Monday, 21 May 2012

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

One of the things that strike you when reading Catherine Fletcher's excellent book is that she is a courageous 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 medal.

The book has been met with favourable reviews. Fletcher manages to combine the skill of a journalist, the imagination of a novelist and the intellectual rigour of an academic historian. The book works on many fronts and would be accessible for an enthusiast of the period or for the more serious-minded student or academic.

The book received high praise from the author Hilary Mante who said it 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 has been so amusing in the telling of it, cutting through to what matters without over-simplifying." [1]

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. Casili is an obscure figure. 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.

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 still live in Piacenza in northern Italy. Fletcher, in a remarkable piece of skill or luck, managed to track down the family archive.

Fletcher believes he is a neglected figure in both Tudor and Papal history. To put it simply, Casili was "Our man in Rome." Henry used him as part of his covert campaign for an annulment of his first marriage. As Fletcher writes "Through Casali's eyes, we see England from the outside: from Rome, from Italy, from Europe. There, Henry VIII is not the caricature fat tyrant, nor yet the virtuous Renaissance prince, but a mid-ranking northern monarch, a player on the European stage but far from the star of the show."[2]
One thing that is not disputed (well not much) by academic historians is that this was a genuinely revolutionary period in English history. Writing in the Marypana describe Henry VIII as "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."[3]

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 a 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 writes 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 a 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".[4]

The book has substantial merits. However, 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 have been.

The fact that the period Fletcher wrote about  was "revolutionary" her book could have done with borrowing a few words from a guy that new quite a bit about revolution,Karl Marx. 

Marx brilliantly describes the period when he writes "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 labour 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 ".[5]

This very concept of a transition period between the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism has been challenged by modern-day revisionist historians.[6] These historians believed that the Reformation pursued by Henry VIII in the mid-1530s had nothing to do with contending class forces or contending economic interests. However, was the result of "the deficiencies of Henry's reproductive system."

As David Walsh points out "Henry VIII initiated the Reformation in England by breaking with the Catholic Church in the early 1530s. The decisiveness of Henry's act 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 reestablished Catholicism, married Philip II of Spain and persecuted Protestants as heretics, but she died childless, and the crown fell to her half-sister".[7]

Despite their protestations, these were dangerous 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, the opening shot of a new revolution which would sweep across Europe and conclude with the English revolution.

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. However, 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's 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 reestablished Catholicism, married Philip II of Spain and persecuted Protestants as heretics, but she died childlessly, and the crown fell to her half-sister".[8]

A lot of historical questions remain unanswered by Fletcher's book. As Christopher Hill, who pertinently 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".[9]

To conclude, Fletcher's book is very well written and is extensively researched. I recommend her book without reservation? The book is not the final word, and Fletcher could have consulted a few more left-wing historians to give the book a better balance.

[4] 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".
[5] Karl Marx. Capital Volume One
[6] See  G W Bernard The Dissolution of the Monarchies Volume 96 issue 4 Number 324  History published by The Historical Association
[7] Elizabeth and a weakened historical sense-By David Walsh
3 December 1998-
[9] The English Revolution 1640; Written: in 1940; by Christopher Hill Published: by Lawrence and Wishart.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Star Chamber-Alison Stuart

Inspired by Keith Livesey's post on the Levellers I thought it might be appropriate to talk about "the Star Chamber" which reached such a level of infamy during the reign of Charles I that the term "Star Chamber" still exists in our idiom today.  It is generally used to denote any judicial or quasi-judicial action, trial, or hearing which so grossly violates standards of "due process" that a party appearing in the proceedings (hearing or trial) is denied a fair hearing.

It has its origins in the fourteenth century and is said to have derived from a room in the Palace of Westminster decorated with a starred ceiling where the King and his privy council met. Initially, it served the valuable role as a "conciliar court" which were convened at short notice to deal with urgent matters. Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility, it was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as common-law judges, and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. In a sense, the court was a supervisory body, overseeing the operations of lower courts, though its members could hear cases by direct appeal as well. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes.

