his master. It is entirely plausible that he simply saw an opportunity to turn the king’s latest brainstorm to political advantage. He would be stunned to learn that Henry had already decided on a second wife, and that his choice was a member of Queen Catherine’s entourage.

Behind all these intrigues stood the slender figure, still fascinating and more than a little mysterious after four and a half centuries, of Anne Boleyn. It is of course impossible to say, especially at such a remove in time, just why the king had fixed his attention on her of all the women available to him both in England and abroad, but her allure is entirely understandable. Though less than classically beautiful, Anne had striking dark eyes, a magnificent mane of dark hair, and an elegant carriage crowned by a long white neck. Her father Sir Thomas Boleyn’s position as one of the king’s most trusted diplomats had made it possible for him to place Anne first at the celebrated Brussels court of Margaret of Austria, widow of Catherine of Aragon’s brother and now Hapsburg regent of the Low Countries, and then in the service of the queen of France, whose friend she became. This background, coupled with Anne’s considerable intelligence, set her apart from the other women of Henry’s court when the threat of war between England and France made it necessary for her to return home in 1521. She was about twenty-one years old by then, accomplished as a singer and dancer and instrumentalist, by the standards of the English court a paragon of fashion and taste. “No one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners,” one observer wrote, “but a native-born Frenchwoman.” As for her own aspirations at this point, too little is known to provide a basis even for responsible guesswork. In time she would champion ecclesiastical reform to the point of making herself an enemy of Rome, but this would happen only as it became obvious that she had no friends among the religious conservatives at court and the papal court was not going to clear the way for her marriage to the king. In the early going she was not so much Rome’s enemy as Wolsey’s, using her growing influence to cut off the cardinal’s access to the king.

Her own allurements, combined with her status as granddaughter and niece of dukes of Norfolk, meant that Anne had no shortage of suitors. Her best chances for an advantageous marriage, however, had misfired one by one. A proposed union with the Earl of Northumberland’s son and heir, Henry Percy, was blocked by Wolsey for complex political reasons having nothing to do with Anne herself. The cardinal may or may not have been acting on the king’s instructions, but in any case his intervention caused Anne to distrust him forever after. By the mid-1520s Anne had seen her sister Mary become the king’s mistress only to be pensioned off after a few years, had witnessed her father’s elevation to the nobility as Viscount Rochford (whether in recognition of his services or as a reward for providing a royal mistress can never be known), and had found herself crossing the border into spinsterhood. But in 1526, just at the point when Henry was being overtaken by doubts about his marriage to a queen who no longer interested him, he suddenly fixed his attention on Anne to the exclusion of every other woman. In one of the many letters he sent her—letters rendered all the more extraordinary by the fact that throughout his life Henry almost never wrote to anyone else—he confessed to having been “struck by the dart of love.” Setting aside the fact that in the eyes of the church and the law he was still a married man, he would not appear to have made a foolish choice. Anne was no giggling girl but a mature and accomplished woman, as worldly-wise a woman as the king had ever known. Nature had endowed her with an acid wit, a razor tongue, and a bold willingness to use both even with the king. Henry, long surrounded by fawning sycophants and female courtiers of limited experience and education, is likely to have found such a woman irresistible.

Be that as it may, from early in the relationship Henry wanted not only to bed Anne but to marry her, to make her the queen and mother of a royal family. It has generally been assumed that their relationship remained unconsummated for years because Anne, having seen in her own family how limited the benefits of becoming a royal mistress could be, refused to yield to Henry’s advances. It is entirely possible, however, that he was as reluctant to proceed as she. Despite his posthumous reputation as a bluebeard, Henry was never a man of exceptional sexual appetite. His opportunities vastly exceeded the number of his mistresses, which was almost negligible compared to the tallies run up by other monarchs of the day. Anne herself, when their long courtship was over, would joke unkindly (and dangerously) about Henry’s inadequacies as a lover. Where the king’s greatest hopes were concerned, it would have been a disaster if Anne had become pregnant before he was free to marry her. At best that could have led only to the birth of another royal bastard. What Henry needed, what Henry wanted, certainly, was a legitimate son.

