Pope Captured and Imprisoned – ‘Catherine, I Want a Divorce’, says Henry – Habsburgs Blamed for Rout in Rome
The new League of Cognac assembled its forces in northern Italy. Pope Clement VII and the Venetians collected their troops under the command of Lodovico de’ Medici (also known as Giovanni Delle Bande Nere, or Giovanni of the Black Bands), Guidi Rangone and the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria I Della Rovere.
The Imperial army was led by the Duke of Bourbon and Georg von Frundsberg. There were raids, sieges and skirmishes, but, in the months before one of Christendom’s most infamous catastrophes, tens of thousands of these armed men were living rough miles from home – freezing cold and with few places to sleep, little food, poor clothing and no pay. There was no sign of an improvement in their conditions. Morale inevitably broke and, in a desperate state, some thirty thousand or more rebelled against their leaders. To pacify them, in 1527 Bourbon led them to Rome, against their enemy Medici, Pope Clement, under the auspices of the King of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. They pillaged the city, raped the inhabitants (men, women and children) and seized everything they could lay their hands on from the city’s wealth in settlement of their outstanding pay. This ruination is known to history as the Sack of Rome.
Bourbon himself – leading his men and wearing his renowned white coat – was easily picked out as a target by the enemy and shot. He was one of the first to be killed in the opening assault. His rampant troops, leaderless, overran the city. They looted and destroyed monasteries, churches and palaces of the clergy. Many of those who tried to defend the city suffered gruesome execution. The pope himself was destined for the same fate, but he escaped along the Passetto di Borgo, an elevated passage that linked (indeed still does link) Vatican City to Castel Sant’Angelo. There he made himself safe with a few of his aides.
Pope Clement was trapped, a prisoner of Charles V, in the Castel Sant’Angelo. He whom Wolsey needed to annul the marriage of Catherine of Aragon to Henry was now held imprisoned under threat of death in the name of Catherine’s nephew. Charles endeavoured to sidestep Habsburg responsibility, but the pope was his enemy and he who wills the end wills the means. However, it is reputed that on 22 June 1527, Henry told Catherine of Aragon that their marriage was not valid.