Henry VIII and the English Reformation

By Arthur J. Slavin | Go to book overview

AN EXTRAORDINARY PRETEXT

POLYDORE VERGIL

This humanist and papal collector in England was born about 1470 in Urbino and was educated at Bologna and Padua. His career was based on secretarial service to the Duke of Urbino and a chamberlain's part at the court of the infamous Borgia pope Alexander VI. Between 1502 and 1551 he lived chiefly in England, where he enjoyed numerous church preferments as well as Wolsey's hostility. He became "naturalized" in 1510. His important works were an edition of the fabulous history of Gildas, a collection of proverbs anticipating the Adagia of Erasmus, and a work of lasting interest to historians of science and technology, De Inventoribus Rerum. Anglica Historia was begun at Henry VII's urging in 1505. The 1555 edition carried the work on from 1509 to 1538 and provides a contemporary view of the crisis of the 1530's.

NOW WAS imminent that calamity which was to fall upon Wolsey, when, like an untamed horse, he was unable to stay quiet. For it came into his head to change his queen and to find a new one, whom he wished to be like him in conduct and character; and this although Queen Catherine did not hurt or damage the fellow, but, hating his evil ways, had sometimes gently admonished him to cultivate self-control. Certain of achieving this plan as soon as it had occurred to him, he had a friendly discussion concerning a future enquiry with John Longland bishop of Lincoln, because the latter was the person who heard the king's confession. The bishop, who said that in his own opinion he did nothing dishonourable but only acted correctly, had already for a long time considered that the royal marriage should be dissolved as invalid and had often whispered this view in secret to his intimates; he listened to Wolsey with such exceeding willingness that both soon began to discuss together whether the marriage of Henry and Catherine was legally binding or not. Taking upon themselves more than was proper, as if they had been most learned theologians but with more presumption, they looked for difficulties where there were none (as the saying is), and readily decided that the marriage was neither valid nor sound, on the grounds that Catherine had previously married Henry's brother Arthur. Agreeing with one another in this opinion, they decided it should promptly be revealed to the king that such a matrimonial state was most perilous, just as though the doubt which from the start had been provoked by that earlier relationship had not yet been removed from men's minds. This plan having been adopted, Wolsey decided to take the duty upon himself. At a convenient moment he approached the king and with an appearance of affection and love of righteousness warned him of the legal standing of such a marriage. He went on to assert that it had no force or vigour because of the marriage Catherine had made with his brother and he urgently besought him no longer to live in such peril since upon it directly depended the salvation of his soul, the legitimacy of the royal issue, the decency of his life. When he heard this, the king for a little was speechless, greatly astonished that his marriage should be condemned, because originally it had been approved as just and

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From Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia ( London, 1950), pp. 325-37. Reprinted by permission of The Royal Historical Society, the Camden Society, and Denys Hay, editor and translator.

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