Henry VIII and the Royal Supremacy

The break with Rome set England apart from continental Europe. It was born of personal desires rather than matters of principle. 

Henry VIII c.1540, by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Henry VIII c.1540, by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the church on earth under God. That striking claim justified his break with Rome and his renunciation of all allegiance to the pope. Briefly reversed in the reign of his elder daughter Mary, the break with Rome was reintroduced by Henry’s younger daughter Elizabeth and has proved lasting. For many in continental European countries, the break with Rome has been and remains the most distinctive feature of English history. With the royal supremacy came the authority to determine the beliefs and the liturgy of the church. That was of greater importance than it might have been, since the break with Rome coincided with the religious ferment in Europe provoked by Martin Luther and the reaction of the church to his challenge.

In some senses, Henry’s break with Rome and his assertion of royal supremacy explicitly articulated what had long been the case in practice. The church in England had been the fruit of the Christian kings who had endowed it. There was a symbiotic relationship between church and state, which benefitted both. There had been tensions, as the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket demonstrated all too clearly in 1170. At the height of the papal monarchy, in the 12th and 13th centuries, churchmen made bold claims. English monarchs were alert to encroachments on their jurisdiction and in the 14th century the crown secured laws from Parliament limiting the powers of popes in making appointments and the freedom of the laity to make donations to the church. In the mid-15th century, churchmen seem to have exploited the need of dynastic rivals in the Wars of the Roses for political support and then later in the century there may have been something of a backlash, with attempts to trim the church’s jurisdiction. But none of that amounted to any fundamental breach and the symbiotic relationship endured.

The church in England was thus a ‘monarchical’ church. In the early years of his reign Henry VIII signalled his commitment to maintaining what he saw as his royal rights. There was a long-running struggle between William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the one hand, and several other bishops on the other, over the probate of wills. When the dispute flared up in 1513, Henry asked certain of his councillors to resolve it: they duly prepared proposals. Warham then objected on the grounds that this was a spiritual matter properly to be dealt with by the papal courts in Rome. He did that just when the king was leading the invasion of France in June 1513. Remarkably, Henry found the time to respond, ordering Warham to observe royal instructions. When Warham not only refused but summoned one of the other bishops’ officials on the grounds that he was usurping the archbishop’s jurisdiction, Henry, in the midst of the military campaign, wrote from France insisting that Warham obey, which ultimately he did. What is revealing in this case is the ease with which Henry took it upon himself to sort out a quarrel within the church, his ready assumption of authority and his lack of hesitation in sending peremptory commands to Archbishop Warham.

Decisive intervention

In 1514 Richard Hunne, a prosperous London merchant, was found dead in his cell in Lollards Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral. He was being detained on suspicion of heresy while investigations were being carried out. The coroner’s inquest jury returned a verdict of murder by William Horsey, the Bishop of London’s chancellor. Two months later the matter was considered by the king’s council at Baynard’s Castle in the City of London, with several witnesses testifying. According to Thomas More ‘the king’s grace being well and sufficiently informed of the truth’ ordered his attorney to accept Horsey’s plea of not guilty when the matter came to the court of King’s Bench. The decisiveness of Henry’s intervention is striking. The king quickly called together his council, held a special inquiry and reached his own decision.

A year before, Henry had captured the city of Tournai. A battle of bishops ensued as the French bishop-elect refused to pay homage to Henry. At first, Pope Leo X supported the king, then reversed his decision. What is interesting is the arguments Henry put forward. ‘Truth it is that we [have] the supreme power as lord and king in the regality of Tournai without recognition of any superior.’ He especially objected that the pope ‘by his delegates called and adjourned us and our subjects out of the regality and territory to places unsure under the obedience of other princes in derogation of our honour and contrary to justice’. The pope, it was argued, should revoke the bull ruling against Henry and ‘be well wary how he grant the semblable bulls against the sovereignty of princes hereafter remembering the danger that may ensue unto him by the same’. All this was written in the heat of the dispute and could quickly be forgotten. But the vehemence of language remains striking and what it illustrates vividly is how English kings saw the church as a monarchical institution, under their control and how readily they could threaten the pope. A ruler who could say this much would not find it impossible to break with Rome. What Henry wanted was to get his way in a particular dispute. Though he was not being driven by principle, it was possible to imagine circumstances in which he might take vigorous action against the pope.

