The reign of Henry VIII was marked by many characteristics and one such characteristic was his legal maneuverings. Henry VIII was an educated man and knew not only the law but he also knew religion as well. Taught by Erasmus under the Humanist traditions of reading and interpreting the bible for one’s self, Henry VIII gained a wealth on knowledge and in 1527 it came to a great use with his request for a divorce from Catherine of Aragone. It was not only the dissolution of the marriage that required Henry to utilize his legal knowledge but the entire situation in England stemming from the divorce, to parliament, and even to Cardinal Wolsley’s actions demanded the monarch use all of his legal insights to maneuver through a mine field of issues. Not only did his vast understanding of the law become of vital importance but his keen understanding of the Bible would also become important in the struggle for a divorce.
The situation started early in 1527 but to really understand the situation in England you must look back further. Henry VIII married the widow of his brother, Arthur, by special dispensation from Pope Julius II in 15051. After a short time the king’s fancy turned and he began an affair with Elizabeth Blount in early 1514. This affair bore Henry a son, named Henry Fitzroy in 1519. Henry’s bastard son was passed on to Lancashire gentlemen to be raised with the proper grooming. In 1522 Henry’s appetite changed again, discarding Elizabeth Blount and beginning a new affair with Mary Carey, formerly Mary Boleyn. This affair lasted until 1525 when Henry left Mary to her husband. During this time Henry and Queen Catherine experienced three pregnancies. The first child, a girl named Mary, was born in 1516 and was quite healthy. That is where the good luck ended for Catherine and child birth. In 1517 there was another pregnancy but it ended abruptly in a miscarriage. The following year again Catherine was pregnant and this time it was carried to term, but when the child was born it was still born. This still birth was a shocking blow to not only Catherine but to Henry as well. The child was found to have been a boy, and Henry was still in need of securing a male heir to assure the family succession. By 1525 King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine were no longer partaking in sexual relations with each other.2The void of succession was quite evident to Henry and this then opened the door for all of the conditions to be right for the coming events of the next few years.
With Henry still unsure of his successor he named his bastard son, Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond. This was an important action because not only was this the position that was held by Henry Tudor before the battle of Bosworth Field, but it also placed Fitzroy as a male candidate for the throne if there was no male heir when Henry died. Henry was well within his powers as king to do so, and knowing legally what this title would mean to Fitzroy’s possible succession meant that the king was beginning to show his legal knowledge and use it to his ends, and he was beginning to show his concern for the succession.
Henry began his quest for a dissolution of the marriage to Catherine began shortly after his affair with Anne Boleyn began to blossom. Anne refused to be a mere mistress to Henry and this fact, along with Catherine’s dynastic failure spurred Henry’s actions. We do not know if the fact that Anne would not settle for being the king’s mistress alone influenced Henry’s decision but it can be assumed that it was. Around this time Henry found a validation for his dissolution from Catherine, two texts from Leviticus. The first of these texts is in Leviticus 18:16 and it states directly:
“Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.”3
This text was plain to understand and Henry felt that even with the dispensation from Pope Julius II the marriage was impure and thus the marriage produced no male heir as a punishment. Henry believed that no man, even the pope, could not go against the word of God. This belief came from Henry’s extensive training in the Humanist tradition and thus helped to strengthen Henry’s resolve in this matter. No matter what the explanation was Henry was not going to except the dispensation and no special circumstances mattered. The dispensation stated that because of special circumstances, namely that the marriage was never consummated, that the passage from Leviticus did not apply.
