Wives of Henry VIII have their day in court

LONDON - King Henry VIII had many titles - King of England and of Ireland, Defender of the Faith, ''Bluff King Hal.'' But in a mock courtroom Monday he was called something else - adulterer, abusive husband, deadbeat dad.

U.S. and British family lawyers examined the marital woes of England's oft-wed king, who in the 16th century married six wives, beheaded two of them and broke England's ties with the Roman Catholic Church so that he could leave his first wife and remarry.

During the session - part of the American Bar Association's annual meeting being held in London this week - 500 lawyers heard long-suffering first wife Catherine of Aragon ask for a restraining order against her violent spouse. Doomed Anne Boleyn, headed for the chopping block in 1536, sought a quickie divorce, while sixth wife Catherine Parr called on the king to honor their prenuptial agreement.

''The amazing thing is, 400 years later the issues are all still the same,'' whispered one American lawyer in the audience.

The mock trial - heard simultaneously by England's top family law judge, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince - was designed to feature issues in contemporary family law.

Few modern-day marriage problems are as cataclysmic as those of Henry, whose attempt to get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could wed Anne Boleyn led to his excommunication by the pope and the founding of the Anglican church.

But the U.S. and British lawyers representing the queens did not have to struggle very hard to give their tales a contemporary ring. Anne Boleyn - accused by the king of adultery, incest and treason - was ''the victim of sustained spin,'' according to her lawyer. Catherine Howard - Henry's fifth wife, also executed for treason - was a battered spouse trapped in a cycle of violence.

As befits the theme of the conference - ''Common Law, Common Bond'' - the trans-Atlantic judges broadly agreed.

''The behavior of his majesty toward several of his wives has gone beyond acceptable bounds,'' Butler-Sloss said drily.

Nonetheless, the event highlighted differences between U.S. and British law - especially when it comes to money. Quince was more ready to grant the wives' financial demands than the cautious Butler-Sloss.

She called some of the financial claims, which included Catherine of Aragon asking for half the King's property and other payments including the crown jewels, ''excessive under English law,'' awarding ''reasonable costs - English standards, not American standards.''

U.S. lawyers have flooded London for the conference, which has close to 4,000 registered participants. They can choose among more than 200 meetings and seminars, from the topical (''Privacy, Paparazzi and the Media'') to the sobering (''How Depression Can Affect the Bottom Line of Your Practice.'')

Speakers this week include U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former Sen. George Mitchell, broker of the Northern Ireland peace accord, and lawyer Cherie Booth, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair - though not, as organizers had hoped, in a debate with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is otherwise engaged with her U.S. Senate bid.

To underline the meeting's theme of the deep links between the two countries' legal systems, lawyers on Saturday held a ceremony at the site west of London where King John signed the Magna Carta, the founding document of English common law.

''The common law, and the common values that go with it, were England's first exports to America,'' Prime Minister Tony Blair said at the gathering's opening ceremony Monday.

But the two nations continue to have their differences - a fact that will be highlighted at another mock trial on Thursday. The United States will put King George III, who lost the American colonies in the Revolutionary War, in the dock for terrorism, and Britain tries George Washington for treason.


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