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

by Catherine Fletcher

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In 1533 the English monarch Henry VIII decided to divorce his wife of twenty years Catherine of Aragon in pursuit of a male heir to ensure the Tudor line. He was also head over heels in love with his wife's lady in waiting Anne Boleyn, the future mother of Elizabeth I. But getting his freedom involved a terrific web of intrigue through the enshrined halls of the


In 1533 the English monarch Henry VIII decided to divorce his wife of twenty years Catherine of Aragon in pursuit of a male heir to ensure the Tudor line. He was also head over heels in love with his wife's lady in waiting Anne Boleyn, the future mother of Elizabeth I. But getting his freedom involved a terrific web of intrigue through the enshrined halls of the Vatican that resulted in a religious schism and the formation of the Church of England. Henry's man in Rome was a wily Italian diplomat named Gregorio Casali who drew no limits on skullduggery including kidnapping, bribery and theft to make his king a free man. In this absorbing narrative, winner of the Rome Fellowship prize and University of Durham historian Catherine Fletcher draws on hundreds of previously-unknown Italian archive documents to tell the colorful tale from the inside story inside the Vatican.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Engagingly written…recommended.” —Choice

“An impressive, dogged study for armchair Tudor detectives.” —Kirkus Reviews

“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 clever in the telling of it, cutting through to what matters without over-simplifying.” —Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall

“This book casts bright light on an extraordinary cast of characters at a dark moment in the affairs of Christendom. With considerable scholarship, borne lightly, Catherine Fletcher vividly evokes the worlds of Papal Rome and of Henry VIII's Court in England, and deciphers the diplomacy of nightmare.” —Susan Brigden, author of New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors

“It is no small achievement to find previously unexplored documents and to offer a new take on one of the most famous divorces in history. Yet Fletcher does just that with great scholarly verve and literary aplomb. This is a compelling tale of high politics and dodgy dealings, renaissance diplomacy and family drama. This is the untold story of Gregorio ‘The Cavalier' Casali Henry VIII's man in Rome.” —Anna Whitelock, author of Mary Tudor

“Catherine Fletcher rescues from undeserved obscurity a key player in one of history's great events. Gregorio Casali turns out to be a thoroughly intriguing character: a skilled diplomat, but also a controversial networker, bribester, and all-around fixer who went by the code name Bald Head. With impeccable scholarship and a zest for the delightful minutiae of history, Fletcher navigates the intricate byways of Renaissance diplomacy to bring this vital new figure into the story of Henry VIII's ‘great matter.'” —Ross King, author of Brunelleschi's Dome and The Judgment of Paris

“This entertaining and meticulously researched study casts new light on a famous episode in English history.” —Linda Porter, author of Katherine the Queen

“A marvel of close-up detective work, with the main players, in addition to those on the English side, being the Emperor Charles V (Catherine's nephew), the King of France and Pope Clement VII. … And we are in the thick of it from the word go, with lots of nasty backbiting.” —Duncan Fallowell, Daily Express

“Catherine Fletcher is not afraid to dazzle the reader with her scholarly prowess and detail, with the result that she has managed here to reclaim a period of history all too often simplified… Fletcher simply tells a cracking story well in plenty of detail with clarity and insight… Her protagonists are never anything but true to their selves and Fletcher richly deserves the title of historian.” —Sarah Vine, London Times

“The greatest joy of this splendid book is that it dwells on context. You'll learn a great deal about why the squabbles between Charles V and the king of France made Italian and papal politics such a muddle. You'll emerge with a keener sense of why the dynastic priorities of Henry VIII ("a mid-ranking northern monarch, a player on the European stage but far from the star of the show") managed to cause such a fuss. With any luck you'll switch off your TV and rely instead on the hard work of experts who can write very well.” —Jonathan Wright, The Herald

“Fletcher's glittering debut.... drawing on the unexplored riches of Italian Renaissance archives, enlarges the [well known story], and to magnificent effect.” —Miranda Seymour, Sunday Times London

