Thursday, 30 July 2015

JEH: 'If "nun", write 'none'"

The July issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History has been out for a couple of weeks now. Thanks to a strange combination of circumstances, it’s a bumper – no less than eight articles, something for everyone, but in particular a lot for those interested in the early modern English world, from England itself to Ireland and Bermuda.

As always, they’re all wonderful, but as always I’ll arbitrarily pick one to celebrate: the shortest article of them all, and the kind of wonderfully precise, surgical devastation that I have always envied but never managed to produce.

We all know about Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s divorce … what more could there possibly be to say about it? Well, John F. Hadwin has found something, and we won’t ever be able to tell the story in quite the same way again. When the papal legate Cardinal Campeggio arrived in England to try the case in 1528, he suggested that one solution would be if Katherine of Aragon decided to become a nun. She absolutely refused, but it’s become a regular part of the story – even picked up by Hilary Mantel – to observe that, if she’d been less unbudgeable on this point, the whole thing could have been solved very simply.

Well, turns out that’s not the case. Hadwin lays out clearly and effectively that a proposal to dissolve the marriage this way, while not actually legally impossible, was certainly more dubious than the straightforward route to an annulment that Henry and his allies were already pursuing. And if it had happened, it would not have given his new marriage anything like the clear legitimacy which he sought, nor would it have satisfied his, by now sincere, conviction that his marriage was sinful.
It may, even, have been a ruse by Campeggio to lure Henry into accepting the legitimacy of the pope’s dispensing power … though Hadwin doesn’t press that, and the evidence I think makes it no more than possible.
Still, if, like me, you’ve ever confidently said or written that the whole thing could have been solved if Katherine had only agreed to become a nun: no, it couldn’t have been. In the end, the king’s marriage was either legitimate or it wasn’t, and someone had to lose. Hats off to Hadwin for demonstrating this so lucidly and succinctly.

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