Very cool: Henry VIII’s letter to Clement VI requesting annulment

Very interesting.

May 12, 2009, 11:42 am
Vatican Reveals Letter That Split England From Roman Church

The Vatican has opened its Secret Archives, the repository of centuries worth of documents pertaining to the Holy See, to let the world get a closer look at a document presaging England’s split from the Church of Rome. Dated July 13, 1530 and addressed to Pope Clement VII, the letter asks for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and includes the seals of dozens of peers of England who concurred with the request. A facsimile of the document will go on sale next month for about $68,000 [gadzooks!]  from Venice-based publisher Scrinium,  which plans a limited run of 199 copies. A second, more damaged, copy of the document is in England’s National Archives in Kew. The facsimile and accompanying scholarly texts will allow for closer perusal of “the cause of Henry VIII,” Monsignor Sergio Pagano, the archive’s Prefect, told journalists on Tuesday. It will be officially presented in June, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Henry’s coronation, but the timing is a coincidence, Monsignor Pagano said. “We do not celebrate kings, only popes.”  [Especially that king.]


I have been watching The Tudors.  For the most part it is pretty good.  There are objectionable scenes: big surprise there.  I have been amazed all along at the relatively friendly portrayal of the Catholic cause and the horror of the repression of the Church. 

I think the series, made in Ireland, is fairly sympathetic to the Catholic Church and not friendly at all to Henry, because if they hate the Catholic Church, they hate Henry and the English with the C of E even more.

All that aside… think of it.  Think of what an interesting historic document that letter is.  Fascinating.

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  1. RichR says:

    This letter is featured in the National Geographic DVD of the Vatican. Of course, when the camera shows it, it’s behind sealed glass in some special vault in the VSA.

    I’m surprised a facsimile is going for so much $$$$$

  2. EDG says:

    I have been watching the Tudors, too (Netflix, I’ve only gotten to the point where he’s sending Catherine of Aragon away to clear the decks for Anne Boleyn). It’s good and engaging, although there’s a bit too much unnecessary – er, frolicking. The part about Thomas Tallis and William Whatever was the mandatory sop to the gays, for which no evidence exists, of course. But other than that, it gives a vivid picture of the times, and I was really intrigued when I read about the release of this letter.

  3. Peggy says:

    How is this document related to the document, also having to do with Henry VIII, that Benedict XVI gave to Charles and Camilla on their recent visit?

  4. John D. Enright says:

    I also watch the “Tudors.” Unfortunately, Father, it’s not very accurate.

  5. Peggy says:

    Is bold on?

  6. EJ says:

    I’ve also been impressed by the fair portrayal of the Catholic cause in The Tudors. Particularly the victimization of Catherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor, and how unpopular this was with the English people, and her portrayal as a faithful wife to the end. The portrayal of Cardinal John Fisher and Sir Thomas More are quite good and moving, they are portrayed as the righteous and courageous men that they were…and this season the whole portrayal of the Pilgrimage of Grace was also quite moving… but what is otherwise a very good TV Drama is mirred by otherwise senselessly vulgar sexual scenes.. they would gain a greater audience if they considered doing away with these – but unfortunately the producers seem more concerned by who the would lose if they did away with them.

  7. B. says:

    I was also quite surprised at the pro-Catholic stance of “The Tudors”. Despite the fact that everybody gets naked and more in the course of it.
    E.g. They show the pope undersigning “Sublimus Deus” prohibiting the enslavement of natives. There was absolutely no need for this scene, yet it was still in there. And this in a time where most people think that the Catholic Church was enslaving natives by the dozen.

  8. Aaron says:

    I started watching The Tudors because I really like Sam Neill, but I too was turned off by the gratuitous sex scenes and big inaccuracies. I guess I didn’t stick with it long enough to get to the good portrayals of Catholics; in the early episodes Neill’s Cardinal seemed completely amoral and willing to do anything to keep Henry under control and increase his own wealth and power base.

    Maybe I’ll give it another try.

  9. I think you have to class The Tudors as entertainment inspired by history. Yes, the inaccuracies can be annoying at the times but it is good entertainment and it has got lots of people interested in Tudor history.

    It’s wonderful that this letter is going on display, just like the love letter at The British Library and the National Archives digitizing their Henry VIII documents – great for Tudor history lovers.

  10. TJM says:

    Aaron, perhaps because Cardinal Wolsey was amoral as well as immoral. He fathered 2 illegitimate children. Henry VIII had shown a great deal of
    promise at the start of his reign. But as the old saying goes, “absolute power, corrupts absolutely ” fits Henry to a tee. He became one of the most
    evil, depraved figures in history, even having his 70 year god-mother, the Duchess of Salisbury, whom he once revered as a mother, beheaded simply for the sin of her being the mother of Cardinal Pole. Tom

  11. Supertradmom says:

    Sadly, inaccuracies abound and are not merely annoying, but cloud the truth. The Tudors as a dynasty seem not to have been good for England. Either the Yorks or the Lancasters would have been better.

