Acts of Supremacy
The Acts of Supremacy are two acts of the Parliament of England passed in 1534 and 1559 which established King Henry VIII of England and subsequent monarchs as the supreme head of the Church of England. Prior to 1534, the supreme head of the English Church was the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
First Act of Supremacy 1534
The first Act of Supremacy was passed on 3 November 1534 (26 Hen. VIII c. 1) by the Parliament of England. It granted King Henry VIII of England and subsequent monarchs Royal Supremacy, which means that he was declared the supreme head of the Church of England. Royal Supremacy is specifically used to describe the legal sovereignty of the civil laws over the laws of the Church in England.
The act declared that the king was "the only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England" and that the English crown shall enjoy "all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity." The wording of the act made clear that Parliament was not granting the king the title (thereby suggesting that they had the right to withdraw it later); rather, it was acknowledging an established fact. In the Act of Supremacy, Henry abandoned Rome completely. He thereby asserted the independence of the Ecclesia Anglicana. He appointed himself and his successors as the supreme rulers of the English church. Henry had been declared "Defender of the Faith" (Fidei Defensor) in 1521 by Pope Leo X for his pamphlet accusing Martin Luther of heresy. Parliament later conferred this title upon Henry in 1544.
The 1534 Act is often taken to mark the beginning of the English Reformation, although other sources suggest that it had been brewing for more than a century. There were a number of reasons for this Act, primarily the need for Henry to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, because Catherine had not produced a son and heir (and because of Henry's alleged misgivings about the legitimacy of his marriage to his late brother's wife). Pope Clement VII, as he was a virtual prisoner of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine's nephew, refused to grant the annulment because, according to Roman Catholic teaching, a validly contracted marriage is indivisible until death, and thus the pope cannot annul a marriage simply because of a canonical impediment previously dispensed. The Treasons Act was later passed: it provided that to disavow the Act of Supremacy and to deprive the King of his "dignity, title, or name" was to be considered treason. The most famous public figure to resist the Treason Act was Sir Thomas More.
In 1537, the Irish Supremacy Act was passed by the Parliament of Ireland, establishing Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of Ireland, as had earlier been done in England.
Second Act of Supremacy 1559
Henry's Act of Supremacy was repealed in 1554 in the reign of his staunchly Roman Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I. It was reinstated by Mary's Protestant half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, when she ascended the throne. Elizabeth declared herself Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and instituted an Oath of Supremacy, requiring anyone taking public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and state. Anyone refusing to take the oath could be charged with treason. The use of the term Supreme Governor as opposed to Supreme Head pacified some Roman Catholics and those Protestants concerned about a female leader of the Church of England. Elizabeth, who was a politique, did not prosecute layman nonconformists, or those who did not follow the established rules of the Church of England unless their actions directly undermined the authority of the English monarch, as was the case in the vestments controversy. Thus, it was through the Second Act of Supremacy that Elizabeth I officially established the now reformed Church of England.
Historian G. R. Elton argues that, "in law and political theory the Elizabethan supremacy was essentially parliamentary, while Henry VIII's had been essentially personal." Supremacy was extinguished under Cromwell, but restored in 1660. The Stuart kings used it as a justification for controlling the appointment of bishops. Richard Hooker put it in a nutshell:
- "There is not any man of the Church of England but the same man is a member of the Commonwealth, nor a member of the Commonwealth which is not also a member of the Church of England."
The Act was passed in 1559, but is dated 1558 because until 1793 legislation was backdated to the beginning of the session of Parliament in which it was passed.
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- John Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 1646-1689 (1991)