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Fletcher, Catherine. The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  ISBN: 978-0-230-34151-7, ISBN10: 0-230-34151-9, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches, 288 pages.

Catherine Fletcher aims to tackle King Henry VIII’s infamous divorce from Catherine of Aragon through the previously untold experiences of the Italian diplomat, Gregorio Casali. An immediate worry is whether Casali, a figure who has garnered zero interest from other historians, is actually worth the scholarly effort: a concern Fletcher addresses positively in the Preface. However, the title of Fletcher’s book reveals that Casali adds more of an Italian flavour to Henry VIII’s first divorce, rather than being the main biographical subject.

Chapter One begins with Henry VIII trying to invalidate his eighteen year marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The twin reasons of needing to produce a male heir to the English throne that Catherine failed to deliver after eighteen years of marriage, and the king’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn motivated the secret proceedings. At the same time, Casali and Pope Clement VII are trapped in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo by Charles V’s rampaging troops to be eventually evicted. Casali then sets about resolving the war whilst maintaining his loyalty to England as Henry VIII’s ambassador. Fletcher skillfully juxtaposes Casali’s diplomatic services across Europe with Henry VIII’s growing demands for a divorce from the papal court.

In Chapter Two the divorce takes precedence. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey instructs Casali to work undercover as the Duke of Ferrara’s servant in order to persuade the Pope to grant Henry VIII a divorce. Fletcher also considers the impracticalities and dangers of travelling by horseback, a necessity for European diplomats, as she describes an unforgiving landscape. The English envoys Casali had to accommodate were often struck by fever caused by bad weather, whilst spies reported their business. Fletcher even broaches the intriging question of whether Casali could speak and write in English.

Chapter Three begins with Fletcher considering Casali’s original role as military adviser to help England and their Holy Roman Empire allies against France. Casali’s military skills become essential as a rift grows between England and Italy to the extent that he contacted French agents in order to encourage a military coupe in Italy, a distraction that would pressurise the Pope to agree to Henry’s divorce in exchange for military aide. Fletcher also notes how Casali, whilst negotiating with the French, tries to secure employment for his brother Francesco and other close friends. Though Casali’s main triumph is to persuade Cardinal Campeggio, the papal governorship of Rome, to travel to England with the decretal commission agreeing to Henry’s divorce. However, as Chapter Four observes, the main obstacle preventing Cardinal Campeggio’s journey to England is his gout. Whilst on the subject of travel, Fletcher also takes the opportunity to remark that horse-trading was an essential role for Casali early in his diplomatic career.

In Chapter Five, Fletcher introduces the first of many eccentric characters to the Casali story in the form of Sir Francis Bryan aka the ‘Vicar of Hell’. The one-eyed Henrician courtier visits Rome in order to prove that the papal bull legitimatising Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry is a forgery, while trying to tease important information from Italian courtesans who are, as Fletcher informs, an essential part of diplomatic life. Chapter Six begins by stating that the Pope’s refusal to die by staying terminally ill slows down the divorce proceedings. It also leads to a discussion of Renaissance medical knowledge and philosophy. Meanwhile, Casali has to sell the family silver in order to meet basic living standards. The next chapter details a possible solution to his financial problems through Casali being betrothed to Livia Pallavicino, the daughter of a wealthy landowning Italian family. However, there are complications upsetting Casali’s plans with one being a long bitter dispute between Livia’s father and uncle.

Chapter Eight details Cardinal Wolsey’s decline from royal favour through his failure to obtain his king a divorce. Amongst many charges brought against Wolsey, one intriguingly involves Casali. Chapters Nine and Ten introduces four new English envoys sent to Rome to pressurise the Pope to dispense with the prohibition against marrying a brother’s wife in Leviticus 18:16. The most interesting of these figures is the paranoid Richard Croke who believes the Casali family are plotting against him.

In Chapters Eleven and Twelve, Henry is close to having his divorce from Catherine accepted by the Italian elite. Events gather pace in Chapter Thirteen as Casali obtains lawyers for Henry’s divorce trial in Rome. However, the chapter ends with Casali’s brother, Paolo, being attacked by six assassins. Suffering from a blow to the head, Paolo is taken to Naples for treatment but dies. The next two chapters describe how, despite bribing cardinals, king Henry is displeased with Casali. After marrying Anne in secret, Henry famously breaks from Rome.

The penultimate chapter describes Casali’s visit to England in December 1533 to regain his reputation by defending himself against Richard Croke’s accusations. The last chapter records Catherine of Aragon’s death, then Anne Boleyn’s fate as she is charged with adultery and incest after which she is beheaded. Of course, Jane Seymour is quickly installed as the new Queen of England. Casali quietly dies in late december 1536 still relatively a young man. Fletcher uses the Epilogue to reflect on the true costs of Henry’s divorce from Catherine in terms of human life and loyalty. She concludes that despite Casali being unable to obtain a divorce for Henry (a success that might have garnered him considerable historical interest), he still secured a castle for his family. Whether gaining material wealth can be viewed as a significant historical achievement is left to the reader to decide.

With short well-researched chapters, Fletcher writes in a light readable style with a sly humourous touch that guides the reader through complex historical events without ever losing focus. Its cast of eccentric characters and numerous comic-book type predicaments provide an entertaining read, which is also emotionally affecting as Fletcher dips in and out of Casali’s difficult life. Overall, The Divorce of Henry VIII is a fascinating illustration of how fact can be stranger than fiction.

Please note, my review is from an Advanced Reader’s Edition.

The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican by Catherine Fletcher will be released on 19th June, 2012.

For more details about the book, its author and ordering a copy click here.