The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon/Chapter 6

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The Court at Blackfriars—The point at issue—The Pope's competency as judge—Catherine appeals to Rome—Imperial pressure upon Clement—The Emperor insists on the Pope's admission of the appeal—Henry demands sentence—Interference of Bishop Fisher—The Legates refuse to give judgment—The Court broken up—Peace of Cambray.

The great scene in the hall at the Blackfriars when the cause of Henry VIII. and Catherine of Aragon was pleaded before Wolsey and Campeggio is too well known to require further description. To the Legates it was a splendid farce. They knew that it was to end in nothing. The world outside, even the parties chiefly concerned, were uncertain what the Pope intended, and waited for the event to determine their subsequent conduct. There was more at issue than the immediate question before the Court. The point really at stake was, whether the interests of the English nation could be trusted any longer to a judge who was degrading his office by allowing himself to be influenced by personal fears and interests; who, when called on to permit sentence to be delivered, by delegates whom he had himself appointed, yet confessed himself unable, or unwilling, to decide whether it should be delivered or not. Abstractly Henry's demand was right. A marriage with a brother's wife was not lawful, and no Papal dispensation could make it so; but long custom had sanctioned what in itself was forbidden. The Pope could plead the undisputed usage of centuries, and if when the case was first submitted to him he had unequivocally answered that a marriage contracted bonâ fide under his predecessor's sanction could not be broken, English opinion, it is likely, would have sustained him, even at the risk of a disputed succession, and the King himself would have dropped his suit. But the Pope, as a weak mortal, had wished to please a powerful sovereign. He had entertained the King's petition; he had hesitated, had professed inability to come to a conclusion, finally had declared that justice was on the King's side, and had promised that it should be so declared. If he now drew back, broke his engagements, and raised new difficulties in the settlement of a doubt which the long discussion of it had made serious; if he allowed it to be seen that his change of purpose was due to the menaces of another secular Prince, was such a judge to be any longer tolerated? Was not the Papacy itself degenerate, and unfit to exercise any longer the authority which it had been allowed to assume? This aspect of the matter was not a farce at all. The Papal supremacy itself was on its trial.

On the 16th of June the King and Queen were cited to appear in court. Catherine was unprepared. She had been assured by the Emperor that her cause should not be tried in England. She called on Campeggio to explain. Campeggio answered that the Pope, having deputed two Legates for the process, could not revoke their commission without grave consideration. He exhorted her to pray God to enlighten her to take some good advice, considering the times. He was not without hope that, at the last extremity, she would yield and take the vows. But she did not in the least accede to his hints, and no one could tell what she meant to do.[1] She soon showed what she meant to do. On the 18th the court sate. Henry appeared by a proctor, who said for him that he had scruples about the validity of his marriage, which he required to be resolved. Catherine attended in person, rose, and delivered a brief protest against the place of trial and the competency of the judges. Wolsey was an English subject, Campeggio held an English bishopric. They were not impartial. She demanded to be heard at Rome, delivered her protest in writing, and withdrew.

It was at once answered for the King that he could not plead in a city where the Emperor was master. The court adjourned for three days that the Cardinals might consider. On the 21st they sate again. The scene became more august. Henry came now himself, and took his place under a canopy at the Legates' right hand. Catherine attended again, and sate in equal state at their left. Henry spoke. He said he believed that he had been in mortal sin. He could bear it no longer, and required judgment. Wolsey replied that they would do what was just; and then Catherine left her seat, crossed in front of them, and knelt at her husband's feet. She had been his lawful wife, she said, for twenty years, and had not deserved to be repudiated and put to shame. She begged him to remember their daughter, to remember her own relations, Charles and Ferdinand, who would be gravely offended. Crowds of women, gathered about the palace gates, had cheered her as she came in, and bade her care for nothing. If women had to decide the case, said the French Ambassador, the Queen would win. Their voices availed nothing. She was tokl that her protest could not be admitted. She then left the court, was thrice summoned to come back, and, as she refused, was pronounced contumacious.

For the King to appear as a suitor at Rome was justly regarded as impossible. Casalis was directed to tell Clement that, being in the Emperor's hands, he could not be accepted as a judge in the case, and that sovereign princes were exempted by prerogative from pleading in courts outside their own dominions. If he admitted the Queen's appeal, he would lose the devotion of the King and of England to the See Apostolic, and would destroy Wolsey for ever.[2] Had the Legates been in earnest there would have been no time to learn whether the appeal was allowed at Rome or not; they would have gone on and given sentence under their commission. It appeared as if this was what they intended to do. The court continued sitting, Catherine being contumacious, there was nothing left to delay the conclusion. She was in despair; she believed herself betrayed. Mendoza, who might have comforted her, was gone. She wrote to him that she was lost unless the Emperor or the Pope interposed. Even Campeggio seemed to be ignorant how he was to avoid a decision. Campeggio, the French Ambassador wrote, was already half conquered. If Francis would send a word to him, he might gather courage to pass sentence, and Henry would be brought to his knees in gratitude. The very Pope, perhaps, in his heart would not have been displeased if the Legates had disobeyed the orders which he had given, and had proceeded to judgment, as he had often desired that they might. Micer Mai's accounts to Charles of the shifts of the poor old man, as the accounts from England reached him, are almost pathetic. Pope, Cardinals, canon lawyers, Mai regarded as equally feeble, if not as equally treacherous. One reads with wonder the Spaniard's real estimate of the persons for whose sake and in whose name Charles and Philip were to paint Europe red with blood.

