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Excerpts, Part 8: Cardinal Wolsey

By an interesting coincidence, at the same time that Henry became infatuated with Anne Boleyn, he began to have scruples of conscience concerning his marriage with Qeen Catherine. His conscience was, he claimed, gravely troubled because by marrying his brother's widow he had violated Leviticus 20:21: "He that marrieth his brother's wife doth an unlawful thing." The king was, however, faced by the problem of Deuteronomy 25:5 which states: "When brethren dwell together, and one of them dieth without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry to another; but her brother shall take her, and raise up seed for his brother." Henry claimed to be living in a state of torment for fear that his marriage was incestuous. He did not explain why he had lived happily with Catherine for seventeen years without being in the least troubled by such scruples.

The king had informed Cardinal Wolsey in March or April 1527 that he wished his marriage with Catherine to be annulled, but gave no hint that this was to make possible a marriage with Anne Boleyn (Wolsey was on terms of enmity with the Boleyns). The cardinal was aware of the fact that Anne had by then become the King's mistress, but took it for granted that, as in previous cases, he would eventually tire of her. Wolsey was under the impression that the bride the king had in mind was Renee, Duchess of Chartres, the daughter of Louis XII. She eventually married Hercule d'Este, Duke of Ferrara in 1528. Wolsey was not greatly concerned whether the marriage with Catherine was valid or invalid. He knew that Henry believed with almost dogmatic certainty that what he wanted must be right simply because he wanted it, and that to oppose him or to fail to obtain what he required was a form of treason. The marriage to Renee would help to perpetuate the alliance with France, Wolsey's principal objective in the diplomatic field. The cardinal offered the king his support and even ventured to promise complete success. The dispensation which enabled Henry to marry Catherine was only the third of its kind. In 1517 the Master-General of the Dominicans, Thomas De Vio (commonly called Cajetan), the greatest theologian of the sixteenth century, with the possible exception of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, completed a lengthy examination of the problem, giving three examples of such dispensations, and citing that given to Henry and Catherine as the second. 36 Cajetan (who was made a cardinal in the same year) bases his conclusion on a fundamental principle of Catholic theology: Roma locuta est, causa finita ("Rome has spoken the dispute is finished"). The fact that the pope has dispensed in the three cases cited, insists Cajetan, proves that he has the power to do so. So fundamental is this principle that, as Monsignor Philip Hughes comments: "Cajetan takes this for granted, and he takes it for granted too that all his readers will take it for granted." 37 Professor J. J. Scarisbrick stresses the fact that as the dispensation involved the plenitude of papal power its validity could not be called into question by anyone claiming to be a Catholic, even if it had been without precedent (which was not the case):

Had Julius's dispensation been unique it would still have had strength from the fact that it was the fruit of a plenitude of power, which was the master, not the servant, of academic opinion. To a thorough papalist the proof that the pope could dispense this impediment was the fact that he had done so. 38
It is important to note that Cajetan's conclusion is not put forward as a response to Henry's demand for an annulment, but was reached ten years before the king began to develop his case against the validity of his marriage.

Wolsey realized that his entire future depended on obtaining the annulment, and he believed that the support of the universally revered Bishop of Rochester could be the deciding factor in securing that future. He wrote to Fisher explaining the concerns troubling the conscience of the king, thus involving him for the first time in the king's "Great Matter". The reply which the cardinal received, and despatched to the king on 2 June 1527, proved to be a great disappointment. Just as Fisher had not denied the truth of Luther's allegations concerning the scandals of papal Rome (supra), he made no attempt to deny that weighty theologians had denied the possibility of a valid dispensation for the impediment of affinity in the first degree collateral. But these theologians had put forward this thesis before popes had given dispensations in such cases, and Fisher, like Cajetan, had not the least doubt that this settled the matter: Roma locuta est, causa finita. The Bishop explained in his reply to Wolsey that after consulting the best authorities he had no difficulty in reaching a conclusion:

Having now consulted all the mute teachers (as they say) whom I could get in my hands, and diligently sorted their opinions, and weighed their reasons, I find, just as I lately wrote to your Eminence, that there is a great divergence between them. Some assert that the matter is prohibited by Divine law; others, again, strongly maintain that it is in no way repugnant to Divine law. After weighing impartially over and over again the reasons on both sides, I think I perceive an easy reply to all the arguments of those who assert that it is prohibited by Divine law, but no easy reply to those of the other side. So that I am now thoroughly convinced that it can by no means be proved to be to be prohibited by any Divine law that is now in force, that a brother marry the wife of his brother deceased without children. If this is true, and I have no doubt that it is most certainly true, who can deny, considering the plenitude of power which Christ has conferred on the Sovereign Pontiff; that the pope may dispense, for some very grave reason, for such a marriage.

Even if I granted that the reasons on either side were evenly balanced, and that the difficulties on each side could be solved with equal ease, I should, nevertheless, be more inclined to give the power of dispensation to the Pontiff; for this reason that the theologians of both sides grant that it belongs to the plenitude of the pontifical office to interpret ambiguous places of Holy Scripture, having heard the judgement of theologians and jurists. Otherwise to no purpose Christ would have said: "Whatsoever Thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and whatsoever Thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven." Now, as it is most evident that by their very acts the Sovereign Pontiffs have more than once declared that it is lawful in the case mentioned to dispense in favour of the second brother, this alone would powerfully move me to give my assent, even if they alleged no reasons or proofs. From these premises no scruple or hesitation remains in my mind about the matter. I wish your Eminence long life and happiness.

