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When Pope Paul III excommunicated King Henry VIII of England on December 17 this was the second time the King had been excommunicated. I will begin by giving some background information on Pope Clement VII and the first excommunication of the King.

King Henry VIII of England and Lord of Ireland

Pope Clement VII (May 26, 1478 – September 25, 1534) was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from November 19, 1523 to his death on September 25, 1534.

Born Giulio de’ Medici, his life began under tragic circumstances. On April 26, 1478—exactly one month before his birth—his father, Giuliano de Medici (brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent) was murdered in the Florence Cathedral by enemies of his family, in what is now known as “The Pazzi Conspiracy”.

The future Pope was born illegitimately on May 26, 1478, in Florence; the exact identity of his mother remains unknown, although a plurality of scholars contend that it was Fioretta Gorini, the daughter of a university professor. Giulio spent the first seven years of life with his godfather, the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder.

Thereafter, Lorenzo the Magnificent raised him as one of his own sons, alongside his children Giovanni (the future Pope Leo X), Piero, and Giuliano. Educated at the Palazzo Medici in Florence by humanists like Angelo Poliziano, and alongside prodigies like Michelangelo, Giulio became an accomplished musician. In personality he was reputed to be shy, and in physical appearance, handsome

Following Adrian VI’s death on September 14, 1523, Cardinal Giulio overcame the opposition of the French King and finally succeeded in being elected Pope Clement VII in the next conclave (November 19, 1523).

Elected in 1523 at the end of the Italian Renaissance. Pope Clement VII was deemed “the most unfortunate of the popes”, Clement VII’s reign was marked by a rapid succession of political, military, and religious struggles—many long in the making—which had far-reaching consequences for Christianity and world politics.

Pope Clement VII came to the papacy with a high reputation as a statesman. He had served with distinction as chief advisor to Pope Leo X (1513–1521), Pope Adrian VI (1522–1523), and commendably as gran maestro of Florence (1519–1523).

Pope Clement VII, Bishop of Rome

Assuming leadership at a time of crisis, with the Protestant Reformation spreading; the Church nearing bankruptcy; and large, foreign armies invading Italy, Clement VII initially tried to unite Christendom by making peace among the many Christian leaders then at odds. He later attempted to liberate Italy from foreign occupation, believing that it threatened the Church’s freedom.

The complex political situation of the 1520s thwarted Clement’s efforts. Inheriting unprecedented challenges, including Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe; a vast power struggle in Italy between Europe’s two most powerful kings, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King François I of France, each of whom demanded that the Pope choose a side; and Turkish invasions of Eastern Europe led by Suleiman the Magnificent.

Clement’s problems were exacerbated by King Henry VIII of England’s contentious divorce, resulting in England breaking away from the Catholic Church; and in 1527, souring relations with Emperor Charles V, leading to the violent Sack of Rome, during which Clement was imprisoned.

After escaping confinement in the Castel Sant’Angelo, Clement—with few economic, military, or political options remaining—compromised the Church’s and Italy’s independence by allying with his former jailer, Charles V.

First Excommunication

King Henry VIII himself, at least in the early part of his reign, was a devout and well-informed Catholic to the extent that his 1521 publication Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (“Defence of the Seven Sacraments”) earned him the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) from Pope Leo X. The work represented a staunch defence of papal supremacy, albeit one couched in somewhat contingent terms.

It is not clear exactly when Henry changed his mind on the issue of papal supremacy as he grew more intent on a second marriage. Certainly, by 1527, he had convinced himself that Catherine had produced no male heir because their union was “blighted in the eyes of God”.

Indeed, in marrying Catherine, his brother’s wife, he had acted contrary to Leviticus 20:21, a justification Thomas Cranmer used to declare the marriage null. Martin Luther, on the other hand, had initially argued against the annulment, stating that Henry VIII could take a second wife in accordance with his teaching that the Bible allowed for polygamy but not divorce.

Henry VIII now believed the Pope had lacked the authority to grant a dispensation from this impediment. It was this argument Henry VIII took to Pope Clement VII in the hope of having his marriage to Catherine annulled, forgoing at least one less openly defiant line of attack.

In 1527 Henry VIII asked Clement to annul the marriage, but the Pope, possibly acting under pressure from Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose effective prisoner he was, refused.

According to Catholic teaching, a validly contracted marriage is indivisible until death, and thus the pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of an impediment previously dispensed.

