Few historical letters have resulted in more extensive fallout than the request that King Henry VIII sent to Pope Clement VII. Portrayed as a request, the letter set in motion the underlying forces that would shape much of the New World.
Not Just From King Henry VIII
The letter from King Henry VIII to Pope Clement VII wasn’t just from Henry. It was sent from virtually the whole of England, and not just because the king was the country’s headship.
Rather than a mere request from one person to another, the letter carried the signatures and seals (on red silk ribbons) of 81 English noblemen. The king’s signature was on there, as were signatures of the then-catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, other clergy members and members of parliament.
The sheer number of signatures literally made this one of the largest historical letters ever sent — the apartment measured 3 feet wide.
Not Just a Standard Request
Although the letter is sometimes portrayed as King Henry VIII “requesting” or “asking,” the language of the letter made it clear that the king wasn’t accustomed to having his requests refused.
All of the signatories threatened “recourse to extreme measures for the good of the kingdom which we would not hesitate to take,” should the Pope refuse.
The actual request was to annul King Henry VIII’s first marriage, so that the king could marry Anne Boelyn and hopefully have a male heir with her. The Pope, of course, refused to grant any such annulment.
England Becomes a Different Country
The letter took two months to reach the Pope, and sending a response only added to the exchange’s time frame. When the refusal came, however, King Henry III and England were ready to pursue their “extreme measures for the good of the kingdom.”
The first action was to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, declaring the monarch the head of England’s church, and Canterbury its ecclesiological leader. The declaration resulted in numerous conflicts over the years, with the relationship between the Church of England and the monarch being cemented today.
This schism’s implications extend far beyond the pew and pulpit, however.
By breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, England made itself different from all other Catholic European countries. It became Protestant, pursued exploration across the Atlantic, and ultimately conquered much of the New World.
There are innumerable factors that have affected world history since July 1530 when this historical letter was penned. Pax Britannica and the extensive English-speaking world today are an eventual consequence of the letter, though.
Displayed at the Vatican
The letter from King Henry VIII to Pope Clement VII was only discovered in 1926. Prefect of the Archives Angelo Mercati unearthed the letter from a concealed chest built into the bottom of a chair. The letter was put on public display in the 2000s, along with other historical letters that the Vatican has in its archives.