27 June 2012

Lux in Arcana

An historic exhibit was opened in Rome on March 1st, and it will continue to be open to the public until September 9th. Although most of us won't be able to visit it in person, we can taste something of the mystery of the Vatican Secret Archives by going to the website of Lux in Arcana (Light in Mysterious Places). Touching upon many of the momentous events in Western history, it's well worth spending some time navigating the website, and having a peek at things few of us will ever be able to see in person.  For instance, pictured here is the document in which King Henry VIII sought a Decree of Nullity for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and it is described in this way:

It was the year 1530. For months the matrimonial case of Henry VIII of England versus Catherine of Aragon had been pending in the hands of pope Clement VII. The king, obsessed more than ever by what he called his “Secret Matter,” wanted to obtain at all costs the pope’s annulment of his first marriage so that he could marry the young Anne Boleyn and hopefully sire the longed-for heir to the throne. It was thus necessary to step up the pressure on the pope. On June 12th, Henry summoned a number of his supporters to court, mostly members of the House of Lords, and asked them to write to Clement VII, urging him to adjudicate the king’s suit by granting him an annulment. A draft of the proposed letter was read out to the meeting, but some of the attendees criticized its overly aggressive tones; it suggested that a council might be summoned to act against the pope if he did not grant Henry’s wish.

After a few days’ adjournment - perhaps the time needed to redraft the letter - the meeting sat again on June 16th, the Sunday of Corpus Christi. This time, though, Henry took a shrewder approach. To avoid the risk of further delay, he spoke separately to each member. It was impossible to resist his vehement arguments; that day, the letter received a good number of the signatures Henry sought. But the king wasn’t satisfied; the document had to be signed and sealed even by the men who hadn’t been able to come to court. The absentees were reached at their homes by royal commissioners dispatched to every corner of the kingdom. For example, during the night of June 16th the conspicuous parchment was presented to cardinal Thomas Wolsey at his house at Esher; Wolsey signed it in the space reserved for archbishops and pressed his seal into the wax with which the royal messengers had already filled the tin skippet assigned to him.

The document, bearing all its signatures and seals, was dated and dispatched a month later. The signers included nearly 70% of the members of the House of Lords: all of the kingdom’s dukes, marquesses and earls, most of the barons and the abbots in charge of the major abbeys. None of the signers could have imagined the fate that would befall some of them a few years later. George Boleyn, viscount of Rochford and brother of the future Queen Anne, was executed with her for high treason, aggravated by the further charge of having committed incest with his sister. Richard Whiting, abbot of Glastonbury, was hanged, drawn and quartered for refusing to turn the abbey and its property over to the Crown. Abbot Hugh Cook of Reading was hung as a traitor in his own abbey, his body left to rot on the gallows. Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, and Henry Pole, Baron Montague, wholehearted opponents of the “Anglican Schism,” were beheaded for having taken part in a conspiracy against the king.

The document has been called “the most impressive one ever circulated by the Tudors.” Its 83 signatures embody the stories of the protagonists and the victims of some of the bloodiest decades in English history.