Monday, 21 May 2012

The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican Catherine Fletcher Palgrave MacMillan 288 pages.

The first thing that strikes you when reading Catherine Fletcher’s excellent book is that she is a very brave person. Anyone who attempts to find something different to say about a period of English history that has already been mined to near death deserves a hearing. On the whole, the book has been met with favorable reviews apart from a few discordant ones. (John Guy-Great Matter, Small Fry) Being one. The writer manages to combine the skill of a journalist, the imagination of a novelist and the intellectual rigor of an academic historian. The book works on many fronts and would be accessible for an enthusiast of the period and for the more serious minded student or academic.

Author Hilary Mantel, of Wolf Hall fame, correctly praised it by saying “An eye-opening book, an intricate and fascinating story of an elusive man with an impossible job. A brilliant and impressive feat of original research, and necessary reading for anyone fascinated by the story of Henry’s divorce... Catherine Fletcher has allowed the story to tell itself, except that she’s been so amusing in the telling of it, cutting through to what matters without over-simplifying.” The book has a simple premise, and that is to examine the machinations of the divorce of Henry VIII through the story of Gregorio Casali’s. 

Casili is an obscure figure, to say the least. Try doing an internet search for him. Historical records are scarce, and there is no picture of him. Even Fletcher could not find his birth date, and we meet Casali as a teenager in England. According to Fletcher, he was a well-connected son of a Bolognese merchant and a Roman noblewoman. Fletcher met the modern day family while in Italy They apparently still live in Piacenza in northern Italy. Fletcher in a remarkable piece of skill or luck managed to track down the family archive.

For Fletcher, he is a neglected figure in both Tudor and Papal history. To put it simply Casili was as the title of the English publication “Our man in Rome.” Henry used him as part of his covert campaign for an annulment of his first marriage.

In the beginning of this review this period of English history has been mined to death. To some people, Henry VIII is an ‘iconic figure’ to others a tyrant and a madman. Known throughout the world for marrying six times, breaking from Rome, establishing the Church of England and responsible for the development of the English Reformation and according to Marxist historians set us on the road to the English revolution of the 1640s.

One thing that is not disputed (well not much) by academic historians that this was a truly revolutionary period in English history. As one writer said Henry” lived to cause and be part of a revolutionary time in English history.”

Catherine Fletcher, to her credit, does try to tell of Henry VIII's drive for divorce from a “wider, external angle.” Fletcher tackles the subject from a new perspective, drawing on hundreds of hitherto-unknown archive documents. Her portrayal of the protagonist of this book as a 'wily Italian diplomat named Gregorio Casali. Fletcher describes in great detail the ends he went to secure papal blessing for the divorce.

In an earlier piece of research, Fletcher describes the skulduggery, bribery, and theft used to achieve the aim of the king’s divorce. Fletcher states that: “The diplomatic gift-giving detailed in this paper amply demonstrates Castiglione’s maxim that ‘those who give are not all generous.' The gifts are given by, and to, ambassadors, required a return. Rewards and gifts of all sorts were important tools in diplomatic practice. Tips would ease an ambassador’s way through the stages of ceremony at the court of Rome, while bribery could find him politically useful friends. Gift-giving was also a means through which the social virtue of liberality could be expressed. Accusations of corruption were not usually prompted by any intrinsic quality of a particular reward. Corruption, like bribe, was rather a label with which to declare gift transactions improper or illicit. In short, a gift became a bribe when someone cried ‘corruption!’ In the campaign for Henry’s first divorce, all sorts of gifts were deemed to be corrupting: and they were defended heartily by their givers as entirely legitimate. In illicit gift-giving, ambassadors would use much the same rhetoric – that of liberality and reward – that they employed in more legitimate cases. By labelling gifts in this way they hoped to avoid being accused of bribery. Underlying the rhetoric was a shared understanding – in these cases based on or reinforced by the papal decree – that offering inducements to act against one’s conscience was unacceptable. But when conscience, essentially unknowable, was the determinant of the legitimate gift, the justification for the gift’s presentation became all-important”. (1)

While I like the book and it has substantial merits, it also has some significant weaknesses. Firstly you get no idea how we reached the period that Fletcher writes about. The book could have done with a link to the proceeding history, after all, to understand where we are going we have to know where we come from.