  12. So.. apparently people are more interested in that show than in that very interesting document.

  13. Andrew, medievalist says:

    I just returned from Rievaulx Abbey (O.Cist) yesterday, where I said prayers for those who formerly served and worshipped there, and which now, among many other religious houses, is a picturesque ruin on account of this document.

    Pray for King Henry VIII who, at the end of his own life, left bequests for Masses for his soul.

  14. TJM says:

    We were just taking your lead! By the way, I assume the bishops who signed this document were pretty much coerced into doing so. I recall that
    Henry, like many kings, controlled a great deal of Church benefices and was not shy about letting his demands be known. Tom

  15. EDG says:

    I wonder to what extent interest in the show led to release of this document? It’s a nice way of keeping history straight; in addition, I think there are some people who regard the Catholic Church almost as a mythical creature, particularly given the way it is treated in most entertainments made nowadays (the total fantasies of “Angels and Demons,” for example). Releasing this letter shows that it was actually flesh and blood and a real historical fact with things that can be verified about it.

  16. Ma Tucker says:

    Extract from Cobbetts History of the “Reformation” in England and Ireland ( a great read if you want to know what really happened.)

    In Dr. BAYLEY’s life of Bishop FISHER, it is positively asserted, that ANNE BOLEYN was the King’s daughter, and that Lady BOLEYN, her rnother said to the King, when he was abouut to marry ANNE, “Sir, for the reverence of God, take heed what you do in marrying my daughters for, if you record your own conscience well, she is your own daughter as well as mine.” To which the King replied “Whose daughter soever she is, she shall be my wife.”

    Henry VIII was certainly a bad’n however the band of greedy crooks he surrounded himself with did a great deal more damage after his death by all accounts.

  17. Amy says:

    Any recommendations for a good book on the French Revolution?

  18. Supertradmom says:

    Tradition has it that Henry’s last words were, “Monks, monks, monks…” I dread to think what he was seeing as he was dying.

  19. Liam says:

    For those who want a good primer on the canon law of the case, you could do worse than the classic chapter in JJ Scarisbrook’s bio of the king. It was a landmark when it was published, though there have been a couple of attempts to refine or correct it in more recent years.

    Rome’s treatment of Katherine of Aragon was far from entirely wonderful. It’s pretty clear that the many of the Powers That Be wanted her to make the issue go away by volunteering for the nunnery like a French queen did a generation earlier (and there were those in Rome who did not believe in her protestations of virginity before marrying Henry). I’ve long wondered if that’s one reason she’s not had the active cause for sainthood – it cannot be the politics, since More & Fisher and others were canonized, and Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was beatified by Leo XIII.

    The House of Windsor, btw, did one good thing by approving the upgrading Katherine’s tomb at Peterborough for the 450th anniversary of her birth in 1986. See it and pray. She would be a wonderful patron for spouses suffering injustice from their spouses.

  20. Liam says:

    Sorry, that was the 450th anniversary of her death, and 500th anniversary of her birth.

  21. Caeremoniarius says:

    Not to start a rabbit hole here, but if I recall correctly, in “The Tudors,” Cardinal Wolsey is depicted as committing suicide (cutting his throat, no less), rather than dying in a monastery on his way to the Tower, as he actually did. I may say I don’t think that is friendly at all.

  22. mbd says:

    Jack Scarisbrick’s biography of Henry as I recall – it has been a number of years since I visited it – suggested that there might have been a plausible ground for an annulment; a ground of which Henry was aware and did not use though urged to do so by Wolsey. It had to do with the impediment of public honesty (which arose from the betrothal of Katherine to Arthur)and whether that impediment was dispensed with by Julius’s Bull which specified only the impediment of affinity. Apparently at the time, canonists were unanimous that an explicit dispensation of the impediment of affinity implicitly dispensed with the impediment of public honesty if a marriage were consummated, but were of varying minds if a marriage were not consummated and a dispensation only explicilty mentioned affinity. Katherine denied that the marriage with Arthur had been consummated. This, of course leads to an interesting question as to why Henry did not pursue this argument – an argument whch did not call into question Papal authority.

  23. William Tighe says:

    Scarisbrick does offer a good sketch of the canon law of the attempted “divorce.” He thinks that Wolsey had framed a case and argument that might have gotten Henry the annulment, had he cared to use it. That argument rested on the fact that the dispensation procured in 1503 by Henry VII (Henry VIII’s father) and Ferdinand of Aragon (Catherine’s father) to allow Henry and Catherine to marry was a dispensation from the impediment of “consanguinity” which the previous marriage between Catherine and Henry’s older brother, Arthur, had created. A dispensation from the impediment of consanguinity implied that the marriage of Arthur and Catherine had been followed by sexual intercourse. Had that not been the case — and remember, Catherine always insisted that she had been a virgin when she married Henry — the impediment from which a dispensation would be required was the much less serious one of “public honesty.”