Henry’s quest had begun in secret in 1527 and in May he sent Cardinal Wolsey and Archbishop Warham to plead to have the marriage annulled, in secret. In June Henry’s plan hit an obstacle, Charles V. Charles V was the Emperor in Spain and had sacked Rome, taking the Pope, Clement VII, prisoner. The one complicating factor was that Charles V was the nephew of Queen Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Issabella of Spain. With Charles “advising” Pope Clement VII he had little choice but to submit to Charles will. This also meant that Catherine would appeal to Rome if the marriage was annulled and what is more important is that appeal would be upheld by Clement and thus Henry began seeking a method of annulment that would not be overturned. One way this could have been carried out was through a plan devised by Cardinal Wolsey. The plan was that Wolsey, himself, would set up a papacy in exile in Avignon. Pope Clement VII could delegate authority to Wolsey and he could in turn solve the problem for Henry and save himself in the process.4 The plan was good for Wolsey, who always aspired to become pope, but soon the pope, his cardinals and eventually all of Europe including England, refused to participate in such a plan. Soon Henry would no longer keep his plans for an annulment secret, telling a distraught Catherine that she was no longer his wife on June 22, 1527. Henry said she was still Queen and treated her as such but in letters from Henry to Anne Boleyn, that are from this time period, Henry begins speaking of a marriage between himself and Anne. In August Henry complicated the issue further by submitting for a dispensation to marry Anne Boleyn if the annulment from Queen Catherine was granted. He needed this dispensation since Anne’s sister Mary Carey, was once Henry’s mistress but many people felt that this was an embarrassment as Henry was seeking one dispensation while attempting to discredit another. The king again told his agent, William Knight, to keep his actions private and especially hide them from Cardinal Wolsey.5 But the cardinal did discover Henry’s actions and quickly returned to England, from Rome, to speak directly with Henry. Upon Wolsey’s return to England he found not only that Henry was acting on his own accord but doing so ineptly. Wolsey’s position of influence had also been undermined in his absence and now he found Anne in great favor with the King and himself out of favor with many nobles and even with mistress Anne. Wolsey’s position was beginning to erode away and the end of Cardinal Wolsey’s influence was not far off. Seeing this himself, Wolsey began packing the privy chamber with his supporters. Woolsey added Sir Richard Page and Thomas Heneage to Sir John Russell as his supporters in the privy chamber. Anne, being wise to court politics, saw this and, having the king’s ear for a great amount of time, requested her allies added to the privy chamber as well.Those men included George Boleyn and Francis Bryan. There was a third faction in the privy chamber as well and those were Henry’s old friends, the marquis of Exeter and Sir Nicholas Carew. Both of these men favored Queen Catherine and were consistently attempting to antagonize Wolsey. This created an air of tension surrounding Henry that came to a head in early 1528 during “the matter at Wilton.”6 This matter was based on the situation in the fashionable Benedictine convent at Wilton. The abbess, Cecily Willoughby, died and the factions formed in support of a new abbess. The nuns supported the prioress, Isabel Jordayn, who promised strict reforms. Another candidate was Eleanor Carey, sister of Anne Boleyn’s brother-in-law William Carey. (William Carey is also the husband of Henry’s former mistress Mary Carey.) Henry was persuaded by Anne to appoint Eleanor Carey the new abbess, but upon discovering that Eleanor had a seedy past including affairs with two priests and children that she herself had borne, she was dismissed. Wolsey had supported Eleanor to help stay in favor with Henry but now he took his chance to nominate Isabel Jordayn as abbess. This put Henry in a position that he did not relish. He did not want to offend Anne but he had no other choice. So instead of letting either side win this battle, Henry did not appoint Isabel and instead demanded that a third candidate be found. Wosey, rather than attempting to stay in good favor with Henry, stood by his choice. Wolsey got his way and Wilton had a new abbess, Isabel Jordayn, a reformer who would make the convent stricter. This win did come with a price. Henry was furious with Wolsey and these actions seemed to show Henry not only Wolsey’s disobedience but that he could not be trusted. Henry bluntly accused Wolsey of lying in a letter:
Ah, my lord, it is a double offense, both to do ill and to colour it too; but with men that hath wit it cannot be accepted so. Wherefore, good my lord, use no more that way with me, for there be no man living that more hateth it.”7
The Wilton affair was a major turning point in the situation in England. Wolsey had learned that his power was much weakened and that the results of the quest for this annulment could effect his future as well. Henry was growing suspicious of Wolsey and his disloyal behavior and this created a sense of urgency in Wolsey’s action. The issues of the annulment were further clouded when it was realized that arguing that Pope Jullius II’s dispensation was against the word of God would not be accepted by Clement on the grounds that a pope never admits that a previous pontiff was incorrect. This meant that Wolsey would have to argue that the marriage was invalid on the grounds that there were “technical deficiencies”8 in the dispensation. Wolsey proposed a solution to Rome that could answer this question conclusively, and it would also make appeals impossible. Wolsey proposed the formation of a decretal commission, who would interpret the law as it applies in this case and it’s ruling would be untouchable upon appeal. This seemed to be the solution and in April 1528 Clement VII agreed to the plan but with Charles V still at his door he was cautious. Wolsey knew that he would not get any more from a pope with a reason to fear Charles V much more than Henry VIII.9 This did not stop Wolsey from sending one less message to Rome that warned that if the divorce was not granted quickly he, Wolsey, was in danger and Henry was on the virge of becoming Protestant like the German princes. The year 1528 ended with Queen Catherine being sent from court and Anne Boleyn moving into the apartment adjoining the kings chambers.
