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March 7, 1530 – Henry Threatened with Excommunication

Neither Clement VII nor Henry VIII, but it's a pope threatening to excommunicate a king named Henry! (It's Gregory IX sending off Henry IV of Bavaria in  either 1076 or 1080 - yes, he did it twice)
Neither Clement VII nor Henry VIII, but it’s a papal excommunication! (It’s Gregory IX sending off Henry IV in either 1076 or 1080 – yes, he did it twice – public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

To really understand Clement’s threat to excommunicate Henry, we need to place it in its proper place some four years into the whole “King’s Great Matter”…We don’t have to go all the way back to the start – just to the point when Henry thought he was close to his goal after numerous setbacks: it was September 1528 when Cardinal Campeggio finally arrived in England; June 1529 when he finally convened the Blackfriars trial (giving Catherine the chance to make her amazing speech); and August 1529 when he recalled the case to Rome.

Campeggio’s deceit was the moment Henry decided he had enough, the point from which there was no return – the point when Henry really started taking aim at the Church. The first explosion of wrath was aimed at Wolsey, who was close by and easy to blame: Wolsey was charged with Praemunire (derogating the King’s authority), stripped of his offices (and Hampton Court Palace) and exiled to his see in York. Henry also took larger steps, like implementing Cranmer’s idea that they look to the opinions of theological scholars throughout Europe…

Which of course worried Catherine of Aragon. She pushed for the Pope to act – and so #onthisday in 1530, Clement issued a bull reiterating his intention to hear the case himself and warning Henry not to take any further steps. In it, he mentions “The Queen, […] having complained that the King had boasted, notwithstanding the inhibition and mandate against him, that he would proceed to a second marriage, the Pope issues this inhibition, to be fixed on the doors of the churches as before, under the penalty of the greater excommunication, and interdict to be laid upon the kingdom.”

I will argue that Clement’s threat at this time was another overplayed hand in this drawn-out game, and did nothing but drive Henry further away. I say this because he the possibility of excommunication was still pretty hollow, given that it was conditioned on Henry’s trying to take a second wife. But even though bigamy seemed to be Henry’s only possible move, it wasn’t: Thomas Cromwell had stepped into Wolsey’s shoes and was already moving things closer to reform. The Pope backing up Catherine of Aragon just made Cromwell’s job easier…It would only be another nine months before Convocation would be pressured into accepting Henry as “Supreme Head of the Church” (though with the last minute qualifier “insofar as the Law of Christ allows”) and only fifteen months until Henry would not only refuse to go to Rome to participate in his case’s trial there, but even tell the papal nuncio that “I care not a fig for all [Clement’s] excommunications.  Let the Pope do what he likes in Rome, I will do here what I think best.”

Not exactly what Clement had in mind…

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