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Rival verses: 1529-1534

The argument with Rome over Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon centres on the validity of a dispensation granted by Pope Julius II in 1503. Catherine had been married to Henry's elder brother, Arthur. Is it legitimate for Henry to marry his brother's widow? Julius II, eager for the support of Catherine's parents (Ferdinand and Isabella, monarchs of Spain), declares that it is.

Cranmer, arguing thirty years later that the marriage should be annulled, points to a verse from Leviticus which seems to explain the early death of five infants born to Henry and Catherine.

Verse 21 of Leviticus 20 is uncompromising: 'If a man takes his brother's wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless'.

Yet verse 5 of Deuteronomy 25 gives equally clear instructions of an opposite kind: 'If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband's brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her'.

The pope in 1529, asked for an annulment, is again unwilling to displease Spain. He sticks by his verse and by the marriage. Henry VIII, the exasperated and impatient husband, insists upon his preferred verse - even to the point of severing the English church from Rome.

Canon lawyers spend many hours discussing the issue throughout Europe (many of them discreetly bribed by Henry). To the inexpert outsider the English case seems fatally flawed by the surrounding verses in Leviticus; the context makes it plain that adultery with a living brother's wife is referred to. But politics is more powerful than textual criticism. Henry has his way, by going his own way.

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