Henry VIII: Founder of Jewish Studies

A Great Deal at Stake and Much to Prove

When Henry VIII endowed the Regius Professorship of Hebrew at the University of Oxford in 1546, he couldn’t have known that he was establishing the longest continuous academic position in Hebrew studies in the world. What motivated Henry VIII to become the unwitting founder of academic Jewish studies? Seventeen years earlier, during his divorce proceedings against Catherine of Aragon, Henry had turned to the rabbis of Italy to bolster his claim that his marriage was a violation of the biblical law against marrying one’s deceased brother’s widow and was, therefore, null and void. Why did Henry turn his back on the Church and countless Christian scholars and seek crucial support among the rabbis of Italy in his “Great Matter-“ his search for a legal basis in his divorce suit? Why would one of the most powerful monarchs in the world turn to the Jews in his hour of greatest need? Herein lies a story of Christian Hebraism, the Christian fascination with Judaism.

Henry VIII had a great deal at stake and much to prove. Born June 28, 1491, and known as Henry Tudor, he wasn’t meant to be king but he was driven and determined to succeed. His older brother, Arthur, was supposed to succeed their father, Henry VII. Their father sought to shore up his international alliances through arranging a marriage between Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. The Treaty of Medina del Campo in 1489 formalized the betrothal of four year-old Catherine of Aragon to three-year old Arthur. But the marriage was postponed until he was 14 and she was 15. They were married in 1501 but Arthur died prematurely in an epidemic five months later. There is conflicting testimony as to whether the marriage was ever consummated.

When Arthur died, the recently-widowed Henry VII initially thought of marrying his daughter-in-law Catherine himself, but Ferdinand and Isabella, who wanted heirs, thought him too old and insisted that she be married to Henry Tudor. Henry VII, himself wanting to protect the alliance and Catherine’s sizeable dowry, arranged the betrothal of Catherine and Henry Tudor. Young Henry had his reservations, not least of which was that Church law prohibited marrying one’s sister-in-law based on the biblical prohibition in Leviticus 20:21, which states: “If a man marries the wife of his brother, it is indecency (niddah). It is the nakedness of his brother that he has uncovered; they shall remain childless (aririm).” This last Hebrew term can also mean “without sons.”

An Incestuous Affinity

Before they could marry, however, Henry Tudor needed a papal dispensation to marry his widowed sister-in-law. Pope Julius II would need to issue permission to marry because marriage between in-laws was considered an “incestuous affinity.” Henry VII, Ferdinand, and Isabella petitioned Pope Julius II to remove this “affinity impediment” to the marriage that otherwise would have rendered it null and void. Julius granted this dispensation in 1503.

However, before the marriage could take place, Catherine’s fortunes plummeted. Her mother died in 1504 and she became a less valuable prospect- by “half a kingdom”- to the Tudors. Henry broke off the engagement in 1505 but by the time Henry VII died four years later, Catherine had distinguished herself in her new role as the Spanish ambassador to England. Henry reconsidered the engagement and, with no legal impediment to marriage, negotiations between the two dynasties were finally concluded successfully.  Henry proposed to marry Catherine which he did later that year. She was 24 and he was 18.

Catherine became pregnant at least six times during their marriage. But she suffered multiple miscarriages, stillbirths, or live births that survived only several weeks. Only one daughter survived- Mary, born in 1516. After 16 years of marriage with no male heir, Henry began to wonder whether the failure to produce a male heir was a sign of God’s displeasure with him for marrying his sister-in-law and violating Leviticus 20:21. As a deeply religious man, his thoughts might have turned to wonder whether the marriage was indeed incestuous and, therefore, doomed from the start.

The Marital Crisis

Henry was also a Humanist who was inspired by the “New Learning,” a cultural shift that gave newfound respect to the wisdom of the past. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew classics had begun to attract a new respectability. This was the first step in undermining the absolute authority of the Catholic Church that saw itself, not the ancient texts, as the sole arbiter of truth. The inextricable link between humanistic learning and the challenge to the authority of the Church coalesced in the crisis over Henry’s attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon. This was coupled with a profound personal sense that God was punishing Henry himself for having married his sister-in-law, an incestuous marriage sanctioned illegally by the Church.

Henry’s marital crisis was intensified by the sense that failure to produce a male heir jeopardized the durability of the fragile and tenuous Tudor dynasty. It was coupled with an impending feeling of doom and personal guilt at having violated what he saw as God’s law. Yet, he was a resilient man who had reached a stage of intellectual maturity and independence- or perhaps he was merely stubborn. As a Humanist he preferred to turn to the ancient sources, to study the wisdom of the past in order to gain insight. As a scholar, he preferred his own arguments, carefully reasoned, rather than reliance on any authority outside himself. All these factors coalesced into a rejection of papal authority and a turn to the Hebrew Bible for answers.

Henry’s “Great Matter”

By 1526, Henry began to pursue Anne Boleyn and, by the following year, he resolved to divorce Catherine. Henry initially turned to the Pope to annul the marriage on the grounds that there was an “affinity impediment”- incest- that rendered the marriage null and void. He argued that Leviticus 20:21 prohibited a man from marrying his sister-in-law and that Pope Julius did not have the authority to remove this impediment. He charged that the impediment is divine biblical law and holds higher status than canon law. Divine law trumps even the Pope, he thought.

