Reading Leviticus With Henry VIII

March 1, 2010 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

King Henry VIIISoon the Torah cycle will come around again to Leviticus (Vayikra). After the dramatic stories of Genesis and Exodus, the litany of rules in Leviticus can seem numbingly dull. Hard as it may be to imagine, however, Leviticus was once the hottest topic in European politics. King Henry VIII of England, who ruled from 1509 to 1547, set the Continent ablaze by demanding that the Pope annul Henry’s first marriage because it violated a rule in Leviticus. The ensuing struggle triggered a momentous split between England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Henry VIII had six wives, most of whom he famously divorced or beheaded. His obsession with Leviticus arose in his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess. Before marrying Henry, Catherine had been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur, a teenager in poor health who died a few months after the wedding.

The King’s “Great Matter”

The betrothal of Henry and Catherine resealed the English-Spanish alliance, but the couple needed a papal dispensation to marry. Canon law based on Leviticus (18:16, 20:21) forbade the union of a man and his brother’s widow. There was an exception if the deceased brother left no son (Deuteronomy 25:5), but some contended that this exception applied only to Jews. Another potential justification for dispensation rested on Catherine’s assertion that she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage. Pope Julius II ultimately granted the dispensation without much explanation. He likely judged that it was politically wise to accommodate the English and Spanish monarchs.

In 1527, after 18 years of marriage, Henry and Catherine had a single surviving daughter, Mary Tudor, and little hope for more children. Henry, desperate for a male heir to secure his dynasty, became convinced that God had cursed Henry’s marriage as punishment for marrying his brother’s widow. Eager to replace Catherine as queen with the young, bewitching Anne Boleyn, Henry sought an annulment from Pope Clement VII, arguing that the earlier Pope should never have permitted the marriage because it defied God’s law in Leviticus.

To strengthen his case, Henry sent agents to Italy to solicit statements from Jewish scholars, presumed experts on the “Old Testament.” (Having expelled her Jews in 1290, England had no local Jews to consult.) The Jewish scholars were divided, with some holding that Leviticus prohibited Henry’s marriage to Catherine and others contending that the Deuteronomy exception validated the marriage. In June 1530, the Pope forbade further Jewish involvement.

Pope’s Verdict Delayed

Pope Clement delayed a decision on Henry’s marriage for years, afraid to antagonize Catherine’s powerful nephew, Emperor Charles V, by ruling against his aunt. Frustrated and angry, Henry eventually turned to Parliament, which declared England independent of the Pope and named Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England. In 1533, Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury finally declared the royal marriage invalid, clearing the way for Anne Boleyn to become queen.

Only three years after her coronation, Anne was beheaded on charges (almost certainly false) of treasonous adultery. Her real crime, in Henry’s eyes, was that, like Catherine, she failed to produce a male heir. Henry never imagined that Elizabeth I, his daughter with Anne, would become a powerful monarch, reigning successfully for 44 years. For us, however, the greater surprise is that two obscure verses in Leviticus played a pivotal role in the king’s matrimonial adventures and in the history of Europe.