Act of Supremacy

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on 25th January, 1533. It was very important to Henry that his wife should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England. Sir Thomas More was careful to make it clear that despite his growing opposition to the King's church policies, he accepted Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn as being part of God's providence, and would neither "murmur at it nor dispute upon it", since "this noble woman" was "royally anointed queen". (1)

Elizabeth was born on 7th September, 1533. Henry expected a son and selected the names of Edward and Henry. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne. (2) Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has pointed out: "As the king's only legitimate child, Elizabeth was, until the birth of a prince, his heir and was to be treated with all the respect that a female of her rank deserved. Regardless of her child's sex, the queen's safe delivery could still be used to argue that God had blessed the marriage. Everything that was proper was done to herald the infant's arrival." (3)

In December 1533 Henry VIII gave Thomas Cromwell permission to unleash all the resources of the state in discrediting the papacy. "In one of the fiercest and ugliest smear campaigns in English history the minister showed his mastery of propaganda techniques as the pope was attacked throughout the nation in sermons and pamphlets. In the new year another session of parliament was summoned to enact the necessary legislation to break formally the remaining ties which bound England to Rome, again under Cromwell's meticulous supervision." (4)

Act of Supremacy

In March 1534 Pope Clement VII announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (5)

Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (6)

Elizabeth Barton was arrested and executed for prophesying the King's death within a month if he married Anne Boleyn. (7) Henry's daughter, Mary I, also refused to take the oath as it would mean renouncing her mother, Catherine of Aragon. On hearing this news, Anne Boleyn apparently said that the "cursed bastard" should be given "a good banging". Mary was only confined to her room and it was her servants who were sent to prison.

On 15th June, 1534, it was reported to Thomas Cromwell that the Observant Friars of Richmond refused to take the oath. Two days later two carts full of friars were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the royal supremacy. A few days later a group of Carthusian monks were executed for the same offence. "They were chained upright to stakes and left to die, without food or water, wallowing in their own filth - a slow, ghastly death that left Londoners appalled". (8) Cromwell told More that the example he was setting was resulting in other men being executed. More responded: "I do nobody harm. I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live." (9)

In April 1535 the priors of the Carthusian houses, in Charterhouse Priory in London, Axholme Priory in North Lincolnshire and Beauvale Priory in Nottinghamshire, refused to acknowledge the King to be the Head of the Church of England. They were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 4th May. (10)

Execution of Thomas More & John Fisher

In May 1535, Pope Paul III created Bishop John Fisher a Cardinal. This infuriated Henry VIII and he ordered him to be executed on 22nd June at the age of seventy-six. A shocked public blamed Queen Anne for his death, and it was partly for this reason that news of the stillbirth of her child was suppressed as people might have seen this as a sign of God's will. Anne herself suffered pangs of conscience on the day of Fisher's execution and attended a mass for the "repose of his soul". (11)

On 6th July, 1535, Sir Thomas More was taken to Tower Hill. More told his executioner: "You will give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short; take heed, therefore, thou strike not awry for saving of thine honesty." (12)

More's family were given the headless corpse to the family and it was buried at the church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Thomas More's head was boiled, as usual, to preserve it and to add terror to its appearance before exhibiting it. It was put on the pole on London Bridge which Fisher's head had occupied for the past fortnight. After a few days, Margaret Roper, his daughter, bribed a constable of the watch to take it down and give it to her. She hid the head in some place where no one found it. (13)

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Primary Sources

(1) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984)

In an age when it was almost universally believed that to violate an oath incurred eternal damnation, everyone in the kingdom was to be compelled to take an oath that they believed that Henry and Anne were lawfully married and that Princess Elizabeth and any other children that they might have were the rightful heirs to the throne. Anyone who refused to take the oath when invited to do so was to be guilty of a praemunire, and therefore liable to imprisonment during the King's pleasure.

The measure was duly enacted by Parliament in March 1534, and the form of oath was drafted by Cranmer, Lord Chancellor Audley, Norfolk and Suffolk, who were appointed commissioners to enforce the Act. The oath stated that the swearer would bear allegiance to the King and to the issue of his marriage with Anne, "and not to any other within this realm, nor foreign authority, Prince or potentate", and that he would obey and help to enforce this Act and all the other Acts passed by Parliament since 1529.

The commissioners began at once with the London clergy, who on 13 April 1534 were summoned to Lambeth Palace and required to take the oath. Fisher and More were also summoned to attend that day. Fisher, More and Dr Wilson, the Archdeacon of Oxford and Master of Michaelhouse in Cambridge, refused to take the oath, and were sent to the Tower.

(2) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003)

The Act of Supremacy "authorized" the King to assume the Supreme Headship of the Church, with all the annexed rights, and repudiated any "foreign laws or foreign authority" to the contrary. Another Act established a definitive oath of obedience to the King. This now involved a renunciation of the power of any "foreign authority or potentate" - that is the Pope - as well as the endorsement of the Boleyn marriage and succession. Finally, the Act of Treasons declared that it was treason, either by overt act or maliciously by "wish, will or desire, by words or in writing", to do any harm to Henry, Anne and their heirs, or to deprive the King of his titles (including that of Supreme Head) or to call him heretic, tyrant or usurper.

The argument of the Great Matter would now be settled by the axe and the knife. And the first victims were chosen deliberately for their eminence and distinction: the monks of the Carthusian Order, Bishop Fisher of Rochester and Sir Thomas More himself. The Carthusians were the holiest monastic order in the country, Fisher the most saintly prelate and greatest theologian, while More was both Henry's intimate friend from boyhood and the Englishman with the widest European reputation. But none of this counted for anything against their support for Catherine and their disobedience to Henry.

In May 1535 four leading Carthusians were subjected to the full horrors of execution for treason. Still in their habits, they were dragged on hurdles (in a bizarre parody of Anne's coronation procession) from the Tower, through the City, to Tyburn near the present Marble Arch. There, in turn, as the others were forced to watch, each was half hanged, cut down while still alive and conscious, and then castrated, disembowelled, and finally, after his entrails had been burned before his face, quartered and beheaded.

In June, Fisher (his sentence commuted to a mere beheading) was executed on Tower Hill and More followed at the beginning of July.

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(1) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 190

(2) Patrick Collinson, Queen Elizabeth I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 168

(4) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 43-44

(6) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 82

(7) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 210

(8) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 281

(9) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 87

(10) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 277

(11) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 281

(12) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 87

(13) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 283