Vol I No. 7
History & Theology

The origins of Anglicanism - about so much more than a divorce...

by sinetortus

A short reflection suggesting the need to widen and reframe the historical context

and not reduce it merely to a desire for an annulment 

which Henry had every reason to suppose would in fact be granted



The current Pope has stated that “most Catholic marriages are invalid”[1]an observation which, not unreasonably, has attracted a degree of attention. Whatever is to be made of the implications for the current state of the Roman Catholic church,  his comment can help us usefully reframe how we approach our understanding of the history of Henry VIII’s “great matter” and his quest to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon set aside.

First, because it points to why Henry’s expectation that an annulment would be granted was  quite reasonable– as other cases make clear — so it would most likely have been granted had it not been for entirely extraneous matters of European politics. Secondly it is illuminating to explore the background to his specifically Royal problem  and just how much leeway was available in the light of what was widely seen at the time to be a real crisis (the failure to have a male heir which opens a thread that can be traced to Old Testament roots).

But beyond all that, there is in the background here is a naïve sketch one all too often hears of the supposed origins of Anglicanism.

This holds that it all began simply because Henry wanted a divorce. The Pope is then imagined to be have been indignant at such a shocking request which he duly declined for obvious theological reasons to do with the indissolubility of marriage. The king, being an intemperate sort, was unwilling to have his appetites denied and in response simply seized control the English church in a fit of pique. He then severed all ties of jurisdiction with Rome and achieved thus what we might now be tempted to call an early form of ecclesiastical Brexit.

The need to reframe our understanding is clear from the fact that such an account of the history involved is so very inadequate to the reality of what happened and the wider context of how contemporaries would have viewed Henry’s marriage predicament is thus a key first step towards understanding that there were much wider forces at work. Indeed one of them is still very much alive and well to this day — as the current Pope’s willingness to cede control over the selection of bishops in China demonstrates — namely that of the degree of autonomy appropriate to a national church, But that is a wider question for another day. For now:

Perhaps it may be helpful to ask a seemingly remote question, namely,

what do Catherine of Aragon, Eleanor of Aquitaine,

and the biblical Sarah (and Hagar) all have in common?

The answer is the dire impact on their marriages of each having no male heir. What gives added interest to this are the many confusions regarding the importance of what is usually called a divorce in the case of Henry VIII — though what he actually sought was an annulment.

Henry we may recall had married Catherine who had first been married in 1501 for just 6  months  (when barely 16) to his brother Arthur, who however died very early and Henry then married her in 1509, after securing a Papal dispensation to marry someone who by virtue of her prior marriage to his brother had fallen within the bounds of normally forbidden consanguinity.

By 1525 however, Henry had taken up with Anne Boleyn but was also gravely troubled by Catherine’s failure to give him a son,  to the point that he may quite genuinely have thought this some kind of divine judgement upon him for having married someone he should not have . So at that point he began to seek an annulment on the grounds that by marrying his brother’s widow (albeit through a special Papal dispensation) he had offended against the laws of consanguinity.

It is notable, as an aside, that there was evidently among the many eminentissimi  of Europe (reportedly from Cajetan to Luther and Erasmus) whom Henry consulted,  a remarkable degree of what we would now call ecumenical consensus that rested upon the recognition that he needed a male heir. The general presumption was that Henry,  as a King,  had thus legitimate special needs that were so exceptional as to merit special consideration, even to the point of his being allowed to commit bigamy, in order to make sure he had the male heir that the security of his dynasty and thereby the good order, peace and tranquility of his realm,  surely required.

What makes the case of Eleanor of interest at this point is the contrast between the way her situation and that of Catherine played out, and how her history illustrates that such grounds as Henry adduced for an annulment would likely have been readily accepted if not for the extraneous wider politics of the time which meant the Pope was under political rather than theological pressure not to agree in the case of Catherine (who was of course closely related as aunt to the Emperor Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, whom the Pope had no wish to offend – though as an aside it is again of interest to recall that it is said of Charlemagne that  he  had five successive marriages and six concubines).

As the very young duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor had started out as probably the most eligible bride in Europe,  so just three months after becoming duchess, upon the death of her father, William X, she married King Louis VII of France, son of her guardian, King Louis VI (and her fourth cousin once removed).

As queen of France, she participated in the unsuccessful Second Crusade, but soon afterwards, Eleanor (not her husband) sought an annulment, but her request was rejected by Pope Eugene III. However, after the birth of her second daughter Alix, Louis agreed to an annulment, as 15 years of marriage had not produced a son.

