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King Henry VIII

Part 9: The Troubled Conscience of the King


In July 1528 there was an outbreak of the dreaded sweating sickness which had claimed thousands of victims during its last appearance ten years before. On this occasion the French ambassador reported that it "brought more business to the priests than the doctors." The sickness was characterized by a cycle of excruciating headaches, abnormally high temperature, chills, delerium and in many cases death, sometimes within twenty-four hours. Henry was an hypochondriac with a morbid fear of illness. There were many medicaments reputed to be effective against it, of which Henry had a comprehensive collection from which he would send vials and pills to those enjoying his favour. But the only effective way to escape the disease was to avoid contact with those infected. Londoners would flee to the country during outbreaks, carrying the disease with them. It soon reached the court, causing some deaths, and Anne Boleyn was among those infected. Had her attack proved fatal how different the history of England might have been! Henry abandoned her without hesitation and moved to a manor in Hertfordshire. Anne was angry at his desertion, even though he sent her a note stating that wherever he was he was hers, that he would willingly bear half her illness, that fewer women died of the sickness than men, and that she should not come back too soon.

Some courtiers hoped that the onset of the disease might be seen by the king as a Divine warning, and that it might frighten him into abandoning the affair with Anne. They were particularly encouraged by the fact that he appeared to be living in complete harmony with Catherine once more. He had locked himself up with her and refused all communication with his servants or with strangers, and dosed himself with every form of medicament on which he could lay his hands. He wrote to Wolsey, who had also isolated himself: gave him copious advice about the sweat and how to treat those struck down by it He sent Wolsey some of his favourite preservatives, asked the cardinal to send him whatever he was using, and urged him to "commit all to God" and to put his personal life in order, as he had done. Henry joined the queen in her devotions, heard three Masses a day, received Holy Communion on all Sundays and feast days, and made a daily confession.
All hopes that Henry had undergone a change of heart were dispelled as soon as the disease abated. He immediately recalled Anne to the court, but her stay was short-lived as prior to Campeggio's arrival Henry deemed it prudent to remove Anne Boleyn from the court at Greenwich to Hampton Court, where she occupied Queen Catherine's rooms. He lived once more with Catherine as if there had been no controversy between them, eating at the same table and sleeping in the same bed. Campeggio arrived in London in October 1528, after a painful journey during which fits of gout had reduced him to a state of suffering and weakness. He was carried in a litter to his lodging and two weeks elapsed before he was well enough to leave the house. The Italian legate was received by the king with the utmost graciousness, and received frequent visits from Henry before the hearing. His son, who had accompanied him, was knighted, and many promises were made to Campeggio of what he would receive in the event of an outcome favourable to the king, among them the rich bishopric of Durham. Wolsey visited him almost every day; but could not persuade Campeggio to commit himself to a judgement in favour of the king. The Italian kept his sentiments as an impenetrable secret, and would say no more than that it was his wish and his duty to render the king every service consistent with the dictates of his conscience. Campeggio had two meetings with Queen Catherine, one in private and one in the presence of Wolsey and four other prelates at the end of October. He explained to the queen the nature of the complaints made against the validity of her marriage, and urged her in the name of the pope to enter a convent. Catherine replied with modesty and firmness that she was not concerned for herself alone, but for one whose interests were more dear to her than her own, her daughter Mary, the heir presumptive to the throne. She would never take any step that would prejudice the rights of her daughter. Catherine also protested about being interrogated without notice on so delicate and important a matter, particularly as she was a weak and ignorant wornan, a stranger in the land without friends or advisers, while her opponents were men learned in the law anxious only to do what would please the king. The queen insisted that it was her right to have a counsel of her own, and this request was granted.

On 8 November 1528 Henry VIII explained to the people of England, before a great asembly of nobles and notables including the Lord Mayor and great merchants of London, why he was bringing the question of his marriage before a legatine tribunal. This speech must be one of earliest known instances of an exercise in public relations, and must, surely, be one of the greatest acts of hypocrisy ever recorded. It should be kept in mind when reading the extract from the speech that follows, that Henry's relationship with Anne Boleyn was not simply known at that time, but was notorious. Anne was now more magnificently lodged than the queen, and with a greater court. 40 She was receiving letters such as the following from the infatuated king:

