The Act of Supremacy and how the English Monarch became Supreme Head of the Church of England

Portrait of Henry VIII of England by Joos van Cleve, c. 1531

How the Act of Supremacy made the English Monarch Supreme Head of the Church of England. Portrait of Henry VIII of England by Joos van Cleve, c. 1531

On November 10, 1518, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon experienced the loss of their child, a stillborn daughter. This was a devastating blow for the couple, who had been married for almost a decade and desperately wanted a male heir to secure the Tudor dynasty. Prior to 1518, the royal couple had suffered a series of stillbirths and miscarriages. Perhaps the most tragic of all was the sudden death of their almost two-month-old son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, on February 22, 1511.

Popularly known as the King’s Great Matter, those tragic events, along with the failure of Catherine to bear a surviving male heir, ultimately led to Henry’s decision to seek an annulment of his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn in 1533.

In the article below, World History Edu explores how Henry VIII’s Great Matter culminated in him making the decision to pass the Act of Supremacy, which effectively removed the Catholic Pope’s authority over the English Church.

Catherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales

Born on December 16, 1485, Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. In 1501, when she was just three years old, Catherine was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King Henry VII of England and Elizabeth of York. The marriage was part of a political alliance between England and Spain, which was intended to strengthen their alliance against arch rival, France.

Catherine of Aragon

Portrait of Catherine of Aragon in her youth. Portrait by Flemish artist Juan de Flandes

Catherine arrived in England in 1501, and she and Arthur were married in a lavish ceremony at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The royal couple departed for Ludlow Castle, which is situated on the borders of Wales. There, the couple looked set to live a happy life as Arthur, Prince of Wales, was placed in charge of the Council of Wales and the Marches.

Worst royal wedding nights in history

A Flemish tapestry depicting Arthur, Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon’s court.

However, the couple’s happiness was short-lived. Just five months after the wedding, Arthur died suddenly, leaving Catherine a widow at the age of 16. The Prince of Wales and heir to the English throne had succumbed to the sweating sickness on April 2, 1502.

The death of Prince Arthur created a dilemma for both England and Spain. The English crown had received a substantial dowry (somewhere in the region of 200,000 ducats) as part of the marriage contract, and Catherine’s future was uncertain. Slightly reeling from a financial problem, Henry VII, the deceased prince’s father, had already received half of the dowry from Catherine’s parents. Some of the English king’s advisors proposed that he marry Catherine himself as his wife, Queen Elizabeth had died in February 1503. Concerns from Catherine’s father meant that the suggestion was not pursued any further.

It was eventually decided that she would marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, Duke of York, who would become King Henry VIII of England. Henry was about five years younger than his new bride. As a result, the marriage was delayed until Henry was old enough.

Additionally, King Ferdinand II’s payment of the remaining dowry to the English court proved to be very slow. All that while, Catherine served as the Spanish ambassador to England, making her the first female to hold that position in Europe.

Following the death of Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1502, his widow, Catherine. vehemently defended her innocence, claiming that Arthur took no interest in her, and that the marriage was never consummated. Image: Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Henry VII of England

The Catholic Church’s decision to allow Catherine of Aragon to marry her former brother-in-law, Henry VIII

With Spain and England determined to see Catherine of Aragon tie the knot with her former brother-in-law, appeals were made to the Catholic Church to have the Spanish princess’ marriage to the deceased Prince of Wales declared void.

The two kingdoms made the argument that since Catherine and Arthur did not consummate the marriage, Catherine was technically not Henry’s brother-in-law. Canon law in the Catholic Church (from Leviticus 18:16) considers a number of sexual activities abominable, including incest of all kinds such as marrying a brother’s widow.

The Pope ruled that Catherine and Henry had no affinity – a kinship relationship as result of marriage. Therefore, the marriage between Arthur and Catherine was dissoluble as it was consummated.

Did you know?

Not only was Catherine of Aragon the third cousin of her father-in-law, Henry VII of England (reign: 1485-1509), but she was also the fourth cousin of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth of York (1466-1503).

