King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy

Posted on November 18, 2011 by


The English Reformation was the series of events in 16th-century England. During this time, The Church of England broke away from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. These events were very much associated with the wider process of the European Protestant Reformation, a very large-scale religious and political movement that affected the practice of Christianity across most of Europe during the 16th century.

King Henry VIII decided that he no longer had feelings for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after she had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. Henry had already decided who his next wife would be, Anne Boleyn. By 1527, Catherine was considered too old to have any more children. However, a divorce was not a simple issue. Henry VIII was a Roman Catholic and the head of this church was the pope, in Rome.


According to Andrew Pettegree of BBC History Online, The Roman Catholic faith believed in marriage for life. It did not recognize, support or allow divorce. Those who were widowed were free to re-marry, but this was not the case for King Henry VII. Husbands could not simply decide that their marriage was not working, divorce their wife and re-marry.  This put Henry VIII in a difficult position. If he went ahead and announced that as king of England he was allowing himself a divorce, the pope could, and would excommunicate him. This meant that under Catholic Church law, your soul could never get to Heaven. To the people living in this time period, not going to Heaven after death was a very real fear, and a threat that the Catholic Church used greatly to it’s advantage to keep people under its control.

Another approach Henry used was to make an appeal to the pope so that he might get a special “Papal Dispensation“, meaning that the pope would agree to Henry’s request for a divorce simply because Henry was king of England, but it would not affect the way the Catholic Church banned divorce for others. The pope refused to grant Henry’s request and by 1533 Henry’s frustration was enough that he ordered Parliament to write an Act of Supremacy. This event effectively lead to England breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome. With the Act of Supremacy, Henry placed himself as head of the Church of England. In his eyes, his divorce was perfectly legal. So he went ahead and divorced Catherine and re-married Anne Boleyn.


My Primary Source from this time period is the Act of Supremacy, which, according to J.P. Sommerville’s document, was an Act of the Parliament of England under King Henry VIII declaring that he was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England” and that the English Crown will have “all honors, dignities, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity.” By the wording of the Act, it was made clear that Parliament was not granting the King the title, suggesting that they had the right to later withdraw them. Instead, it was stated as a recognized fact. In the Act of Supremacy, Henry abandoned Rome completely. He asserted the independence of the Church of England. He appointed himself and his successors as the supreme rulers of the English church.

My next question after reading about the Act of Supremacy was: How did the people of England react to this act? According to The English Reformation by Christopher Haigh, the majority of the population was very angry at the way the Roman Catholic Church had used them as a source of money. To get married you had to pay, to get a child baptized (which you needed to be if you were to go to Heaven) you had to pay. You even had to pay the Church to bury someone on their land (which you had to do as your soul could only go to Heaven if you were buried on Holy Ground). Therefore, the Catholic Church was very wealthy while the majority of the poor people remained poor because most of their money was going to the Catholic Church.  The anger of the people made it so that there were no great protests throughout the land as many felt that Henry would ease up on taking money from them. Henry knew of the Catholic Church’s unpopularity and, therefore, used this to his advantage.

According to the documents that I read, King Henry’s reasoning for the Act of Supremacy was because he wanted to divorce and re-marry, but I think that that was only part of it.  The wealthiest Catholics in England were the monks who lived in the monasteries. They were also the most loyal supporters of the pope. This made them a threat to Henry. By the time of Henry, it is said many monks were very lazy. They did not help the community as they were meant to do. All they did was take money from the poor. Also some monasteries were huge and owned vast areas of land. So here were monks not loyal to Henry and also very wealthy. Henry decided to use his newfound power to shut down the monasteries of England. So Not only was the Act of Supremacy written so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, It was written so that Henry could get rid of all of the people who threatened his power.


English reformation sources:

Pettegree, Andrew. “The English Reformation.” BBC History. (2011): n. page. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.

Friedlander, Ed. “An Anglican Timeline.” . N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov 2011.

Sommerville, J.P.. “Causes of the English Reformation.” . N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov 2011. <;.



Haigh, Christopher. The English Reformation Revised. United Kingdom: University Press, Cambridge, 1987. Print.

Primary source: The Act of Supremacy

. “Electronic Texts and Documents.” The Act of Supremacy (1534). N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov 2011. <;.


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