Henry VIII and his Jewish divorce lawyers

Henry VIII, The Royal Mint Collection

“Where will I find 100 rabbis?” asked an incredulous Henry VIII, his Oxford Hebraist Robert Wakefield, who had told his Majesty that 100 rabbis would be needed to endorse the King’s decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon who had not produced a male heir to the throne so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Finding one would have been difficult; Jews had been expelled in 1290, and Henry’s marriage contract with the Queen stipulated that the remaining secrets of Jews had to be dispersed.

The reason the King sought the advice of rabbinic scholars to have his marriage annulled was based on his interpretation of Mosaic Law. The argument presented in favor of the divorce was that Henry had no intention to carry his brother’s name; on the contrary, it was to produce his heirs to the throne through Catherine of Aragon. This, he argued, put him in violation of Leviticus: “Do not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is the nakedness of your brother.” And: “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is indecency. It is the nakedness of his brother that he has uncovered; they shall remain childless.”

Wakefield thought that the Biblical Injunction would trump papal misgivings –the Pope was a prisoner of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who happened to be Catherine’s nephew and was adamantly opposed to the divorce – and he suggested that they invite a distinguished Mosaic scholar from Venice, Italy to provide the ultimate religious rationale for the King’s marital decision.

Enter Don Marc Raphael, an Italian Jewish convert once a rabbi. Upon arriving in England, the good Don saw at once that crown and altar were in conflict, that heads would roll if the King did not prevail, that the winds of reformation were blowing throughout the land, that heresy was rampant, and that papal authority was in decline, and that the church fought these trends with public burnings in London.

He was treading on grounds where even angels feared to tread; he had to be careful as his uncle who accompanied him was a cardinal, and there was a Spanish plot to assassinate both of them before their journey. Moreover, Henry’s willingness to break with Rome was no longer a secret, which might make Raphael’s position untenable in Italy. There was another consideration: the Emperor, who had just sacked Rome brutally, was now in charge of the city and would be furious with Pope Clement VII if he participated in the invalidation of the Queen’s marriage. But Don Raphael found, nonetheless, a quantum of solace in billable hours that would be accumulated during his legal work in divining the will of God.

He decided that such marriage was legal but suggested that the King could take another wife who would share matrimonial burden thus render the first one happy! Later, “encouraged” by the King, he reviewed his opinion by pointing to the object of Levirate Marriage and contending that as no children had been the result of the union, the King must have married his brother’s widow without intending to continue his brother’s line. Consequently, the marriage was illegitimate and invalid.

According to Rabbi Eli from the Oxford University Chabad Society in a monograph titled “Henry VIII, Oxford Hebraists and the Rabbis of Venice in the 16th Century”, the Don’s ruling in favor of the King was immediately disputed: Rabbi Jacob Mantino and the Rabbi of Modena Jacob Raphael ben Yechiel Chaim took the position that the Law did not apply to Gentiles and in any case “the law of Deuteronomy was never in force except when the conditions therein expressed were present, thus permitted by the Levitical Law, but was never observed, even by the Jews themselves, since the destruction of Jerusalem, except in matters concerning inheritance.”

Henry was incensed when the Old Testament strategy failed, and like Shakespeare’s King John, he could be heard unleashing his fury by roaring: “Oh that my tongue was in the thunder’s mouth! Then, with a passion, would I shake the world.”

And shake the world he did!

But it did not shake Don Raphael, who may well have been a secret Jew. He wisely stayed in England, received many honors and gifts, and was awarded trade monopolies, which made him a very wealthy lawyer living happily ever after in Oxford

About the Author
Erol Araf is a strategic planning analyst and international business development consultant with years of experience in global marketing with an emphasis on developing and managing international projects. Before consulting, he was National Director of Public Affairs at the Canadian Jewish Congress and was Director of National Marketing & Quebec Regional CEO at Canada Israel Securities Limited. Canadian [born in Turkey], Conservative Party of Canada, Morachist League of Canada, International Churchill Society. He designed and developed the concept for the movie "Mozart in Turkey," which was filmed on location at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It won the Golden Rembrandt Award in 2002. B.A. Business Administration, University of Hertford, U.K.
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