    Wolsey wanted to take Catherine at her word, and to argue that, by sad mischance, the papal bull had dispensed with the wrong impediment, so the marriage of Henry and Catherine was null and void. Henry refused to allow this, insisting that the argument must be that a marriage between a man and his brother’s widow was always and in any circumstance against “the Divine Law” (Leviticus 18:16) from which no pope could dispense. Apart from the fact that Henry and his advocates had to explain away Deuteronomy 25:5, which commanded precisely such a marriage in certain circumstances, Henry’s argument had the grave disadvantage that it would require the papacy to admit that it had been acting wrongly and ultra vires for centuries in allowing such marriages; but that was the argument that Henry insisted on making, to the private consternation of Cardinal Wolsey.

    However, a decade after the publication of Scarisbrick’s monumental biography of Henry, the Benedictine canonist and historian Dom Henry Ansgar Kelly published his *The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII* (1976), in which he examined in detail all four of Henry’s annulments, from Catherine of Aragon, from Anne Boleyn, from Anne of Cleves and from Catherine Howard. He contradicted Scarisbrick’s argument, insisting that by the early 16th century the dominant canonistical thought on such a case was that a dispensation from a greater impediment, such as was “consanguinity,” automatically removed any and all lesser impediments, such as “public honesty.”

    Henry was a strange character, a man more prone to willful self-deceit than to conscious hypocrisy. Just at the time that he was getting involved with Anne Boleyn, for instance, he wrote a number of strongly-worded letters to his older sister, Margaret, the widow of James IV of Scotland, berating her for seeking to have her second marriage, to Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, annulled (she received the annulment in 1527). And in 1528, when his annulment process was getting under weigh, he sought and received a dispensation from the pope to marry, in the event that he should in the future become free to marry, any woman with whose sister he had had carnal relations — Anne Boleyn’s sister, had been his mistress from ca. 1522 to ca. 1525.

    There is, however, no likelihood that Henry could have been Anne Boleyn’s father, as she was born in 1500 or 1501 when Henry would have been 9 or 10 years old. There is a revealing episode connected with all this. In 1533, when various items of parliamentary legislation against the papacy were being promoted in the House of Commons, where opposition to them was strong and intense (the first recorded “division” of the House into ayes and nays over a piece of legislation came in 1533 when Henry came to the House of Commons in person and demanded that the House vote on the proposed legislation in his presence) one of the more outspoken opponents was Sir George Throckmorton of Coughton Court, Warwickshire (d. 1552), whose descendants in the elder line remained firmly Catholic right down to the present time, although several of his younger sons became Puritans. Henry, with that threatening bonhommie for which he is famous (think of the scene in “A Man for All Seasons” when Henry and his courtiers come to dine at More’s Chelsea mansion), had Throckmorton brought into his presence, took him aside, draped his arm about Throckmorton’s shoulder, and began to tell him at some length how he was seeking his annulment for no carnal considerations, but only to assuage the grief of his conscience at the realization that he had been engaged in incestuous relations with his brother’s widow. Throckmorton replied, Well Sire, consider in what case your conscience will stand if you match with mistress Anne, for it is said that you have meddled with both her mother and her sister. Henry flushed, and could only stammer, nay, never with the mother, at which point Cromwell interjected, and never with the sister neither, so put that matter out of your head and do your duty like a loving faithful subject.

  24. William Tighe says:

    Sorry, I wrote “consanguinity” above when I meant “affinity.”

  25. mbd says:

    Dr. Tighe,
    Leviticus – which was not necessarily contrary to the text in Deuteronomy – proscribed sexual rewlations with one’s brother’s wife, not marriage with a dead brother’s widow. Arguably, Leviticus referred only to the situation where the brother was still living.

  26. Andreas says:

    Does anyone know what language this letter was written in?

  27. William Tighe says:


    Well, of course; and many of Catherine’s defenders made just that argument.

  28. Jay says:

    I love The Tudors. Everything in life stops just to watch that show. I agree that Catherine of Aragon was portrayed with great piety. That pleased me the most about the show. In a way, one pities King Henry the Arch-heretic of England.

  29. Tony from Oz says:


    A terminological quibble: Henry VIII may have been an arch-schismatic but not an arch-heretic; he died as a schismatic Catholic on account of his denial of the papal authority. It was his son, Edward VI and, late, his daughter, Elizabeth I who tipped England over into heresy (ie denial of the Faith of the Church) and who were actual heretics.

