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Today in History – Extinguishing the Pope’s Power in England

[Henry VIII, King of England, half-length portrait, standing, facing front] / from the original of Holbein in the collection of the Right Honbl. the Earl of Egremont ; drawn by Wm. Derby ; engraved (with permission) by T.A. Dean. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs,

This is another one of those “Today in History” posts!  On July 18, 1536, the English Parliament passed the law titled “An Act Extinguishing the authority of the bishop of Rome” (28 Hen. 8 c.10). This was in fact one of a series of laws which had been passed during the previous four years, severing England from the pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

According to the Oxford History of England: The Early Tudors 1485-1558, questions had been raised about the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon from its celebration in 1509.  But it was not until 1524 when it was clear Catherine would never have a son, did Henry begin to look for alternatives including, a possible attempt to legitimize his bastard son, Henry Fitzroy.  However, by 1527, Henry was in love with Anne Boleyn and wanted a divorce so he could have legitimate heirs.  At first Henry, and his chief minister Cardinal Wolsey, thought it might be possible to gain a divorce from the Pope Clement VII; popes had obliged kings before in this type of thing.  Clement stalled the case at first allowing it to be heard in England and then revoking it to Rome.  Wolsey’s failure to obtain the divorce led to his fall from power in late 1529 and the concurrent rise of Thomas Cromwell.  Although Henry continued to try to persuade Clement to grant the divorce, from 1529 onwards he worked to restrict the authority of the pope in England.

Much of this work was accomplished through the passage of laws through Parliament.  The Parliament that sat in successive sessions between 1529 and 1536 came to be known as the Reformation Parliament.  It was this Parliament that passed the laws formalizing the break with Rome and the transfer of power over the church and religion to Henry who became Supreme Head of the Church in England.  One could argue that at least initially these acts were intended to put pressure on the pope, particularly by limiting revenue from England but by 1533, Henry and his ministers were set on a complete break.

The 1529 session of the Reformation Parliament focused in part on a catalog of grievances against clergy abuses including the charge of fees for burying the dead and the probate of wills as well as the question of simony.  Having fanned the flame of anti-clericalism in Parliament, in February 1531, Henry forced the clergy to acknowledge him as their Supreme Head as far as the law of Christ allowed. This was followed in March 1532 by the Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates (23 Hen. VIII c. 20) which strictly limited the amount of money sent to Rome, reducing it by approximately 95%.  Then in May 1532 Henry brought an end to the church’s independent jurisdiction and lawmaking power by requiring them to submit all new canon laws to him for approval, his consent for their meeting (Convocation) and their agreement to have all existing church law reviewed by a royal commission.

1533 saw the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn, her coronation, the birth of Elizabeth I and the passage of An Act in Restraint of Appeals (24 Hen.VIII c.12).  This law forbade the appeal of any case to a foreign tribunal – thereby making it illegal to appeal Henry’s divorce case to Rome.  1534 was a busy legislative year and saw the passage of several laws including: the Act in Restraint of Annates (25 Hen. VIII ch. 20) which completely cut off the flow of money from clerical appointments to the papacy; and the Act Against Peter’s Pence (25 Hen.VIII ch. 21).  These laws cumulatively cut off all revenue to Rome from England and essentially made communication with Rome illegal. Most momentously, 1534 saw the passage of the Act of Succession (25 Hen. VIII ch. 22) and the Act of Supremacy (26 Hen. VIII ch. 1).  The Act of Succession cut Princess Mary from the succession and settled the crown on Henry and Anne’s children.  The Act of Supremacy made Henry head of the church with the power to “visit, redress, reform, correct or amend all errors, heresies and enormities;” to define faith; and to appoint bishops.  This law also directed the monies which had previously been paid to Rome to the king’s coffers.  The Treason Act (26 Hen. VIII ch. 13) passed in the same month among other things made it treasonable to deny the king’s role as Supreme Head of the Church.

The act we are remembering today was actually not passed by the Reformation Parliament.  Indeed, it was passed after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour.  The July 18, 1536 Act extinguishing the authority of the bishop of Rome (28 Hen. 8 c. 10) finalized the break with Rome.  The law began with a prelude recounting the Bishop of Rome’s depredations, his illegal usurpation of royal authority and his impoverishment of the kingdom through the collection of annates and other church taxes.  The law went on to make it illegal to defend the pope and requiring all officers ecclesiastical and temporal to take an oath of renouncing Rome’s authority.  Failure to take the oath would be regarded as treasonous.  Henry had cast out the pope and his minions from England, and it was worth one’s life to deny the king or the new church he had established.

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