DR. ELAINE STORKEY, variously described as ’…theological adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury’ and ‘a top aide’, has spoken on the subject of the unfortunate Charles and his very public divorce. It is all, she says, ‘an embarrassment to the Church’. And so it is. But will it affect his succession, at the appropriate time, to the title Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and more important, should it? Here I venture to suggest that the way we live now might well be illuminated by a sober consideration of the way they lived then; and so I offer the following cautionary tale.

Arthur’s marriage to Catherine was arranged by their parents, and, by all accounts not especially attractive to either party. It was, as all the best evidence suggests, almost certainly never consummated. (Though attempts to demonstrate that it might have been or was became the preferred sport of the chattering classes throughout the 1520s.) When Arthur died, less than a year after the wedding, the same political pressures which had dictated the first marriage led poor Catherine into the next – with Arthur’s brother Henry, about whose ability and inclination to consummate not even the prurient Canons of Windsor were in any doubt. Though in the eyes of many authorities it was strictly unnecessary, a papal dispensation was obtained to satisfy the scrupulous and the Spanish.

Despite a sexual athleticism which mercifully included his wife, Henry proved incapable of producing what the political situation demanded – a legitimate male heir – and naturally he blamed Catherine. As time went on, however, he revised his opinion and began to blame himself. It was because he had married within the proscribed propinquities of Canon Law, and in particular in defiance of the express word of God in the Book of Leviticus, he told himself, that the Lord had punished him with the death of sons. It is hard to say how sincere Henry was in this superstition; but the fact that he clung tenaciously to Leviticus 18.16 which forbade the practice, rather than to Deuteronomy 25.5 which encouraged it or Matthew 22.25ff which condoned it, probably indicates a special interest.

Her name was Anne, and the wits of London were as cunningly theological about her as ever the King could be about Catherine. What kind of God might it be, they asked, who would punish a man for marrying the wife with whom his brother had not slept, and bless his union with a woman whose sister and mother he had bedded both? That Henry clambered into Anne’s chamber by way of those of her closest female relatives is beyond doubt and was well known to contemporaries.

All this, as Mrs. Storkey would say, in her understated fashion, amounted to an ‘embarrassment to the Church’. But it might, at least, have remained a purely domestic embarrassment had Henry not decided to tout his matrimonial infelicities around every University in Europe. To this end an extensive suite of offices was taken in a row of houses between the Palace of Westminster and the Palace of Whitehall and experts in Biblical theology and Canon law were retained to form a sort of task force which armed and fuelled a team of ambassadors and negotiators in the field. One of the ambassadors was a clerical Cambridge widower called Cranmer.

Dr. Cranmer had forsaken his early call to celibacy to wed an inn-keeper’s daughter called Jane. When she died in childbed he returned to his college, which obligingly overlooked a temporary lapse, and took him once more to its heart. It was on the Cambridge gravy train that Thomas came to be employed on the King’s Great Matter (as the divorce industry was euphemistically called). His travels around Europe at the direction of the secretariat in London gave a midlander of yeoman stock and limited connections a whole new horizon. In particular they brought him to Wittenburg. There widower Thomas, the twice born celibate, must have noticed what Sir Thomas Elyot, another of Henry’s ambassadors, had remarked in a letter home to Norfolk: that the wives of the Lutheran clergy were ‘the fairest women of the town’. Cranmer, whose political charge was to bring about the marriage with Anne by any possible means, took a leaf out of his sovereign’s book. Throwing caution and career to the winds and with a casual spontaneity not at all apparent from the prose style of his great liturgy, he married one Margaret – whose sole advantages, so far as we can tell, were her pretty face and her (distant) relationship to Osiander.

Thomas’s monarch was paying lavishly to establish theological grounds for concupiscence. It is worth asking on what theological grounds Thomas might have defended his own parallel activity. Cuius regio, eius religio? Was Cranmer relying on the notion that when in Wittenburg he could legitimately do what the Romans do not? We cannot tell. But poor Margaret did not gain much of a husband. Married in July 1532, by August of the same year Archbishop Warham was dead, and by October the news had reached Cranmer in Milan that he was to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. It was set to be another of Mrs. Storkey’s embarrassments to the Church. But Thomas dealt with it diplomatically. Abandoning Margaret to the tender care of her clerical relations he returned to England where he determined that his marital status should remain, for the time being at least, a grey area.

As things turned out the civil service department and the fleet of ambassadors did Henry no good. Though a dossier was compiled of depositions by 160 individual scholars and 25 European universities – the largest single source of academic consultancy fees in the whole sixteenth century – the Pope was not moved and the case was not won. Cranmer’s prime task, then, on his return to England (after receiving confirmation of his office from the Vatican and reaffirming, once more, his vows of celibacy) was to convene an English ecclesiastical court which would give Henry what he wanted. Thomas provided this modest quid pro quo at an ecclesiastical court in Dunstable in May 1533, nearly four (or was it six?) months after whichever of Henry’s marriages to Anne (January 1533 or November 1532) one takes to be significant or definitive.

The Dunstable trial was less an ecclesiastical judgement than a conspiracy of concealed wives. Thomas had his Margaret and Henry his Anne; and neither could declare the fact openly until a good deal more water had flowed under London Bridge. Was each party to the secret of the other? It is hard to say, though Thomas would need to have kept his ear very far from the ground to have been completely ignorant of the marital escapades of the preceding months. (The reluctant officiant at the January ceremony, Rowland Lee, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, was well known to Cranmer, who in any case wrote to Nicholas Hawkins in June 1533 claiming to have heard the news about a fortnight after the event.) Nor can Henry have spent a fortune on continental intelligence and remained wholly ignorant of the peccadilloes of his own employee.

In a final touch of black comedy – which one suspects that both monarch and archbishop thoroughly enjoyed – Cranmer announced the Dunstable judgement in all the solemn splendour of his role as papal legate (apostolicae sedis legatus) and by the same authority threatened the King with excommunication should he persist in his association with Catherine!

The facts about Thomas and Henry being what undoubtedly they are, Mrs. Storkey, must surely admit that George and Charles, if they are to provide an equivalent ’embarrassment’, must still be conceded a considerable scope.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark.