In most books about Henry VIII’s “Great Matter,” the King’s quest for an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, events that take place outside of England also take place off stage.There is the distant spectre of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, directly influencing the papacy and occasionally threatening to invade England to ensure his aunt’s continued status as Queen of England. There is the ailing Pope Clement VII, in exile in Orvieto following the sack of Rome by Imperial troops, who delays resolving the issue for years, unable to challenge Charles V and unwilling to disappoint Henry VIII.
The central character in the “Great Matter,” however, is usually Henry VIII himself. The King of England’s religious scruples, interest in Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, and desire for a male heir have been the subject of countless scholarly and popular works of Tudor history such as G.W. Bernard’s The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church and Henry VIII: Court, Church and Conflict.
In The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican, Catherine Fletcher presents the negotiations surrounding the collapse of Henry VIII’s and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage in a fresh and engaging manner. Although the King of England’s portrait graces the cover of the book, the subject of Fletcher’s work is Gregorio Casali, the shrewd diplomat appointed by Cardinal Wolsey to represent Henry VIII’s interests with the papacy. The setting is the Renaissance Italian city states, where England was perceived as middle ranking European power and Henry VIII’s difficulties were an opportunity for diplomatic horse trading.
Casali’s correspondence is an important primary source for Tudor historians but this controversial diplomat’s role has never been the subject of a full length book or scholarly article. His status with his English patrons rose and fell as he attempted to negotiate the complex world of papal diplomacy to advance Henry VIII’s interests and the fortunes of his own family. As an Italian serving as the King of England’s ambassador to the Holy See while accepting a pension from King Francois I of France, Casali’s loyalties were often questioned by his English colleagues.
Although Fletcher ultimately concludes that Henry VIII’s Italian representatives did their best to find a solution to the King’s predicament within an impossible diplomatic climate, Casali did not share his patron’s personal attachment to the annulment negotiations and was not above exploiting the communication difficulties between Rome and London to present the case in a manner that would satisfy the needs of his various patrons. Fletcher repeatedly refers to Casali as “Our Man in Rome,” referencing the Graham Greene novel, Our Man in Havana, where the protagonist fakes espionage reports to pay his daughter’s finishing school fees. Like the fictional James Wormold, Casali is eager to profit from his situation as the costs of the lavish entertaining expected by diplomats of the period often outweighed the stipends he received from his various patrons.
Fletcher is an engaging writer and she has created a compelling portrait of the diplomatic climate of Renaissance Italy, where Henry VIII’s request for an annulment was considered and ultimately rejected by Pope Clement VII. At least four diplomats died as direct result of the negotiations as travel between kingdoms was dangerous and agents conveying messages between sovereigns succumbed to bandits, heatstroke or diseases caught during the journey. In Casali’s household, sources providing crucial information were diverse, and the knowledge of servants or courtesans had the potential to affect the outcome of negotiations.
In The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican, Catherine Fletcher presents a fresh perspective on the well known marital difficulties of King Henry VIII. The negotiations of Gregorio Casali and his fellow Italian envoys demonstrate that the King’s attempts to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon were a significant part of the rich diplomatic climate of the Renaissance Italian states. Fletcher creates a compelling portrait of a previously overlooked diplomat at the centre of one of the most significant events in European history.