Act of Supremacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Act of Supremacy declared Henry VIII the head of the Church in England, immediately legitimizing his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his clandestine marriage to Anne Boleyn, and his subsequent claims to church revenues.

Summary of Event

The break between Rome and the Church in England was brought about by the matrimonial problems of Henry VIII. In 1509, Pope Julius II had granted a dispensation to make it legally possible for Henry to marry Catherine of Aragon. Catherine and Henry did not produce a male heir, and Henry feared that succession of their daughter Mary might cause a disputed monarchy and a return to civil war. Moreover, he was in love with Anne Boleyn, who was not content to be merely the king’s mistress. Divorce;Catherine of Aragon and Supremacy, Act of (1534) Cromwell, Thomas Henry VIII Catherine of Aragon Anne Boleyn Clement VII (1478-1534) Charles V (1500-1558) Cranmer, Thomas Fisher, John Mary I Wolsey, Thomas Henry VIII (king of England) Julius II Catherine of Aragon Boleyn, Anne Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas Clement VII Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Mary Tudor (queen of England) Fisher, John

The ecclesiastical courts could not grant a divorce, Divorce;Henry VIII and only an annulment, and Julius II had made sure that the marriage was valid in the first place. Henry appealed to Rome through his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, but the new pope, Clement VII, was virtually a prisoner in Rome of Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Vacillating between desires to avoid offending both Henry and Charles, Clement appointed Wolsey and an Italian cardinal to hear proceedings in London, but the case was later recalled to Rome.

Disgusted with the long delay, Henry suspected Wolsey of conniving with the pope to prevent a decision from being made and dismissed Wolsey in disgrace. Henry was impatient to marry Anne Boleyn and failed to see why the king of England should have to subject himself to the pope of Rome. He had been orthodox in his religion and had actually received the title of Defender of the Faith from Pope Leo X for a book published in 1521 entitled Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (Assertio septem sacramentorum: Or, An Assertion of the Seven Sacraments Against Martin Luther, 1687), which attacked the ideas of church reformer Martin Luther. Thomas Cromwell, a royal secretary, and Thomas Cranmer, a royal chaplain, counseled that there was legal precedent for not acquiescing to the pope’s indecisiveness. They suggested that Henry consult on the question of his marriage with the universities of Europe, which saw no impediment to the annulment.

In 1530, Pope Clement VII was free of Charles V’s control; he forbade Henry VIII to remarry without his permission and also forbade all general discussion of the matter. Henry’s countermove was to arrange for the English nobility to send a letter to the pope urging an annulment and warning that civil war might result if Henry did not beget a legitimate male heir.

In February of 1531, Henry made another move against Rome when he summoned the bishops and threatened them with prosecution under the old law of praemunire for having accepted Wolsey as papal legate without his approval. He demanded an enormous fine of 118,000 pounds and extorted from the Convocation of Canterbury a declaration that the king is “only and supreme Lord [of the clergy] and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even Supreme Head.” Insertion of the phrase “as far as the law of Christ allows” was made at the insistence of the bishops and rendered the pronouncement ambiguous, but the title Supreme Head was not forgotten.

Meanwhile, Parliament continued with its work of curtailing the independence of the Church in England. Bishops were forbidden to pay “annates,” an annual tax, to the pope. Those who had been nominated bishops were to be consecrated even if the pope withheld his approval. The House of Commons complained bitterly about the power of the ecclesiastical courts, and a statute was passed declaring that canon law was subject to the king’s approval. Even the bishops acquiesced under pressure.

In August of 1532, William Warham, the archbishop of Canterbury, died. Henry nominated the hitherto obscure Thomas Cranmer to succeed him, and the pope approved in January, 1533. Since at least 1525, Cranmer had been a convinced Protestant and was strongly, though privately, antipapal. He was also secretly married. Protestantism;England

Henry had come to realize that he could expect no favorable action from Clement VII on annulment of his marriage, and he submitted the case to Cranmer, who granted a dissolution of the marriage on May 23, 1533. Henry had been secretly married to Anne Boleyn since January of 1533, and she was already pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth I. When the pope heard about Cranmer’s action, he excommunicated Henry, Cranmer, and Anne Boleyn. The following year, the pope gave his final decision on the annulment, which was negative. By that time, however, Henry no longer cared.