In 1487, a Star Chamber Act was enacted setting up a special tribunal to deal with subversive activities within the King's household. In theory, the Star Chamber could only take cognisance of a matter if there was a good reason to interfering with the ordinary processes of law. In practice, it meant that it heard cases and impose punishments in matters where no actual crime had been committed but, in the subjective opinion of the court, were considered morally reprehensible. The sort of matters coming before it would now constitute offences such as conspiracy, libel, forgery, perjury, riot, conspiracy and sedition. Henry VII and Henry VIII, in particular, used the power of the Star Chamber to break the powerful nobles who opposed his reign. Prosecutions were brought by the Attorney General and prisoners tried summarily by affidavit and interrogation (which very often included torture). Punishments included fines, imprisonment, pillory, branding or loss of an ear. It did not have the power to order a death sentence.

It's more sinister side began to emerge by the end of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century when it began to lose its "civil" side, and notwithstanding its inability to mete out death, by the reign of Charles I, the Star Chamber had achieved a terrible reputation for severity and tyranny.

Charles I routinely used the Star Chamber Charles to examine cases of sedition, which meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. It came to be used to try nobles too powerful to be brought to trial in the lower court. During the time of Charles "personal rule", he ruthlessly stamped down on the freedom of the press and religious and political dissenters.  William Prynne, Alexander Leighton, John Bastwick and Henry Burton, all appeared before the Star Chamber for their views on religious dissent. William Prynne, for example, was a puritan who published a number of tracts opposing religious feast days and entertainment such as stage plays. The latter was construed as a direct attack on the Queen and in 1634 he was sentenced in the Star Chamber to life imprisonment, a fine of £5000, he was stripped of his qualifications and membership of Lincolns Inn and lost both his ears in the pillory.

It was the treatment of John Lilburne that eventually led to the abolition of the Star Chamber. As you will have read in Keith Livesey's post, John was a Leveller ("Free born John"). In 1637 he was arrested for publishing unlicensed books (one of them by William Prynne). In that time all printing presses had to be officially licensed. John was brought before the Star Chamber In his examinations, he refused to take the oath known as the 'ex-officio' oath (on the ground that he was not bound to incriminate himself), and thus called in question the court's usual procedure. On 13 February 1638 he was sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned till he obeyed.

On 18 April 1638 Lilburne was flogged with a three-thonged whip on his bare back, as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors while distributing more unlicensed literature to the crowds.  He was then gagged. Finally, he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned. During his imprisonment in Fleet he was cruelly treated. While in prison he, however, managed to write and to get printed in 1638 an account of his own punishment styled The Work of the Beast and in 1639 an apology for separation from the church of England, entitled Come out of her, my people. John spent the next few years going back and forth between the Star Chamber and prison.

In 1640, the King's personal rule ended and he was forced to reconvene Parliament. Incensed by John Lilburne's treatment at the hands of the Star Court, John Pym led a campaign to abolish it and in 1640 one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the western world was enacted, the Habeus Corpus Act. This Act abolished the Star Chamber and declared that anyone imprisoned by order of the king, privy council, or any councilor could apply for a writ of habeas corpus (literally meaning "release the body") and it required that all returns to the writ "certify the true cause" of imprisonment.  It also clarified that the Court of Common Pleas had jurisdiction to issue the writ in such cases (prior to which it was argued that only the King's Bench could issue the writ). On this statute stands our basic right to a fair trial.

Despite the rights of Habeas Corpus, "Star Chambers" still creep into our modern age. In modern American history, for example,  the best example of star chamber proceedings was the conduct of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (1938-1975) which used its subpoena power to intimidate citizens by asking them unconstitutional questions about their political beliefs and associations and then charging them with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer. Another example was the conduct of criminal proceedings against black defendants in some southern states from 1876 until the late 1960s. As a lawyer I have my doubts about the proceedings against the Guantamo Bay detainees but this is probably not the time and place to discuss these issues.


An Introduction to Legal History J.H. Baker
Luminarium, Encyclopedia Project