Henry VIII chose to believe that a simple appeal to Pope Clement would bring about the divorce he so desired, but Henry would prove to be incredibly naive on this point. His Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, saw the situation a bit more realistically. It is said that, when Henry announced to Wolsey his intention of pursuing marriage with the Lady Anne, that venerable and wily minister fell to his knees in tears and begged his master not to follow so disastrous a course. Wolsey foresaw at the start the inevitable rending of the fabric of Christendom which would result from this impetuous following of a king’s whim, and he did his best to dissuade Henry, but to no avail. It was not just Henry’s discarding of a powerful and well-connected wife which distressed Wolsey, it was Henry’s choice of a successor to Catherine.
If Henry had proposed an international alliance in the form of marriage with one of the available French princesses, it is likely that Wolsey would have held his tongue, or even approved, since he had no love for Catherine’s Spanish relatives. Wolsey dreamed of some day becoming Pope himself, and knew that he could expect more support from France’s Francis I than from Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles. In fact, Henry and Wolsey had but recently tried to buy the Emperorship for Henry upon the death of its previous holder, Maxmilian, but had been outbid by the wealthy and powerful Charles.
But Henry was determined to wed one who was his own subject, an almost unheard-of move at the time, and one who was, furthermore, little better than a commoner in the scheme of things, only one or two generations removed from the taint of commerce and merchanting which was considered so fatal to one’s status in English society up until the early 20th century. Wolsey, at least, knew that the combination of inappropriate marriage, casting off of a beloved and well-connected queen, and failure to use the king’s status to create a powerful foreign alliance through marriage could be fatal to England’s dreams for the future – and, incidentally, to his own. But even Wolsey could not have fully predicted the disasters to follow – nor the totality of his own downfall.
There is a school of thought which says that Anne connived at the destruction of Thomas Wolsey, believing him to have been the architect of her broken engagement with her first love, Henry Percy. Whether this was the basis of her dislike of him or not, his servant and chronicler, George Cavendish , does quote her as saying after the broken betrothal that if it ever lay in her power to do him a mischief, he would feel her anger, though she was but a girl. She may well have encouraged Henry to distrust and eventually dismiss Wolsey – a mistake on her part, considering Wolsey’s undeniable position as the real seat of wisdom, diplomacy and savvy behind Henry’s throne. Had Wolsey retained his power, he might have weaseled out some way to obtain Henry’s divorce without the comprehensive split from the Vatican which eventually took place. It is at least certain that Henry felt Wolsey’s loss and replaced him as soon as possible with one who had been trained at his knee, the lawyer Thomas Cromwell – but we are getting ahead of the story.
As the 1520s straggled on, the trio of Henry, Catherine and Anne continued to play out their farcical charade of King, Queen and devoted subject. While Henry struggled and schemed behind the scenes to rid himself of the encumbrance of his unwanted consort, Catherine struggled just as desperately to hold onto her crown and, more important, the legitimacy and birthright of their daughter Mary, and Anne danced with ever greater nervousness and fear over the hot coals of the game she was playing – one throw of the dice for the entire prize. Spurred on not only by his desire for a son and his desire for Anne, but by his increasing weariness with the chaotic situation in which he now found himself, Henry appealed with ever greater urgency to the Pope to look favorably upon his suit – and Clement stalled and reneged and hesitated, fearing the precedent he was setting, fearing to offend a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and Catherine’s powerful nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, but fearing even more the threat of upheaval within the Church.
Eventually his decision was made for him when, in 1527, Emperor Charles invaded the Holy City itself and sacked Rome, forcing Clement to flee to the town of Orvieto, and putting him virtually out of touch with his Church and his cardinals. Wolsey, enroute to visit him with yet further petitions from the frustrated Henry, was forced to return to England with nothing more to show for his journey than some letters and the Pope’s promise to do his best for England – though what he could do while under the thumb of Catherine’s nephew is at best conjecture.
Finally, in response to Henry’s pleas, Pope Clement sent the venerable and gout-ridden Cardinal Campeggio on the hazardous journey to England, there to hear and try the divorce case and ostensibly to make a judgment on behalf of the Vatican – but actually to do everything in the cardinal’s power to continue stalling and hedging until such time as the future might take care of itself. Under no circumstances was Campeggio to give any final decision in the name of the Pope.
The Cardinal’s trip took carefully orchestrated months, as the old man stopped to rest, to recover from illness, and simply to delay matters. In 1528 Campeggio and Wolsey finally opened the hearing on the divorce as papal legates in England, Wolsey resigned to a disastrous future, but hoping to salvage his career and save his neck by ensuring success for the king’s suit, Campeggio equally determined to stall to the last possible degree. Henry was confident that victory was now within his grasp; Wolsey had never before failed him, and Henry was convinced (or chose to believe, or appeared to believe) that he had right on his side. Catherine had been advised by the Spanish Ambassador to appeal her case to Rome and to send to her nephew, the Emperor Charles, for support. She no longer truly had any friends at court, except those few remaining who had come from Spain with her several decades before; English courtiers had fled from her chambers like rats from a sinking ship and were now daily to be found congregating at the unofficial court held in the chambers of the heir apparent, Anne Boleyn.
Anne herself for obvious reasons played no part in the official hearing. This was not a hearing to adjudicate on Henry’s wish to marry Anne; it was purely (ostensibly) to judge the validity of Henry’s current marriage, and to decide whether or not there were valid grounds to grant a divorce. But unbeknownst to Henry and Wolsey, their case was doomed from the start – a decision of desperation on Clement’s part which would result in a drastic destruction by Henry of all English ties to the Roman Catholic church.