Campeggio’s court in England was a scene of great pomp and ceremonial, and of great drama as well. He and Wolsey, as Papal representatives, would decide the legitimacy or lack thereof of the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Initially Catherine refused to appear, declaring that the court was biased against her as a “foreigner”, and that she would accept no ruling except one direct from Rome. At the last minute, however, she realized that she risked losing her case by default, and so appeared when called into court. Instead of addressing the two papal legates, she threw herself at Henry’s feet and appealed to his sense of honor and his conscience.
She begged for an explanation of her sudden disfavor with him after more than 20 years of devoted wifehood. “Alas, my lord,” she grieved, “wherein have I offended you? I take God as my witness that when you first had me I was a maid, without touch of man.” In the eyes of society and Church law in those days, her case rested in great part on proving whether or not her marriage to the dead Prince Arthur had ever been consummated; if not, it was “no true marriage”, and therefore no bar to her current marriage to Henry. If the marriage to Arthur HAD been consummated, then Henry was in a stronger position to plead for a divorce. Catherine not only swore at the time of Arthur’s death, and at the time of her marriage to Henry, that she and Arthur had never had sex; her parents Ferdinand and Isabella swore to the same thing as well.
By opposing her, Henry was calling into question the honesty of his royal in-laws as well as that of his wife. Catherine reiterated to Henry on her knees that she had been a virgin at the time of their marriage (Arthur had been a weak and sickly boy with no experience of women, and their marriage had lasted but a few brief months). She appealed to his conscience as to whether this was true or no.
Then, in a moment of rebellion, she appealed to Rome and declared that she would accept no verdict except that directly issuing from the Pope himself. Then she arose and, ignoring the angry cries of the king and the commands of the Clerk to “come into the court”, she walked silently out, followed by her ladies-in-waiting, to the cheers of the crowd waiting outdoors. Henry insisted that the hearing continue in her absence. All sorts of hearsay evidence was introduced, including a witness who swore that he had heard Prince Arthur, the morning after his wedding night, call for wine to refresh himself because “I have been in Spain this night, and it is thirsty work!” The document Henry had been forced to sign at the time of his betrothal now came into its own. It protested the engagement on the grounds of the Bible’s ban in the Book of Leviticus on marriage to the wife of one’s brother.
The question had been presented to various universities all over Europe for their opinions, on the advice of one Thomas Cranmer, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury. In each case the opinions had been returned in Henry’s favor, and these were now presented as evidence. Days of such testimony were introduced, with Catherine nowhere in sight to offer rebuttal. It looked as if Henry’s case was a foregone conclusion. At the last minute, however, Campeggio declared that, since the Court in Rome traditionally went into a vacation period at this time of year, a similar hiatus of several months would now be called to the English hearing. Campeggio obviously had no intention of awarding a verdict in either direction, no matter how long the court sat.
When it became apparent to Henry that such was Campeggio’s mandate, he grew furious. Blaming Wolsey for this new delay, he ordered the elderly Lord Chancellor to render up his Great Seal of Office and to retire to his priory at Esher, there to await the king’s pleasure. (As the loyal Duke of Suffolk was quoted as saying at the time, “It was never merry in England since we had Cardinals here!”) Wolsey’s position was taken by the great humanist, Thomas More, much against More’s wishes. That gentle, domestic and learned man had no desire to enter the halls of power; he preferred the quiet, studious family life of his manor house at Chelsea. Furthermore, he had his own doubts and questions about the “King’s Great Matter”, as it was called, which he foresaw could land him in hot water as well as Wolsey in the not too distant future.
At length Henry, maddened by his desire for Anne and his need for an heir, determined not to be thwarted, and, conveniently convinced of the justice of his cause, issued through Parliament a bill declaring himself the Head of the Church in England, and making it treason for any Englishman to own allegiance to any power but the King, including allegiance to the Pope – though this allegiance had traditionally been accepted as the only authority on earth which could supersede that of the Crown. In this move Henry was greeted by his subjects either with great acclaim or with shock and rebellion.
There were many who had resented the increasing power of the Papacy, and the enforcement of the yearly tax paid to the Vatican, known as Peter’s Pence, had been an growing burden on the poor in England. In addition, the power, wealth and insulation of the Church in England had become an ever greater bone of contention among the people, as abbots and abbesses in many of the larger and wealthier monasteries lived out rich, comfortable lives, often in sexual promiscuity and debauchery, their vows of poverty and chastity not worth the paper they were written on, and answering to no one, as they were not subject to the English judiciary.
Wolsey himself had a mistress and several children, and he was the highest papal authority in England, being Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of his fall from grace. Many churches and other religious houses contained false relics of the saints – a vial of the milk of the Virgin Mary which turned out to be cow’s milk, replaced weekly; a piece of the True Cross which could be proved to be nothing more than a splinter of wood from some local carpentry shop; a flagon of the blood of St. Stephen, supposed to have mystical healing properties which, in reality, was pig’s blood.
There was an undeniable need for reform in the church of the time, but Henry’s motivations and his methods left much to be desired. He was not seeking to cleanse and rehabilitate, as a good son of the Church should do for the good of God’s people. He was using the irrefutable need for purging as an excuse to accomplish his own personal goals while simultaneously enriching himself materially. His motives were certainly suspect at the time by those of a skeptical turn, such as Thomas More and Archbishop Fox. To us today they appear disingenuous in the extreme – and which of us would have had the nerve to turn such a monumental schism of the known order to personal gain?