Catherine Fletcher: LibraryThing Author Interview
Catherine Fletcher is a lecturer in Early Modern History at Durham University. Her first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (published in the UK as Our Man in Rome), was released last month by Palgrave Macmillan.
Tell us about "our man in Rome." In a nutshell, who was Gregorio Casali, and what did he do?
Gregorio Casali was Henry VIII's resident ambassador at the papal court in Rome throughout the six years of negotiations over Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He came from an upwardly-mobile Italian family whose sons made their way in life through military and diplomatic service to foreign princes. He was the man who did the 'fixing' for Henry in Rome: from entertaining cardinals to bribing secretaries, from intercepting letters to kidnapping enemy agents.
Do you recall what first interested you in Tudor diplomacy generally, and in Gregorio Casali specifically?
I had been on holiday to Florence and had got interested in Renaissance Italy. Shortly afterwards I was reading the classic biography of Henry VIII by J. J. Scarisbrick. He mentioned the role of the Casali family in Henry's divorce negotiations, and I was intrigued by how an Italian family could have got involved in something we in England often think of as a very English bit of history.
Yes, it was. These were the very early days of the system we have today where countries keep ambassadors overseas on a long-term basis. Italy had been one of the first parts of Europe to adopt this system, and Italians had a reputation as expert diplomats. In the early sixteenth century, ideas about national loyalty were very different: it was much more about allegiance to a king than about where you'd been born, and we find military commanders and diplomats moving from the service of one ruler to that of another.
Casali brought with him quite a family network. How did his brothers and other relatives help (or hinder) his efforts at the papal court?
An ambassador's main responsibility was gathering reliable information, so it made a big difference to Casali that he had family members he could count on to supply news. He had one brother based in Venice and another fighting in the war down in southern Italy. A third travelled to Istanbul and London as well as helping out in Rome. That gave him a good geographic spread, but as the troubles with Henry's divorce mounted so did family tensions over how to handle the affair. Not all the brothers were happy to put loyalty to the pope aside as Henry moved towards a break with Rome.
Describe your research process, if you would, and tell us about some of the interesting places Casali's story led you.
I followed Casali's trail around Italy: beginning in Bologna, where his father's family had come from, then moving onto Rome, where his mother had been born. I did some exploring in the Vatican Secret Archives, which was a fascinating experience (and nothing like the Dan Brown description!) But some of the best details of Casali's story came from reports I found in the Italian city of Mantua, a beautiful lakeside location with very rich diplomatic archives and wonderful historic sites. Sadly, Mantua and several other north Italian towns I visited suffered damage in the recent earthquake, but I'm hoping they manage to raise funds for restoration.
Did you find anything as you researched that particularly surprised you?
I was very surprised to discover that Casali's descendants were alive and living in Piacenza, northern Italy. Not only that, they had kept family documents going right back to Henry VIII's time and before. They very kindly allowed me to look through them and I found some important pieces of the jigsaw-puzzle there—not least documenting how far Casali had risked his own finances in Henry's service.
Now that you've researched Casali's life and efforts on behalf of Henry VIII so thoroughly, do you think that what ultimately happened was a foregone conclusion, or could different strategies or tactics have brought the pope around?
I think it was always going to come down to the question of who could do most for the pope. Clement VII's priority in life was to restore his family to what he saw as their rightful role, rulers of Florence. Charles V—Catherine of Aragon's nephew—had the troops in Italy to help Clement achieve that goal. Henry couldn't compete. His best chance lay in persuading Catherine to come to a deal, but convincing a pious queen to abandon her marriage of twenty years proved impossible.
When do you do most of your writing? Where? Do you compose longhand, or at the computer?
When I was writing The Divorce of Henry VIII I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the European University Institute in Italy. They gave me an office in a villa in the hills outside Florence—real Room With A View territory. That was a marvelous place to work. I usually write at the computer, then print off and edit by hand, and unless I've got a deadline I try to stick to a 9-5 day. That way I can have a social life in the evening.
Tell us about your own library. What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?
A real mixture. Lots on history, with a bias towards England and Italy, some politics and plenty of fiction. I read all sorts of things: crime and mystery novels, historical fiction, classics. All the better if it's a bit quirky or off-beat.
What books have you read and enjoyed recently?
I'm reading Thomas Penn's Winter King at the moment—it's a marvelous take on Henry VII, a Tudor monarch we often don’t hear much about. And I recently finished Iain Pears' historical novel Stone's Fall—an absolutely brilliant murder mystery.
Do you have anything yet in mind for your next project?
I'm definitely heading back to Renaissance Italy. There are so many fascinating stories to tell about the famous families of the period: the Borgias, the Medici and so on. But it'll be another few months before I can say any more!
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell
Books by Catherine Fletcher
Recent author interviews
Colum McCann (2013-05-22)
Jennifer McVeigh (2013-05-22)
Julie Wu (2013-05-22)
Marie Brennan (2013-04-26)
Tatiana Holway (2013-04-26)
Elizabeth Strout (2013-03-21)
Kim Ghattas (2013-03-21)
Matthew M. Aid (2013-03-21)
Christine Sneed (2013-02-07)
Robin Sloan (2013-02-07)
Douglas Hunter (2012-12-19)
Simon Garfield (2012-12-19)
Christopher Bonanos (2012-11-20)
Jon Meacham (2012-11-20)
Jon Ronson (2012-11-20)
Nancy Marie Brown (2012-11-20)
David Quammen (2012-10-23)
Jaime Manrique (2012-10-23)
Karen Engelmann (2012-10-23)
Rachel Hartman (2012-10-23)
About author interviews
Each month we feature a few exclusive interviews with authors in our "State of the Thing" newsletter. Know an author who might want to be interviewed? Find out more.