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The Act of Supremacy was an Act of the Parliament of England under the reign of the
king Henry VIII (1491-1547). It proclaimed the king Supreme Head of the Church in England,
after the Pope excommunicated him in 1533 over his divorce from Catherine Aragon (1485-
1536). Since then, the Pope had no right to command the King of England. The nation was a
sovereign realm, subject to no other state or authority. Neither the Pope nor the Holy Roman
Emperor had the power to involve in the England´s laws. The monarch was now given the right
to appoint his own archbishop and bishops and persecuted heresy. It was also considered a
crime to refuse to acknowledge Henry as head of the Church or to oppose to the succession line.
According to the Act, the Parliament intention was not granting the King the title, but it was stated
as a recognized fact instead.

It supported the right to teach doctrine and reform the Church, but not the right to preach, ordain
or administer the sacraments and rites of the Church. It was known as potestas ordinis and was
held by the clergy. The King argued that he was defending the ancient rights of the secular
power, which the Papacy had taken over in the course of the centuries. The title was dropped by
Mary I (1553) and altered to that Supreme Governor by Elizabeth I (1559), both Henry VIII´s
daughters, which it remains to this days.

During several years, Henry VIII had tried without any valid result to get a divorce from his
consort, Catherine of Aragon. The reason was very simple but essential one: the lack of a male
heir to succeed him on the throne. Besides, the sovereign had another hidden interest in the
matter; he had fallen in love with one of Catherine Aragon´s ladies in waiting, whose name was
Anne Boleyn (1501/07-1536).

Despite all the efforts to conceive a child, almost of all Catherine´s pregnancies ended in
miscarriages, stillborn babies and a one living son, born in 1511, who only survived 52 days. On
the other hand, the queen gave birth to a healthy baby girl in 1516 named Mary, who was the
only offspring to reach adulthood. Although, it wasn’t enough to fulfill the king ´s most precious
desire. A girl meant nothing to him; he needed desperately an heir to continue the Tudor
Dynasty. By 1526, when Catherine reached the age of forty, it was clear that Henry would not
have a son. On the other hand, one of his mistresses, Bessie Blount, bore him a bastard son in
1519, Henry Fitzroy. Henry created the boy Earl of Nottingham, Duke of Richmond and
Somerset, and granted his son several important posts including Lord High Admiral of England,
when Richmond was only six years old, in 1525. But, he was a illegitimate son, it could be useful
as diplomatic tool, though there was no way to put him on the throne.

Catherine was married first to prince Arthur, Henry VIII ´s elder brother. The union celebrated in
1501 only had lasted a few months. Unfortunately, the Prince of Wales suddenly died. The cause
is unknown but could have been consumption or perhaps the most common disease in that time:
The “Sweating Sickness”, which was comparable to the “Black Death”. Henry VII and his consort,
Elizabeth of York, were devastated.

The young “Infanta” of Spain, then a poor widow, had remained in England, almost living in
poverty, waiting for an agreement about the dowry between her father, Ferdinand of Aragon, and
her mean father-in-law Henry VII. She alleged that the marriage had never been consummated,
in short, she was still a virgin. Henry VII`s second son, Prince Henry, duke of York, was
proclaimed the new heir to the throne, and when his father died, he announced his betrothal with
Catherine. Finally, they were married on 11 June 1509. Their splendid coronation took place a
few days later, on 24 June.
Why had God not permitted his sons to live? He was wandering if this union was really legal
according to God´s will. God probably was punishing him for marring his brother ´s widow. The
source of this statement he had found in the Bible, specifically in Leviticus 20, 21: "If a man
marries his brother's wife, it is an act of impurity. He has violated his brother, and the guilty
couple will remain childless.” He couldn´t live in that difficult situation anymore, his guilt
conscious was killing him. So, Henry VIII declared that he was living in sin. Even though he was
King of England, he would be under a curse until he was rid of Catherine of Aragon. For the good
of the nation he was obliged to seek an annulment at once.

Ironically, a few years before, Henry wrote a treatise denouncing Martin Luther´s Reformist
ideals, called The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments. It is believed that Thomas More was
involved in the composition of the piece. It was dedicated to Pope Leo X, who decided to confer
the distinguished title of “Defender of the Faith” on King Henry in October 1521. Obviously, it was
not a coincidence that in 1518 the monarch started to write that response to Martin Luther´s
attack. If we review the facts carefully, we realize that in the same year Catherine of Aragon
became pregnant with what seems to have been her last conception.