Henry VIII’s parents, King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon tie the knot

Catherine and Henry were married on June 11, 1509. And since Henry had just acceded to the throne, the royal couple ruled England as king and queen until their marriage was annulled by the Church of England in 1533. The royal couple’s marriage came about seven years after the death of Prince Arthur. At the time, the bride was about 23 years, while the groom was around 18 years.

June 24, 1509 – Coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine

Coronation of Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon

16th-century woodcut of the coronation of Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon

Thirteen days after the royal wedding, at a ceremony at Westminster Abbey, London, the couple were anointed and crowned King and Queen of England – King Henry VIII and Queen consort Catherine. The ceremony, which was presided over by William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was as spectacular as the wedding ceremony. The newly crowned queen of England was welcomed by the king’s court as well as the general public.

How was the relationship between Catherine and Henry like?

And even when Henry was on a military campaign in France, he chose Catherine to serve as regent, giving her the titles “Governor of the Realm and Captain General”. As queen regent, Catherine managed to lift up the morale of English troops to thwart an invasion from the Scots. She’s said to have even sent the blood-stained clothes of King James IV of Scotland, who perished in the battle.

Henry therefore held her in high regard; however, that would all change when it became apparently clear that Catherine could not bear the English king a male heir. Henry was in desperate need to have a male child in order to secure his dynasty – the Tudors (1485-1603) – which was relatively young, considering the fact that Henry at the time was just the second monarch of the dynasty.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon

On November 10, 1518, English monarch Henry VIII and his wife of almost a decade, Catherine of Aragon, suffered a tragedy. The tragedy caused a huge strain on their already tumultuous union.

Why King Henry VIII was prepared to go to great lengths to have a male heir

The mere thought of his only child (i.e., Princess Mary) with Catherine inheriting the throne scared him. He was fully aware of the dangers posed to his relatively young dynasty of a woman acceding to the throne of England. For example, Empress Matilda’s accession to the throne in April 1141 intensified the civil war situation in the realm. The only legitimate and surviving child of Henry I of England, Matilda’s claim to the throne was challenged fiercely by an alliance of Anglo-Norman barons and the English Church, who preferred Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois (reign: 1135-1154).

Not wanting his realm to descend into chaos as a result of a succession crisis, King Henry VIII sought to rectify the problem by all means. His issue came to be called the King’s Great Matter.

Related: The Worst Royal Nuptials in History

What was the King’s Great Matter?

How Henry VIII of England became the Supreme Head of the English Church. Image: Henry in 1540, by German-Swiss painter Hans Holbein the Younger

We stated in the introduction, Catherine of Aragon, queen consort of England, suffered a total of five pregnancy issues – including stillbirths and miscarriages – between 1510 and 1518. The royal couple’s only child that survived beyond childhood was Princess Mary (i.e. Queen Mary I of England, aka “Bloody Mary”).

It so happened that amidst all those personal tragedies, Henry had begun to gain some sort of solace with a noblewoman called Anne Boleyn, the daughter of Thomas Boleyn (later Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond) and Elizabeth Howard. Bear in mind, fidelity was not the strongest suit of monarchs back then as many of them had several mistresses. What made Henry VIII’s romantic relationship with Anne Boleyn somewhat despicable was the fact that the noblewoman was the lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine.

Henry had taken great interest in Anne, who was said to be at least 10 years younger the English king. Furthermore, the English monarch was certain that Anne was the solution to his problem as the noblewoman was very young. The fact that Catherine was past her child-bearing years also compounded the matter.

Henry had also come to believe that his marriage to Catherine was a huge affront to God’s commandment as she was the widow of his deceased brother. He believed that his inability to bring forth a male heir was some sort of punishment from Heaven.

And granted Catherine never consummated her marriage to Arthur, Henry still believed that his marriage to her should never happened in the first place.

Why the Catholic Church refused to annul Henry VIII’s marriage

Henry and his advisors proceeded to make their case before the Pope, seeking an annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine.

With Henry’s motivation for annulment being clear as daylight, Rome was a bit hesitant to grant Henry his wishes. The head of the Catholic Church at the time was Pope Clement VII, who was very much under the thumb of Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew.