“Catherine Fletcher's [The Divorce of Henry VIII] is beautifully written and offers a clear and accessible account of a neglected figure in Tudor and Papal politics. Her study of Gregorio Casali's career reveals unexpected links between the worlds of the court, business and the law in London and Rome and offers a fascinating account of how patronage and diplomacy worked in sixteenth-century Europe. It is thoroughly researched and carefully nuanced, providing not merely a gripping tale of Henry VIII's campaign for an annulment of his first marriage, but scholarly insights into the nature of personal politics in the Renaissance. It will find its way into the collection not only of the enthusiast of the period, but the student and the professional historian alike.” —Glenn Richardson, Reader in Early-Modern History, Saint Mary's University College London

author of Brunelleschi's Dome and The Judgment of Ross King

Catherine Fletcher rescues from undeserved obscurity a key player in one of history's great events. Gregorio Casali turns out to be a thoroughly intriguing character: a skilled diplomat, but also a controversial networker, bribester, and all-around fixer who went by the code name Bald Head. With impeccable scholarship and a zest for the delightful minutiae of history, Fletcher navigates the intricate byways of Renaissance diplomacy to bring this vital new figure into the story of Henry VIII's ‘great matter.'
Library Journal
Given the amount of material available on the Tudors, it's difficult to think that anyone even remotely interested in this era is unfamiliar with the particulars of Henry VIII's attempts to seek a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and the resulting political and religious fallout. Fortunately, in her first book, Fletcher (history, Univ. of Durham, England) has found a new angle by focusing on a little-known figure: Gregorio Casali, England's Italian-born ambassador to Rome. As one of the diplomats charged with securing the Pope's approval for the divorce, Casali played a central role in the dealings at the papal court. Though some biographical gaps remain, the information Fletcher has uncovered about Casali's life—full of clashing politics, professional rivalries, and deep family loyalties—provides a fresh perspective on the proceedings of the divorce attempt as well as an in-depth look at the complex world of 16th-century diplomacy. VERDICT The level of scholarly detail may overwhelm some casual readers, but the combination of Fletcher's excellent detective work and a new viewpoint on this well-trod patch of history makes this a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in this popular subject.—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Kirkus Reviews
Assiduously tracking Henry VIII's point man in Rome. Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon took six years to effect, involving numerous emissaries to the Vatican who may or may not have been on the up and up, and rupturing England's ties to the Catholic Church in the end. The process proves exacting, engrossing reading as English academic Fletcher (History/Durham Univ.) focuses on the toilsome job of "resident diplomat" in Rome Gregorio Casali, who tried desperately to placate all factions, including Pope Clement and King Henry. However, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had besieged Rome for plunder and was not amused by Henry's attempt to divorce his lawful queen of nearly 20 years. While Catherine was effectively lobbying her Spanish relatives and the pope constantly for support, Henry was enlisting academics to substantiate his claim that marrying his brother's wife had amounted to a biblical hex. The campaign for public opinion wore on: Henry wanted an heir, plain and simple, and was willing to sever ties with the Roman Catholic Church to do it. Little by little, with his lover Anne Boleyn's help, he cut the Church's influence across England, putting the pressure on Clement, who delayed interminably. Fletcher goes step by step, a numbing-by-details process: Bribery, nepotism, murder, marriage (Casali's own) and Halley's Comet all pass through these pages before Henry finally got his way and married Anne in 1533. Yet with Wolsey's fall from favor and death, Casali returned to England to plead his case "that I and my kindred shall be an example to every man of the ingratitude of princes," then died soon after, abandoned by England. An impressive, dogged study for armchair Tudor detectives.

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The Divorce of Henry VIII

The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican

By Catherine Fletcher

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Catherine Fletcher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-00058-3



ON FRIDAY, MAY 17, 1527, a secret trial began in Westminster. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII's chief minister, prince of the Holy Roman Church and papal legate a latere, presided over the hearings. At stake was the validity of Henry's marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon. After eighteen years together, they had only one surviving child, a daughter, Mary. Was the lack of a son God's verdict on a union against divine law? Henry had convinced himself it was so. Might a different queen succeed in producing an heir for England where Catherine had not? Perhaps, and besides, Henry was in love with another woman: Anne Boleyn.

News traveled slowly in sixteenth-century Europe. Even in good circumstances, the journey from Rome to London took an experienced courier two weeks. As Wolsey's proceedings opened, none of the participants knew that for almost a fortnight Pope Clement VII, most of his cardinals and several hundred others — among them Gregorio Casali — had been besieged in the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome.