Consideration had been given, in the beginning, to having England’s primate, the archbishop of Canterbury, declare the royal marriage null. The archbishop, William Warham, had long been close to the king and was likely to be amenable. But such an approach might not have been found acceptable either in Rome or at the court of Catherine’s nephew, the emperor Charles, and in any case Henry wanted not just an annulment but the world’s acknowledgment that he was entitled to an annulment. And so in 1527, on Wolsey’s advice, he proposed that a special court be convened—in England, though by the pope’s order—to consider and rule on his suit. This had to be a legatine court, meaning that the men sitting in judgment would be representatives of the pope, authorized to act with his authority. Henry proposed two such judges. His first choice was all too obvious: Wolsey himself, a logical candidate insofar as he had long been both papal legate in England and the kingdom’s only cardinal, and a safe candidate because he was unquestionably the king’s man. His second, seemingly almost as safe, was Wolsey’s longtime friend Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, who was based in Rome but had been made absentee bishop of Salisbury in recognition of his services in representing the English Crown at the papal court. That Pope Clement readily agreed to the appointment of two men so obviously predisposed to favor Henry—that he did so in spite of his own sympathy for Queen Catherine as an entirely innocent victim—is early evidence of just how far this trouble-plagued and uncertain pontiff was willing to go to accommodate the king. Though a Medici and pope, he had little inclination to try to force his will on anyone.

Henry was not slow to give signs of just how far he was prepared to go to get what he wanted. As early as 1527, with Campeggio still months from arriving in England, the king was saying threateningly that he might, if not given the justice he knew he deserved, repudiate papal authority and thereby break the ancient connection between the church in England and its continental roots. The situation was not unique—there had been bitter struggles between kings and popes in the past—but Wolsey knew his master well enough to be alarmed. Both directly and through his agents in Rome, he began warning the pope that Henry was in dead earnest, and that if he were not placated the results could include the ruin not just of Wolsey but of the church in England. “I close my eyes before such horror,” he would tell Clement in a pages-long, almost hysterical letter in 1528. “I throw myself at the Holy Father’s feet.” His appeals must have been one reason Pope Clement continued—though in ways so convoluted and hesitant as to be ultimately self-defeating—to do everything he felt he could to avoid offending the king.

As he waited for Campeggio, Henry began a campaign to get all of England on his side. He was savvy enough to understand that, however invincibly right he knew his position to be, in order to have any hope of carrying his subjects with him he was going to need the cooperation of men whose opinion the people respected. Catherine was a popular queen, much loved for her kindness and generosity and admired for the fortitude with which she had borne the disappointments of her life. Word that she was to be put away because Henry wanted a new, younger wife was already in wide circulation, and it was not being well received. The judgment of learned and esteemed Englishmen could change public sentiment if anything could, and so Henry turned early to two men to whom he had long been close, a pair known not only in England but across Europe. Bishop John Fisher had in the reign of Henry VII been confessor and counselor to the king’s formidable mother, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, who shortly before her death had urged her newly crowned young grandson to keep Fisher close at hand and heed his advice. Henry VIII himself, early in his reign, had boasted that no other ruler in Europe had a bishop to compare with Fisher—though the fact that in the following two decades the unpolitical and stubbornly independent Fisher was never promoted to a more important see than Rochester suggests that the king’s enthusiasm may have had limits. Thomas More was younger than Fisher but already one of Europe’s best-known thinkers and writers, author of the sensationally popular Utopia, a lawyer-politician whose company the king enjoyed and who had long since risen high in Henry’s service. He was a friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the greatest exponent of the “new learning” sparked by the Italian Renaissance and a biting critic of clerical misconduct.

