Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Cruel and Abominable Tyrant": The Pope Who Took on Henry VIII

By Nancy Bilyeau

On May 8, 1539, more than 20,000 London men between the ages of 16 and 60 put on white clothing and assembled before their king, Henry VIII, to prove their readiness to go to war. Before 6 a.m. they mustered in order of battle in the fields "between White Chapel and Mile End" and, to the sound of drums and fifes, marched with their weapons to Westminster, there to be surveyed by the king, his chief minister Thomas Cromwell and "all the nobility."

Henry VIII in 1542
This was the great London muster, held to not only demonstrate to Henry VIII that his "loving subjects" were willing to fight to the death, but to make clear to hostile foreign powers how formidable were these "goodly, tall and comely men" toting"rich jewels, chains and harness."

Fifty years before King Philip II's famous Spanish Armada sailed for England to attempt to depose Elizabeth I, a less-well-known invasion was planned by Philip's father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and his allies. In the end, no attack was launched on England. But the plan was real.

For Henry VIII, who in 1536 had (prematurely) declared on the death of his Spanish first wife Catherine of Aragon, "God be praised we are freed from all suspicion of war," the threat of foreign invasion in the late 1530s was his worst nightmare coming true.

For it wasn't just Catherine's nephew, Charles V, who was poised to attack but King Francis I of France, along with King James V of Scotland, eager to swoop down for the kill. England was completely isolated.

Pope Paul III, by Titian
The architect of war on Henry VIII was Pope Paul III, 71 years old, whom on the day of the muster was called a  "cankered and venomous serpent."

Those words wouldn't have scared His Holiness. Pope Paul was not afraid of Henry Tudor. He had pushed through a bull of excommunication on Henry in December 1538 that called him a "most cruel and abominable tyrant" and freed his subjects from obedience to the king who broke from Rome. The pope was the one who worked feverishly to unite Charles V and Francis I, who distrusted each other, so that their combined armies could demolish Henry VIII's defenses.

Once Henry was gone, it was expected that his 23-year-old oldest daughter, Mary, the niece of Charles V, would rule, and not his tiny son by Jane Seymour.

In light of the seriousness of this foreign threat, Henry VIII's behavior during the late 1530s and early 1540s--his rash of horrific executions, his fourth marriage and rapid divorce, and his erratic religious policies--is better understood, if not excused.

Henry was a middle-aged man in poor health with an infant male heir and two daughters he'd deemed illegitimate, one of them half-Spanish. It was critical to Henry and Cromwell that there be absolutely no chance that anyone in England would rise to join in the foreign attack.

But the king was hardly in the strongest domestic position, since in 1536 and 1537 thousands of subjects in the North of England rebelled against him, saying they wanted a return to the Pope and the old ways of the Catholic Church. That rebellion was quashed, but for a while it looked as if it might triumph.

Julia Farnese
Henry VIII's enemy, Pope Paul III, was a man of determination but with his own dark side. He was born Alessandro Farnese, of an aristocratic family in Rome. He was the oldest brother of Julia Farnese, the beauty and acknowledged mistress of Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. It was the Borgia pope who made Farnese a cardinal-deacon at the age of 27.

While a cardinal, Farnese had four children by a mistress, Sylvia Ruffini. One of their sons would grow up to become the first Duke of Parma and live as a violent, amoral mercenary until he was stabbed to death in 1547, his assassins hanging his corpse from a palace window.

When Henry VIII tried to have his marriage with Catherine of Aragon annulled, the pope in Rome was Clement VII, a vacillator who strung Henry along for years without an answer. He didn't want to upset either Henry VIII or Catherine's nephew, Charles V. That policy was a huge error. In frustration, Henry VIII had broken with Rome, made himself head of the Church of England and annulled his own marriage.

Sistine Chapel
When Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534, his first act was to make two of his teenage grandsons cardinals. Another priority was to persuade Michaelangelo to finish the fresco "The Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel.

But he was also determined to crush the defiant English king.

