The Intelligencer has not really had a chance to offer book reviews since the demise of our Bulletin. So I was pleasantly surprised to be offered a proof copy of a new book on early modern history.
In The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican, Catherine Fletcher offers a fresh look at one of early modern history’s key events. The story of Henry VIII’s break from Rome is well-known to schoolchildren and scholars alike. Fletcher’s research opens up a new way of looking at well-known events.
Fletcher focuses her attention on the experiences Italian diplomat Gregorio Casali. Dubbed ‘Our Man in Rome’, Casali was the English court’s link to the intricate world of Italian politics in a time of upheaval. Casali lobbied the Pope to gain access for ambassadors from England so that they could negotiate the tricky business of Henry’s divorce. But all the while, Casali also attempted to advance his own interests and those of his family. There was nothing wrong in this in itself. It was expected that members of diplomatic families would lobby for themselves while they assisted their patrons. Casali’s brothers also got in on the act. Casali was a shrewd player and he made sure to keep in contact with members of different parties in the English court.
Casali’s story is set in a world of Renaissance pomp. Processions, feasts, masses, bribery, and audiences with the major players were part of his daily life. It was world of lavish spending and deadly rivalries. This was also a time of war with the very real aspects of sacked cities and even the most important peole having to flee for their lives. Henry’s dynastic issues must have seemed trival to Pope Clement who really was politically between several rocks and hard places. Clement VII had, of course, originally been Giulio de Medici and so was deeply immersed in the politics of the Italian city states. Henry did well to have someone like Casali on his team since he had the connections needed to open doors in the complicated world of Renaissance Italy.
Flecther brings aspects of Casali to life using archival material from across Europe, including papers from the Casali family’s private collection, some of which gives detailed and previously unrevealed accounts of events relating to Henry’s ‘great matter’. Given the richness of the sources it is not surprising that the book, although pitched at a popular audience, is based on Fletcher’s academic work including her PhD thesis, ‘Renaissance diplomacy in practice: The case of Gregorio Casali, England’s ambassador to the papal court, 1527-33′ and her several articles relating to Casali in academic journals.
This is a good book for ‘dipping in’ with something of interest on every page from the rowdiness of English ambassadors abroad to the menus of Renaissance feasts to disputes on points of law and much more. This is summer reading that will earn a place on your permanent early modern reference shelves.