What was the Act of Supremacy?
The Act of Supremacy is the name of two different acts passed by the English Parliament, both of which establish the English monarch as the head of the Church of England and removed the powers of the Pope as the head of the church.
The original act passed in 1534 at the request of Henry VIII, while the second act passed during the reign of Elizabeth I. The second act was necessary to reestablish the English monarch as head of the church, as Parliament had nullified the original one when she assumed the throne upon the death of Edward VI.
The 1534 Act of Supremacy
The original act essentially created the Church of England and severed church ties with Rome. With the passing of the Act of Supremacy, the Pope was no longer considered the leader of Christians in England. This act, however, was more of a political move than a religious one, even though it established Henry as “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.”
What was at stake was the succession of the monarchy. Although many of the common people and members of the English aristocracy were interested in the teachings of Martin Luther, Henry strongly opposed Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” and wrote a book in 1521 denouncing Luther’s views that prompted Pope Clement VII to name Henry “The Defender of the Faith.”
Despite his lustful reputation, Henry VIII was a deeply religious man and believed that the wrath of God had descended upon him because of his inability to produce a living male heir with his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had been betrothed to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, who died before the two lived together as husband and wife. Henry pointed to Old Testament passage (Leviticus 20:21) that prohibited men from marrying their brother’s widow, indicating God was punishing him for an illegal marriage.
Henry went through the religious procedures of his time by seeking an annulment from Pope Clement VII. The Pope kept stalling the proceedings, partially because Catherine, who was already in her early forties, was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whom the Pope did not want to offend. He had also fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, who was young enough to bear children. In 1527, Henry asked for annulment for the first time and with each refusal, increased pressure on Rome. By 1529, he was thoroughly frustrated and cited the Bible verse from Leviticus and other Old Testament sources to support his cause. He also cited historical sources, including Anglo-Saxon documents that gave spiritual supremacy to the English monarch over the church.
The English church first recognized Henry as its head in 1531, but the king continued to try to reach a compromise with the Pope, all to no avail. In 1532, the English church agreed to surrender its independence as well as authority regarding canon law to the monarch. This paved the way for the Statute in Restraint of Appeals in early 1533, which removed the ability of the English to appeal to Rome on matters of matrimony, tithes and oblations. By this time, Anne Boleyn was already pregnant with Henry’s child, so Thomas Cranmer, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage to Catherine invalid, allowing Henry to marry Anne.
What the Act Passed in 1534 Allowed
The original Act of Supremacy not only confirmed that Henry was the head of the Church of England, it also gave him access to considerable wealth that the church had amassed in England. Public sentiment, at this time, was generally opposed to ecclesiastical hierarchy as some felt that the church was mismanaged. The act gave Henry access to the Church’s considerable wealth and allowed an investigation into the Church property in 1535. This move eventually led to the dissolution of the monasteries beginning in 1536, which gave Henry money for his treasuries to fight wars against the French for land in Normandy that had previously belonged to England.
Perhaps more importantly, the Act of 1534 made supporting the Pope over the Church of England an act of treason. This made supporting Catholicism not only a statement of religious conviction but a crime against the monarch, which was punishable by death. This provision because particularly important in the second version of the Act of Supremacy When Jesuit priests infiltrated England during the reign of Elizabeth I in an attempt to enlist support for Roman Catholic causes in Europe.
The 1559 Act of Supremacy
Henry’s staunchly Roman Catholic daughter, Mary, had the original act repealed in 1554 after she became queen. Thus, when her half-sister Elizabeth I became queen, she had a similar act passed. The 1559 Act of Supremacy declared Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. It also included an Oath of Supremacy, which required anyone taking public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and state. Individuals who refused to take the oath could be charged with treason and be put to death.
The severity of the penalties for refusing to take the oath had three different levels. For the first refusal, the offender suffered the loss of all moveable goods. A second offense could mean life in prison and the loss of all real estate. A third offense carried a charge of high treason and death. The oath was eventually extended to include all members of Parliament and anyone earning a university degree.
What these acts essentially did was make permanent the divide between the Roman Catholic and Anglican, or English churches. The English people adhered to the acts somewhat out of fear, but also because they identified more with being English, or having national pride, than they did with being Roman Catholic.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Act of Supremacy" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/act-of-supremacy/, February 16, 2017