Not yet thirty, Casali had been in the English royal service for the past eight years, as messenger, as soldier and now as Henry VIII's ambassador to the Holy See. The son of a Bolognese merchant and a Roman noblewoman, he had done well for himself. Family connections in the curia and a guardian in the College of Cardinals had helped. But with Spanish troops and German landsknechts now running amok through Rome, his enjoyment of a lavish ambassadorial lifestyle was temporarily in abeyance.

The Sack had begun on May 6, when mutinous troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, stormed the fog-bound streets. Their pay months in arrears, they went in search of loot. Pope Clement fled from his sumptuous apartments at the Vatican to his fortress at the Castel Sant'Angelo on the banks of the Tiber. The city outside was pillaged, palace after palace ransacked. Its citizens were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. A contemporary painting shows, in the foreground, some of the horrors (Plate 2). Thousands, probably, died, and many more fled. Even nuns and priests were not immune from attack. The tomb of Pope Julius II was opened and his corpse despoiled. Churches were plundered and relics destroyed in a fashion that horrified contemporary observers. The Sack, said more than one, was God's vengeance on a corrupt and failing priesthood. The hundreds inside the castle tried as best they could to defend themselves. They had supplies of ammunition and food to last perhaps a month.

Since 1494, the Italian peninsula had been the theater for a series of European wars waged between the two great powers of the period, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Italy was divided into a series of small states that vied for great-power backing. The Pope ruled his own Papal States like any other prince. The Marquis of Mantua presided over his principality and the dukes of Urbino and Ferrara theirs; Genoa would soon rebel against French control and become a republic once again, like that other great maritime power, Venice, which ruled much of the Adriatic. In the turmoil that followed the Sack, the city of Florence had broken with the Pope, expelled the Medici family and declared itself a republic. But Pope Clement — Giulio de' Medici — hoped to restore his exiled clan to the pre-eminence it had once enjoyed in that city. As the Venetian ambassador Gasparo Contarini wrote, Clement had an "infinite desire" for Florence. That desire colored his actions. At the time of the Sack, ranged against Charles V were Francis I, King of France, Pope Clement VII, the republics of Venice and Florence, and Francesco II Sforza, Duke of Milan. England had not yet formally taken sides, but Henry and his chief minister Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the man responsible for England's diplomacy, would in practice defend the papacy.

Castel Sant'Angelo, the fortified mausoleum of the ancient emperor Hadrian to which Clement and his court had retreated, was surrounded by bastions from which the snipers of the papal garrison took aim at Imperial targets. On its top floors were elegant living quarters, built to afford the popes a modicum of comfort on such occasions; high up on the loggia, the Pope's men were well placed to defend the bridge over the Tiber below. From the top of the castle, where the statue of the warrior archangel Michael now stands, there was a commanding view of the city, although the besieged men of the curia might have reflected that they commanded very little indeed. All they could do was wait, fire back, and hope for relief from the armies of France and its allies in the League of Cognac. The siege was not impossibly tight: some messages went in and out of the castle, though at considerable risk to their bearers. Pietro Cavallucchio, a man we will meet again in this story, made it out, sent by the Pope to Deruta, a hundred miles north, where the League's army was camped. He bore the message that Clement would rather risk his life than come to an arrangement with Charles V's commanders.

Three weeks into the siege, by the beginning of June, it was clear that Rome would not be relieved. The countryside around Deruta had been exhausted the previous summer. Hunger, lack of supplies and bad weather took their toll; the League's army began its retreat. In the city now, food was scarce. Hostages were threatened with death if they did not pay extortionate ransoms. There was more looting; the plague began to spread. Fearing attack, few ventured out to their farms and vineyards, or to feed livestock, storing trouble for the months ahead. Imperial commanders, many of them Italian noblemen serving Charles V in the hope of reward, struggled to control their troops, who threatened mutiny if they were not paid. This was the troubled backdrop to Henry's design for divorce.

It is sometimes hard to pin down the truth of events in the story of Gregorio Casali, but hardest of all in these days of the Sack — days surrounded by myth and imaginings. If we like, we can picture him on the castle ramparts, sniping at the Spanish: he was a military man, that would be plausible. We might imagine him offering urgent counsel to Clement on his next move, or in a quieter moment swapping louche tales with his friend Benedetto Accolti, who had just acquired a cardinal's hat with fulsome promises of cash. It was a far cry from the convivial world of ceremonial entries, dinner parties, minor spying and exchange of gossip that Casali had joined in 1525, when, hoping for a step up the social ladder, he had become Henry VIII's man in Rome.

