The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher

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The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A detailed account of Henry VII's efforts to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, often called 'history's most infamous divorce', through his Italian diplomat Grigorio Casali, and to some extent also a biography of the previously little-known personality.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 268 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099554899

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Henry VIII’s protracted divorce from Catherine of Aragon, often referred to as ‘The King’s Great Matter’, has been described in detail many times before. In this book on the subject, the focus is on the role of Italian diplomat, Gregorio Casali, ‘our man in Rome’, as the hardback edition was titled. In the preface, Ms Fletcher explains that the average reader may be conversant with the basic facts of Henry and his six wives, but has probably never heard of Casali, who played a lengthy role in the proceedings.

The story begins with the secret trial in Westminster which began in May 1527, at which Cardinal Wolsey began the legal process to try and invalidate his sovereign’s eighteen-year marriage to Catherine. Henry had convinced himself that her inability to deliver him a son and heir was God’s verdict on a union against divine law, as he had taken the widow of his late brother as his own wife. Not only did he desperately want a legitimate son, but he had also just become infatuated with Anne Boleyn, who would surely succeed where Catherine had failed. Enter Casali, the son of a Bolognese merchant and a Roman noblewoman, who had served the King for eight years as a messenger and soldier and was now about to become his special ambassador to the Holy See in Rome.

For King and ambassador alike, the European situation was complicated by the fact that Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and arguably the most powerful monarch in Europe, had some influence with the papacy and was threatening to invade England in order to try and ensure that his aunt’s position as Queen of England was safeguarded. For some time Casali and Pope Clement VII were trapped in Rome by Charles’s troops, and the Pope did not dare to consent to annulment of the marriage while he was potentially at the Emperor’s mercy. There was little if any sympathy for Henry’s position and marriage problems, and Casali had a difficult position to maintain, complicated by the simple matter that he was an Italian in receipt of a pension from King Francis of France and his loyalties were often questioned by the English.

Added to this were the difficulties in communication, which would seem incomprehensible from a 21st century perspective but very much part of everyday life to a Renaissance era diplomat having to keep in touch with a demanding sovereign over a thousand miles away. There were also the hazards of travelling by horseback in an often inhospitable terrain, at the mercy of bad weather and also of spies ready to report their every movement. Faced with such problems and also the goodwill of a Pope who was trying to maintain the best possible relations between powerful sovereigns whose interests were so much at variance, Casali indeed had a poisoned chalice. Yet he was more fortunate than some, notably Cardinal Wolsey, another devoted servant of the King. For his failure to secure an annulment to the marriage, he was arrested for treason, and only escaped almost certain trial and execution by falling ill and dying conveniently soon.

Ms Fletcher traces the tortuous path and the negotiations which dragged out over the next six years. Previously the most shadowy of characters, Casali emerges here as a shrewd diplomat who however ultimately failed in what was surely an impossible quest. At one stage, Henry was close to having his divorce accepted by the Italian elite, and his ambassador reached the stage of obtaining lawyers for a trial in Rome which would have led to a dissolution of the marriage with the Pope’s full albeit reluctant approval. Yet this came to nothing; Casali’s brother Paolo, who was also engaged in the negotiations, was brutally attacked and died of his wounds soon afterwards.

The situation was only resolved when Henry, increasingly impatient with the endless delays, made the final break with Rome himself. He was also conscious that time was not on his side. When he married Anne in secret in May 1533, and later on in the same month saw the annulment of his marriage to Catherine declared by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, he was in his early forties – by medieval standards, no longer a young man.

The author has brought what is an extremely intricate story to life well against the background of Renaissance Italy, at a time of war, bribery, corruption, and several powerful rulers more than ready to assert their often opposing interests. Such a book could have been either confusing or dull of both, but this part-biography, part-history is told very well.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

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Buy The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher at


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