Friday, 3 August 2012

Henry VIII didn't invent divorce

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived
For many people this rhyme is the summation of their knowledge about Henry VIII; his marital activity was one of the defining features of his reign and the effects that they had touched every aspect of his polity.
One of the most famous events in the Tudor age was Henry VIII's Great Matter; his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the break from Rome which followed.

The act of divorce or separation of married couples had been taking place since ancient times, this was not a new social convention; it had been an acceptable situation in the ancient societies of the Greeks, Egyptians and was particularly frequent during the time of the Romans. For centuries marriage has served as a key political tool. During Roman times it was often practiced that couples were 'divorced' so that one of them could be remarried to someone else; for example the Emperor Augustus forced his stepson Tiberius to divorce his wife so that he could be married to the Emperor's daughter Julia.

This process was termed 'annulment' not 'divorce'; it not only separated the couple legally but instead of ending a marriage it meant that the marriage itself had never been lawful and had not really taken place. This was often granted on the grounds of consanguinity - meaning that the couple involved were too closely related, that a participant was already married or that the marriage had not been consummated and therefore was not a real marriage. Often the reason behind annulments was that there were no children to the marriage and the need for an heir took precedent. During medieval times these annulments were granted by the church, and by extension the Pope. The regulations, guidelines and grounds for an annulment are laid out in the book of Deuteronomy; a book which was written about 4000 years ago, indicating that divorce existed that far back in history.

In the case of Henry VIII, why is it that his divorce from Catherine of Aragon is so famous when his later divorce from Anne of Cleves is left in the shadows? The act of annulment in itself was not the thing that caused such attention, as for years it had been suggested due to Henry's lack of a male heir, the reason that this particular annulment was so famous was the strength with which it was fought against. Queen Catherine outright refused to give Henry his annulment and fought every accusation he made, of course the annulment could still be granted even if the queen did not consent. However, the Pope during this time was under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor, who happened to be Catherine's nephew, therefore he would not allow the Pope to grant such a petition which would shame his aunt so much. It was a result of this refusal that Henry chose to break with Rome entirely and create his own church of England and could thereby grant himself a divorce from his wife, how legitimately this divorce was viewed at the time is another matter.

Henry VIII may have brought royal divorce to the forefront of politics and dragged it into the center of attention for history books, however it was already a common practice among European royalty, and even within the English royal family itself; the same year that Henry VIII first petitioned for an annulment of his first marriage in 1527, his sister Margaret was also granted a divorce from her second husband.

European royal divorces/annulments before 1533;
1152 Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine
1190 Philip II Augustus of France and Ingeborg of Denmark
bef 1199 John I of England and Isabella of Gloucester
1199 Constance of Brittany and Ranulf de Blundeville
1216 Henry I of Castile and Mafalda of Portugal
1229 James I of Aragon and Eleanor of Castile
1245 Margaret of Angouleme and Raymond of Toulouse
1293 Margaret de Clare and Edmund, Earl of Cornwall
1318 Thomas, Earl of Lincoln and Alice de Lacy
1383 Elizabeth of Lancaster and John Hastings
1472 Anne of York and Henry Holland
1498 Louis XII of France and Joan of France
1527 Margaret Tudor and Archibald Douglas

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