On June 18, 1529, the court opened at Blackfriars and was overseen by Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio. The trial opened with Catherine informing all that she had already appealed to Rome. This did not stop the trial from commencing and Bishop Fisher presented a strong case for Catherine while Henry’s case balanced on weak facts. This soon would not matter as the troops of Charles V beat back the French and re-secured Rome. This event signaled the end for Henry’s attempts at an amicable solution. With Clement VII back in Charles’ pocket the case was revoked on July 16th. Before the revocation document was received in London, Cardinal Campeggio adjourned the court for the summer. This was not only a crucial blow for Henry and all of England’s loyalty but it was also the beginning of the end for Wolsey as well.
During the late months of the trial it became evident to some that this legatine court tactic was going to fail. For those who wanted to see Cardinal Wolsey’s demise this could be the perfect opportunity to cause just that. On July 1, 1529, Lord Darcy presented paper of indictment stating that Wolsey was guilty of many charges ranging from exercising papal authority contrary to the royal prerogative, to misuse of church funds.10 It was said that his dealing with the monasteries and their closings may “be weighted with the worst act or article of Martin Luther’s.”11 This was to be the first step in a program that would see the exclusion of cardinals and legates from England, and the loss of some ecclesiastical property. Wolsey was not faring well and his supporters were fewer and fewer as the attacks on him became harsher. On the first day of the legal session, October 9, 1529, Wolsey was indicted in King’s Bench for praemunire, which is the offense under English law of appealing to or obeying a foreign court or authority, thus challenging the supremacy of the Crown.12 Wolsey was forced to surrender the great seal and with Parliament set to meet Wolsey knew that his best chance was to appeal to the king himself. Henry confiscated all of his lands and goods but rather than arrest Wolsey he let him retired to his house at Esher. The session of Parliament began on November 3rd and the major topic of debate was not the steps to ensure Henry’s annulment but rather the focus was on Wolsey’s actions and how to prevent him from regaining any power. Though the priority was still on Henry’s divorce the session did more to intimidate the pope and the clergy than it did to advance the case. As the year 1530 began, Henry was growing more impatient as he wanted this matter resolved. He had attempted to gain the divorce as well as a new marriage for four years and as Henry was not know for his patients the situation was growing more tense. The case came to a head in March when Clement cited Henry to appear in Rome for a trial. This meant that either the pope would find for Henry, which was highly unlikely due to Charles V’s pressure on the pope, or that Henry would have to ignore the pope and risk excommunication. This was exactly what Wolsey had been working to prevent.