Asked for their views on the divorce question, More and Fisher responded characteristically. The cautious and lawyerly More declined to offer an opinion, asking to be excused on grounds that he was not qualified to judge such a matter. This was not the answer Henry wanted, obviously, but he accepted it with good grace. The answer that Fisher gave, on the other hand, must have ended any hopes that Henry might have had of getting through this business without a fight. Catherine was Henry’s wife, the bishop declared. To claim otherwise was outrageous. If there had ever been reasons to question how the marriage was contracted, three decades and Catherine’s many pregnancies had emptied those reasons of pertinence. This was definitely not what Henry wanted to hear. From that moment John Fisher was the king’s most conspicuous adversary and a marked man.

Henry now entered upon the momentous part of his reign. It began with a slow sequence of years—it must at times have seemed an eternity—when all his energy and all his power as king were focused on securing the annulment but were not enough to make it happen. Everything seemed to conspire against him, both at home and abroad. May 1527 brought the previously mentioned pillaging of Rome; Clement VII took refuge in the ancient fortress tomb of Castel Sant’Angelo and soon found himself the prisoner of the emperor Charles, who had neither approved the destruction of the city nor even known that it was happening but did not decline to reap the benefits. On the face of it this was the worst possible news for Henry: the one man recognized across Europe as having the authority to free him from Catherine was now at the mercy of the one monarch who, in addition to being the most powerful on the continent, had committed himself unreservedly to her cause. Nothing connected with Henry’s great matter was ever that simple, however. The rape of Rome, though not the emperor’s doing, gave Clement abundant reason to hate him. It also underscored Clement’s need for allies, and England, lacking as it did the means to pursue territorial ambitions in Italy, had always been a more dependable friend to the papacy than France, Spain, or the German states. Clement’s need for support became all the greater when, toward the end of the year, he managed to escape from Rome only to find himself and his court living without furniture in three rooms of a derelict palace in the town of Orvieto. Historians have sometimes assumed that, after Rome fell into Charles’s hands, Clement had no choice but to do the Hapsburg emperor’s bidding. This is far from certain, and the opposite is not impossible. Clement, when his fortunes were at their lowest, wanted nothing from Charles except his removal from Rome and if possible from all of Italy—above all from Florence, the hereditary domain of the Medici.

No easy solutions were open to Clement. If he overruled the dispensation by which Pope Julius had approved the union of Henry and Catherine a generation before, he would compromise the authority of papal dispensations generally. If on the other hand he failed to do so, or to find some other solution, he risked losing nearly the best friend he had in all of Europe and compounding the problems rising out of the Lutheran revolt in Germany. From the beginning of the divorce case until his death, Clement repeatedly weakened his own position, risking betrayal of the principles by which justice required that the case be judged, in a fruitless effort to placate Henry. In the end the rupture between the two was caused not by obstinacy on the pope’s part but by Henry’s relentless escalation of his threats and demands even as the weakness of his case became more obvious. That weakness was so fundamental that—regardless of how much fear Charles V may have been able to arouse in the pope’s breast—any ruling in Henry’s favor would have been an act so transparently cynical as to constitute an indelible scandal. It would have seemed to confirm the worst things that any Protestant firebrand ever found to say about the papacy and its ways.

It was October 1528 when Campeggio arrived in England at last and preparations for a formal hearing could begin. The cardinal had moved northward from Rome in excruciatingly slow stages, so disabled with gout that he could travel only in a litter, in such pain that at times it was impossible for him to travel at all. He was a remarkable man, a legal scholar who had taken holy orders only after the death of the wife who had borne him five children, and an authority on canon law, a qualification rendered especially important by Wolsey’s lack of background in the subject. He was known to be honest, fair, and wise in the ways of the world, and if he had often served England as an agent in Rome he had done so without compromising his integrity. The highest possible testimony to his stature is the fact that both sides in the divorce case—Henry and Wolsey as plaintiffs, Catherine and Fisher and others on the defense—initially welcomed his involvement.