Take everything into account; Henry´s support to the Universal Catholic Church had an import
aim. The king surely viewed his winning of the Papal title as another piece of evidence to answer
to the question of why God had not permitted his infant sons to live. He was trying to prove
himself that was not his fault about the lack of male heirs and beyond doubt not a punishment for
his sins. Therefore, he was attempting to achieve a favored position with God in order to merit a
divine blessing in the form of the birth of a surviving son.

In these desperately circumstances was when Henry noticed the presence of Lady Anne Boleyn
at court. But, who was this stunning woman capable to steal the king´s heart? Henry seems to
have been attracted to her from 1525 or 1526; in one of his letters he says that was “struck with
the dart of love” for Anne for over a year. By 1527, she finally accepted to marry him.

The next step was to ask the Pope an annulment. The cardinal Wolsey entered into negotiations
with Clement VII to reach his sovereign´s aim, but it was a vain attempt. The Pope refused to
give the divorce. The emperor Charles V was the most powerful force in Europe and Catherine
Aragon´s nephew; however, one of the special reasons which had induced the Pope to deny it
was the recent “Sack of Rome”, occurred in 1527, which would mean that the pontiff was in
Charles hands.

Anne Boleyn was in certain way the initiator of the Protestant religion in England. She was not
only the charming and vivacious mistress who Henry VIII was totally besotted with, but also a
strong supporter of the Reform. She persuaded Henry to read a lot of forbidden books which her
supporters had brought her from France. One of them was The Obedience of a Christian Man by
William Tyndale, published in 1528. It would be very interesting to present some passages of this
great work that influenced England religion context in the first part of the sixteen century:

The King is in the room of God in this world. He that resists the king, resists God; he that judges
God. He is the minister of God to defend thee… Let´s kings, if they had rather be Christians in
deed that so to be called, give themselves altogether to the well-being of their realms after the
example of Jesus Christ, remembering that the people are God´s, and not theirs; ye; are Christ´s
inheritance, bought with His blood.

The most despised person in his realm (if he is a Christian) is equal with him in the kingdom of
God and of Christ. Let the king put off all pride, and become a brother to the poorest of his
Consequently, Kings must speak directly to God. They had not to obey anyone else. According
to Tyndale, the Pope had usurped the authority of Christ and God´s Word.

On January 25, 1533, Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn while he was still married to Catherine of
Aragon. Thomas Crammer, his newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury, pronounced on 23
May 1533 that Henry ´s marriage with Catherine was void. The Pope excommunicated him. In
1534, Henry announced the Act of Supremacy. Henceforth, he was considered a modern version
of the King David or Salomon who must take care of his subjects.

By 11 September 1533, Anne Boleyn had given birth to a girl, the future Elizabeth I,
nevertheless, she was not the expected male heir. The king was very disappointed. In 1536, she
was arrested, tried and found guilty of treason (including adultery with many men) and executed.
Surely, she was an innocent woman, victim of a tyrant king. On 30 May, eleven days after Anne
´s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour. She would finally make the king a happy man. In
1537, Edward, the future Edward VI, was born.

It would be interesting to examine some part of the Act of Supremacy For instance, we present
this passage:

[…] 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 […]

To justify this statement, we can show as example the dissolution of the monasteries and seizure
of Church properties by the state. In 1535 Henry VIII ordered Cromwell the closing down of
Roman Catholic Abbeys, monasteries and covents across England. They found in the
monasteries some irregularities, frauds and false relics, which was the case of the holy blood of
Hailes, which was actually duck´s blood.

Another hidden point was to fund money to support military campaigns against France and
Scotland. Evidently, the king spent so much of the church fortune to support war. In October
1536, there was an important rebellion against the dissolution of monasteries led by Robert
Aske. It was called “The Pilgrimage of Grace”.

Therefore, King Henry was an absolute monarch who pretended to justify his actions based on
his false guilt conscious. When he alleged that his marriage with Catherine Aragon was not valid
at all, it was only to satisfy his infatuation to Anne Boleyn. In fact, he was tired of his first wife.
However, he needed desperately a male to succeed him on the throne. The lack of a son made
him a miserable man. He would do everything to get his goal. In short, to break with Rome was
one the consequences.


Bray, Gerald Lewis: Documents of the English Reformation, Library of Ecclesiastical History, Cambridge,

Denny, Joanna: Anne Boleyn: A new life of England´s tragic Queen, Portrait Books, London, 2005.

Hart, Kelly: The Mistresses of Henry VIII, The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2009.
Ives, Eric: Anne Boleyn, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1988.

Warnicke, Retha M.: The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn: family politics at court of Henry VIII, Canto,
Cambrige University Press, 1996.