With the situation now at a boiling point many around Henry began suggesting solutions. The Duke of Norfolk suggested that Henry ignore the pope, marry Anne and hope that Charles did not get involved. This was a great risk and even Norfolk was nervous. He wrote to Chapuys and asked him what Charles would do if the divorce occurred in England. Chapuys’ response was simple, no invasion would even be needed as Catherine had such a ground swell of support within England that the people would rebel against Henry on Catherine’s behalf. Due to the support that Catherine did have across the country this was a realistic threat. Henry decided the proper course of actions was to write a letter in which he demanded the divorce as “essential to the interests of the realm.”13 The letter was drafted and redrafted then submitted to a grand council which again redrafted it as they felt it was too hostile. Finally, the letter was signed by six bishops, twenty-two abbots, forty-two peers and a dozen household members. Upon the completion the letter was sent to Rome and the last desperate attempt at diplomacy had been made.September of 1530 brought a reply from Rome. The pope said that if Henry wanted the matter resolved quickly then he should send his lawyers so the case could begin. Clement had not been swayed by the political plea and now Henry was determined to act with or without papal authority and in this case it would seem that he would have to act without it. In August Henry told his ambassador in Rome to tell Clement that “by ancient privilege no Englishman could be cited outside the realm to answer to a foreign jurisdiction.”14 Henry hoped that that Clement would recognize this new status and then grant that the divorce could be heard in England. If this failed to work Henry had one more option left, proposed by the Duke of Suffolk, the Collectanea15. This stated that “they cared neither for pope nor popes in this kingdom, for the king was absolute both as emperor and pope in his own kingdom.”16 Henry called a group of clergy to investigate this issue and decide if the parliament could decide the issue of divorce in conjunction with the Archbishop of Canterbury. These clergy men found that this in actuality could not be done and thus Henry was forced to assert firmer control over the English church. A week after the clergy decided against Henry’s argument of the Collectanea Henry decided to drop all of the individual cases of praeminure and instead indict the whole clergy.17
In January of 1531 the convocation of Canterbury met to discuss pastoral reform and the situation that Henry had placed them in. Henry sent these men a bill to pardon them from their complacency in Wolsey’s guilt, but there were provisions. These provisions included a subsidy of 100,000 to pay for expenses deriving from the clergy’s failure to pursue a divorce settlement effectively. The clergy wanted to pay less to start with, but due to the fact that the charge of praemunire can cause the loss of all property, the clergy agreed to pay. The clergy then submitted a plan to pay the king in payments over a five year period, but due to Henry’s fear of invasion or revolt if he divorced Catherine he demanded the money at once. To this the clergy refused and even demanded clerical immunity as well as many other concessions in return for the money. Henry would only go as far as to say that he would define clerical privileges but he did not want to threaten any possible future maneuverings so he did not give in to their demands. This situation went on unresolved throughout the year of 1531 and on March 30th Thomas More spoke to the House of Lords on the Kings behalf. More stated that the divorce was not based on lust for a woman and stated the options for a solution that had been made. He again did this in the Commons and then a pamphlet was made, in Latin stating those reasons for a divorce and the solutions. Later this would be printed in English. The main premise was that a marriage between a man and his brother’s spouse is so wicked that not even the pope can dispense it. Also stated was the fact that the marriage is so wicked that a bishop should annul it no matter what the pope says, even if it means excommunication. In the end Henry only collected about eighty percent of the moneys owed to him by the clergy and in all of the legal maneuverings dealing with the praemunire issue amounted to very little actual progress. The pope was not shaken by the ‘supreme head’ title that Henry had begun to use as it only meant what the clergy was willing to let it mean and as of yet that was not much.18
This position taking and retaliation went on for months with Henry attacking and Clement reacting, then Clement attacking and Henry reacting, with little effect on the standing of the divorce case. Then in January of 1532, Henry decided to hit the pope where it hurt, in the coffers. Henry cut off annates, the payments by new bishops in return for their bulls of confirmation, and these were usually large sums of money. To prevent the pope from refusing to consecrate bishops it was ordered that even if the pope refused to approve, they were to be consecrated anyway. This bill was met in parliament with a great amount of resistance, and Henry knew it’s importance so he went to lobby parliament on three separate occasions and finally on March 26, 1532, the annates bill passed through parliament, but only by the slimmest of margins.
