11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
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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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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British scholar Catherine Fletcher has written a fascinating view of both the political and religious machinations behind the divorce of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Her book, "The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican", is just that, and spotlights the work done by "agents" of Henry and their work in Italy. Also interesting are the actions of the pope, Clement VII.
One of the most interesting points that Fletcher makes is that through Henry's "agent", Gregorio Casali, "we see England from the outside, from Rome, from Italy, from Europe. There, Henry VIII was not the caricature fat tyrant, nor yet the virtuous Renaissance prince, BUT A MID-RANKING NORTHERN MONARCH, a player on the European stage, but FAR FROM THE STAR OF THE SHOW." The "stars"? Oh, those would be the Habsburg Charles V, France's Francis I, and to a certain extent, Pope Clement. Lurking in the background of power would be that pesky Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, who was very upset about abuses of power and other corruption of the Catholic Church.
Henry's desire for first an annulment, and then a divorce from wife Catherine, began in the mid-1520's, when he realised that he would never get a son as heir from Catherine. Their marriage had produced only a daughter, the Princess Mary. In love or lust with a fast-rising young woman at court, Anne Boleyn, Henry thought that youth and beauty and political sophistication would be just the thing in a second wife. So he began to work towards that end. An annulment of a royal marriage was not unheard of in 16th century England; Henry's older sister Margaret successfully petitioned for the annulment of her marriage to Scottish noble Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus a few years previously. But Henry's application for annulment was complicated by the fact that he'd had to petition a previous pope for the right to marry Catherine after his brother's death. Complicating things further was Clement's relationship with Charles V, whose forces conquered Rome and proceeded to sack the city. Clement was captured by Charles and was held for six months, but then was "allowed" to escape his captivity. These events on the larger European scene were being played out as Clement debated whether or not to even hear the case - his recent captor, Charles, was nephew of the now-discarded Catherine.
Henry decided to use all means and people to help persuade the Vatican to issue his divorce. Several of those were Italians who knew the ins-and-outs of Vatican and Continental politics and were in the best position to help get divorce done. One of these men was Gregorio Casali, who was of a large, noble family, with influence and fingers in a lot of pies. He served Henry fairly faithfully, without a great deal of financial remuneration, and he and his contacts got things moving. In the end, Henry went ahead and married Anne and the divorce wasn't needed with Catherine's death in 1536.
Fletcher's research and writing on Gregorio Casali and the other non-Englishmen involved in the divorce is well-done and always interesting. She takes an event - Henry's search for a divorce - and "flips" it - showing how it was seen from the Vatican's side. She writes well on the continental politics as they differed from the British. A very good slice of history.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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I tell you something, after reading this book, I think I could write a dissertation on the machinations and intricacies in the papal court of the 16th century with enough detail and scholarship to merit a Ph.D. Okay, so perhaps I'm exaggerating, but not by much. This is not an easy book. This is not a book for the general public, for someone who's read a Tudor novel or two and wants to find out a bit more about the subject. For those persons I'd recommend an accessible history as written by Alison Weir or David Starkey. The Divorce of Henry VIII is a book for someone who's a Tudor scholar. Someone who's made a study of the period and, specifically, the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Someone who could fully appreciate the amount of detail and research which went into the making of this book. Sadly, that person is not me.
From the very beginning I was overwhelmed. Names, places, dates piled on top of each other in ever increasing amounts until they all blended together into one incomprehensible mass. As a historian, it's evident Fletcher is exhaustive; she's lived with these materials for years, delving into the backstories of the players involved, understanding the shorthand, appreciating the wit and humor peculiar to the situations. It's understandable that she would want to share this depth of information. However, for a historian to become a good author, she needs to be able to translate years of scholarly study into a compelling narrative, to weed out the thicket of information and prune it into an appealing shape, taking knowledge which makes for an excellent dissertation and shaping it into a good story. This is where Fletcher fails as, basically, she's given us an expanded version of what, I'm sure, was her Ph.D. thesis. And while a thesis is great for proving one's scholarly aptitude, it's not necessarily the best entertainment.
Ostensibly revolving around the actions of one Gregorio Casali, an Italian diplomat and Henry VIII's agent at the Vatican, representing Hal's interests in his "Great Matter" (his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), the book branches out to include the entire Casali family, most of whom were also involved in some manner with the king's divorce, not to mention the stories of the many other diplomats, agents, spies, regents, rulers, pontiffs, and churchmen who moved across the giant chessboard of European politics. While we're presented with tales of skulduggery, of bribes and threats, even of kidnapping, as Henry's cause is fought for, set against a backdrop of a Rome recently invaded and ravaged by the Spanish army and a Europe divided by war, the book never really captures the imagination or the attention. To be truthful, after trying (valiantly) to fully immerse myself in the first 8 chapters (out of 17, so don't think too badly of me), I ended up skimming through the rest of the book. I just couldn't take the information overload anymore.
I would recommend this book only to someone who has devoured all available books on King Henry VIII and wishes to now delve into the minutiae of Henry's divorce--basically a colleague of Catherine Fletcher, another historian or scholar. For anyone else, I'd say to give this one a skip. Even if you enjoy Tudor history, unless you really want to impress someone with a bit of intimate trivia about the divorce, I think this book is just too much to wade through.