Henry sent his secretary of state, William Knight, to plead his case before the Holy See. By this time, it had become apparently clear that the Pope was not going to budge: Henry’s marriage would not be annulled. A disappointed Henry fired statesman and Catholic bishop Thomas Wolsey for his failure to convince Rome.

In 1532, William Warham died, and his position was filled by Thomas Cranmer, a family chaplain and close ally of the Boleyn family. The king and his advisors set up a sham proceeding to review the issue of the dissolution of the marriage.

Hardly anyone in England dared to stand firmly behind the beleaguered queen; perhaps the only person brave enough was Catholic bishop John Fisher. Henry did not forget the actions of Fisher and would later execute him. The few other people who supported Catherine were obviously Pope Paul III, Mary Tudor, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Mary Tudor was the younger sister of Henry VIII.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer invalidates Henry’s first marriage

During the proceeding, which was presided by Archbishop Cranmer, Catherine stood her ground; she maintained that she never consummated her first marriage. As the entire proceeding was a sham, Cranmer proceeded to rule that the marriage between Catherine and Henry was null and void since it flew against God’s commandment in Leviticus 18:16 in the Bible. The decision was made on May 23, 1533.

A few months prior, on November 14, 1532, Henry had tied the knot with his mistress Anne Boleyn. The wedding, which was presided over by Cranmer, was done in secret. Some say Anne was already pregnant at the time. This would explain why the king hastened to tie the knot as he did not want the child to be born illegitimate.

Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII of England

The Trial of Queen Catherine of Aragon, by Henry Nelson O’Neil (1846–1848, Birmingham Museums)

With Catherine’s marriage annulled, the former queen consort of England was given the title “Dowager Princess of Wales”, a title to reinforce the king’s notion that she was the widow of his brother. Catherine was banished out of the king’s court and sent to live first at The More Castle in Hertfordshire and then later settling at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire.

Making matters worse was the fact that Catherine was banned from seeing her only daughter, Mary, because the two women had refused to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as queen of England. Catherine spent the rest of days on earth in confinement and sad; she passed away on January 7, 1536, aged 50.

As for the Henry, the English monarch would go on to tie the knot five additional times in the space of less than a decade. Similar to Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn failed to bore any male child for the king, who proceeded to accuse Anne of adultery and murder plots on his life. Despite pleading her innocence, Anne was beheaded at the Tower Green (an area within the Tower of London) on May 19, 1536.

The sixth and last wife of Henry VIII was Katherine Parr, a highly educated and accomplished woman. Although she came to losing head, again over cooked up allegations from the king’s court, Katherine stayed with Henry until his death in 1547, after which she married Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley.

Read More: The Six Wives of Henry VIII of England

Excerpt from Catherine of Aragon’s letter to Henry VIII of England. The letter was written just before she died.

How Henry VIII became the first Supreme Head of the English Church

Undoubtedly under the heavy influence of the King, the Parliament of England on November 3, 1534 passed the First Act of Supremacy. What this act did was to in effect make Henry and his successors the Supreme Head of the English Church.  By so doing, Henry replaced the pope with himself.

In the years that followed, the Parliament of Ireland passed two similar laws, making Henry and his successors the supreme heads of the Church of Ireland.

The short and long of those Acts of Supremacy was that Henry was removing the Church of England from the control of Rome as part of his Protestant reformation.

Having made what was seen to Rome as an outrageous and sacrilegious decision, Pope clement VII excommunicated Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer.

Sir Thomas More and the Supremacy Act

The Oath of Supremacy

English and Irish parliamentarians also passed the Treasons Act to persecute anyone who disavowed the Act of Supremacy. The likes of Thomas More and John Fisher paid a huge price for their protests against the Acts of Supremacy. Both refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and were convicted of treason and then executed in 1535.

Emanating from the Act of Supremacy, the Oath of Supremacy required all office-holding religious figures in England to swear allegiance to the English monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The Act of Supremacy

Read more: Life and Reign of Henry VIII of England


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