History books tell us that England embraced the Protestant Reformation because its king wanted a divorce. What the books frequently fail to point out is that a dog — more precisely, a dog’s slobber — may have been just as responsible for triggering the English Reformation.
Henry VIII (1491-1547) wanted a male heir to the throne. When his marriage to Catherine of Aragon did not produce a son, he decided to end his marriage. Divorce was not an option under Roman Catholic tradition, so the king sought to have his marriage annulled by Pope Clement VII.
Henry sent Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to Rome to petition the pope on his behalf. Wolsey did not want to go on the journey by himself, so he took his beloved greyhound, Urian. Urian not only accompanied Wolsey on the journey, but he went with him to the meeting with the pope.
Greyhounds are remarkably gentle animals, so what happened next must have shocked Wolsey as much as anyone. As the cardinal and dog entered the room to be presented to the pope, Clement extended his foot for Wolsey to kiss. Urian must have interpreted this as a threat to his master, and he leaped forward and bit the pontiff squarely on the foot.
Curiously, it does not appear that this confrontation was itself particularly harmful toward relations between the Holy See and London. What really set the pope off, however, was that Wolsey refused to kiss the bitten-but-still-extended foot. Wolsey was totally ok with putting his mouth on another man’s foot, but he drew the line at letting his lips come into contact with dog slobber.
The offended pope coldly received Wolsey’s petition from the king, asking for the annulment. Clement refused the request. The result was the decision by Henry VIII to break from the Roman Catholic Church and to usher in the English Reformation.
To be fair, Clement VII did not specifically cite Urian’s attack or Wolsey’s offense as the basis for his decision. There can be little question, however, that the throbbing, slobber-covered papal foot did not put the pontiff in a particularly-favorable mood.
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