Henry VIII and the Jews

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The recent TV miniseries, The Tudors, has been a fascinating combination of drama, titillation and history. It is an excellent example of the benefits and dangers of watching television. In all the episodes there is not one mention of the Jewish angle, but there was a very important one! Did the producers leave it out because they wanted the series to sell in Muslim countries, or perhaps in England, and not be boycotted by left-wing academics?

The issue was partially religious and partially political! Marriages between royal families were matters of alliances and balance of power. Katharine of Aragon was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the nasty fanatics who expelled the Jews. At the age of three, she was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the elder son of Henry VII of England. He became king after a long, divisive civil war and needed to consolidate his position in a world dominated, at the time, by Spain. In 1501, shortly before her sixteenth birthday, Katharine married Arthur. But after less than six months he died. Henry needed to keep the alliance alive, so Katharine was then betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Henry. When he became king in 1509, at the age of eighteen, he married Katharine.

Their marriage produced just one living daughter, Mary Tudor. Henry was desperate for a male heir and he was a notorious philanderer. He wanted Anne in his bed, officially. In a religion where divorce was not allowed, the only option was an annulment. But as the Pope had sanctioned the marriage in the first place he had to be the one to annul it.

Henry tried all sorts of ways of getting the Pope to agree but the Pope was under political pressure from other quarters (otherwise popes, like rebbes, usually found ways of giving rich people want they wanted, for a price). After several years of fruitless negotiations, Henry declared religious independence. He set up the Protestant Church of England with himself as the supreme religious head and got his way, at the expense of not a few clergymen who remained loyal to Rome and lost their lives. It wasn’t only Jews who got burned at the stake in those days. Henry was happy for a while until he grew tired of his second wife. He couldn’t face more theological battles so he became famous for his trumped up charges and off went the heads of those of his wives who didn’t die beforehand or survive him in the end. As Mel Brooks has King Louis saying in his History of the World, “It’s good to be a king!”

Where’s the Jewish angle here, particularly since they were expelled from England in 1290 and there weren’t any there officially at the time (apart from a few itinerant Marranos, who anyway, outwardly were Christians)?

According to Leviticus 18, a man may not marry his brother’s wife and if he does they will be childless. That, thought Henry, was why he had no sons. But the Pope had sanctioned his marriage based on the levirate marriage described in Deuteronomy 25. In the event of a brother dying childless, his brother would marry the widow and have children to carry on the dead brother’s name. Henry realized that where texts contradict each other, then interpretation and tradition come into play. If the Pope was not willing to play Henry’s game and annul the marriage, he’d have to show the Pope didn’t know his Aleph from his Bet. The obvious people to turn to were the Church scholars except they themselves were split. So who else do you turn to but the Jews? Of course nowadays we know the Jews can’t agree on anything and certainly not on matters of Jewish Law. But Henry hadn’t spent any time in yeshivah and knew no better.

He sent his men to Italy where a Venetian rabbi, Isaac Halfon, wrote an opinion saying that since the end of the Talmudic period, the Biblical law of Yibum, requiring a brother to marry the widow of a childless brother, had fallen into abeyance and only the divorce, Chalitza was used. Therefore the marriage contacted with Arthur’s widow was against Jewish law, regardless of whether it had been consummated or not. Furthermore the same rabbi who had banned polygamy, Rabbeinu Gershom (960 –1028) and the later Rabbeinu Tam (1100 -1171) both undisputed authorities of European Jewry, had banned the levirate marriage on principle. More good news came from a contemporary responsum to the same effect by Yaakov Rephael Ben Yechiel Chaim Paglione of Modena supported by other Italian rabbis. Henry wanted the sympathetic rabbis to come to his court to reassure him and his bishops of his case. But Jews, despite Oliver Cromwell’s support, weren’t allowed back into England officially (and not without heavy opposition) until the reign of Charles II. They couldn’t or wouldn’t come. Instead Henry had to use a Jewish convert to Christianity one Marco Raphael to come over on a generous expense account to persuade the local opponents that Jewishly speaking Henry was in his rights. Henry incidentally acquired a copy of the Talmud to do his own checking. Some years ago it was discovered in a British library and returned to Jewish ownership when the Valmadonna Trust swapped it for a copy of the Magna Carta.

The Pope knew that Sephardi Jews had other customs. Indeed, Sephardi Jews had not been bound either by Rabbeinu Gershom or Rabbeinu Tam. They could have several wives and divorce much more easily and they had never banned Yibum at all. The Pope got his own rabbis to say so. Poor old ‘Enery had wasted his time and money and found himself back at square one. And that, my dears, was why he broke with Rome, established the first Protestant Kingdom and how the reigning monarch to this day is also the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Nothing much has changed. Where religion and politics come together, both end up the losers. The Pope lost out and the Spanish lost out. Besides, Jewish Law is so complex that it’s nearly possible for anyone to find almost anything he or she wants to and someone of authority to back it up. No one is surprised if in the USA the Supreme Court High Justices can disagree over whether the constitution allows or disallows abortion or the death penalty. So why are we surprised if odd rabbis come out with something that strikes all reasonable people as rubbish and claim it’s in the law. It may well have some foundation in legal sources but that does not mean everyone has to agree. The only sad thing is that we have no Henries to say, “A plague on your houses, I’m setting up my own court.” On the other hand we don’t have to lose our heads over it.

(If this really excites your interest (and who knows what might) read more about it in, amongst others, David S. Katz. The Jews in the History of England 1485-1850.)

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