Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican

The Divorce of Henry VIII  (UK title: Our Man in Rome) by Professor Catherine Fletcher of Durham University is an indispensable addition to the library of any serious scholar of Tudor history. I say "serious" scholar because, while the book is not overlong, it is not light reading. It might be challenging for some to keep track of all the various players and intertwining events unless one is already deeply immersed in the politics of the King's Great Matter. However, after glancing at the author's extensive bibliography, I must commend her for being able to concentrate so much detailed research into one volume. It includes material rarely covered by other works about Henry VIII, shedding light on the fascinating world of sixteenth century ambassadors.

The narrative centers on the adventures of the Casali family of Rome whose sons made a living by working as diplomats for various princes, both local and foreign. The complicated inner workings of Renaissance Italian politics are beyond modern imagination; compared to those Renaissance rascals most Americans do not know the meaning of intrigue. Growing up in a diplomatic and political scenario was helpful for those who wished to have a career in statecraft; it all depended on whom you knew and how well. Gregorio Casali was employed by Henry VIII to represent his case before the Pope. Now getting in to see the Pope, even for the ambassador of a king, was not always an easy matter. Bribes were usually necessary and what made the difference between a good ambassador and a sloppy one was knowing whom to bribe.

Furthermore, it was necessary for an ambassador to be dressed in a manner worthy of the ruler he was representing. For an ambassador of Henry VIII, this meant having an extremely elaborate wardrobe. The duties  also involved having to travel long distances as quickly as possible, risking storms, natural disasters, wars, robbers, and enemy agents. An ambassador also had to be able to entertain in style and purchase the appropriate gifts to gain support for his master's cause. This all sounds extremely cynical but it is how business was transacted and deals were made. It makes the courageous stands of martyrs such as of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, who could not be won over by any human persuasions, all the more admirable.

The stipend from one's patron was often not sufficient to cover all the expenses which being an ambassador entailed so diplomats such as Gregorio Casali had to make certain they had some kind of additional income. Signor Gregorio tries to make ends meet by marrying an heiress. Family connections, which were strengthened or weakened by making the right or wrong alliance, had everything to do with one's success in life. When a person rose or fell, their family went with them.

My copy of The Divorce is an uncorrected proof. There are a few errors I noticed which hopefully have been corrected in the final edition. For instance, Charles VIII of France was the cousin of Louis XII, not his brother. Also, Fra Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite, not a Dominican. As for the title, although the word "divorce" is used for the benefit of the general public, we must remember that Henry VIII did not believe in divorce. He was seeking from the Pope not a divorce as we understand it but a decree of nullity, meaning that he wanted to prove that he and Queen Katherine had never been truly married in the eyes of God. With all the bribes that passed from hand to hand, and with the help of such a character as Gregorio Casali, working his magic in the courts and universities of Europe, it was hoped to be an easy annulment. However, there were other factors, such as Queen Katherine's contestation of the King's claim, a contestation which she had every right to make, according to canon law. Then Henry VIII, in his impatience, saw fit to take matters into his own hands. Even the most clever diplomacy can fail in the face of human passions.

(*NOTE: This book was sent to me by the author's representative in exchange for my honest opinion.)



Gio said...

Sounds very interesting, I will check it out!

julygirl said...

While viewing "Showtime's" mini-series "The Tudors" it occurred to me the hardships those posts inflicted and whether it was really worth the risk.