This request for annulment was not surprising since popes had often approved monarchic annulments, indeed, even for Henry’s sister, Margaret. But Pope Clement VII would not defy Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew, who had sacked Rome and made this pope his virtual prisoner. Moreover, several Church Fathers and various popes had often declared similar affinity marriages to be permitted unions. So the Pope rejected the request.

When Henry realized that the Pope would not grant him a simple annulment, he experienced a radical change. His advisor, Thomas Cranmer, suggested that Henry seek the support of Bible scholars in England and Europe for his interpretation of the Leviticus prohibition against marrying his sister-in-law. But Henry saw this “Great Matter” in both personal and biblical terms. He sought to resolve this “Great Matter” by requesting that a papal court be established in England but was turned down. Disgusted with the pope, he challenged this authority directly. He first turned to Christian scholars throughout Europe for support. But in the ensuing “war of the pamphlets,” there was more support for Catherine than there was for Henry’s position. Henry soon gave up on enlisting the academic world in his cause.

The Surprising Turn to the Rabbis

Henry then took it one surprising step further. His frustration with the Pope soon drove him into the arms of the Jews. Why would Henry turn to Jews, the most inconsequential source of authority, in what he considered this “Great Matter?” Why would one of the most powerful men on the face of the earth turn to the most reviled, despised, and powerless people in the most consequential power struggle of his life? The answer lies both within Henry’s humanist fascination with ancient learning and the notion that ancient texts, not the authority of powerful institutions, have priority. Ultimately, he turned to the Jews because he was personally obsessed with justice and his pursuit of what he knew to be true, namely, that his marriage to Catherine had been a sin, that he had incurred God’s wrath, that the Church had been complicit in his sin, and that only the Jews preserved the truth and wisdom that could have helped him avoid, and could now extricate him from, this “Great Matter,” his calamity.

Although the Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, Henry saw the Jews as contemporary bearers of the wisdom of antiquity- the biblical truth sustained by a despised but financially useful people. He also believed that canon law obscured the literal meaning of the biblical text. There was no greater proof for the Church’s corruption of the literal meaning of the biblical text than the pope’s attitude to Henry’s own predicament. The Jews knew better than the Church! This led Henry to the inevitable conclusion that the Humanists’ veneration of the ancient texts, in general, and the Hebrew biblical text, in particular, was more than just a novelty. The proper understanding of the literal meaning of the Hebrew Bible had a direct impact on his own life.

In 1529, Henry sent two representatives to Venice, a great center of Jewish learning. They, incorrectly, reported to Henry that Jewish scholarly opinion there supported his view. But, for the Jews, Leviticus 20:21 was mitigated by another biblical passage, namely Deuteronomy 25:5. This Deuteronomy passage provided one exception to the Leviticus prohibition and was known as yibbum or “levirate” marriage. The Deuteronomy passage states that if a married brother dies, his brother should marry the widow in order to bear her children and perpetuate her deceased husband’s name. The Hebrew term yabham is translated into the Latin (and now English) term “levir” which means “husband’s brother.”

In other words, the one exception to the prohibition against marrying one’s brother’s wife, namely levirate marriage, fit Henry’s situation exactly and should have rendered his appeal worthless. But Henry was so convinced that there is no exception to the impediment of marrying his sister-in-law because he felt that he himself was cursed by God with a punishment- no living male heir- because of this violation. To make his case, he needed to find a way to render the Deuteronomic law as irrelevant. And he was told, again incorrectly, that Jews no longer practice levirate marriage. In other words, while any reasonable court would have found against Henry in this case, he was so convinced of his own position that he would brook no dissent. And he believed that it was the Jews, above all others, who supported him.

The Founder of Jewish Studies

Henry might have been wrong, but he was determined to have his way and those closest to him wouldn’t tell him otherwise. In 1533, he persuaded Parliament to pass a law that forbade appeals to Rome for cases in England. The Pope then declared Henry and Catherine’s marriage valid but the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, convened a canonical court that declared it null and void. And there the “Great Matter” ended with Catherine’s banishment. But there were accounts to settle with the Pope.

Parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy in 1534 that made the king the Supreme Head of the Church in England. And the First and Second Suppression Acts led to the closure of the monasteries and other Catholic institutions in England and to the appropriation by the king of their assets. The Protestant Reformation was now underway in England.

Henry VIII was now determined to introduce educational innovations that would support his new independent outlook. He became an avid follower of the Christian effort to promote the study of the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinic interpretations. Renaissance Humanists wanted to go “back to the sources” (ad fontes), and the Christian Hebraists went in search of “the true meaning of Hebrew Scripture” (Hebraica Veritas). The convergence of Humanist recovery of the classics of the past, the Reformation return to the Hebrew Bible, and Henry’s belief that the only ones who supported him in his “Great Matter” were the rabbis, produced a powerful advocate for the importance of Hebrew studies- Henry VIII.

Henry soon embarked on a sweeping reform of religious life and higher education in England. One of the first tasks he faced was the proper education of a new Protestant clergy, especially at the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In 1546, Henry VIII endowed the Regius Professorship of Hebrew at the University of Oxford in order to ensure that the Hebrew Bible was accessible to the future clergy studying at Oxford. Henry VIII was the unwitting founder of academic Jewish studies at Oxford. Today, this academic position is the longest continuous chair in Hebrew studies anywhere in the world. And here begins an important chapter in Christian Hebraism, the untold story of Christian fascination with the study of Judaism.


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