Sunday, February 11, 2007
King Henry VIII Named Head Of English Church, February 11, 1531
Today in 1531, The Catholic Church in England recognized King Henry VIII as its supreme head. This day marked an important step in the formation of the Church of England as a separate entity independent of papal authority. Like the Protestant Reformation that rocked mainland Europe during the 16th century, England's break from the Vatican and Roman Catholicism was long in coming and fraught with strife.
By the time of Henry's ascension to the throne, the Church of Rome had been a major power in Europe for a thousand years. This power was not just spiritual in nature, but political as well. Because of this, local monarchies often clashed with the Pope over issues such as taxation, the right to appoint bishops and the legal status of priests. The Vatican often won these disputes because it wielded the ultimate weapon: the threat of ex-communication. But as discontent with the Church grew, more and more people began to question the Pope's authority over faith and law, both canonical and political.
Henry VIII was not one of those people, at least during the early years of his reign. He allied himself and his nation with the Vatican, both religiously and militarily. He even went so far as to attack Martin Luther by authoring the work "Assertio Septem Sacramentorum", for which Pope Leo X granted Henry the title Defender of the Faith. But the king's loyalty to Rome would be severely tested when his personal desires began to run against those of Pope Clement VII.
Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, was proving to be a thorn in his side by 1525. She had produced no living sons to carry on the Tudor line and, in fact, had only one surviving child, Princess Mary. Catherine was now over 40 years of age and the likelihood of her producing a male heir was highly unlikely. Henry's wandering eyes made matters worse when he found himself infatuated with Anne Boleyn, a young woman who was a member of the Queen's entourage. He ordered Cardinal Wolsey, the Church's most senior man in England, to begin a dialogue with the Vatican on the issue of an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. This was not an unheard of request from European royalty, but Henry's request met a major hurdle in the form of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. At that time, Charles essentially controlled Italy and, thus, the Vatican. Pope Clement VII was, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner. Charles had a personal interest in Henry and Catherine's marriage because Catherine was his aunt.
The formal request for an annulment arrived in Rome in 1527. Under pressure from Charles V, Pope Clement turned down the request. Henry would not accept this as the final answer on the matter. He ordered the creation of a document, with reference to early Church sources, stating that a nation's monarch was the supreme spiritual authority. In Henry's mind, at least, this meant that the Pope was acting illegally when he denied the annulment. The king turned up the pressure even more in 1531 when he demanded 100,000 pounds, an incredible fortune at that time, from England's clergy in exchange for a pardon for the crime of enforcing canon law as stated by the Church in Rome, which by Henry's assertion was out of its jurisdiction. Finally, he demanded that the Church in England recognize the king as its head and protector. This was done formally on February 11, 1531.
While this act may be thought to have been the last straw in the deteriorating relationship between Henry and Rome, this was not the case. As late as early 1532, representatives of the monarchy were still trying to reach a compromise with the Pope. Little came of these negotiations, however, and in 1533 the Statute in Restraint of Appeals came into being. This statute removed the right of English priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals to appeal to Rome on most Church matters and instead ruled that all such appeals would be directed to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. This allowed Henry to be granted his annulment and marry Anne Boleyn, which he did soon thereafter. Pope Clement VII excommunicated the king that same year. In 1534, the Act of Submission of the Clergy removed the right of any appeal to Rome, which ended the Vatican's influence with regard to the Church of England.
Although England would once again become a Roman Catholic nation during the reign of Mary I from 1553-1558, the die of an independent church had been cast. Today, the ruling English monarch is no longer referred to as the 'Supreme Head' of the Church of England, but rather the 'Supreme Governor', a title that is more administrative and more fitting to the actual duties of the monarch with regard to the church.