Not all the cards were on the table, however. The king and Wolsey were privy to a secret not shared with Catherine and her advisers: Campeggio had brought with him from Rome a document declaring the case to have been decided in Henry’s favor. Knowledge of this document, presumably to be disclosed at some propitious moment, bolstered Henry’s confidence that everything would soon be settled to his satisfaction. To complicate the situation even further, however, Campeggio also had unwritten instructions, confided to him by the pope in person and not known to Henry or Wolsey. Clement had told him to search for a compromise solution that would make a formal hearing unnecessary and, if no such solution emerged, to delay a final decision by every possible means. With this in mind, Campeggio met repeatedly and at length with Henry, with Catherine, with anyone who might be able to influence Henry or Catherine or help him to do so. He tried every imaginable gambit, starting by assuring the parties that the pope would be pleased to issue a new dispensation correcting any flaws in the one that had permitted the marriage in the first place. This was obviously the last thing Henry wanted. Campeggio suggested to Catherine that she should enter a convent, take religious vows, and so free her husband to marry; the queen replied that she would do so as soon as Henry agreed to enter a monastery. Some of the things that Campeggio allegedly proposed could only have come from a desperate mind. He is supposed to have invited Henry to take Anne Boleyn as his mistress with a promise that Rome would legitimize their children—and to have suggested that Henry commit bigamy, marrying Anne without dissolving his marriage to Catherine. (Martin Luther, opposed to the annulment, would offer the same idea.) He is even supposed to have encouraged the king to ensure the Tudor succession by marrying Princess Mary to her half-brother, the king’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, an act of incest that would have stunned all Europe.

The whole affair seemed at times to be in danger of sinking to the level of farce. Henry sent a new petition to Rome, one distinct from the annulment suit, asking for a dispensation permitting him to marry Anne Boleyn in spite of the fact that her sister had, some years before, been his mistress. The issue here was the same as in the divorce: “consanguinity,” a supposed blood relationship created by sexual intercourse. Canon law said that, because of his past relationship with Mary Boleyn, Henry was linked to Anne in a brother-sister relationship as real as the one that had joined him to Catherine before their marriage—assuming that Catherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur had been consummated. If there had been no consummation, the barrier blocking Henry from marrying Anne was actually bigger than any between him and Catherine. It is curious, not to say ironic, that Henry would request a papal exemption in the Boleyn case while adamantly insisting that no pope could grant a similar exemption where Catherine was concerned. Clement quickly and cheerfully granted the king’s request, at the same time rendering his own decision worthless by noting that the dispensation could be put to use only if the marriage to Queen Catherine were found to be invalid.

In another irony, that same year Henry’s older sister Margaret, widow of King James IV of Scotland and mother of the young James V, secured an annulment of her second marriage in order to enter upon a third. Instead of congratulating her—instead of observing a disapproving silence, for that matter—Henry boiled over with indignation, accusing Margaret of violating the “divine order of inseparable matrimony.” It is probably unfair to accuse him of hypocrisy in outbursts of this kind. Whatever his own behavior, however much the standards he applied to others diverged from those he applied to himself, he does appear to have sincerely regarded himself not only as a model of uprightness but as qualified to pass judgment on his inferiors—a category into which he would have put virtually every living human being.

Even so, making every possible allowance for the blindness produced in Henry by his limitless self-satisfaction, the performance he now put on for the benefit of a number of the kingdom’s leading personages was nothing less than astonishing. In November 1528, annoyed by public demonstrations of support for Catherine (she was so loudly cheered whenever she appeared that Henry banned the gathering of crowds wherever she was in residence), he summoned to his court an august assembly that included members of his council, representatives of the nobility, and the mayor, aldermen, and other leading citizens of London. To this group he delivered an address much of which was devoted to praise of Queen Catherine, “a woman of most gentleness, humility, and buxomness,” as Henry described her. “Yea,” he added, “and of all good qualities pertaining to nobility she is without comparison.”

“If I were to marry again, I would choose her above all women,” Henry declared. “But if it be determined in judgment that our marriage is against God’s law, then shall I sorrow, parting from so good a lady and loving companion.” This was Henry VIII in one of his least attractive, most shameless manifestations: Henry the virtuous, the entirely innocent, ostentatiously shedding tears as he stated his determination to do what was right (and coincidentally most convenient to himself) no matter how deeply it pained him. It is difficult not to find him guilty of rank hypocrisy in this case.

