Katharine of Aragon: Life Story

Chapter 12 : Annulment

In early 1526 Henry began to question the validity of his marriage. Whilst the political background made the alliance with Spain less valuable than it had once been and personally Katharine was no longer sexually attractive to her husband, it would be unfair to Henry to suggest that he did not genuinely have concerns about the marriage.

Henry remained all his life a deeply religious man and if not quite such a splendid theological scholar as he deemed himself, certainly had a well-educated layman’s knowledge of the Scriptures. It is very likely that, troubled by the lack of sons, he turned to his Bible for answers as to why God should be displeased with him. The fact that the answer he thought he found there also happened to be one that suited him personally and politically does not necessarily mean he was a hypocrite. In late 1526 he seems to have consulted with his Confessor on the topic.

In brief, Henry’s argument was that marriage to his brother’s widow was prohibited in the book of Leviticus, although Leviticus does not comment on whether the prohibition on sexual relationships with the brother’s wife referred to a living or a dead brother. Henry chose not to opine on the book of Deuteronomy which positively required a man to marry his brother’s widow.

The Catholic Church for centuries had forbidden such marriages, but Popes were frequently requested to grant dispensations which would permit otherwise banned unions. The argument in this case turned on Henry’s suggestion that Pope Julius II could not have granted a valid dispensation in 1503, because it was not within his competence to dispense against a biblical law, as opposed to a church rule. This was a challenge to papal authority that was never going to play well in the early days of the Reformation but which many sincere Catholics could appreciate as a valid argument.

Popes had granted annulments to kings on far more dubious grounds in the past and had the political situation being different it is likely that Henry would have achieved his aim. Unfortunately for the King, during the period September 1526 to May 1527, Rome was overrun and comprehensively sacked by the unpaid troops of Charles V. The devastation and destruction wrought in the Holy City surpassed anything that had happened in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire to the Goths.

Back in England, Cardinal Wolsey and Archbishop Warham of Canterbury set up a secret court to try the matter of the King’s marriage. Katharine was not informed. For unknown reasons, Wolsey and Warham did not give a verdict but decided that the matter was too serious for them and must be settled by the Pope.

Pope Clement had far more pressing concerns on his mind – not least that his only hope of emerging from the Castel San Angelo where he was sheltering was dependent entirely on the goodwill of Charles. Upsetting his aunt was not going to help his position – on the other hand, upsetting such a faithful son of the church as Henry had been would limit Clement’s ability to build a coalition that might rescue him from thraldom to the Emperor. These difficulties were compounded by Clement’s own chronic indecisiveness.

On 22nd June 1527, Henry informed Katharine that he had become aware that their marriage was invalid and that they had lived in sin for 18 years. Katharine broke down into tears, but quickly riposted that as her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, she had never actually been his wife and therefore the Levitical prohibition did not apply.

That this speedy response existed suggests that she had previously been warned of what was happening and had prepared her arguments. She also had sufficient presence of mind to send a messenger to the Emperor to warn him of events in England.

Charles responded by asking the Pope to revoke Wolsey’s position as Legate a Latere and also requested that Henry should desist from his attempts to have the marriage annulled. Throughout the years that followed, Charles gave verbal support to Katharine but there was never any real possibility of him intervening in any military way – he had neither the money nor the men to open yet another front of war. He did not even apply trade sanctions – a ban on trade with Burgundy might have encouraged Katharine’s supporters in England (who were legion) to resist Henry.

For two years the argument was batted backwards and forwards with little progress until in May 1529 a second cardinal, Lorenzo Campeggio, arrived from Rome to make a public trial of the case.

Henry and Wolsey had requested Clement to give the two cardinals sufficient power to make a binding decision. Clement, desperate to retain Henry’s support but menaced by the very much more proximate Charles, gave Campeggio the required decretal brief (which allows the court to make a decree that is binding) but forbade him from using it.

Katharine of Aragon

Katharine of Aragon

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