The next step to be taken in the quest for a divorce was what was called ‘Commons Supplication against the Ordinaries,’ and this raised questions about clerical power and was fed by recent heresy proceedings. The ‘Supplication,’ as it became known, was based on three articles. The first, all future legislation was subject to royal veto, the second, existing laws would be evaluated by a committee of both clergy and layperson and those objectionable laws would be revoked, and third, all standing were to be left to royal authority. This would effectively strip the clergy of a majority of their powers and thus leave any decisions, specifically that of a divorce, to Henry. This situation closely resembled the situation that dealt with praemunire in 1531 but the major, marked difference here was that this time Henry would not compromise. Henry went as far as to speak to the Commons and attempt to persuade them into passing a bill, drafted by Cromwell, that would restrict ecclesiastical legislation, and protect royal supremacy. To this the clergy made Henry a compromise offer and instead of accepting the compromise, Henry tightened demands and soon the clergy learned that the more they resisted, the tighter the demands became. Then on May 15, 1532, Henry ordered what is called prorogation, which means that all bishops had to settle that day or face individual punishment. This act coincided with the, somewhat forced, passage of the ‘Submission’ through only the upper house of the commons as Henry knew that it would not pass the lower house. Not only did Henry use only one house, he only used a select few people, three bishops and a few abbots and only one, Bishop Clerk, voted against it. The following day, May 16, three bishops and four abbots took the ‘Submission’ to the king at Westminster and Cromwell was there to witness the completion and success of his bill. This act also was significant to people other than Henry, Sir Thomas More was dismissed as chancellor, as Henry accepted his resignation that had been on offer for some time. More returned his seal to the king and now both Anne and Cromwell would be more able to act with greater freedom. A few days later the seal was passed to a man who had assisted in the writing of the ‘Submission’ along with Cromwell, Thomas Audley. Two days later Audley released a group of heretics that had been imprisoned by Thomas More and things began to change. Following this entire crisis the environment that Henry had to work in was much changed. Henry no longer had to follow what the clergy wished as he now had power over canon law and a clear path to the marriage he so desperately wanted. The ‘Submission’ had broken the resistance from the church and then another obstacle was removed when Archbishop Warham, a staunch papalist, died in August of 1532. This allowed Henry to place one of his key advisors during the past few years in a position to assume that title. The man to take Warham’s place was Thomas Cranmer and in March he was consecrated.
In October of 1532 Henry and Anne went to Calais to speak to the French king and it was on this trip that Henry decided to go through with a marriage to Anne. In December of 1532 Anne became pregnant and with the child possibly being a male heir to Henry, which he desperately wanted, they were married in secret in January of 1533. During this time, Henry had put his henchmen, Cromwell and Audley, to work drafting legislation that would prevent any interference from Rome in his new marriage. The bill that finally went to Parliament was not a total dissolution of ties with the pope but it did call for a prohibition of appeals to Rome in areas such as tithes, testaments and divorces.’ The bill did still allow appeals to Rome for the ‘correction of sins’ but only because it would help ease a tough bill through Parliament. On March 14, 1533, the bill was brought to the floor and the debate was so heated that at one point it was offered to Henry that is he dropped the bill they would give him the sum of 200,000 pounds, Henry rejected this offer. On April 7, 1533, the Act in Restraint of Appeals was passed through Parliament and now Henry was safe to act and seek a formal annulment within England. Thomas Cranmer petitioned Henry to hear the case and in May of 1533 Archbishop Cranmer went to attempt to secure acceptance from the Convocations.19 In the chamber at Canterbury where the case was heard by theologians and scholars heard the case and sixty-six assented to the annulment while nineteen dissented.20 This same scenario went on in the Convocation at York and, except for a slight bit of arm twisting, the results were similar. On May 23, 1533, Archbishop Cranmer declared the Aragon marriage to be annulled, then on the 28th he declared the marriage the Anne Boleyn to be legitimate. On June 1, 1533, Anne Boleyn was crowned as Queen of England. This did not stop Clement from making an attempt to restore the Aragon marriage and in July 1533 Clement demanded that Henry return to Catherine or face excommunication, he was given until September.
