Pope Denies King Henry VIII’s Divorce Request

March 7, 2022

On March 7, 1530, a seemingly routine dissolution of a marriage turned into the messiest divorce in history. Henry VIII, the king of England, had been married to Catherine of Aragon for many years without any male children. And, by English custom, he needed a male child to be his heir. Believing that Catherine would never give him a son, Henry asked the Pope to grant him a divorce. Although the Church generally disapproved of such things, this was actually a fairly routine request for a head of state like Henry, and so he expected that his request would be granted. However, it was not.

You see, because Catherine had originally been married to Henry’s brother, the marriage had required a papal dispensation. The Pope was afraid that undoing it would make the Church look bad, possibly even corrupt. His worries were not helped by the recent schism with the Lutherans, which made the Pope especially concerned about appearances. Henry did not take the Pope’s refusal at all well.

In fact, he took it so poorly that he left the Catholic Church and declared himself the head of the Church of England. He then granted his own request to dissolve his marriage to Catherine. In the process, a lot of people got executed, and a new schism fractured the Church—setting off centuries of religious warfare and persecution across the British Isles. Few other divorces have had such wide-ranging consequences.

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