In 1515 there was a quarrel over the practice of benefit of clergy, which allowed churchmen to be tried in ecclesiastical rather than royal courts for certain offences. The practice raised particular concerns when literate laymen claimed to have the status of clergy. A statute of 1512 had limited the offences for which benefit of clergy could be claimed. Three years later Richard Kidderminster, the Abbot of Winchcombe, asserted in a sermon at Paul’s Cross that the statute, coming up for renewal, was against the law of God. Henry responded by holding a debate at Blackfriars before his council and judges. Henry Standish, provincial of the Blackfriars, supported the king. After further wranglings, Henry held a debate in his presence in which Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, knelt before him in recognition of his superior authority. They nonetheless asked that the statute of 1512 be referred to the pope. Henry responded with vigour:

The kings of England in time past have never had any superior but God alone. Wherefore know you that we shall maintain the right of our crown and of our temporal jurisdiction as well in this point as in others.

The matter was not referred to the papal courts.

Henry believed that his royal authority over the church included matters of doctrine. He quickly took issue with the reforms proposed by Martin Luther: by 1521 the king was sufficiently provoked to write a defence of the seven sacraments, including baptism and marriage, in opposition to the German reformer. In his dedication to the pope, Henry declared that nothing was more the duty of a Christian prince than the preservation of the Christian religion. A few years later he urged the humanist Erasmus to write on free will in opposition to Luther. For the whole of his reign, Henry refused to endorse the key teachings of Luther – justification by faith alone – even though considerations of pragmatic power politics might have made a conversion to Lutheranism politically astute.

Henry did, however, share the sense, widespread in Europe in the early 16th century, that the church was in need of fundamental reform. What needed reform was articulated by Erasmus in his satires of monasteries and pilgrimages. In 1527 Henry wrote to Erasmus how ‘our breast, incited without doubt by the Holy Spirit, is kindled and inflamed with passion that we should restore the faith and religion of Christ to its pristine dignity’ and invited Erasmus to England. ‘Once you come’, Henry added, ‘we shall, by our joint efforts and pooled resources, spread the gospel of Christ better and further.’ That Henry saw himself as, in effect, the head of the church on earth is plain. From 1515 the king had entrusted Wolsey – in the historian Peter Gwyn’s phrase, the ‘King’s Cardinal’ – with the task of reforming the church. All manner of secular distractions hampered his efforts, but Gwyn has made a strong case for Wolsey as church reformer, seeking to raise standards in monasteries and to restructure the unwieldy dioceses. Had things worked out differently, what historians of the 16th century might have been studying is another chapter in the church’s long history of self-renewal. But it was not to be.

Left: Catherine  of Aragon, 1520. Right: Anne Boleyn, c.1533-36.

In the late 1520s Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn. He came to the convenient conclusion that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid because she was the widow of his elder brother Arthur. But he then discovered that his powers over the church did not extend to securing a speedy resolution of the matter in his favour. Henry believed that he was supreme head of the church but he discovered that, in a matter that concerned him deeply, he was not.

Greater than the pope

Henry came to challenge the powers of popes. He began to invoke the words of the Old Testament book of Leviticus, which prohibited marriages to one’s brother’s widow. To do that was, first, to set a particular set of words from the Bible above the body of canon law that governed marriage; second, to claim that the king’s ability and power to understand the Bible was greater than that of popes. Invoking Leviticus as Henry did was to embark on a course that led ultimately to schism.