Wolsey was despatched on an embassy to France in July 1527 to negotiate a perpetual peace with that country, and to finalize arrangements for the eleven year old Princess Mary to marry either King Francis I or his second son, the Duke of Orleans (then eight years old). He was also to conclude two treaties involving an alliance against the Emperor Charles V and the renouncement of claims by the English crown to lands in France in return for a yearly rent of fifty thousand crowns of gold. Before the departure of his embassy, Henry gave a magnificent entertainment at Greenwich in honour of his ambassadors. Three hundred lances were broken in a tournament, and in the evening after a banquet they were entertained with an oration and songs, a fight at barriers, and the dancing of maskers. At about midnight the king and six noblemen, disguised in Venetian costumes, danced with ladies of the court Henry's partner was Anne Boleyn.

Wolsey set out the next morning accompanied by nine hundred horsemen and a multitude of attendants. It was necessary for Wolsey to pass through Kent, the county in which Rochester is situated, and he decided to visit Fisher en route for the coast in the hope of persuading him to revise his opinion for one favourable to Henry. The fact that Wolsey himself visited the Bishop of Rochester indicates the importance which both he and the king placed on winning him to their cause. They knew that opposition from Fisher would be embarrassing not simply in England but in Europe. The bishop's reputation as an exemplary prelate and an exceptional scholar was known throughout the continent


Wolsey presented arguments and provided documentation which he hoped would convince Fisher of the invalidity of the King's marriage. Fisher replied that he could not decide upon a matter of such importance without studying it thoroughly. He did precisely this. Henry invited the bishop to come to Westminster and deliver his opinion in person, believing, no doubt, that Fisher would be both overwhelmed by the honour done to him, and intimidated by the royal presence, and would respond in the manner that he desired. Henry received the bishop with great warmth, for he could be the epitomization of charm when he so desired. They walked together in the long gallery at Westminster, the king praising Fisher's learning and virtue. He then unburdened his conscience:

My conscience, my Lord, is sore tormented. I have consulted my ghostly father (confessor) and several other wise and learned men, but am by no means satisfied. And so, relying on the special confidence I have in your great learning, I have made choice of you, desirous to give your advice the preference over others. Declare your opinion freely, my Lord, so that my conscience may be fully instructed, and I no longer left in suspense.

At these words the bishop fell on his knees and attempted to give the king his reply in that posture, but the king raised him to his feet and told him to give his reply without fear. John Fisher explained that he had weighed "impartially over and over again the reasons on both sides" and the decision he had come to was that Henry and Catherine were truly man and wife. He was therefore in a position to give the king the good news that, as there was not the least doubt that his marriage was valid, he could set aside every scruple of conscience and continue to live with Queen Catherine. This was not the answer that the king wanted, as the bishop well knew, and from that day forward, to quote a contemporary account, "the king never looked on Bishop Fisher with a merry countenance for that his grudge daily increased against him."
Monsignor Hughes is certain that from the very beginning Henry had no intention of accepting any decision from anyone at any level, including the pope, except that his marriage was invalid:

No Catholic could, in good faith, believe the Church (and the papacy) to be what it claims to be and, simultaneously, claim that the Church should endorse his own private judgement about a point of faith and of morals as a service due to him in consideration of his merits. Henry's conscience in this matter----supposing him still to be a Catholic----is not a genuine conscience; for it is not prepared to submit to the rule of what it acknowledges to be its authority but, from the very first, it is seeking to bend that authority to its own requirements. 39

Wolsey was profoundly shocked in October of the same year, when Henry at last told him of his true intention, to marry Anne Boleyn. The Chancellor received the news with grief and dismay. The disparity of birth between Anne and the king, the danger of his being supplanted by the Boleyn family, the loss of the French interest, which he hoped to secure by a future marriage with a French princess, and the additional difficulties which this resolution would throw in the way of the annulment crowded upon his mind. On his knees he besought the king to draw back from a project which would cover him with a disgrace, but aware of the royal temper, he soon desisted from his opposition, became a convert to the measure which he could not avert, and laboured by his subsequent service, to atone for the crime of having dared to dIspute the pleasure of his sovereign.
Wolsey brought pressure upon the pope to set up a legatine court in England, that is a court having papal authority and acting through papal legates. These were to be Wolsey himself and Cardinal Campeggio, an eminent canonist and noted statesman who had been employed on several important and delicate missions on behalf of the Holy See. Campeggio had been married and took holy orders only after the death of his wife in 1509, receiving a cardinal's hat 1517. He had, been named to the see of Salisbury by Henry, who had also made him a present of a palace in Rome, and the king was confident that he could count upon Campeggio's support. Henry was to be disappointed as the legate was unwavering in his loylty to the Holy See. The pope had instructed Campeggio to do all in his power to draw out the negotiations as long as possible in the hope that the matter might resolve itself----Henry might tire of Anne, Catherine might agree to enter a convent or even die.

36. Cajetan's conclusions are to be found in his celebrated Commentary on the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, completed on 26 February 1517, in his discussion of 2a-2ae, q. 154, art 9.
37. P. Hughes, The Reformation in England, vol. I, (London, 1959), p. 170.
38. J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (London, 1970), p. 179.
39. Hughes, op. cit., pp. 160-161.


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