He told the assembled dignitaries that he was prepared to accept the decision of the upcoming tribunal whatever that decision turned out to be—good evidence of his certainty that Campeggio and the pope were going to give him what he wanted. At the conclusion of his monologue, suddenly angered by no one knows what—a skeptical or sardonic look somewhere in the audience, or a sudden stab of fear that the tribunal might not end as he expected?—Henry began shouting about how he would respond if contradicted. “There was no head so fine,” an ambassador observing the proceedings reported him as saying, “that he would not make it fly.” This side of Henry would not be much in evidence for another five or six years but would thereafter become dominant.

The last little farce of 1528 came when Henry turned again to the thankless task of trying to make Rome and England and the wide world understand that his position was above rebuttal or reproach. He circulated among the kingdom’s leading men—the nobility, the senior clergy, other persons of quality and note—a kind of petition stating that his suit should be granted because his marriage was void.

When it came back to him, it bore exactly three signatures.

One was that of the Duke of Norfolk. He was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.

Another was that of the Viscount Rochford. He was Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father.

And the third was that of Anne’s brother George, still a very junior courtier.

It was a humiliation, but Henry did not react. Perhaps he thought it didn’t matter all that much. The new year would bring the tribunal at last, and the result of that, surely, was in the bag.



WEARING AS HE DID A CROWN TO WHICH HE HAD ONLY the most questionable of claims, from the start of his reign the first Henry Tudor had reason to worry about the place of his new dynasty among Europe’s royal families. Acceptance was essential and could not be taken for granted. It was therefore a great coup, a breakthrough, when just a few years after the Battle of Bosworth Henry’s diplomats were able to arrange the betrothal of his little son Prince Arthur to a daughter of the royal house of Spain.

The arrangement offered Henry a connection to one of the most brilliant political partnerships in history, that of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Their 1469 marriage had united Spain’s leading Christian kingdoms, and they spent the years that followed in a hard, ultimately triumphal campaign to drive the Moors—Muslims originally from North Africa—out of the southern kingdom of Granada. (Less gloriously, the pair also used the Inquisition to expel all Jews and Muslims who refused to convert.) Ferdinand and Isabella both belonged to the ancient house of Trastámara (and were also, incidentally, descended from King Edward III of England through his son John of Gaunt). At the time of their wedding Ferdinand was king of Sicily (which his father had given him) as well as Aragon, and in due course he began competing with the kings of France for domination in Italy.

Isabella was the most impressive woman of her time. She was a strong, skillful ruler and an active field commander in the war for Granada, along the way giving birth to the son and four daughters with whom she and her husband planned to perpetuate the Trastámara dynasty and link it to other important kingdoms. Having secured for their son and heir no less a bride than the daughter of the Holy Roman emperor, and having compounded this success by arranging to marry one of their daughters to the emperor’s son and heir (two other daughters went to the Portuguese royal family), they could afford to send their youngest child, the Infanta Catalina, across the water to England. It was of course a strictly political arrangement. For Ferdinand and Isabella it was a way of keeping England from allying with France, their archrival. For the Tudors it was a confirmation of legitimacy.

More than a decade had to pass, however, before Arthur and Catalina would be old enough to live together as man and wife. Both children received superb preparation for the careers that lay ahead, but hers was the more impressive. In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus came upon the New World during a voyage to India financed by the Spanish Crown, the six-year-old girl rode with her parents and sisters and brother into the newly conquered city of Granada. The reunification of Spain being thus complete, Isabella was able to give full attention to readying her youngest child for a future as queen of England. The result, when the time came for Catalina to journey to her new home and become Catherine, Princess of Wales, was a refined, strong-minded young woman who knew the classics, knew history and the works of the church fathers, could converse easily in Latin, and had been taught by her mother to take her duties seriously and always be loyal to her husband and the church.

