King Henry VIII and the First Act of Supremacy (1534)
It was also on this date, November 3, 1534, that England’s Parliament passed the first Act of Supremacy, thus making King Henry VIII head of the English church. Under Henry’s urging, and in 276 words, Parliament gave to the head of state the role until then held by the head of the Church: the Pope.
That this was payback for Pope Clement VII’s refusal to allow Henry a divorce from Katherine of Aragon seems obvious, but it is wise to be wary of single motivations. He was at least outwardly pious, as any savvy leader must be – and as Machiavelli advised a generation earlier in The Prince – but Henry had a more objective eye on the corruption of Rome and in the monasteries and parishes of England. This corruption included simony, nepotism and sexual indiscretions.
THE ACT OF SUPREMACY (1534)
Albeit the king’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognized by the clergy of this realm in their convocations, yet nevertheless, for corroboration and confirmation thereof, and for increase of virtue in Christ’s religion within this realm of England, and to repress and extirpate all errors, heresies, and other enormities and abuses heretofore used in the same, be it enacted, by authority of this present Parliament, that the king, our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia; and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof, as all honors, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of the supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining; and that our said sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall have full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, record, order, correct, restrain, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offenses, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner of spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed, repressed, ordered, redressed, corrected, restrained, or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God, the increase of virtue in Christ’s religion, and for the conservation of the peace, unity, and tranquility of this realm; any usage, foreign land, foreign authority, prescription, or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.
—From Statutes of the Realm, III. A printed version of the act can be found on pages 243-244 of Documents Illustrative of English Church History, edited by Henry Gee and William John Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1914).
Henry was happy to acquire power over the Roman Catholic Church in England. He proceeded to clean out the Augean stables of the monasteries with gleeful impunity – although there was that little inconvenience of being excommunicated by Clement in July of the preceding year (1533). This pronouncement theoretically released Henry’s Catholic subjects from obligatory loyalty to their king, but the bull had no bite and no practical effect. And Clement was dead before the Act of Supremacy was two months old.
While he was cleaning up the corrupt monasteries, Henry was also cleaning them out. But before criticizing Henry for appropriating the wealth of the Catholic Church to finance his pleasures and his foreign adventures, it is useful to ask just why the monasteries were so wealthy in portable property and lands in the first place. The Church certainly wasn’t relieving poverty or educating the populace to any great extent. It’s all right to say that God’s work doesn’t come cheap, but just how much does a priest in velvet vestments, living in a mansion, care about a peasant in rags, living in a hovel?
The 1534 Act of Supremacy was repealed in 1554, after Henry’s death, when his staunchly Catholic daughter, Mary I, also known as “Bloody Mary,” took the throne. But when Mary’s Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, ascended the throne, the Act was revived and revised in 1559, making it treasonous to avow allegiance to the Pope. The Act of Supremacy has been in place in England ever since, making the monarch head of both the Church of England and of the United Kingdom. One of the unintended consequences of having no separation of church and state in England is amusingly counterintuitive: especially in comparison to the US, England has been, and is today, one of the least religious countries in the world!
Originally published November 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.