The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story

The only boring part of Catherine Fletcher’s new book is the title. Here’s our review.

The divorce of Henry VIII: The untold story

It took six years for Henry VIII to divorce wife No. 1, Catherine of Aragon. While England was being torn apart by the scandal, the king relied on Gregorio Casali, an Italian diplomat employed to look after England’s interests at the Vatican, to persuade Pope Clement VII to end the marriage. Aside from the odd mention—Shakespeare calls him “Gregory de Cassado”—Casali had vanished from history before Catherine Fletcher brought him back in an absorbing investigation of the diplomat’s ultimately failed attempt to fulfill his employer’s wishes.

As she explains, part of Henry’s problem was timing. Italy was in turmoil. When the king started down the road to divorce in May 1527, Rome and the Vatican were being sacked by unpaid troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The pope was besieged. For Clement’s family, the Medicis, to get back into power in Florence, they needed the increasingly victorious army of Charles V, who just happened to be the nephew of Catherine of Aragon. The pope would do anything rather than rule on a divorce that was splitting Europe into factions and threatened the Church, already under attack from Martin Luther’s Reformation movement.

Still, Casali, not even 30 years old yet already a seasoned diplomat, soldier and well-connected Vatican power player, and his relatives—diplomacy was a family business—never gave up. They entertained lavishly, played patrons against each other and tried to follow Henry’s evolving tactical position. And pursue their own interests, which often conflicted with Henry’s, including getting a Venetian bishopric, fending off the relatives of Gregorio’s rich bride, and even an alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent, who was pushing his Turkish empire to the gates of Vienna. There are so many plot twists that it can be difficult keeping track of the cast of characters. Indeed, the only boring part of this book is the title.

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