Sunday, 7 September 2014

THE ANTIQUARIAN: Pope Clement VII & the Art of Non-Decision

Throughout the ages, the politics and power-plays of popes have equaled or surpassed the very best (or worst) of the many secular political disciples of Machiavelli.  A prime example of such papal political maneuvering can be seen in the way Pope Clement VII handled the question of Henry VIII’s application to divorce his first wife, Queen Catherine.

The catalyst behind The Great Matter, as it was known at the time, essentially, involved Henry VIII’s desire to have a legitimate son, his dissatisfaction with his wife’s inability to give him one, and, finally, his ardent desire to marry Anne Boleyn.  For the latter to occur, however, the King of England needed papal permission to divorce the Queen of England, Catherine of Aragon. 

England’s Great Matter, however, generated great personal and political risk for Giulio de’ Medici, also known as Pope Clement VII.  As David Starkey remarks in his book, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, the pope had much to fear:  On the one hand, the troops of Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, Emperor Charles V, had just sacked Rome, leaving both the city and the pope at the mercy of an emperor who was actively pressuring him to disallow the divorce; on the other hand, the Lutheran rejection of papal power then taking hold in Germany represented a threat to the papacy itself and Clement was informed that if he did not allow the King of England to get rid of his wife, England would go the way of Germany (Starkey, 217).  On top of all this, the Medici family, to which he belonged, had been driven out of their “hereditary city-state of Florence” and Clement was responsible for saving the family from political oblivion (Starkey, 217).

So, how did Pope Clement VII respond?  The wily Florentine, as Starkey describes him, used prevarication as an art form (217).  With discourse of inordinate length, he confused, exacerbated, and avoided “ever reaching a conclusion;” in so doing, he bought the time he needed to improve his position (Starkey, 217).  Starkey states, Pope Clement “knew every word, in mellifluous Italian or fluent Latin, apart from ‘yes’ and ‘no’” (217).

At last, a Legatine Trial was set-up to deliberate over The Great Matter in England and Henry VIII, frustrated by delay after delay, and desperate to marry Anne Boleyn, was, eventually, forced to decide the matter on his own by breaking off relations with Rome. With the decision made for him, and at a time more advantageous to himself, Clement was now in a better position to, finally, give a definitive response: On 11 July 1533, he excommunicated King Henry VIII of England.


Starkey, David. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIIIToronto: Harper Perennial, 2003.

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