An occupational hazard of being a historian is that you spend years of your life searching through and diligently reading every obscure scrap of paper you can dig up regarding your subject. You read personal correspondence, as well as official documents and accounts from others about your subject. Over time, I'm sure these historical personalities become very real and intimate to such researchers, who begin to feel that they know them personally; they can appreciate their wit and catch on to the inside jokes, barbs and innuendos.
The trick for a historian who hopes to present her subject to a more general, not necessarily scholarly audience is using that deep understanding to bring the historical characters alive, to help your readers feel like they know your characters as well as you do. If done effectively, the result can be quite accessible to and enjoyed by general lay readers while still remaining a valuable scholarly contribution. Unfortunately, Ms. Fletcher doesn't make this leap for her readers. We get the sense of her laughing delightedly at Gregorio Casali's wit and clever diplomatic maneuverings, but we readers are left feeling a bit like, well, I guess you had to be there.
The title of the book is a bit of a misnomer from the outset. If you are looking to understand Henry VIII and the social dynamics and implications of his divorce, you will be disappointed by this book. This book assumes from the outset that the reader is familiar with the ins and outs and major players in the divorce drama. What this work brings to the table is information regarding the diplomatic proceedings as revealed by access to Vatican documents, particularly those concerning Henry VIII's ambassador to Rome, Gregorio Casali. Rather than looking at Henry VIII's divorce as an English matter, the book takes the perspective of the divorce within the context of the political maneuverings between and among England, the Vatican, and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as other international players such as France, Hungary and the Italian city states. Understood in this context, Henry VIII becomes little more than a bit player on a stage of superstars.
The book presents Gregorio Casali's diplomatic maneuverings on behalf of Henry VIII in Rom in almost tedious detail. Keeping track of the nearly endless lists of fellow ambassadors, monarchs and their minions, the nobility, aristocracy and merchant classes, as well as assorted other players is nearly impossible unless one is already well versed in the Italian Renaissance and the reign of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor. But basically it boils down to the apparently diligent but ultimately doomed efforts of Casali, his family (most of whom were in the diplomacy business), and other allied diplomats to arrange the legal dissolution of Henry VIII's marriage from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry his "beloved" Anne Boleyn.
Of course, the Catholic Church has long had doctrinal proscriptions against divorce. That in itself, however, could have been easily put aside if it had been deemed strategically important to do so. After all, Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine was doctrinally suspect, as Catherine was originally married to Henry's brother, but such qualms were easily put aside. That doctrinal irregularity then formed the lynchpin which Henry and his minions tried to exploit in order to allow the Pope cover to annul the marriage/allow for a divorce. Unfortunately for Henry VIII, doctrinal matters took second seat to political matters. Most importantly, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who held control of Florence, which Pope Clement VII hoped to regain for his family, the Medici) was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, and he was not in favor of her (and her daughter) being put aside in favor of another queen (and her offspring) on the English throne.
And so the challenge was on to find a political way for the divorce to proceed. Perhaps the Pope would provide a secret decretal commission. Perhaps there would be a hearing of some sort, whether held in England, Rome or a "neutral" place. Perhaps learned opinions from university scholars could sway papal opinion (or at least provide papal cover). Perhaps a strategic marriage here or there. Perhaps the right bribe to the right parties. Casali and his allies wined and dined, schemed and plotted for five long years, sometimes delaying, sometimes pressing their case, as the political mood seemed to require. All the while they faced cash flow problems, brutal traveling conditions, illness, spies and hostile counter-maneuverings, all at a time when travel between London and Rome could take upwards of a month, and diplomats were often left to improvise by the seat of their pants. Although she recounts many accusations against Casali claiming that he lacked diligence in (or even actively sabotaged) Henry VIII's "great matter", Ms. Fletcher argues that Henry VIII was in fact well served by Casali and his family and that they were greatly underappreciated and under-rewarded. In any event, as we know of course, all efforts were in vain and the rest, as they say, is history.
As I've indicated, I didn't particularly care for the book, largely because of the tediousness of the endless lists of names and events with very little of the players' personalities coming through. But one thing that does come through is the extent to which supposedly religious matters were all just part of a larger game of money, influence and power. There is very little evidence of anything being done out of genuine religious conviction, but rather for how religious decisions would determine the balance of power. Religious offices were not sought for the sake of ministering to the flock or following the will of God/Christ, nor were such offices bestowed on the most worthy men. Rather, religious offices were bartered and negotiated like any other commodity, sought out for the income and power they could offer, and bestowed on men who could bring the most power back to the bestower.
If you are already familiar with the basics of the divorce of Henry VIII and you have a decent working knowledge of Europe in the early to mid sixteenth century, this book might fill and interesting and valuable gap for you. But for most general readers, this is not the place to start to learn about the divorce. Ms. Fletcher has clearly researched her subject in great depth, but that research does not, unfortunately, translate into a work that is accessible beyond fellow scholars.