A handful of details about Casali's activities in these days are more certain. We know that he had already pawned his family silver and jewels to help the French embassy raise funds for Rome's defense. Hoping to make a thousand crowns, he and Nicolas Raince, the French embassy secretary, had managed just six hundred. Ambassadors needed deep pockets, for they often subsidized their masters' adventures for months, if not years. And these were hard times for the Casali. In April, Spanish troops had burnt their country villa, causing damage, so Gregorio's brother Giambattista said, to the tune of sixteen thousand ducats, five times Gregorio's annual stipend from the English. Fortunately for Gregorio, his mother's family, the Caffarelli, rich Roman nobles traditionally allied to the Holy Roman Empire, would endure the Sack better than most.

We hear, too, from an Imperial report that Casali was one of four deputies appointed by the Pope to represent those besieged in the castle: he acted for his fellow patricians; his colleague Alberto Pio da Carpi (an Italian diplomat in the French service) for the ambassadors; Gianmatteo Giberti, Bishop of Verona, represented the prelates; and Giuliano Leno the merchants and artisans. Whether they were chosen by Clement or pressed on him by others in the castle is unclear. But whatever the mechanism, the choice of Casali points both to his good standing among his fellow Romans and also to the influence he wielded as English ambassador. For a diplomat was never simply himself. He personified his prince. When Casali negotiated, he negotiated as a Roman, but he commanded too a certain royal authority. Indeed, his very decision to stay in the siege made a statement about Henry's support for Clement. (It must have been his decision: there was no time for him to receive instructions.) He might well have gone elsewhere. The ambassadors of Venice and Urbino had taken refuge with Isabella d'Este Gonzaga, Marchioness of Mantua, whose son Ferrante commanded Imperial forces and whose favor the Casali family enjoyed. But Gregorio was smart enough to realize that putting himself at the heart of the papal defense would earn him gratitude from Cardinal Wolsey and win Henry favor with the Pope.

Almost as soon as the siege began, the diplomacy got under way. The talks centered on money — money badly needed to pay the Imperial mercenaries rioting through Rome. At first, the Imperialists demanded three hundred thousand ducats as the price for ending the siege. Clement made a counter offer, then demurred. News of the Sack had still not reached England. The secret trial of Henry's marriage continued: on May 20, on the twenty-third and the thirty-first. On June 1, the news arrived, and proceedings came to an abrupt stop. "If the Pope's Holiness fortune either to be slain or taken, as God forbid," wrote Wolsey to Henry the following day, "it shall not a little hinder Your Grace's affairs." He was right. Queen Catherine of Aragon could appeal to the Pope against any sentence on the validity of her marriage. She was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, whose troops held Clement prisoner, and Renaissance blood was viscous indeed.

The marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (Plates 3 and 4) was a political one, which is not to say their relationship was less than cordial. It was rare for the princes and princesses of early modern Europe to wed for love. Marriages were the cement for political alliances, a tool of the trade in diplomatic negotiations. This particular match had consolidated Anglo-Spanish ties against a mutual enemy, France. Catherine had been married to Henry's elder brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1501, but Arthur had died less than six months later, and in 1503 she was betrothed to Henry. Marriage to a brother's widow required a dispensation from the Pope, and this was duly obtained, although in the event the pair wed only after Henry's accession to the throne, on June 11, 1509. But if royal marriages were made for political reasons, they were also, sometimes, unmade. Henry's sister Margaret Tudor, Dowager Queen of Scotland, had had her second marriage (to the Earl of Angus) annulled by Clement in March 1527, just weeks before our story begins. Louis XII of France had had his marriage annulled too, in 1498, when, for political reasons, he wanted to make a dynastic alliance with his brother's widow, Anne of Brittany. His legal argument had been quite dubious, but Pope Alexander VI had been on his side, and that was enough. It was not hard to find a technical inadequacy in the betrothal paperwork on which to base an annulment, particularly when everyone involved agreed that the discovery of such an inadequacy was highly desirable. In Henry's case, however, there would be no such easy agreement.