The approach of the time I have so long awaited rejoices me so much that it seems already here. Nevertheless, the complete fulfilment cannot be until the two persons meet, which meeting is more desired on my side than anything on earth: for what joy in this world can be so great as having the company of the one who is one's dearest friend: knowing also that her, choice is also the same, which thought gives me great pleasure. Judge then what her presence will do, whose absence has given me such pangs as neither tongue nor pen can express, and that never anything but that can remedy. Begging you, my mistress, to tell my lord your
father, on my behalf that I beg him to put forward by two days the time appointed so as to be in court, before the old date or at least on the day arranged, or otherwise I shall think that he will not serve the lovers' turn as he said he would, nor come up to my expectations. No more now for lack of time, hoping quite soon to tell you by word of mouth the rest of the pangs I have suffered through your absence. Written by the hand of the secretary, who wishes himself at this time with you privately, and who is and ever will be,

Your loyal and most assured servant,
[H.. seeks AB no other R.] 41

As will be seen in his speech to the notables, Henry expresses the most pious possible veneration for Divine law and recounts his fears that despite the papal dispensation his marriage had been void from the beginning due to the forbidden affinity that existed between himself and his brother's widow. In order to appreciate the full extent of the royal hypocrisy it must be remembered that Anne's sister Mary had been Henry's mistress, which created an affinity of the first degree collateral in the case of two sisters, which ruled out any marriage with Anne unless a papal dispensation could be obtained. Henry was well aware of this, and, incredible as it may seem, he had already written to the pope asking him to prepare a conditional bill of dispensation from this affinity with Mary which would enable him to marry Anne when, as he was confident would be the case, the annulment of his marriage with Catherine was finalized. 42 There could thus be no logic in Henry arguing that the pope could not dispense from a first degree of affinity and asking him for precisely such a dispensation as he was determined that no possible grounds should exist to justify an accusation of illegitimacy being brought against the son that he was confident Anne would eventually bear him, and a papal dispensation from the affinity resulting from his relations with Mary Boleyn was essential to achieve this. This dispensation was actually granted in December 1527, but included the stipulation that the king must be free to marry in order to avail himself of it, and it was thus of no value unless the legatine court annulled the marriage with Catherine.
Henry reminded his audience of the peace and success the country had enjoyed during his reign, but he feared that if he should die without legitimate issue, civil discord might arise like that of the 15th century, which might even lead to foreign conquest. True, he had a lovely daughter by the Lady Catherine; but he had lately heard from pious and learned theologians, that his marriage with his deceased brother's widow was forbidden by Divine law----in fact, this objection had been urged when he was lately negotiating an alliance for her (i.e. his daughter Mary) with the son of the French king. This had filled his mind with horror, since it involved a question of his eternal salvation. Henry continued:

For this only cause I protest before God and, in the word of a prince, I have asked counsel of the greatest clerks in Christendom, and for this cause I have sent for this legate as a man indifferent (unbiased) only to know the truth and to settle my conscience and for none other cause as God can judge. And as touching the queen, if it be adjudged by the law of God that she is my lawful wife, there was never thing more pleasant nor more acceptable to me in my life both for the discharge and clearing of my conscience and also for the good qualities and conditions the which I know to be in her. For I assure you all, that beside her noble parentage of the which she is descended (as you all know) she is a woman of most gentleness, of most humility, and buxomness, yea, and of all good qualities appertaining to nobility, she is without comparison, as I this twenty years almost have had the true experiment, so that if I were to marry again if the marriage might be good, I would choose her above all other women. But if it be determined by judgement that our marriage was against God's law and clearly void, then I shall not only sorrow the departing from so good a lady and loving companion, but much more lament and bewail my unfortunate chance that I have so long lived in adultery to God's great displeasure, and have no true heir of my body to inherit this realm. These be the sores that vex my mind, these be the pangs that trouble my conscience, and for these griefs I seek a remedy. Therefore I require of you all as our trust and confidence is in you, to declare to our subjects our mind and intent according to our true meaning, and desire them to pray with us that the very truth may be known for the discharge of our conscience and saving of our soul, and for the declaration hereof I have assembled you together and now you may depart.

40. Hughes, op. cit., p. 181.
41. There are fifteen extant letters from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, nine in French and six in English. By an irony of history they are now in the Vatican archives, (Codices Vaticani II, 3731).
42. Writing to Henry ten years later, after the breach with Rome had been consummated, the exiled Reginald Pole expresses surprise at Henry's "horror" of illicit marriage: "Are you ignorant of the law which certainly no less prohibits marriage with a sister of one with whom you have become one flesh, than with one with whom your brother was one flesh? If one kind of marriage is detestable, so is the other. Were you ignorant of this law? Nay, you knew it better than others. How do I prove that? Because, at the very time you were rejecting the dispensation of the pope to marry your brother's widow, you were doing your very utmost (magna vi contendebas) to get leave from the pope to marry the sister of your former concubine." Pro Ecclesiasticæ Unitatis definsione, lib. iii; translated in Bridgett, op.cit., pp. 148-149.


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