The marriage was formally annulled by four Archbishops and the Pope on 21stMarch 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity (though the daughters were happily at the same time declared legitimate and custody was awarded to Louis), while Eleanor’s lands were restored to her.

Almost immediately, Eleanor became engaged to the duke of Normandy, who then became the figure known rather better to history as King Henry II of England,  in 1154. And it is to be noted that Henry, in terms of consanguinity in relation to Catherine, was an even closerrelative than Louis had been, since he was her third cousin (and 11 years younger, though that is by way).

The couple married eight weeks after the annulment of Eleanor’s first marriage, in Poitiers Cathedral and she subsequently bore eight children: five of whom were sons, three of whom became kings; and three daughters.[2]

Which brings us lastly in this section, to the Biblical case of Sarah who was the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac. She was also incidentally either Abraham’s sister or his half–sister.[3]Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave (and according to some Rabbinical traditions the daughter of a Pharaoh) .

After having lived in Canaan for ten years with Abram and yet remaining childless, Sarah sought a way to fulfill God’s promise to Abram that Abraham would be father of many nations and therefore suggested that Abram should employ –as we would now say — a surrogate mother and have a child with her Egyptian handmaid Hagar, an arrangement to which he agreed.

However, this eventually resulted in tension between Sarah and Hagar, and Sarah complained to Abram that the handmaid no longer respected her. At one point, Hagar fled from her mistress but returned after angels met her. She gave birth to Abram’s son Ishmael when Abram was eighty-six years old.

Yet later, despite her great age,  Sarah herself gave  birth to Isaac, and the tension between the women returned.

At a celebration after Isaac was weaned, Sarah found the teenage Ishmael mocking her son so, she demanded that Abraham send Hagar and her son away and declare that Ishmael would not share in Isaac’s inheritance. Abraham was greatly distressed but God told Abraham to do as his wife required, because God’s promise would be carried out through bothIsaac and Ishmael.

Early the next morning, Abraham gave Hagar bread and water then sent them into the wilderness of Beersheba. She and her son wandered aimlessly until their water was completely consumed. In despair, she burst into tears and God heard her and her son crying and came to rescue them, and an Angel then opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water. He also told Hagar that God would “make a great nation” of Ishmael. Hagar found her son a wife from Egypt and they settled in the Desert of Paran.

And the rest as they say is history….

But for the present, what emerges from even this brief survey of the “Marriage Question”  is something that takes us back to the current Pope’s point,  which is that  within the Catholic perspective on marriage (which was even deepened by the Council of Trent),  the intentions of the parties and their grasp of what it is that they are entering into are all so vital to the reality itself  that defects in this understanding, in regard to any of these points, will invalidate a putative marriage.

Moreover, as a king, there was a wide consensus that his requirement for a male heir could warrant even such radical options as bigamy.  And related history shows that such grounds as Henry VIII had available to him,  in regard to his marriage to Catherine,  would have fallen well within the grounds required for an annulment,  which therefore corroborates the suspicion that the impediments to granting the petition on the part of the Papacy lay quite elsewhere in the political and not theological domains.

This in turn invites consideration of how unacceptably novel such other factors as the wider kinds of power King Henry VIII wanted to assert over the Church in England really were (such as over the nomination of Bishops). (Since, once again,  history shows a considerable openness to pragmatism on such a point by the Papacy in practice, even though it belies the official claim to unfettered exclusive central control,  which Catholic church has tended to want to uphold as its universal entitlement. (In fact pragmatism on this point continues down to the present day as is seen most recently in the deal done by the present Pope to concede upon this to China).

All points which undermine the naïve view of how the break with Rome and establishment of the Anglican Church was really occasioned at the time of Henry VIII  – a subject upon which more will be set out in future articles.



[1]The statement was made to a pastoral congress of the Diocese of Rome on June 16th2016 in response to a layman’s enquiry about the “crisis in marriage”. This caused the Pope to reflect and say that,   “It’s the culture of the provisional…. and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”

For the record it should perhaps be added that by the following day the Vatican had issued a text of the remarks which had been revised with the Pope’s approval, to read instead, ““a portion of our sacramental marriages are null.”


[2]Though Henry and Eleanor eventually became estranged and Henry imprisoned her in 1173 for supporting their son Henry’s revolt against him. She was not released until 6 July 1189, when Henry died and their second son, Richard the Lionheart, became King of England.

[3]In two places in the narrative he says Sarah is his sister (Genesis 12:10 through 13:1, in the encounter with Pharaoh, and Genesis 20, in the encounter with Abimelech). In the second, he says that Sarah is the daughter of his father, but not his mother