  30. Jane Teresa says:

    Father, the link was broken. This may just be my computer, or it may be a problem with the link. Bizarrely, I was informed of this fact in Russian: ??????????, ?? ???? ???????, ????? ?? ????????? ?? ?????? ????????!

  31. Jane Teresa says:

    Re: the above post. The cyrillic text came out as a line of question marks when I pasted it into the message.

  32. Kaneohe says:

    Peggy, the Holy Father did not give Prince Charles and Camilla any document relating to Henry’s divorce, but rather gave them architectural engraving of St. Peter’s.

    The divorce document news story was a prank played on Ruth Gledhil of the UK Times on Line – the second prank in a week – she’s fast to publish but slow on checking on the veracity of her infomer’s “facts” The Times apologized to the Vatican and pulled the story.

    Tudors is “entertaining” but contains a multitude of factual errors which most viewers will take for gospel truth…

  33. EJ says:

    I would readily agree that Elizabeth I tipped England to full-scale heresy and apostacy much more than her sickly 15 y/o brother, more handled and controlled than a marionette, for whom such a young death was probably a blessing.

  34. The portrayal of Thomas More is very well done on the Tudors (having only see the 1st season). Even when he starts signing death warrants, they explain it is because he fears the massive deaths Lutheranism because of the religious wars in Germany. Even when Henry somewhat rebukes him, he tells the king that the executions were “well done” in such a way where you can tell he understands the gravity of the situation.

  35. ssoldie says:

    Instead of watching ‘The Tudors’, I picked up the book given to me as a birthday gift and read “Martyrs of the English Reformation”(Revolution) by Dr Malcolm Brennan.

  36. ssoldie says:

    As to the document asking for an annulement, it would have been granted had it been in the last 40 years. That is something to reflect on. Just think if the tribunal in the 1500 had given him an annulement,England still would have been ‘Catholic’ no English martyrs, and Henry would have been able to honestly claim ‘defender of the faith’.

  37. Maggie says:

    I hope that someday the Tudors is syndicated on more family-friendly stations and therefore is censored. I really like the storytelling- and I agree, despite its historical inaccuracies, I really like following all the ins and outs and political maneuverings going on. However, there’s so much nudity and sexual content it really makes me uncomfortable. A few years ago when TBS started airing “Sex and the City” reruns they cleaned up the language and took out most of the nudity, so maybe if another network picks up the Tudors they’ll do the same. I sure hope so.

    The episode in Season Two where St. Thomas More is executed made me cry. Weeping, not just a few trickles. Jeremy Northam does a marvelous job with the role. Sam Neill is also supberb as Cardinal Wolsey, and Maria Doyle Kennedy plays Katherine of Aragon to perfection. A strong cast, good writing… just a shame about all the gratuitous sex content.

  38. mbd says:

    Some years ago (almost 40), PBS telecast a series from Britain (perhaps the BBC) that was entitled, as I recall, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It is probably still available on DVD. The acting was excellent (Keith Michell played Henry) and the historical accuracy was of a surprisingly high calibre.It would not be regarded as requiring an R rating.

  39. Thomas says:

    I’m a bit confused about this “revelation.”

    I have a National Geographic book called INSIDE THE VATICAN from 1991 that has the exact same photo as the one above of this letter.

    So what exactly has been revealed that wasn’t already?

    As for THE TUDORS, I’ve commented before how pleasantly surprised I was by its positive portrayal of the Catholics and less than glowing portrayal of Henry and his cohorts.

    Jeremy Northam, Bosco Hogan, and Maria Doyle Kennedy were outstanding as More, Fisher, and Queen Katharine respectively. The exiled Katharine’s scene with Charles Brandon is very moving:

    “You know something, Mr. Brandon? If I had to choose between extreme happiness and extreme sorrow, I would always choose sorrow. For when we are happy we forget about spiritual things, we forget about God. But in our sadness, He is always with us.”

    More and Fisher’s scenes in the Tower and their executions were EXCEPTIONALLY well done. I watched those scenes several times ON DEMAND.

    The show is hypersexualized, but I’d recommend it. Even with the historical innacuracies.

  40. jaykay says:

    “the series, made in Ireland, is fairly sympathetic to the Catholic Church and not friendly at all to Henry, because if they hate the Catholic Church, they hate Henry and the English with the C of E even more.”

    “… if they hate the Catholic Church…” Do you mean the Irish, Father? Wouldn’t think that’s so. Some people over here, in their consuming need to be one with the spirit of the world, do of course profess all the modern liberal hatred of the church but the vast majority of people certainly don’t. What I would say is that there’s rather more a growing spirit of indifference than hatred, but that’s another story. The series anyway was a Canadian/Irish co-production. Some of the scenes were shot in Christ Church catherdral in Dublin, one of those churches, erm, “appropriated” by the Anglicans in the 16th century. It currently has a glorious choir and superb liturgy, way more dignified than the Catholic pro-Cathedral.

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