Throughout 1533 and early 1534, Parliament continued to enact legislation drafted by Thomas Cromwell. The king alone was given the right to appoint bishops. He could now collect annates and other papal fees. An Act of Succession Succession, Act of (1534) was passed that declared Mary illegitimate and established the offspring of Anne Boleyn as the true heirs to the throne. The pope was denied all legal jurisdiction in England by the Act in Restraint of Appeals; all appeals from Church courts were to be made to the king’s courts. The act declared that “this realm of England is an empire,” a formulation intended to imply that the king had virtually unlimited power. Popular pamphlets began to appear that attacked the Papacy and glorified the king.

On November 11, 1534, Parliament voted the Act of Supremacy, the most significant statute of the English Reformation. Formally accepted by Henry on December 18, 1534, the Act of Supremacy did not declare the king Supreme Head of the Church in England but asserted that he already held that position. Although he was not given clerical powers, such as the right to consecrate bishops, the king was given ultimate and full responsibility to maintain doctrinal purity in the Church in England and to supervise the conduct of the clergy. To deny the king this power or to call him a heretic or a schismatic was declared to be treason punishable by death.

Parliament also prescribed an Oath of Succession, which recognized the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and also embodied the title Supreme Head of the Church. The oath could be required of anyone, but it was especially sought from clergy, public officials, lawyers, schoolmasters, and others in sensitive positions. Only one bishop, John Fisher, refused to take the oath; most of the lower clergy took it and so did most of the laity to whom it was proffered. An exception was Sir Thomas More, who resigned as Lord Chancellor in an effort to avoid taking the oath. He was charged with treason anyway and was executed in 1535, along with Fisher and a number of monks all convicted of the same offense. Throughout 1535, royal commissioners presented the oath throughout the kingdom; the small minority of individuals who refused to take it were ejected from office, and some were fined or imprisoned.

An early rebellion to the Act of Supremacy was the Pilgrimage of Grace, Grace, Pilgrimage of (1536-1537) centered in Lincoln and strongest in the north of England. Because it was largely directed at the widely hated Thomas Cromwell, and not at the king, it was controlled quickly.


A great consequence of the passing of the Act of Supremacy was Henry’s claiming, as head of the Church in England, the revenues that had previously gone to the pope. Also significant was Henry’s refusal to bow to any authority outside the English “empire.” He adroitly used Parliament to subdue the Church to the Crown by parliamentary statute. The Act of Supremacy demonstrated that the power to make and unmake laws rested exclusively with the king-in-parliament and not the pope in Rome.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. 2d ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. This influential study, recently challenged, presents the English Reformation as rooted in popular dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elton, G. R. Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558. London: Edward Arnold, 1977. An account of English Reformation history stressing its lasting impact on legal, cultural, and political life. The chapter on “The Royal Supremacy” is especially informative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graves, Michael A. R. Henry VIII: A Study in Kingship. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2003. Attempts to separate myth from reality to better understand Henry the man. Good discussion of the relationship between king and Parliament and its historical precedents and effects. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society Under the Tudors. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. The definitive challenge to Dickens’s view of the Reformation in England. Haigh sees several succeeding Reformation phases imposed by those holding royal and ecclesiastical power and not widely supported by the general population.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McEntegart, Rory. Henry VIII, the League of Schmalkalden, and the English Reformation. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002. Study of Henry’s alliance and consultation with the Protestant League of Schmalkalden, analyzing his partial incorporation of German religious ideology into his own theology and the nascent Church of England. Looks at both the evolution of Henry’s religious thought and the wider political implications of that evolution. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Peter. Reformation England, 1480-1642. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Extremely detailed, meticulously supported argument that the English Reformation should be understood to begin in the late fifteenth century and to last well into the seventeenth century. Grapples with and explicates the specific meanings of Protestantism and Catholicism to the major players and to laypeople during the Renaissance. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newcombe, D. G. Henry VIII and the English Reformation. London: Routledge, 1995. Intended for students, this history provides an excellent, well-written, and reasonably thorough introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scarisbrick, J. J. Henry VIII. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. In this definitive biography, the chapter on “The Royal Supremacy” is full and provocative. Stresses that the English Reformation that resulted from Henry’s actions involved a small minority. Official decisions and events were surrounded by English, continental, and Vatican intrigues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scarisbrick, J. J. The Reformation and the English People. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1984. This accessible cultural study stresses that the religious changes of the sixteenth century were not initiated by the English laity, but rather accepted often with indifference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solt, Leo F. Church and State in Early Modern England, 1509-1640. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Solidly researched and well-written analysis of royal and parliamentary power that includes detailed examination of the Reformation Parliaments under Henry VIII.

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Categories: History