"Salviati," said Mai, "who, though a great rogue, has not wit enough to hide his tricks, showed me the minute of a letter they had written to Campeggio: a more stupid or rascally composition could not have been concocted in hell."[3] Campeggio was directed in this letter to reveal to no one that he had received orders not to give sentence. He was to go on making delays, which was what "those people desired," because, if he was to say that he would make no declaration in the affair, the Archbishop of York would act by himself, the Pope's mandate having been originally addressed to the two Legates conjointly or to one individually. The letter had gone on to direct Campeggio, if he could not manage this, to carry on the proceedings until the final sentence, but not deliver sentence without first consulting Rome. If possible, he was to keep this part of his instructions secret, for fear of displeasing the King.

"I lost all patience," Mai continued. "Andrea de Burgo and I went to the Pope, and told him we had seen the instructions sent to Campeggio, which were of such a nature that if we were to inform your Majesty of their contents you would undoubtedly resent the manner in which you were being treated. We would not do that, but we would speak our minds plainly. The letter to Campeggio was a breach of faith so often pledged by his Holiness to your Majesty that the divorce suit should be advocated to Rome. The violation of such a promise and the writing to Campeggio to go on with the proceeding was a greater insult and offence to your Majesty than the commission given to him in the first instance. It was a wonder to see how lightly his Holiness held promises made in accordance with justice and reason. An offence of such a kind bore so much on the honour of your Majesty and the princes of the Imperial family, that your Majesty would not put up with it. The King would have but to ask Campeggio whether he would or would not give sentence, and, if he refused, the duty would then devolve on the other Legate. His Holiness should be careful how he added fuel to the fire now raging in Christendom."[4]

It was not enough for Mai that the cause should be revoked to Rome. The English agents said that if an independent sovereign was to be forced to plead at Rome, the Pope must at least hear the suit in person. He must not refer it to the Rota. Mai would not hear of this. To the Rota it must go and nowhere else. The Pope might mean well, but he might die and be succeeded by a pope of another sort, or the English might regain the influence they once had, and indeed had still, in the Papal court. They were great favourites, bribing right and left and spending money freely.[5] What was a miserable pope to do? Casalis, and Dr. Benet who had joined him from England, pointed out the inevitable consequences if he allowed himself to be governed by the Emperor. The Pope replied with lamentations that none saw that better than he, but he was so placed between the hammer and the anvil, that, though he wished to please the King, the whole storm would fall on him. The Emperor would not endure an insult to his family, and had said that he regarded the cause more than all his kingdoms. Those were only ornaments of fortune, while this touched his honour. He would postpone the advocation for a few days, but it could not be refused. He was in the Emperor's power, and the Emperor could do as he pleased with him.

The few days' respite meant a hope that news of some decisive act might arrive meanwhile from England. The King must determine, Casalis and Benet thought, whether it would be better to suspend the process at his own request, or to proceed to sentence before the advocation.[6] The Pope, the Commissioners added, was well disposed to the King, and would not refuse to shed his blood for him; but in this cause and at this time he said it was impossible.

While matters were going thus at Rome, the suit in England went forward. The Cardinals availed themselves of every excuse for delay; but in the presence of Catherine's determined refusal to recognise the court, delay became daily more difficult. The King pressed for judgment; formal obstacles were exhausted, and the Roman Legate must either produce his last instructions, which he had been ordered not to reveal, or there was nothing left for him to urge as a reason for further hesitation. It was not supposed that in the face of a distinct promise the Pope would revoke the commission. Campeggio and Wolsey were sitting with full powers to hear and determine. Determine, it seemed, they must; when, at the fifth session, uncalled on and unlooked for, the Bishop of Rochester rose and addressed the court. The King, he said, had declared that his only intention was to have justice done, and to relieve himself of a scruple of conscience, and had invited the judges and everyone else to throw light upon a cause which distressed and perplexed him. He [the Bishop], having given two years' diligent study to the question, felt himself hound in consequence to declare his opinion, and not risk the damnation of his soul by withholding it. He undertook, therefore, to declare and demonstrate that the marriage of the King and Queen could be dissolved by no power, human or divine, and for that conclusion he was ready to lay down his life. The Baptist had held it glorious to die in a cause of marriage, when marriage was not so holy as it had been made by the shedding of Christ's blood. He was prepared to encounter any peril for the truth, and he ended by presenting his arguments in a written form.[7]