It was not just Henry VIII's break from Rome that brought about papal excommunication. Other monarchs were following the ideas of the Protestant reformation without being attacked by the pope.

It was Henry's executions of Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Fisher, his destruction of the monasteries that were packed with friars, monks and nuns loyal to Rome, and, most of all, his despoiling of the shrines of English saints that appalled the Catholic powers.

Pope Paul III labored to unite the two most powerful princes of Europe, Charles V and Francis I, both of whom had gone back and forth with Henry VIII, sometimes his friend and sometimes his enemy. Henry had been a sought-after ally because of his treasury and England's strategic location, and he enjoyed playing them off against each other.

Christina of Milan
After the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537, Henry wanted a beautiful royal bride from the family of either Charles or Francis, but they played for time. One after another, the desirable Christina of Milan or Marie de Guise would be dangled before him, only to be yanked away after Henry made serious pursuit through diplomatic channels. (Marie de Guise married James V of Scotland and they were the parents of Mary Queen of Scots, who would one day cause endless headaches for Henry's daughter Elizabeth.)

After the pope made clear his wish for war on England, the only ruling family that could conceivably make a marriage alliance with Henry VIII was a Protestant one, and Anne of Cleves, sister of the German Duke of Cleves, was chosen to be his fourth wife. But before she arrived, King Henry also turned his attention to his own nobility to weed out possible traitors.

Cardinal Reginald Pole
Pope Paul had encouraged Reginald Pole, Henry VIII's cousin, in his public criticism of the English king from the safety of Rome, and he made Pole a cardinal in 1537. Reginald's mother, Countess Margaret, and brother, Baron Montague, both vulnerable, wrote to Reginald asking him not to provoke the king further, but, egged on by the pope, he refused to tone down his blistering attacks. It was even thought that Pope Paul intended to replace Henry VIII with Reginald, or marry Reginald to Mary and have them rule together.

In retaliation, Henry lashed out at the Poles, executing 69-year-old Margaret Pole and Baron Montague with no proof of treachery. He also had arrested and executed his first cousin and childhood friend, Henry Courtenay, marquess of Exeter, and imprisoned Courtenay's wife and teenage son.

The Poles and Courtenays had sympathized with Catherine of Aragon and were friends to Princess Mary. No evidence of conspiracy ever came to light. But they were wiped out, because of their dangerous share of Plantagenet royal blood, their connection to Mary, and their Catholic beliefs.

In addition to issuing musters all over England to men ready to defend their kingdom, Henry VIII poured money into his navy and his land defenses near the shore. Detailed maps were commissioned, bulwarks and blockhouses raised. When France and Spain recalled their ambassadors in 1539, it looked as if war would come any day.

But the alliance between Charles V and Francis I did not hold. Their hatred of each other--which usually came to a boil over obsession with acquiring the same land and titles in Italy--led to a break in 1540. Also, despite all of the pope's haranguing, neither of them possessed the same passion for war on England, not because of affection for Henry but because invading a well-defended island kingdom would be so expensive and promised to be full of casualties.

If only King Philip of Spain would, five decades later, have studied his father's example. He'd have saved himself an Armada.


Nancy Bilyeau's second historical thriller, The Chalice, takes place in 1538-1540, with the dangerous politics of Europe as the backdrop to a plot of prophecies and assassination. To learn more, go to

The Chalice, U.S.

The Chalice, UK


  1. Very informative post. We often think about Henry in isolation, without considering the international pressure he was under. I never knew the Duke of Parma was the son of a Pope - but I imagine it would have been common knowledge to everyone at the time. And just think if Henry VIII had married Mary of Guise! Lots of things would have been different; but not necessarily better.

  2. Thank you, Tim. Yes we tend to think of Henry in his court reacting to wives and courtiers around him but he was under pressure from the rest of Europe in different ways.

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  4. Excellent post! I learned so much from this, (including how much those popes dallied!) I hadn't realized that there was a danger of war from France and Spain uniting against England during Henry vIII's reign. Or that he so ruthlessly killed off so many friends and relatives.


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