October 7 – And the winner is… Catherine of Aragon, for now!

On this day in Tudor history, 7th October 1529, in the reign of King Henry VIII, the pope wrote to the English king regarding his quest for an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

It wasn’t good news for Henry VIII.

Pope Clement VII had decided that Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid.

Catherine had won this battle, but she hadn’t won the war. The marriage was eventually annulled, although not be the pope and not in a way that Catherine recognised.

But what was going on? Why wouldn’t the pope help? What was Henry VIII’s argument for an annulment and on what grounds did Catherine appeal?

Find out more…

Philip Campbell’s essay on the Great Matter can be found at https://www.medievalists.net/files/11010101.pdf


On this day in Tudor history, 7th October 1529, Pope Clement VIII wrote to King Henry VIII.

His letter was regarding Henry VIII’s Great Matter, his quest for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Blackfriars legatine court, presided over by papal legate Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who’d been made the pope’s viceregent, had been adjourned in July 1529 for the summer without ruling. In the meantime Catherine of Aragon, who had not recognised the authority of the Blackfriars court, pointing out that the judges, who were close to the king, were far from impartial, had appealed directly to the pope in Rome.

On this day in 1529, Pope Clement VII, in considering Catherine’s appeal and the dispensation granted by Pope Julius II for her to marry Henry VIII, wrote to the English king, notifying him that he “Has suspended his cause. Assures him that the dispensation was a positive and not a divine law; and if the Queen, as she affirms, was not known by prince Arthur, there is no doubt that the dispensation was perfectly sound in foro conscientiæ. Begs him to consider the danger in which Christendom stands from the Turks, and how much it is enhanced by this dispute.”

So, the pope was closing the case, and telling him that the dispensation issued by Pope Julius II covering the impediment of affinity, and allowing the couple to marry, was legal. Their marriage was valid and there was no case for an annulment, in the pope’s view. The marriage had not broken any divine or human law. Catherine had won this round, and the legatine court did not sit again.

In 1527, when Henry VIII started down the path which would become known as the Great Matter, he could not have known the trouble it would cause and that it would take six years for his first marriage to be annulled. In the 12th century, Louis VII of France’s fifteen-year marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine had been annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, i.e. being related by blood within fewer than seven degrees, and then in Henry VIII’s lifetime, Louis XII of France had had his marriage to his wife, Jeanne, annulled so that he could marry Anne of Brittany. Those annulments had been granted by the pope without much trouble.

So what was different with Henry VIII’s case?

Well, his wife Catherine opposed it and the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was her nephew. Charles supported her and the pope really could not afford to upset such a powerful man. He also didn’t want to upset the English king, hence the stalling tactics that were used in 1528 and 1529 – Campeggio’s slow journey, his powers not being complete when he arrived in London, trying to persuade Catherine to enter a convent, dragging out court proceedings and adjourning it etc etc.

Henry VIII’s main argument for the annulment of his first marriage was that it was contrary to God’s law, an impediment which could not be covered by a dispensation. Henry VIII and his advisors used Leviticus 20 verse 21 “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness, they shall be childless” to argue this. However, there was another piece of scripture which actually commanded a man to marry his brother’s widow, Deuteronomy 25 verse 5 “”If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go into her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her”, so it probably wasn’t the best argument to use, even if the king’s canon lawyers advised him that Leviticus had precedence over Deuteronomy. As Philip Campbell points out in his thesis “The Canon Law of the Henry VIII Divorce Case”, Catherine’s loyal supporter, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was able to argue that these two contrary passages could actually be harmonised by seeing Deuteronomy as an exception to the Leviticus law, i.e. that marrying your brother’s wife is prohibited unless the brother died without offspring, as was the case with Arthur. And Bishop Fisher was able to point out ancient Israelite custom, and many agreed with him.

Then there was the case of the impediment of affinity. There was only this impediment if Catherine and Arthur’s marriage had been consummated, and Catherine argued that it hadn’t been.

So, no impediment of affinity and a marriage that wasn’t against God’s law because Arthur had died without issue. The king’s case, which accused Pope Julius of exceeding his authority by issuing a dispensation against God’s law, was incredibly weak then.

Now, I haven’t gone into detail on all the arguments of the Great Matter, you really could write a book on that, and people have, but I’ve tried to give you an idea of just how complex this all was. We won’t get into the fact that Henry VIII had asked for a dispensation for him to marry Anne Boleyn to cover the impediment of affinity created by him having had a sexual relationship with her sister – hmmmmmm….

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