Image: The Execution of Monks by Decree of Henry VIII
On November 3 1534, Parliament re-assembled to finish off what it had begun earlier that year, which, as the Imperial Ambassador at the time had reported, was ‘to complete the ruin of churches and churchmen.’ Since 1531, Thomas Cromwell had been laying the statutory foundations for the breach with Rome, which in turn prepared the way for the radical religious changes which were implemented during the reign of Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI. During these years, a number of bills authored by Cromwell and designed to weaken the power of the Church and strengthen that of State were passed in Parliament to the detriment of the kingdom.
Notable amongst Cromwell’s bills were the Act of Restraint of Appeals (1533), the First Act of Succession (1534) and the Treason Act (1534). In the former, all appeals to Rome were abolished and henceforward, the king, rather than the pope, would be the final court of appeal in both ecclesiastical matters and matters of conscience. In the Act of Succession, the yet to be born Princess Elizabeth who was the daughter of Anne Boleyn was made successor to the Crown, whilst Princess Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, was declared a bastard and therefore deprived of the right of succession.
Cromwell wrote an oath to accompany the Act of Succession and in April 1534 he sent out commissioners to extricate signatures from members of both Houses of Parliament. Under the Treason Act, anyone who refused to take the oath was subject to a charge of treason which was punishable by the particular gruesome death of hanging, drawing and quartering. It is no surprise that with the exceptions of Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, all the members of Parliament readily agreed to sign. Later, the king’s commissioners travelled out to administer the oath to the general populace, and even those who were unable to write were required to make some kind of mark on the document.
The Act of Supremacy passed in the middle of November 1534 and it finally effected the breach with Rome and placed the entire English church into schism. Henry’s declaration that he was ‘the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicans Ecclesia’ was an illicit assumption of the headship of the Church was at complete variance with Catholic tradition and without precedent. As a result, England floundered in a state of schism for nearly two decades until November 1554, when Cardinal Reginald Pole finally landed upon the shores of the kingdom to reconcile her to the Church.
Author's Biography: This is a guest post written by Dr. Bella d'Abrera. Bella Wyborn d’Abrera, who is based in London, is a graduate of Monash University in Melbourne. She completed her Masters degree at the University of St. Andrews, and was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy by the University of Cambridge in 2003. She is also the author of ‘A King with a Pope in His Belly’ and ‘Papists, Spaniards & Other Strangers.’