OUR MAN IN ROME:
Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador
by Catherine Fletcher
(London: The Bodley Head),
Hardcover: 288 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Dr Catherine Fletcher, a lecturer in early modern history at Durham University, has managed to say something new about England’s King Henry VIII’s unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Vatican to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Some 500 years after the events in question, hitherto unknown documents found in an English country estate have shed new light on the annulment proceedings, particularly on the pivotal role of Italian freelance diplomat Gregorio “The Cavalier” Casali, Henry’s ambassador to the Papal States.
In today’s world, engaging a foreigner as one’s ambassador may seem anomalous. However, this was a standard practice in Tudor times, with Henry VIII also employing other members of the Casali family as ambassadors.
Dr Fletcher’s study begins with an account of Henry’s secret commission in England (known as the king’s “Great Matter”) into the validity of his 1509 marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his late older brother Arthur, especially after Catherine had failed to provide Henry with a male heir.
Rumours of his desire to have his marriage annulled soon reached the Vatican. Henry’s timing could not have been worse as it coincided with the sack of Rome by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the nephew of Catherine of Aragon.
For the next six years, the Italian Casali was to be a key go-between in Henry’s attempts to secure an annulment from the Vatican.
However, during this period, the political situation remained adverse to Henry’s aspirations. The Medici Pope Clement VII, after having negotiated a peace with the Holy Roman Emperor, sought his assistance to facilitate the restoration of his family’s rule in Florence.
Fletcher indicates that ultimately Charles may have been prepared to tolerate the divorce had Catherine of Aragon been prepared to co-operate. Both he and Clement feared the possibility of a northern European prince defecting from Rome and allying himself with German Protestant princes.
During much of this period, however, it was never Henry’s intention to break with Rome, even though many key actions on Henry’s part are often viewed retrospectively as deliberate steps in that direction. For example, Fletcher suggests that Henry’s actions against his former right-hand man, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey were attempts to apply pressure on Clement.
Fletcher contends that even while Henry toyed with the idea of breaking with Rome, he still maintained ties until comparatively late in proceedings. Thus, Henry was eager that his nomination of Thomas Cranmer as archbishop of Canterbury in 1532 be endorsed by the Holy See. The point of no return seems to have been Henry’s secret marriage on January 25, 1533, to Anne Boleyn — possibly hastened by the fact that Anne was already pregnant.
This was followed by Parliament ruling Henry’s former marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid. Clement thereupon ordered Henry to repudiate Anne and return to Catherine within one month under pain of excommunication. Henry ignored the Pope’s ultimatum, and the excommunication was enforced in mid-1533.
As an Italian, Casali had intimate knowledge of the workings of the Papal court, and, during much of the negotiation process, Henry afforded him considerable latitude in negotiating on his behalf with the Pope. Even when Henry sent envoys, such as Stephen Gardiner, directly to Rome, Casali remained a key figure in assisting them to undertake the tasks Henry gave them to do.
For example, early in the negotiations Casali lobbied Clement unsuccessfully to delegate to the papal legate sent to England the full power to annul the marriage. However, later in proceedings, Henry’s strategy changed, with Casali being a key player in attempting to stall the hearing of the case, as the political situation in Italy was deemed adverse to Henry being able to secure a divorce.
Throughout the narrative, Fletcher demonstrates that Casali was also serving — and at various points — advancing his family’s interests. His choice of wife not only benefited his social standing but afforded him a certain amount of wealth. However, this was offset by the expenses incurred by Casali in maintaining the lifestyle expected of a diplomat. Later in the proceedings, Henry’s agent Richard Croke sent the king adverse reports of Casali’s dealings. Nevertheless, despite these and Casali’s ultimate failure to secure the divorce, Henry still rewarded him with a castle in England.
Past interpretations of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn have tended to emphasise either the political or canonical aspects. Fletcher clearly prefers the political interpretation.
The canonical interpretation — traditionally favoured by Catholic historians — is that notwithstanding the political background, Clement could not have granted an annulment because the validity of Henry’s first marriage was beyond any doubt. Fletcher acknowledges that, notwithstanding Henry’s efforts to obtain opinions of university professors favourable to the divorce, the canonical arguments in Henry’s favour were weak.
Our Man in Rome is an interesting study of an overlooked figure in this seminal event in English history.
The narrative at times is dry. However, Fletcher’s work is a significant to historical scholarship in that it challenges the simplistic interpretation that Henry failed to secure the annulment because his agents were Englishmen operating in an Italian milieu. The work also contains interesting vignettes on diplomatic life, particularly in 16th-century Papal Rome.