When King Henry VIII Bribed the Rabbis


In 1527, King Henry VIII was desperate to divorce his first wife, Catharine of Aragon. So when his Catholic advisors denied him annulment, Henry sent messengers to the Jewish community in Italy, instead, hoping that a little money might win them over to his side.

(He would have asked England’s Jews if his predecessor King Edward hadn’t expelled them in 1290.)

Henry figured anything the Jews told him would have solid enough biblical grounding for him to persuade the archbishop. He even ordered a complete copy of the Talmud for England, hoping it would help his case. It’s unclear who would have helped him with all that Aramaic.

Henry’s messengers managed to find a few rabbis and scholars in Italy willing to accept bribes and give the king the answer he wanted, including Marco Raphael, a rabbi who converted to Catholicism. Raphael and two others argued that the king’s marriage to Catharine was null because she’d been married to Henry’s deceased brother and there’s a biblical prohibition against sleeping with one’s brother’s wife—though there’s a separate biblical commandment to marry one’s brother’s wife, so go figure. (It should be noted, however, that these laws do not apply to gentiles!)

Ultimately, Henry decided to just split completely with the Catholic Church. He was always pretty good at breakups.

Watch “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” and see why King Henry was the master of breakups:

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