Royal Supremacy

Key Facts & Summary

  • The destiny of England’s religious tendencies became strictly intertwined with Henry VIII’s marital problems and choices.
  • The Break with the Papal supremacy was caused by the pope’s denial of divorce with his wife Catherine of Aragon.
  • With the Act of Supremacy, the king gains absolute power over the Church of England by breaking with the Church of Rome.


The Act of Supremacy of 1534 is strictly tied to Henry VIII’s private life. In fact, in order to understand the significance of such a break with the Church of Rome, it is necessary to briefly recapitulate the monarch’s life.

When Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, he was simultaneously tying the knot with Spain. Catherine was Henry’s brother’s widow: her first husband died at the age of fifteen, and it is most likely that they were not able to consume the marriage.

Henry VIII’s relationship with the Spanish princess lasted for twenty years. However, by 1527, Henry was determined to get rid of his wife. His chief motives were two: a passionate attachment to one of the court ladies, Anne Boleyn, and his fear for the succession since Catherine had not been able to provide him with a male heir.

In the king’s mind, the matter was simpler: he had genuinely convinced himself that he had offended the divine law by living with his brother’s widow.

The negotiations over ‘the king’s great matter’ or divorce, as it is commonly called, although Henry was seeking a declaration of nullity, dragged on for years. Wolsey failed to secure papal consent to Henry’s demands and in 1529 the Cardinal paid for this with a sudden total fall from power.

In fact, the Cardinal believed that he could easily convince the Pope Clement VII to allow the king’s divorce.

But his successors did not do better. Despite many fulminations against Rome’s obstinacy, itself compelled by Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, who wished to protect his aunt’s interest, it seemed by the end of 1531 as though Henry had met defeat. But his determination never wavered, and a new policy, associated with the greatest statesman of his reign, Thomas Cromwell, brought success by throwing off the pope’s authority altogether and creating a national church in England under the supreme headship of the king himself. Henry’s own archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, then divorced him from Catherine.

The political state of the English Reformation was achieved in the years 1533-1534 with the assistance of a managed but far from servile Parliament. In effect, it made pope in England a king who in 1521 had written a book (Assertio Septem Sacramentorum contra Martinum Lutherum) in which he had exalted papal power such good purpose that the title Defender of the Faith was in gratitude bestowed on him. Henry had no wish to see reformed ideas in religion spread in his realm, but to break with Rome nevertheless became the beginning of Protestant England. Hostility to Rome inevitably in the end aligned England with the pope’s other enemies.


The dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1540) – the transfer of something like a fifth of the country’s landed wealth to new hands – may have assisted the growth of Protestantism, but it was undertaken almost solely because the crown of the gentry wanted the lands. But the dissolution of the monasteries played its part provoking the great northern rising of 1536-1537, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, the only real threat to Henry’s security on the throne in all his reign. Difficulties over what was the true faith, however, ended with the adoption of the orthodox Act of Six Articles (1539) and a careful holding of the balance between extreme factions after 1540. Even so, the reign witnessed considerable moves away from orthodoxy, the more so as the pillars of the old beliefs, especially Thomas More and John Fisher, had been unable to accept the change and had died on the scaffold for the papacy (1535).

Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn, who had managed to produce only a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I), had been executed in May 1536 on charges of adultery, and the death of Catherine in the same year freed Henry for an unquestionably lawful marriage. In 1536 he chose Jane Seymour. Following Seymour, Henry VIII also married Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr.

Act of Supremacy

‘Albeit the king’s majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be supreme head of the Church of England and so is recognised by the clergy of the realm in their convocations; yet nevertheless for corroboration and confirmation thereof and for increase in virtue in Christ’s religion within the realm of England, and to repress and uproot 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 the realm shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head on 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, pre-eminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities to the said dignity of supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining. And that 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 [of] spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed, repressed redressed, ordered, 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’

The act above is is the Act of Supremacy of 1534 which underlines the king’s temporal and spiritual power within the kingdom. Such Act is not to be seen independently: although it represents the act that puts an end to England’s relations with the Church of Rome, it must nonetheless be seen in a larger context, where other Act and policies also play a fundamental role.

When in 1529 Clement VII denied his divorce with Catherine of Aragon, defining it as a lawful and sacred union, Henry VIII worked progressively towards the diminishing of the pope’s power. In fact, he was able to do so by passing laws in Parliament between 1529 and 1536. Such period in Parliament was known as the Reformation Parliament. It can be stated that the new laws that affected the nation and religion, were made with the intention of pressuring the pope and limiting the revenue that came from England. In fact, the Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates (March 1532) imposed a limit on the money sent to the Papal State, and the amount was reduced by 95%.

Moreover, when the king divorced from Catherine, he ensured that nobody could appeal to a foreign court by releasing the Act of Restraint Appeals, which made it illegal to bring up Henry’s divorce to the tribunal of Rome.

The Act of Supremacy was passed only when the Church of Rome showed no interested in changing their views.

The Act of extinguishing the authority of the Bishop of Rome (also known as the Act of Rome) put an end to Britain’s relationship with the Papal church: it also incriminated the bishop deeming him as responsible for ‘depredations’ and for the ‘impoverishment of the kingdom through the collection of agnates and other church taxes’ (Wood 2017). With the Treason Act, it also became illegal to defend the pope. Defending the pope would have resulted in high treason, and priests and other church officers were obliged to take an oath in which they renounced to the pope’s authority.


[1.] Act of Supremacy 1558. Legislation. The National Archives.

[2.] Kinney, Arthur F; Swain, David W; Hill, Eugene D.; Long, William A. (17 November 2000). Tudor England: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 132.

[3.] Loades, D. (1994). Henry VIII and His Queens.

[4.] Loades, D. M. ed. (2003). Reader’s Guide to British History. Fitzroy Dearborn. pp. 2:1147.

[5.] Spurr, J. (1991). The Restoration Church of England, 1646-1689.

[6.] Thurston, Herbert (1913). Henry VIII. In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

[7.] Treason Act, 1534 Archived (2007). English Reformation Sources. Julie P. McFerran. 2003-2004

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