The Act of Supremacy ended English Roman Catholicism. England became Protestant when Henry VIII declared himself, supreme head on Earth of the Church of England. Crucially he embedded religious orthodoxy in the person of the monarch. England moved to the edge of civil war when his son, Edward, died aged 16 in 1553 and the new queen, Mary (1553-8), was a devout Roman Catholic. She promptly reintroduced Catholicism. By 1553 the clergy was overwhelmingly Protestant and many resisted her dictat. Her attempted reversion to English Catholicism was enforced with draconian punishments. Mary’s early death brought her half-sister Elizabeth (1558-1603) to the throne. Elizabeth reversed Mary’s religious policy using traditional Tudor methods, namely execution and intimidation.
The Act of Supremacy, 1534
The Act of Supremacy tested the loyalty of Catholics to breaking point. Cardinal Fisher and Thomas More were beheaded for resisting. Resistance was interpreted as treason by Henry. Henry declared himself God’s intermediary on Earth, combining religious and political reasons for executing opponents.
Executing Cardinal Fisher and Thomas More1 sent a chilling signal. The most powerful men in England were executed, which meant resistance was a death sentence. Executions were a public spectacle and everyone knew their fate when convicted. However Catholic resisters had the highest motivation: eternal life. As a consequence transition to Protestantism was contested.
Henry consolidated his reformation by implicating the wealthy. The dissolution of the monasteries was a massive redistribution of land and buildings. Land was incorporated into estates or formed new estates. This included some of the most valuable properties in England, especially in London. Many monastic estates were given as gifts2 by Henry, thereby cementing relationships. The economic side of the reformation shouldn’t be understated. Ignoring religious passions, by 1553, most leading citizens in England absolutely didn’t want a counter-reformation as it would have severely damaged their wealth and social status.
The importance of the Act of Supremacy
The turmoil in sixteenth century England is a defining moment. Henry VIII declared England a separate, independent country. By denying the papacy Henry also denied any foreign influence in England. Considering England was a second-rate power in 1534, this was very brave. Just how brave can be seen in the many plots that occurred over the next two hundred years. The Spanish Armada of 1588 by Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, was a failed attempt at conquest along with the reimposition Catholicism. Seventeen years later in 1605, came the Catholic Gunpowder Plot. The eighteenth century brought two Catholic-Jacobite rebellions, 1715 and 1745, which nearly succeeded. The current royal family is governed by a law that says no Catholic can succeed to the throne.3 England has an Established church, which takes precedence over all other sects and religions. The Church of England has 26 bishops in the house of Lords who legislate over all British people. The monarch is crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there has never been a Catholic Chief Minister or Prime Minister since 1558. Henry’s legacy continues today.
1Thomas More was the most senior politician in Henry’s government prior to the act. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_More
2 Henry’s gifts could be temporary if he felt he could make a better use of them for someone else. … during August 1540, the splendid furniture of his [the executed Thomas Cromwell] house at Austin Friars was raked through to set up the Lady Anne in comfort in her new country house (Bletchingley, Surrey, available thanks to the recent execution of Sir Nicholas Carew).
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cromwell p. 535. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Austin Friars is in central London and was given to Cromwell when he was in favour but Cromwell’s family didn’t inherit the contents after his execution. The Lady Anne referred to is Anne of Cleves who was divorced and didn’t make a fuss and so got a rich reward.