Dissecting a Divorce: King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon

A pivotal period in the history of the early modern world was King Henry VIII’s schism with the Roman Catholic Church and the English Reformation it sparked. These events led to England’s formation as a Protestant nation, isolated from the influence of Rome. It is believed that King Henry VIII’s request to Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was largely based on his desire to marry a suitable woman of child-bearing age capable of producing a male heir. Although the union of Henry and Catherine had produced a daughter, Mary, the king required a son in order to ensure succession of the Tudor dynasty. King Henry feared a foreign monarch or prince’s marriage to his daughter would result in a foreign power effectively controlling his realm. Catherine’s child-bearing days were nearing an end and many experts declared that she would not survive an additional birth.

The question remains: why would Pope Clement VII refuse to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon? Henry VIII was a seemingly loyal, earthly representative of Christ. Henry had been granted the title “Defender of the Faith” for his opposition to the rise of Lutheranism on continental Europe and had understandable concerns for the future of his crown and realm. Over the nearly five centuries, many theories have been discussed as to why the Holy See, at a time when the influence and long-held prestige of the one true faith was threatened by reformists and dissidents such as Martin Luther and later John Calvin, would risk isolating and offending a monarch and by extension his entire nation by refusing to stamp the seal of Saint Peter on a piece of papal parchment.

I find myself agreeing with the popular view that Pope Clement VII had little say in the matter. Events in Europe, such as the imminent Ottoman threat and the sacking of Rome made the approval of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon politically impossible for the papacy. These pressing concerns closer to home were foremost on the mind of the pope leaving the needs of a king on the periphery of western Christendom unheard.

In order to understand Henry’s need for a recognized divorce and why his request was rejected, one must understand who Catherine of Aragon was, how she and Henry came to be, and most importantly, who Catherine counted among her relatives. Catherine was the daughter of “historic power couple” King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, the same duo who sponsored the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Ferdinand and Isabella had one unadulterated goal: the continued growth of their realm and influence. The prominence and political maneuvers orchestrated by the sacrament of matrimony in medieval times is well known and perhaps overplayed in our contemporary culture. George R.R. Martin’s, Game of Thrones, accurately portrays the practice of marrying offspring to foreign rulers as a means to strengthen ties and develop influence within foreign realms. As the daughter of a dominant ruling dynasty of the period, Catherine was clearly one of these cases. Catherine was betrothed at infancy to Prince Arthur of Wales, the first born son of King Henry VII. King Henry VII recognized the need for peace and the necessity of maintaining good relations with the Spanish kingdom especially in light of threats posed by the Kingdom of France. Henry VII strongly advocated for the marriage of both of his sons, Arthur and then Henry, to Catherine. When Arthur died leaving Catherine a widow, it was politically expedient for Prince Henry to marry Catherine. Although their marriage was considered ‘happy’, Henry did not love Catherine. Their union was soured by stillborn sons and only one daughter, the aforementioned Mary.

By the time Henry had consolidated his power, he clearly wanted to be rid of Catherine. However, there was one man standing in the way of this divorce: Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and Catherine’s nephew. Charles V was perhaps the richest and most powerful man of his time. He was a grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella and his control spanned present-day Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Low-Countries, and all colonial possessions in the Americas. A staunch Catholic who worked to resist Luther in his German dominions, Charles V’s realm was something akin to an American or Soviet superpower in the fifteenth century. The papacy heavily relied on Charles V’s patronage and protection. Catholicism, at this time, was under tremendous threat not only from rebelling imperial lords incensed by Martin Luther but by a resistant France and the equally as large Ottoman Empire led by Suleyman the Magnificent. Suleyman made no secret of his intentions to conquer Europe and destroy the Roman Catholic Church. Although at this point in time the Ottoman incursion was still very far away and the main invasion and defense waged by Charles V would not be fought until years later after Henry’s split with Rome, the threat was serious enough that the papacy had to take preventative measures. France’s dispute and campaigns were not helping the situation and Henry VIII was also involved in a semi French alliance due to his courting of Anne Boleyn and Norman ties. Additionally, Henry was not in a geographic position to assist the Papacy directly. Charles V was in such a position. Charles’s enhanced power and proximity made it more likely that Clement would heed his words over Henry’s.

The dramatic event that perhaps solidified the Pope’s rejection of Henry VIII’s divorce request was the sacking of Rome in 1527. Mutinous soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, believing that they had not been properly compensated for their services, attacked the city and imprisoned the pope with threats of bodily harm. It has been disputed that their actions were motivated by the lack of compensation and also to ensure that the Pope would listen to their emperor who prior to the sacking had requested a private audience with the Pope. This was due to Pope Clement seemingly switching sides by engaging in discussions of alliance with France and desiring not to be completely dependent on the Hapsburg dynasty despite needing them for protection. From this point in time, the Pope would become a perpetual prisoner of Charles V and had almost no choice but do what he demanded lest the emperor find some pretext to execute him and replace Clement with a more pliable representative of Saint Peter.

These events and the political climate of continental Europe all contributed to Clement VII’s decision to deny Henry’s request for an annulment. Claims were brought forth by Henry that the injunction written in the bible passages of Leviticus made his marriage to Catherine invalid in the eyes of God and no male heir was born due to God’s wrath at this “unlawful” union. Although the marriage had the approval of Pope Julius II and was declared valid when it occurred alongside knowledge of the consummation of the marriages, England still pressed that Henry’s union to Catherine was invalid. Henry VIII and his council had no chance of convincing Pope Clement VII. The pope had become a prisoner of Charles V. The papal response that marriage is sacred and for life should not be surprising. Charles V would never allow his aunt Catherine to be dishonored, exiled or kept confined in the tower of London, if not out of love, but simply to protect the prestige of his family.

To conclude, King Henry VIII could not get his divorce from Catherine of Aragon because the state of affairs was not amenable to such and consequently England embarked on a dramatically different path from the rest of the European early modern community.

-James Venia


“Catherine of Aragon.” BBC News/History. Accessed October 1, 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/people/catherine_of_aragon/.

“Charles V | Holy Roman Emperor.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed October 3, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-V-Holy-Roman-emperor.

“Henry VIII Biography.” Biography.com Website. Accessed October 2, 2015. http://www.biography.com/people/henry-viii-9335322.

“The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon Book Chapter One.” English History. March 6, 2015. Accessed October 2, 2015. http://englishhistory.net/tudor/the-divorce-of-catherine-of-aragon-book-chapter-one/.

Trueman, Chris. “Henry’s Divorce from Catherine – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. Accessed October 2, 2015. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/tudor-england/henrys-divorce-from-catherine/.

Vallely, Paul. “The Big Question: What Would Have Happpened If Henvy VIII Had Obtained His Divorce?” The Independent. June 25, 2009. Accessed October 1, 2015.     http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/the-big-question-what-would-have-happened-if-henry-viii-had-obtained-his-divorce-1717976.html.

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