The Bishop's allusion to the Baptist was neither respectful nor felicitous. It implied that Henry, who as yet at least had punished no one for speaking freely, was no better than a Herod. Henry's case was that to marry a brother's wife was not lawful, and the Baptist was of the same opinion. The Legates answered quietly that the cause had not been committed to Fisher, and that it was not for him to pronounce judicially upon it. Wolsey complained that the Bishop had given him no notice of his intended interference. They continued to examine witnesses as if nothing had happened. But Fisher's action was not without effect. He was much respected. The public was divided on the merits of the general question. Many still thought the meaning of it to be merely that the King was tired of an old wife and wanted a young one. Courage is infectious, and comment grew loud and unfavourable. The popular voice might have been disregarded. But Campeggio, who had perhaps really wavered, not knowing what Clement wished him to do, gathered heart from Fisher's demonstration. "We are hurried on," he wrote to Salviati on the 13th of July, "always faster than a trot, so that some expect a sentence in ten days.… I will not fail in my duty or office, nor rashly or willingly give offence to any one. When giving sentence I will have only God before my eyes and the honour of the Holy See."[8] A week later Du Bellay said that things were almost as the King wished, and the end was expected immediately, when Campeggio acted on the Pope's last verbal instructions at their parting at Rome. He was told to go on to the last, but must pause at the final extremity. He obeyed. When nothing was left but to pronounce judgment, he refused to speak it, and said that he must refer back to the Holy See. Wolsey declined to act without him, and Campeggio, when pressed, if we can believe his own account of what he said, answered: "Very well, I vote in favour of the marriage and the Queen. If my colleague agrees, well and good. If not, there can be no sentence, for we must both agree."[9]

Wolsey's feelings must be conjectured, for he never revealed them. To the Commissioners at Rome he wrote: "Such discrepancies and contrariety of opinion has ensued here that the cause will be long delayed. In a week the process will have to cease, and two months of vacation ensue. Other counsels, therefore, are necessary, and it is important to act as if the advocation was granted. Campeggio unites with me to urge the Pope, if it must be granted, to qualify the language; for if the King be cited to appear in person or by proxy, and his prerogative be interfered with, none of his subjects will tolerate it; or if he appears in Italy it will be at the head of a formidable army.[10] A citation of the King to Rome on threat of excommunication is no more tolerable than the whole loss of the King's dignity. If, therefore, the Pope has granted any such advocation, it must be revoked. If it arrives here before such a revocation, no mention of it shall be made, not even to the King."[11]

This was Wolsey's last effort. Before his despatch could reach Rome the resolution was taken. Had it arrived in time, it would have made no difference while Micer Mai was able to threaten to behead Cardinals in their own apartments. The cause was advoked, as it was called—reserved to be heard in the Rota. The Legates' commission was cancelled. The court at Blackfriars was dissolved, as Campeggio said, in anger, shame, and disappointment. He had fulfilled his orders not without some alarm for himself as he thought of his bishopric of Salisbury.

Catherine, springing from despondency into triumph, imagined that all was over. The suit, she thought, would be instantly recommenced at Rome, and the Pope would give judgment in her favour without further form. She was to learn a harsher lesson, and would have consulted better for her happiness if she had yielded to the Pope's advice and retired into seclusion. While the Legates were sitting in London, another conference was being held at Cambray, to arrange conditions of European peace. France and the Empire adjusted their quarrels for another interval. The Pope and the Italian Princes were included—England was included also—and the divorce, the point of central discord between Henry and the Emperor, was passed over in silence as too dangerous to be touched.

  1. Campeggio to Salviati, June 16, 1529.—Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. iv. p. 2509.
  2. Wolsey to Casalis, June 22, 1529,—Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. iv. p. 2526.
  3. "La mas necia y bellaca carta que se pudiera hacer en el Infierno."
  4. Mai to Charles V., August 4, 1520.—Spanish Calendar, vol. iv. part 1, page 155 (abridged).
  5. Same to the same, August 28,—Ibid, p. 182.
  6. Benet, Casalis, and Vannes to Henry VIII.—Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. iv. pp. 2567–8.
  7. Campeggio to Salviati, June 29, 1529.—Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. iv. p. 2538.
  8. Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. iv. p. 2581.
  9. Mai to Charles V., Sept. 3, 1529.—Spanish Calendar, vol. iv. part 1, p. 195.
  10. This was not an idle boast. A united army of French and English might easily have marched across the Alps; and nothing would have pleased Francis better than to have led such an army, with his brother of England at his side, to drive out the Emperor.
  11. Wolsey to Benet, etc., July 27.—Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. iv. p. 2591.