On the trail of Henry VIII… in Italy

The divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon is one of the great events of English history. When I first began researching this topic – and in particular the diplomacy behind it – over a decade ago, The National Archives were an obvious place to start. I soon realised, however, that many details of how Henry’s ambassadors went about their work were not to be found in the UK, but in archives across Europe.

I was particularly interested in the role of the Italian diplomats employed by Henry on an apparently freelance basis during the six years of negotiations to end his marriage. One of them, Gregorio Casali, originally came from Bologna, and in the city’s State Archive I tracked down a series of legal documents describing his family’s property holdings. A letter in The National Archives suggested he had spent his own money to finance the cost of lawyers for the king.

Section of a letter in which Envoy Edward Carne explained how diplomats were drawing on their own resources to fund Henry’s divorce effort.

Section of a letter in which Envoy Edward Carne explained how diplomats were drawing on their own resources to fund Henry’s divorce effort (catalogue reference: SP 1/68, ff.86-89)

The Bologna documents, however, did not back that up, and the State Archive in Parma, which has part of the family archive of Casali’s wife, didn’t prove helpful either.

On a trip to see the Casali family’s historic castle, however, I had a remarkable piece of luck. Getting to the castle on public transport involved an hour’s wait in Piacenza. The bus station was very near the State Archive, so I went in to ask if they had any records. They didn’t, they told me, but the Casali family still lived in the town and had a private archive. They would put me in touch. A few months later I was finally able to see the documents, which established that the story of Casali’s expenditure was true.

The family archive also provided me with names of Roman lawyers who had acted for the Casali family. That enabled me to call up those lawyers’ files at the State Archive in Rome, although that line of enquiry didn’t add a lot on the subject of Henry’s divorce. Much more intriguing, as far as the Roman archives went, was the record of the 1535 trial of Cardinal Benedetto Accolti.

The cardinal was charged with a series of offences, most seriously abuse of power in his role as Legate to the Marches (a region on the Adriatic coast of Italy). One of the charges was of corruption in relation to Henry’s divorce. He and his servants had taken money from Henry’s agents and promised support, and had then done exactly the same thing with Catherine’s supporters. The bribery is documented in the English records, but in Rome we learn much more about the involvement of Accolti’s servants in the affair, and the multiple double-crossing that went on (as we do also in the State Archive of Florence, where Accolti’s correspondence with his lawyer is preserved).

All this material can be cross-referenced with holdings in other European archives. The National Archives hold some transcripts of documents in the Vatican Archives and Spain, but the contemporary correspondence of French ambassadors is not all published, and can be found in part at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The best gossips in the diplomatic world of Rome were certainly the Mantuans. There are some wonderfully rich accounts of English diplomacy in the State Archive of Mantua, but they weren’t included in the standard reference work, the Calendar of State Papers, Venice, apparently after a falling-out between Rawdon Brown, its editor, and Alessandro Luzio, the Mantuan archivist.  Luzio (so the story goes) took offence because Brown failed to come to Mantua personally and sent a minion instead, but he got his revenge by giving Brown only the documents specifically in the ‘England’ file, a tiny minority of the relevant holdings.

I went to Mantua, consulted the indexes myself, and turned up some wonderful detail. An audience with the Pope, for example, that the English ambassadors described in rather restrained tones, took on a different complexion with a Mantuan report that has Clement VII turning the air blue with his blaspheming at Henry’s ‘devilish inspiration’.

Some of this material eventually made it into my book ‘The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story‘. There is, however, still plenty of scope for analysis of Henrician politics – and much more besides – through the numerous Italian archives. There was only one downside to this research: the constant assumption from my friends that I was on holiday. ‘No, I’m not,’ I’d say, ‘I’m not in the sunshine quaffing prosecco. No. I’m in the archive.’

Connecting Collections is a series of blogs by academic researchers, exploring the connections between archives across the UK and around the world.

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  1. Penny Hutchins says:

    Loving this series – this post in particular is very engaging and well written, I love the details of the gossiping Mantunians!

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