|Picture Credit: Public Domain. File:After Hans Holbein the Younger – Portrait of Henry VIII – Google Art Project.jpg|
The Acts of Supremacy are two acts passed by the Parliament of England in the 16th century. They established the English monarchs as the head of the Church of England:
- The 1534 Act declared King Henry VIII and his successors as the Supreme Head of the Church, replacing the Pope. (The Act was repealed during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I.)
- The 1558 Act declared Queen Elizabeth I and her successors’ the Supreme Governor of the Church’ – a British monarch’s title.
On 15th January 1535, King Henry VIII was proclaimed supreme head of the Church of England due to his controversial Act of Supremacy.
This event itself marked the beginning of the English Reformation. It was to be followed soon after by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, between 1536 and 1541, by which King Henry disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland. The reasons for the Act – and the subsequent execution of those who opposed him – were both personal and overtly political:
- Foremost was King Henry’s desire to abandon Rome and reject the Catholic Church’s opposition to his proposed divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
- The Act of Supremacy came into being following Pope Clement VII’s refusal to grant Henry VIII an annulment.
- The Pope was fearful of the reaction of Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who sacked Rome in 1527, and the Pope wanted to avoid clashing with him.
- King Henry seized his chance to wrest power away from Rome and into his own hands, taking the property of the monasteries and exploiting his right to rule the Church of England, which saw him excommunicated by the Catholic Church.
First Act of Supremacy 1534
The first Act of Supremacy was passed on 3rd November 1534 and granted King Henry VIII of England (and subsequent monarchs) Royal Supremacy, such that he was declared the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Royal Supremacy is specifically used to describe the legal sovereignty of the civil laws over the laws of the Church in England.
The Act declared that the King was “the only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England” and that the Crown shall: enjoy “all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity.”
The Act’s wording made it clear that Parliament was not granting the King the title (thereby suggesting that they had the right to withdraw it later) but was acknowledging a fact. In the Act of Supremacy, King Henry abandoned Rome completely. He thereby asserted the independence of the Ecclesia Anglicana. He appointed himself and his successors as the supreme rulers of the English Church. Earlier, Henry had been declared “Defender of the Faith” (Fidei defensor) in 1521 by Pope Leo X for his pamphlet accusing Martin Luther of heresy. Parliament later conferred this title upon Henry in 1544.
The 1534 Act marks the beginning of the English Reformation. There were several reasons for this Act, but it was primarily about the need for a male heir to the throne. Henry tried for years to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and had convinced himself that God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow. Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment because, according to Roman Catholic teaching, a validly contracted marriage is indivisible until death and one the Pope cannot annul simply because of a canonical impediment previously dispensed.
The Treasons Act was later passed: it provided that to disavow the Act of Supremacy and deprive the King of his “dignity, title, or name” was considered treason. The most notable public figure to resist the Treasons Act was Sir Thomas More, King Henry’s Lord Chancellor, who paid for his refusal to outwardly support the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn with his life in 1535.
Irish Act of Supremacy 1537
In 1537, the Irish Supremacy Act was passed by the Parliament of Ireland, establishing Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of Ireland, as had earlier been done in England.
Second Act of Supremacy 1558
Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy was repealed in 1554 during the reign of his staunchly Roman Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I. Upon her death in November 1558, her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne. The first Elizabethan Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy 1558, which declared Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and instituted an Oath of Supremacy, requiring anyone taking public or Church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and State. Anyone refusing to take the oath could be charged with treason. 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.
As opposed to Supreme Head, the term Supreme Governor pacified some Roman Catholics and those Protestants concerned about a female leader of the Church of England. Elizabeth did not prosecute nonconformist laypeople or those who did not follow the established rules of the Church of England unless their actions directly undermined the authority of the English monarch.
Although the British monarch’s authority over the Church of England is mainly ceremonial and is primarily observed in a symbolic capacity, the position is still very relevant to the Church. As the Supreme Governor, the monarch formally appoints high-ranking members of the Church on the advice of the prime minister of the United Kingdom, who is in turn advised by church leaders, such as the Lords Spiritual.
The Church of Scotland
The British monarch vows to uphold the constitution of the Church of Scotland (a Presbyterian national church), but does not hold a leadership position in it. Nevertheless, the British monarch appoints the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as their personal representative, with a ceremonial role. On occasions, Queen Elizabeth II filled the role personally, as when she opened the General Assembly in 1977 and 2002 (her Silver and Golden Jubilee years).
The Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Reformation in Tudor England was a time of unprecedented change. One of the main outcomes of the Reformation was the destruction of the monasteries, which began in earnest in 1536. The idea was not new. Thomas Cromwell had already helped Cardinal Wolsey dissolve monasteries in the past. The monasteries were a reminder of the power of the Catholic Church. It was also true that the monasteries were the wealthiest institutions in the country, and Henry’s lifestyle, along with his wars, had led to a lack of money: Monasteries owned over a quarter of all the cultivated land in England. By destroying the monastic system, Henry could acquire all its wealth and property whilst removing its Papist influence. Effectively, Henry’s plan was to close down and confiscate the lands and wealth of all monasteries in England and Wales. Without beating about the bush, it was a lucrative element of his Reformation of the Church.
The Dissolution of the monasteries, occasionally referred to as the suppression of the monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries in England, Wales, and Ireland, expropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided for their former personnel and functions.
Even though the monasteries bowed to the Royal Supremacy, the government continued to view them with suspicion, arguing that they had obeyed only out of fear. Their destruction started early in 1536. In the name of fiscal reform and efficiency, financially poor monasteries were dissolved because they were considered too small to do their job effectively.
The destruction of the monasteries was carried out with surprisingly little opposition and, by 1539, most were gone. Property constituting at least 13 per cent of the land of England and Wales was nationalised and incorporated into the crown lands. But for better or for worse, King Henry and his descendants had to sell the ‘profits’ of the Reformation, and by 1603, over 75 per cent of the monastic loot had passed into the hands of the landed gentry. The effect was that the most powerful and influential elements within Tudor society in Britain had a vested interest in protecting their property against papal Catholicism.
On becoming King in 1509, there were more than 850 religious houses in England and Wales. While what happened to them is termed the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’, that is a misleading term as few of these establishments were known as monasteries. Those larger rural religious houses, such as at Tintern in Gloucester, were referred to as abbeys. Medium-sized religious houses were usually called priories (or nunneries), and a friary was usually used to describe the smallest of houses.
The Dissolution of Henry VIII’s Marriage
As head of his own church, Henry VII could, in effect, grant himself his own divorce. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, formally annulled Henry’s first marriage in May 1533 CE, and Henry’s daughter with Catherine, princess Mary (born February 1516 CE), was declared illegitimate and so disinherited. Henry’s comeuppance was his excommunication by the Pope for his momentous actions, but this was only the beginning. Henry now seemed to consider himself chosen by God to push through further religious reforms in England and pursue the Reformation sweeping across Europe.
The Original Text of the 1534 Act of Supremacy
“Albeit, the King’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and oweth to be the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognised 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 extirp 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 honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities, to the said dignity of 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, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner 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 tranquillity of this realm: any usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority, prescription or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.”
Sources and Further Reading
- Act of Supremacy, 1558
 The Church of England is a Christian church which is the established church of England. The archbishop of Canterbury is the most senior cleric, although the monarch is the supreme governor. The Church of England is also the mother church of the international Anglican Communion. The English church renounced papal authority when Henry VIII failed to secure a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1534. Source: Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VIII
 Except for the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, a revolt in the northern counties of England against the Reformation legislation of King Henry VIII.