Our Man in Rome

Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador
Catherine Fletcher
Bodley Head  288pp  £25

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Our Man in Rome opens a window onto a vanished world. The British foreign secretary is one of the historic secretaries of state; his staff occupy a building designed as ‘a national palace or drawing room for the nation’. Yet today, when matters are serious, the prime minister jets off or makes a conference call. Ambassadors who manage relations between their hosts and the home country are rarely called upon in a world of electronic communication and air travel.

Gregorio Casali (c.1500-36), Catherine Fletcher’s ‘man in Rome’, was one of these now-vanished diplomats. He represented Henry VIII throughout the tumultuous attempts to annul his marriage with Katherine of Aragon. The king sent English ambassadors to France and to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, but at the Vatican he relied on senior Italian clerics and professional diplomats. And for good reason. Envoys from England needed a Casali to nanny them, even to find them lodgings. As for the papal curia, only those already in the know could penetrate that labyrinth of Italian politics and religion.

Fletcher is particularly good on what being an ambassador entailed. Effectively on his own – it took a month to secure an answer from London – Casali had to rely on the capacities and personality that he brought to the job. His lifestyle had to do credit to Henry and nurture his place in the diplomatic network: listening, nudging, doing deals, swapping information, arranging to have nuisances kidnapped or even assassinated. Communications were dangerous. Letters were captured so regularly that everybody knew everything. Word of mouth was what counted – hence attempts to get to see the pope in private. And all the time bribery. Cardinals came at a price.

Fletcher also reveals the life Casali had beyond Henry. His was a family of diplomats, so that Henry was effectively employing a firm, but a firm with its own objectives. Much of Casali’s time was spent in family aggrandisement – his search for a rich wife and jobs for his brothers.

Catherine Fletcher’s account of Henry’s tortuous suit adds little to the London record (where she is not always confident), but the book reveals compellingly and for the first time the sheer effort at the Roman end. We see where Henry’s thousands were spent, even though the torrent of the titles and families involved can bewilder. But he was always a loser. In Rome’s dog-eat-dog milieu what counted were Vatican politics and Italy. Pope Clement dared not annul Henry’s marriage when Charles V, his wife’s nephew, was about to dominate the peninsular. Moreover, Clement was a Medici and the Medici had lost Florence. Only Charles could restore them. English importunity was drowned out. In any case, few in Rome had any truck with Henry’s conscience. ‘He wants a new partner in bed? Let him get on with it’.

Casali’s efforts were Herculean, but failure was inevitable. However this well-told story has a coda. Casali maintained links with England and a six-month visit in 1533-34 salvaged some reputation. He returned to oversee English interests in papal elections and represented Henry during Charles V’s visit to Rome in 1536. But he also advised on ways to heal the breach with England. So in pressing Henry’s demands, had he been acting all the time against his conscience? No likeness of Gregorio is known, but now we have an excellent sketch of him. A Machiavellian with morals?


Eric Ives is the author of Reformation England (Lion, 2012).

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