Wolsey grasped the dangers. In 1527-8 he repeatedly instructed English agents in Rome to make it plain to Pope Clement VII that, if the pope did not issue the annulment Henry sought, the consequences for Wolsey and for the church would be profound. In February 1528 Wolsey warned the pope of his fears that, if he did not rule in Henry’s favour, the king would be driven by divine and human law to seek his rights from the whole of Christendom. If Henry could not obtain justice from the pope, he would be compelled to seek it outside the laws of holy church. Wolsey later expressed his fears that, despairing of getting what he wanted from the pope, the king would find solutions elsewhere, diminishing the authority of the holy see. Stephen Gardiner, one of Henry’s diplomats and Wolsey’s assistant, warned the pope ‘that his Majesty would use domestica remedio apud suos’, a remedy within his realm among his own people rather than allowing the case to be tried by those whose hearts were prejudiced. Gardiner and two other of Henry’s agents warned the pope that ‘the king’s highness would do it without him’. When Cardinal Campeggio, papal legate, arrived in England in October 1528 and suggested that Wolsey persuade the king to abandon the divorce, the cardinal reminded him of what would follow if the king’s wishes were not met: the rapid and total ruin of Wolsey and of the influence of the church. Wolsey impressed on Campeggio that, if the divorce was not granted, papal authority in England would be annihilated. A little later Wolsey feared the subversion of the whole dignity and estimation of the see apostolic.

Such warnings and threats continued in 1529. Before Gardiner set off for Rome again, Henry told him in his gallery at Hampton Court that he was prepared to make alliances with the German Lutheran princes, a point that Gardiner duly made to the pope. In midsummer 1529 the key detail was the advocation – or transfer – of the court case determining Henry’s request for an annulment of his marriage to the papal courts at Rome. In June and July Wolsey warned that advocacy of the case would risk losing the king and depriving Wolsey of his authority, reputation and, indeed, his life. To summon the king to Rome was ‘no more tolerable than the whole amission [loss] of his said estate and dignity royal’. If the king were placed under pain of interdiction and excommunication, the ‘dignity and prerogative royal of the king’s crown … may not tolerate nor suffer that the same be obeyed’. Later, Wolsey warned that Henry was already studying other ways and means of remedying his case. All those warnings and threats have largely been dismissed as bluster but, given that they laid out more or less what was to happen, they deserve to be taken seriously. For the most part they do not voice any elaborate theories. The scope of the king’s royal dignity is not spelled out. But, with the prospect of the advocation of the matter to Rome looming, Henry’s claims came to centre on his insistence that no English king could be summoned to attend a court outside England. Implicitly, that was to claim sovereignty. Between 1529 and 1531 Henry would time and again insist that his ‘great matter’ could be settled only in England, not in Rome. Again and again he denied papal jurisdiction over him and took measures to limit papal power.

Henry saw his campaign as political as much as legal. From the moment he invoked Leviticus, a break with Rome became thinkable. By 1528 the threats against the pope were scarcely veiled, but Henry, ever a shrewd tactician, grasped that he could break with Rome only if he had sufficient support and acquiescence, especially from the church. So began something of a campaign against the church, intended to intimidate, to compromise and to silence potential critics. Wolsey, who had for a decade and a half been Henry’s man in the church, was brought down by his king. Wolsey fell for alleged offences against the 14th-century statute of praemunire, which had been designed to limit papal power in England but had more commonly been used to limit the powers of church courts. Wolsey’s specific crime was that he had secured bulls from Rome proclaiming him legate and publishing them at Westminster. That was grotesque, since it implied that all he had done as legate was illegal – and that all churchmen and church court officials who had had dealings with him were similarly vulnerable. Three bishops who opposed anti-clerical legislation passed by Parliament in autumn 1529 were charged after they appealed to Rome over it. In autumn 1530 15 higher clergy were accused of offences against praemunire. In January and February 1531, clergy were put under pressure to recognise Henry as supreme head and, against the background of prosecutions for praemunire, they yielded, paying a fine and accepting Henry as their supreme head ‘as far as the law of Christ allows’. In May 1532 the church finally accepted the loss of its freedom to legislate in convocation.

