June 22, 2007

Henry VIII and the Jews

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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6 Comments:

At 12:19 AM , Blogger cool yiddishe mama said...

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen: "Henry tried all sorts of ways of getting the Pope to agree but the Pope was under political pressure from other quarters..."

cool yiddishe mama: Katherine of Aragon's nephew was both the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. By annuling the marriage, it would also cause the complication implying that his aunt was a "harlot" and her daughter illegitimate.

RJR: "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...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..."

cym: "Sounds a lot like revisionist haredi thinking...like someone who grew up eating chalav stam suddenly "deciding" that it's NOT kosher..."

RJR: [conflicts present in Torah regarding prohibited marriages and levirate marriage] "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."

cym: "When Henry was the 'second son' and Katherine was to marry Arthur, Henry was preparing to join the priesthood. So Henry really knew his Bible much more than the average king, you have to give him that."

RJR: [bans on yibum, chalitza, and polygymy] "...to persuade the local opponents that Jewishly speaking Henry was in his rights..."

cym: "Yet Jewish law does not apply to goyim and the whole point of the Church was that we lost our chance so now, it's their turn to be G-d's people. So why now is Jewish law suddenly better than their own?"

RJM: "...Sephardi Jews had not been bound either by Rabbeinu Gershom or Rabbeinu Tam...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...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..."

cym: "Rabbi, you drew amazing parallels between the H8 and the haredim of today. Of course, all of us can draw on a passuk that will contradict another one. In all my study of the Tudors that I did in high school and in college, no one ever showed me the Jewish angle. Funny how these same popes can burn our sefarim and force conversions on our people but then turn to us because a king has a wandering eye."

 
At 6:17 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Dear Cool Yiddishe Mama
Thank you for those very interesting comments
They certainly add some extra dimensions
J

 
At 1:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Henry had eyes for a dark headed beauty called Rivka, now she had a portrait painted in Salonica and was in fact the daughter of a very wealthy called Goldman Sachs. Now Henry who was always short of a bob or two thought he would marry the above mentioned. But alas and alack he passed away before he could make the proposition.
and the rest as they say is history

 
At 8:46 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Anonymous:
Wot, a nice Jewish girl marry a Protestant? Are you sure she was Irish????

 
At 9:58 AM , Blogger epiphany said...

Just wanted to clarify a couple of your statements. Henry VII, by the standards of his day, was certainly NOT a philanderer. He had few documented mistresses, and only meddled with those while his wives were pregnant, as sex during marriage was considered dangerous in those days. He was known, in fact, to be quite a prude, and blushed at dirty jokes. The fact that he married for love 4 out of 6 times tells you something; he really was an incurable romantic. Also, Henry didn't want to divorce Katherine because he was tired of her, although he certainly may have been. He wanted a divorce because England needed a legitimate male heir, and Katherine was not longer fertile. Henry made his mistake by using Leviticus to make his case, rather than that old (Catholic) standby, "within the forbidden degrees of relation." He and Katherine were third cousins, so a dispensation had been required for them to marry in the first place. Many kings in those days annulled their marriages based on this rule - Henry should have done the same.

 
At 8:04 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

By the standards of his day? Those standards included chopping people's heads of simply for disagreeing?  I dont care what others might have been doing. According to his own rules as The Defendor of the Faith which included the Ten Commandments he picked and chose whatever suited him. Were others worse ? Yes! So what? Will you also try to excuse the Popes on the grounds that ALL Heads of States messed around with women?
Jeremy

 

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