During the years of waiting Spain had gone from strength to strength. Its vast New World empire took shape with astonishing speed after Columbus’s first voyages, promising to generate fabulous quantities of wealth. In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas drew a north-south line down the length of the Atlantic Ocean, conferring all the non-Christian lands on one side to Spain and those on the other to Portugal (which thereby acquired a Brazil that was probably not yet known to exist). King Ferdinand continued to pursue his ambitions in Italy, having so much success that in 1504 he added Naples to his string of kingdoms. All this was rendered nearly meaningless, however, by the death of his and Isabella’s newly married son, John, at nineteen. The prince’s bride was pregnant at the time of his death (which the royal physicians blamed on too much sex, the actual cause probably being tuberculosis), but the child was stillborn. Suddenly everything that Ferdinand and Isabella had built, the glorious legacy of the Trastámara, stood to be inherited by the family of their eldest surviving daughter’s husband. For Ferdinand in particular, the thought that the fruits of his achievement would fall to the German Hapsburgs was almost too galling to be endured.

When the ship bearing Catherine arrived in England in 1501 at the end of a grueling four-month voyage through heavy seas, Henry VII insisted on violating Spanish protocol and having an immediate look at her face. He was delighted by what he was shown: an exceptionally pretty and self-possessed little lady, nearly if not actually a storybook princess, obviously a fitting progenitor for a mighty line of kings. He spent heavily to make the wedding a grand public event, a declaration that the Tudors had arrived. Throughout many of the festivities Catherine was escorted by her bridegroom’s precocious brother Henry, who at age ten was Duke of York, earl marshal of England, lieutenant of Ireland, and warden of the Scottish marches and appears to have attracted far more notice than Arthur. Shortly thereafter the newlyweds were sent to their new home at Ludlow Castle, where Arthur, still only fifteen and destined to remain forever an indistinct presence in the chronicles of his time, died within a few months. The cause of death was possibly a mysterious disease called the sweating sickness that had only recently appeared in England, or possibly tuberculosis or influenza. Catherine, too, became gravely ill but recovered to find herself a widow—by her own testimony and that of her principal lady-in-waiting a virgin widow—at sixteen years of age.

Life became difficult for Catherine. She wanted to return home, but her father-in-law did not want her to go. Henry VII was on bad terms with France at the time, and fearful of losing his alliance with Spain. Never a man to part lightly with money, he had no wish to return the half of Catherine’s considerable dowry that Ferdinand had sent with her. And he continued to be impressed with Catherine herself—so much so that he applied to the pope for the dispensation required for young Prince Henry to marry his deceased brother’s wife.

By the time the dispensation was delivered in 1504—the year of Queen Isabella’s death, which deprived Catherine of her best source of support and counsel—relations between England and France had improved. Now it was Ferdinand who, afraid of an Anglo-French alliance, was determined that Catherine must remain where she was and wed the English king’s son. King Henry began to regard her as a nuisance and to treat her disgracefully. She wrote home to complain that she had lost her servants, her clothes were in tatters, and she barely had enough to eat. When Prince Henry became fourteen, the age of consent under canon law, he signed a repudiation of his betrothal. He did so, we can be sure, on the instructions of his father, who had become interested in marrying him to a Hapsburg. Wherever the repudiation originated, it was a blow to Catherine, whose health began to fail. She was making preparations to depart England when, in the spring of 1509, the king sank into his last illness and died. In short order—it must have seemed a miracle—the new king declared his intention to marry her, possibly on the advice of his Council but just as possibly because he was a youth of healthy appetites, had no experience of women and no other marriage prospects, and preferred taking an attractive bride whom he already knew over waiting for whatever his diplomats might bring home from the international matrimonial sweepstakes. He was almost eighteen, Catherine twenty-three.