Emperor in this kingdom

By then, claims for the king’s royal supremacy were being made more explicitly. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, playing the role of king’s spokesman, assembled a group of powerful noblemen and told them that the pope was treating the king badly, against the privileges of the kingdom. Matrimonial cases were secular, he urged, and ‘to the king who is emperor in this kingdom belongs jurisdiction’, without the pope having to be involved in it.

That notion of monarch as emperor was invoked to justify Henry’s stand. Monarchs were emperors not in the modern sense of a ruling metropole and colonies, nor in the sense of wishing to conquer the world, nor in the sense of claiming equality of standing with other rulers, but rather, they were emperors in the Late Roman sense of possessing exclusive authority – sovereignty – over the territories they ruled, as Walter Ullmann, the historian of medieval canon law, outlined, citing examples from the world of Constantine, the great councils of the church and from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

The maxim Rex in regno suo est imperator – the king is emperor in his realm – was at the heart of Henry’s stand in these years. That was what the Duke of Norfolk and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk meant when they told the papal nuncio in September 1530 that the king was absolute in his own kingdom, both as emperor and pope. That claim was enshrined in the Reformation statutes. The Act of Appeals of 1533 – ‘an act that the appeals in such cases as have been used to be pursued to the see of Rome shall not be from henceforth had nor used but within this realm’ – enacted exactly what Henry had claimed from the moment that Catherine requested that her case be referred to Rome. God had furnished the king ‘with plenary whole and entire power pre-eminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction to render and yield justice and final determination’ to all within his realm in all matters occurring within it ‘without restraint or provocation to any foreign prince or potentates of the world’.

The Act of Appeals declared explicitly that it should apply notwithstanding ‘any foreign inhibitions, appeals, sentences, summons, citations, suspensions, interdictions, excommunications, restraints, judgements … from the see of Rome or any other foreign courts’. Despite any interdiction, priests should continue to administer the sacraments. The Act of Appeals also offered a pseudo-historical justification. ‘Divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles’ were said to declare that ‘this realm of England is an empire … governed by one supreme head and king and having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same’. Previous kings and Parliaments had made laws to preserve the realm ‘from the annoyance as well of the see of Rome as from the authority of other foreign potentates’. The Act of Dispensations of 1533 asserted that ‘this your grace’s realm, recognising no superior under God but only your grace, hath been and is free from subjection to any man’s laws but only to such as have been devised, made and obtained within this realm for the wealth of the same’. The Act of Supremacy declared that the king was ‘the only supreme head on earth of the church of England’.

To break with Rome

Yet in these statutes and in works of propaganda – A glass of the truth (1532), Articles devised by the whole consent of the king’s most honourable council (1533) and A little treatise against the muttering of some papists in corners (1534) – the claim was asserted rather than articulated as coherent political theory. That reflected Henry’s purposes. What he had assumed was that he was effectively head of the church: hence his claims over Tournai or against Abbot Kidderminster in the 1510s. What he found in the late 1520s was that he did not have the immediate power to secure an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. So he set about achieving that aim, recognising from an early stage that he might have to break with Rome and repudiate all papal jurisdiction in order to secure his ambition. Henry was acting solely for personal reasons. He was not a reforming canon lawyer implementing a theory. He was not a Reformation prince introducing the teachings of Luther. He just wanted a divorce. In justifying what he was doing, Henry invoked whatever ideas supported his cause. The claim that England was an empire and that its monarchs enjoyed exclusive sovereignty was helpful, but it did not rest on deep foundations. It is hard not to feel at times that its presentation was tactical and, had the divorce been resolved, we would have heard little more of such claims. Henry might have continued to believe he was effectively supreme head, yet would no longer have needed to assert it. But the divorce was not resolved and a point of no return was reached, most probably in 1532, when papal jurisdiction in England was doomed. To repeat the resonating words of the act of appeals, the realm of England explicitly became ‘an empire governed by one supreme head and king and having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same’.

G.W. Bernard is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton.

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