Many people close to Henry VIII wished simply to ignore Clement, but in October 1530 a meeting of clergy and lawyers advised that the English Parliament could not empower the Archbishop of Canterbury to act against the Pope’s prohibition. In Parliament, Bishop John Fisher was the Pope’s champion

In response, to Clement VII ‘s refusal to grant the anulment the Reformation Parliament (1532–1534) passed laws abolishing papal authority in England and declared Henry VIII to be head of the Church of England. Final authority in doctrinal disputes now rested with the monarch. Though a religious traditionalist himself, Henry relied on Protestants to support and implement his religious agenda.

Henry subsequently underwent a marriage ceremony with Anne Boleyn, in either late 1532 or early 1533. The marriage was made easier by the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, a stalwart friend of the Pope, after which Henry VIII persuaded Clement VII to appoint Thomas Cranmer, a friend of the Boleyn family, as his successor.

Pope Clement VII granted the papal bulls necessary for Cranmer’s promotion to Archbishop of Canterbury, and also demanded that Cranmer take the customary oath of allegiance to the pope before his consecration.

However, as mentioned, laws made under Henry VIII already declared that bishops would be consecrated even without papal approval. Cranmer was consecrated, while declaring beforehand that he did not agree with the oath he would take. Cranmer was prepared to grant the annulment of the marriage to Catherine as Henry VIII required. The Pope responded to the marriage by excommunicating both Henry VIII and Cranmer from the Catholic Church.

Second Excommunication

I will begin this section with some background information on Pope Paul III.

Pope Paul III, Bishop of Rome

Pope Paul III (February 28, 1468 – November 10, 1549), born Alessandro Farnese, was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from October 13, 1534 to his death in November 1549.

Born in 1468 at Canino, Latium (then part of the Papal States), Alessandro Farnese was the oldest son of Pier Luigi I Farnese, Signore di Montalto (1435–1487) and his wife Giovanna Caetani, a member of the Caetani family which had also produced Pope Gelasius II and Pope Boniface VIII.

The Farnese family had prospered over the centuries but it was Alessandro’s ascendency to the papacy and his dedication to family interests which brought about the most significant increase in the family’s wealth and power.

As a young cleric, Alessandro lived a notably dissolute life, taking a mistress, Silvia Ruffini. Between about 1500 and 1510 she gave birth to at least four children: Costanza, Pier Luigi (who was later created Duke of Parma), Paolo, and Ranuccio. In July 1505, Pope Julius II legitimated the two eldest sons so that they could inherit the Farnese family estates. On June 23, 1513, Pope Leo X published a second legitimation of Pier Luigi, and also legitimated Ranuccio (the second son Paolo had already died).

On March 28, 1509 Alessandro was named Bishop of Parma – although he was not ordained a priest until June 26, 1519 and not consecrated a bishop until 2 July 2,1519. As Bishop of Parma, he came under the influence of his vicar-general, Bartolomeo Guidiccioni. This led to Alessandro breaking off the relationship with his mistress and committing himself to reform in his diocese. Under Pope Clement VII (1523–34) he was named Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and Dean of the College of Cardinals.


On the death of Clement VII in 1534, he was elected as Pope Paul III on October 13, 1534. Farnese, who did not fall within any of the factions, was considered a very good choice by the cardinals since his age (66) and state of health denoted a short papacy which would give those cardinals time to select a proper candidate for a future conclave. On November 3rd Paul III was formally crowned by the protodeacon Innocenzo Cybo.

Pope Paul III came to the papal throne in an era following the sack of Rome in 1527 and rife with uncertainties in the Catholic Church following the Protestant Reformation. His pontificate initiated the Counter-Reformation with the Council of Trent in 1545, as well as the wars of religion with Emperor Charles V’s military campaigns against the Protestants in Germany.

Pope Paul III recognized new Catholic religious orders and societies such as the Jesuits, the Barnabites, and the Congregation of the Oratory. His efforts were distracted by nepotism to advance the power and fortunes of his family, including his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Farnese.

In 1538, the chief minister Thomas Cromwell pursued an extensive campaign against what the government termed “idolatry” practised under the old religion, culminating in September with the dismantling of the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

Paul III proved unable to suppress the Protestant Reformation, although it was during his pontificate that the foundation was laid for the Counter-Reformation.

As a consequence of the extensive campaign against “idolatry” in England, and also Pope Paul III upset over the dismantling of the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, decreed the second and final excommunication of Henry VIII of England on December 17, 1538.