Religious notions of marriage as inviolable, therefore, rarely entered the maneuvering of Henry's diplomats. It was all about realpolitik. At the papal court, diplomacy was not, very often, a religious matter. The Pope was a curious sort of prince, who on the one hand played a game very similar to his secular counterparts but on the other enjoyed a special status as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Religious notions would be more important in Catherine of Aragon's opposition to the divorce, though as important was her honor as a queen and the possibility that she might be reduced from that status and her daughter bastardized in favor of the upstart Anne Boleyn and her offspring. Anne as Henry's mistress would be one thing: royal mistresses were an accepted feature of court life. Indeed, Henry had once offered her just that role, only later realizing that she might also solve the problem of a legitimate male heir for England. Anne as queen was another matter altogether.

It was a month before Clement and the Imperialists agreed on an accord. The deal showed the weakness of Clement's position: the ransom demand had increased from three to four hundred thousand ducats. On June 7, 1527, the siege came to an end, and Imperial troops took possession of Castel Sant'Angelo, with Pope and cardinals still inside. As the papal garrison left the castle with colors flying, Gregorio Casali was among its leaders. Even in defeat, they put on a good show. They were escorted out of Rome and headed north toward Perugia. Never one to miss an opportunity for testimony to his merits, Casali brought with him a fistful of thank-you letters to Wolsey extolling his good services: from Clement himself, from cardinals Farnese, Pucci, Gaddi, Campeggio and Benedetto Accolti. The impact of the Sack on contemporary politics was dramatic, and Casali's month in the Castel Sant'Angelo had done him much credit.

In the next two weeks, Gregorio Casali traveled to Florence, Bologna, Ferrara and beyond. Our man in Rome had responsibilities covering most of the Italian peninsula. As an eyewitness to the horrors of the Sack, he would have been able to testify to the chaos in Rome. In Florence he rallied the city against the emperor. In Bologna, his father's home town and the second city of the Papal States, he drew on family connections to raise troops. Gregorio's kin were — as we shall discover — central to the conduct of his diplomacy. In Ferrara he had talks with Duke Alfonso d'Este, once again with the aim of bolstering papal territory. On the evening of June 22, he arrived in Venice, where he stayed with his brother Giambattista at San Giorgio Maggiore, a Dominican monastery with fine cloisters and a beautiful setting on its own small island next to the long strip of land known as Giudecca, across the water from St. Mark's Square. Not long after Gregorio's own promotion to ambassador to Rome in 1525, he had contrived to have the English appoint Giambattista, previously a member of the papal household, ambassador to Venice. On his arrival he addressed the Venetian College in a meeting that the suspicious Imperial ambassador Alonso Sanchez recorded as having lasted more than three hours.

In England, the secret divorce trial was secret no more. By June 22, Queen Catherine knew of her husband's scheme and immediately dispatched a servant to Spain to inform the emperor. For the next six years she would fight her corner, resisting repeated attempts to persuade her to back down, give up or enter a nunnery. But as yet, Gregorio Casali knew nothing of this. His priority was the war and — immediately — keeping the Venetians sweet. Venice was a vital ally for the papacy against the Holy Roman Empire, not least because, thanks to its merchants, rich from their trade with the East, the city was a valuable source of finance. On papal initiative, the Casali brothers lobbied the Venetians to take on the Marquis of Mantua, Federico II Gonzaga, as their captain-general. Gregorio's diplomatic career often crossed national boundaries. His main loyalty was to England but the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua were useful patrons on the side. So, too, was Clement VII. It was a matter of good sense for a man with family interests to advance to keep his options open. There was always the risk that he might fall out of favor with one or other capricious prince. When Gregorio left Venice, in early July, he was given a present of silver cutlery and silk cloth. Worth two hundred gold crowns, it would have been a useful supplement to his income. As he traveled through the north of Italy, there would have been no time for him to receive new instructions from England, but — like any ambassador in such circumstances — he stuck to England's existing policy and existing alliances and got on with the task of reinforcing the Papal States. His boundless energy for shuttling to and fro across often hostile territory was one of his great strengths as a diplomat.


Excerpted from The Divorce of Henry VIII by Catherine Fletcher. Copyright © 2012 Catherine Fletcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author

Catherine Fletcher holds a PhD in history from the University of London. She is the recipient of many awards and fellowships at the British School at Rome and the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches history at the University of Durham. The Divorce of Henry VIII is her first book.

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