Karl Marx describes this period so well. He states “The social system that existed in the late medieval period in which Shakespeare set his historical plays is often referred to as "bastard feudalism." Feudalism was in crisis in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for reasons that are complex, but which in the final analysis were due to the increasing importance of the market and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Lords no longer drew directly on their estates for manpower in war but maintained private armies of paid retainers. The feudal dues of the peasants were increasingly turned into cash payments as the market economy became more important for all social classes. Although the peasant’s revolt of 1381 was brutally suppressed, peasants were able to use the acute labor shortage after the Black Death killed an estimated third of the population in the mid-fourteenth century to win concessions and greater freedom. What resulted was not a nation-state, but the more powerful Tudor monarchy. In many ways what is remarkable about the nation-state in England is just how long it took to develop. Capitalist property relations had permeated feudal society for centuries before a crucial clash came in the seventeenth century. Even then the construction of a nation-state was a slow and piecemeal business. The nation-state took so long to make because it did not spring ready-made out of the mind of some Anglo-Saxon genius like Bede or Alfred, as Hastings would have us believe, but was constructed in the course of protracted class struggles and revolutionary upheavals “.(2)

This conception of an early developing capitalism is currently under tremendous assault from modern day revisionist historians writing about this period.(3) For them, the reformation pursued by Henry VIII in the mid-1530s had nothing to do with contending class forces or contending economic interests. But was the result of “the deficiencies of Henry's own reproductive system.”
These were serious times. 

We witness an abrupt change in religion. Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Germany, denouncing the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, this was the opening shot in the new revolution which would sweep across Europe.

The Vatican did not stand idly by and responded with the Counter-Reformation. Which attacked anyone who challenged Catholic doctrine? A by-product of the Counter-Reformation was the Roman Inquisition which was backed up by torture and execution. It oversaw the torture and ultimate death of hundreds maybe even thousands of so-called 'heretics,' the highest profile being Thomas More, but again for the revisionists, the significant change in property relations that resulted from the dissolution of the monasteries was merely the result of Henry's sexual proclivities.

Henry VIII support for the Reformation was not just a change of mind after all he had formerly defended the Catholic Church in his book (Henry VIII His Defence of the Faith and of the Seven Sacraments) According to one writer His break with the Catholic Church in the early 1530s “Indicated the growth of economic forces incompatible with feudal social organization and the emergence of a national consciousness. In 1534 he replaced the Pope's authority by his own Act of Supremacy, creating the Church of England. This church became distinctly Protestant under his son, Edward VI. Mary officially re-established Catholicism, married Philip II of Spain and persecuted Protestants as heretics, but she died childlessly, and the crown fell to her half-sister”.

A lot of questions remain unanswered by Fletcher, and she could have done no better than to study Christopher Hill who asked “Why did Henry become tyrannical? Why did the wealthy and commercial classes represented in Parliament have to fight for their liberties? During the sixteenth century, under the Tudor rulers, the grandfathers of the Parliamentarians of 1640 were the monarchy’s stoutest supporters. What had happened to change their outlook? Parliament had supported Henry VII and Henry VIII and Elizabeth in their efforts to police the country against the anarchy and brigandage of over-mighty subjects, of feudal potentates with their private armies, and England had been made safe for commercialism. Parliament had also supported Henry VIII and Elizabeth in their successful struggle against the universal Catholic Church: money no longer went from England to Rome”. (4)

I am not expecting Catherine Fletcher to take on board all that I have written above. But her next project would be taken to a higher level if even a small amount of the above criticisms were taken on board. Would I recommend her book yes without reservation? I would also recommend that the reader does some further reading around the subject as well?


(1)    EUI Working Papers MWP 2011/15 Max Weber program Catherine Fletcher "Those Who Give Are Not All Generous: Tips and Bribes at 16th Century Papal Court”.
(2)   Karl Marx. Capital Volume One

(3)   One example of the revisionist writings is G W Bernard The Dissolution of the Monarchies Volume 96 issue 4 Number 324  History published by The Historical Association

(4)  The English Revolution 1640; Written: in 1940; by Christopher Hill Published: by Lawrence and Wishart.