Faced with papal threats and the fear of excommunication as well as a fear of Charles V, Henry was quick to take action. He arrested a group of agitators who had been actively opposing the Boleyn marriage but this underscored the fear of revolt if, or when, Henry was excommunicated. Henry responded by pushing the clergy to give anti-papal sermons and distribute pamphlets that explain and justify the actions that lead to this point. In these pamphlets Clement was referred to as “the bishop of Rome” and it was stated that he had no more power outside his land than any other bishop did in a foreign land. Henry also stated that any excommunication was unlawful and to be ignored. The Convocations agreed with Henry’s statement and even though they had fought the king on issues since 1531 they were now capitulating to his wishes and a large part of it was due to fear.21 Intimidation had become Henry’s weapon of choice, other than the law of course, and now his targets were Nykke, a bishop, who was fined 10,00 marks for praemunire and Fisher, who was imprisoned for concealment of treason. This tactic of intimidation was working and in early 1534 the next legal step was taken, the Succession Act.
The Succession Act of 1534 stated that the Aragon marriage was invalid and the Boleyn marriage was legal and binding. Not only that but the heirs of Henry and Anne would succeed to the throne, not Mary, Henry’s daughter with Catherine. On March 30, 1534, the monarch began requiring his subjects to swear to this act and thus make a public statement in support of the king’s policy. The first people to swear the oath was parliament and all members took it without a single person dissenting. There was little resistance to this act as it would be treason to not take the oath and few wanted to challenge Henry as the punishment was life imprisonment and the confiscation of all property. On March 23rd the divorce was final and by April 13th all the clergy in London had been summoned to take the oath. Only three people refused to swear the oath, Thomas More, John Fisher and Nicholas Wilson. All three men were sent to the Tower of London. Thomas More, the most famous dissenter told his daughter “… Though I would not deny to swear , without the jeopardizing of my soul to perpetual damnation”22 More did not have a problem with parliament fixing the succession but he still felt that the Aragon marriage was still valid and this sealed his fate. More would remain in the Tower until he was tried and executed on July 6, 1535. More joined Fisher and three Carthusian priors as they all died for refusing to take the oath. By mid-1534 many men and even some women from across England were asked to swear the oath and almost all did, despite the strong hostility towards the Boleyn marriage. There was still some resistance and Henry was nervous, and had good reason to be. On April 20th the people of London were asked to swear the oath in their guilds and all, according to records, complied. At Ashleworht in Gloucestershire the vicar refused to call the villagers to swear the oath and this happened in other villages across the country side but eventually most citizens were brought into compliance with the act.
The year 1534 not only saw the Act of Succession but many other laws were passed through Parliament that cemented Henry’s power as head of the church in England. During the parliamentary session from November through December 1534 many act were passed to cement Henry’s role as supreme head of the church.23 The Act Concerning Ecclesiastical Appointments and Absolute Restraint of Annates gave Henry the power to appoint clergy to positions and cut all fees to Rome off. This ended the financial relationship with Rome as well as taking the pope’s ecclesiastical power and removing it from England. But the most important act was yet to come.
The final act that cemented Henry’s power as head of the church in England was the Supremacy Act. This bill received little parliamentary resistance as Henry was now in control and setting parliament’s agenda.24 This act did little more than state what was already a fact, Henry or any ruler of England would be known as the supreme head of the Church of England. The Church of England at this time was not Protestant but, in fact, it was still Catholic. They were simply known as English Catholics. The Supremacy Act did one important thing for Henry, it neutralized the coming excommunication from Rome. The bill passed as drafted in the end granted Henry little or no more power than he already enjoyed. This Supremacy act was accompanied by another bill, the Treason Act. This act would be used as Henry’s accompanying threat to those who would oppose him and attempt to defy the Supremacy Act.
In the End Henry had not set out to start a reformation nor was his actions so strong that they were directed towards that result but non th