It was a good marriage for a long time. Catherine showed herself to be a devoted wife, sometimes begging Henry to change his mind but never defying him and certainly never speaking ill of him. She even personally embroidered his shirts. He for his part was clearly delighted to have a partner who was fully his equal in intelligence and learning and had far more knowledge of the world. To the extent that there was trouble, it came from Catherine’s father. Ferdinand by this time was a sour and scheming old man, devoid of any reluctance to exploit and deceive even his own daughter’s husband. In 1511, taking advantage of Henry’s eagerness to make war on France, he allied their two kingdoms in the Treaty of Westminster. He joined the subsequent invasion of France only long enough to grab the little Kingdom of Navarre for himself. Having accomplished that, he made a separate peace, leaving Henry alone, exposed and looking like a fool.

Back in England, meanwhile, Catherine was serving capably in the post to which her husband had named her before his departure: that of “rectrix and governor of the realm.” Not long after Henry’s return, when four hundred Londoners were on the verge of being executed for rampaging in the streets and pillaging the homes and businesses of foreigners, she remained on her knees in front of the king until he granted clemency. In such ways, and with her piety and unassuming demeanor, she was becoming a beloved public figure. No one had ever heard of her doing a dishonest or cruel or selfish thing.

In spite of her father, her family connections were growing in value. Old Ferdinand, a lifelong lecher and father of many bastards, remarried late in life in the hope of generating another legitimate son. He succeeded, but the child lived only hours. And so in 1516, when Ferdinand himself died, the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and Sicily and Naples, plus New Spain in America and much else, all passed to young Charles of Hapsburg, the son of Catherine’s apparently insane elder sister Joanna. When Charles’s paternal grandfather, Maximilian of Hapsburg, died not long afterward, Catherine found that her nephew now loomed over Europe as ruler of the Spanish dominions and Holy Roman emperor.

She had only one real problem: children, or the absence thereof. In the first year of her marriage Catherine gave birth to a daughter, but the newborn died. A year after that she gave birth to a son, named Henry after his father, but after fifty-two days he died too. There followed in short order a miscarriage and then another short-lived boy. In February 1516 Princess Mary was born, a healthy girl with her parents’ red-gold hair. She was followed by one or possibly two more miscarriages, the last of them in 1518, at which point Catherine entered her late thirties overweight and menopausal, the girlish beauty of her earlier years a memory. Henry by contrast was barely thirty, a fountain of vitality. In 1519 his dalliance with a woman named Bessie Blount resulted in the birth of a healthy boy. In traditional fashion the child was named Henry Fitzroy—Henry son of the king. Though his mother was sent off into a respectable arranged marriage, his royal father took pleasure in having a son at last.

He took pleasure in his daughter, too, an appealing and clever child, small like her mother, eager to please her mighty sire. There is little to suggest that the king was, at this point, greatly troubled about not having a legitimate male heir. The succession problem, to the extent that there was perceived to be one, appeared to be solved in the early 1520s when Princess Mary was betrothed to her cousin the emperor Charles. It delighted Henry to treat the Holy Roman emperor as his son, to give him advice (unwelcome though it may have been) on statecraft, and to think that one day, as a result of this glorious union, some grandchild of his would rule much of the world. It came as a shock to Henry and Catherine when, in 1525, Charles withdrew from the engagement. They should not have been surprised: Mary was only ten years old, Charles twenty-five. He had decided to marry another of his first cousins, the daughter of the king of Portugal. She was grown and brought with her a big dowry that he desperately needed.

Henry, in his anger and disappointment, lashed out at his wife and his daughter, using Fitzroy as a weapon. At age six the boy was brought out of the shadows, shown off at court, and made Duke of Richmond (that old Tudor family title), Duke of Somerset, and Earl of Nottingham. He was given lands commensurate with his new status, and there was talk that his father intended to make him king of Ireland, perhaps one day even king of England.

Now it was Catherine’s turn to be furious, and for the first time in a decade and a half of marriage she allowed the court to see that she was angry with her husband. Henry was untroubled. What Catherine thought had never mattered so little to him. Their marriage was dead, England’s connection to Spain and the Hapsburgs dead with it, and the stage set for all the troubles to follow.

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