Pope Clement VII was born Giulio di Giuliano de’Medici. He was Pope from 1523 until his death in 1534, the key years of Henry VIII’s Great Matter. Arguably, he caused the schism that created the Church of England given the vacillating and contradictory signals he sent.
Normally, Henry VIII should have been able to count on an annulment – Popes had done no less for every other ruler in need of an heir, based on facts that were far less persuasive than those that Henry put forth. That was one of the reasons that Thomas Cardinal Wolsey was so confident at the start of the ordeal – of course, at the time he was making arrangements for Henry to marry a French princess. When it became clear that the King intended to marry a subject, Anne Boleyn, everything changed. Suddenly Henry’s motives looked suspicious, and his determination questionable – which explains a lot of Clement’s dilatory tactics: he assumed (as most people did) that Henry would soon tire of his affair and the storm would blow over. Clement was wrong.
Clement was also wrong about the lengths to which the English monarch would be willing to go in this matter. Of course, the ever-artful Anne Boleyn timed her surrender perfectly: when she found herself pregnant in January 1533, the final important steps to implement the breach with Rome were all taken in rapid succession. The pregnancy was kept quiet until the papal bulls arrived to allow Thomas Cranmer to be consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury (Clement had, incredibly, provided them despite the Emperor’s warnings – it was one of the only concessions he could make to England and he thought this would help appease Henry). From there, the bill forbidding appeals to Rome, at which point Cranmer could invalidate the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and confirm his union with Anne Boleyn. Thus Anne was anointed and crowned on June 1, the final step needed to assure legitimacy of the son she was surely carrying.
Of course, Clement deeply resented the way he’d been duped. He finally ordered Henry to return to Catherine, issuing a bull of excommunication to show ow serious he was (though the sentence was still stayed….). But this was too late. Did it give the King pause? Yes. The news came days before Anne was scheduled to take to her chamber, and he kept the news from her to avoid upsetting her. But even after a daughter was born instead of the son he needed, he remained resolute. Of course, this issue had gained a financial element: the King was now keeping for himself the taxes on ecclesiastical income rather than paying them to Rome. Then Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534, and the Church of England was complete.
Would things have been different if Clement had acted earlier? Catherine of Aragon believed so, she constantly warned that an immediate decision was imperative. I have to agree with her. Henry was profoundly religious, and the seven years he spent fighting created a mounting justification of the rightness of his cause. What would Henry have become if he had been forced to stay with Catherine? Would he have avoided the descent into suspicion and madness that marked his later years? Or would it have started earlier, with an order to have Catherine poisoned? We will never know.