Henry VIII’s Crisis of Supremacy

Henry VIII’s Crisis of Supremacy

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As part of our Mandate to Rule series of political-themed walks in the lead-up to polling day, Dave Charnick’s walk The Price of Conscience on Thursday 8th June will tackle the thorny issue of where your conscience could lead you during Henry VIII’s reign.  Booking details are here, meanwhile Dave highlights the perils of charting the tricky political waters of the day.

As we in the United Kingdom approach the crucial period when we must negotiate our way out of the European Union, we might like to think back nearly five hundred years. At that point England was not so much negotiating its way out of Europe as ripping itself free.

The process began in August 1529 when a certain Cambridge don called Thomas Cranmer suggested that Henry VIII give himself an annulment of his marriage to his older brother’s widow. After all, Henry was king of England: why should he wait on the Pope for an annulment which would never come?

After the collapse of the 1529 Council of Blackfriars, which triggered the fall of his right-hand man Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, it was clear that Henry needed a change of tack. This change would lead to his installation in 1534 as Supreme Head of the English Church. Over the following years the process worked itself out, costing a number of lives along the way, but it is in 1538 that things come to a head.

Part of the crackdown of 1538 is the arrest in May of John Stokesley, Bishop of London, at Syon Abbey, near Isleworth in Middlesex for promoting the Pope’s authority. Though a staunch supporter of the Supremacy when he took over the See in 1530, Stokesley changed his mind in 1534 when he discovered how interested Anne Boleyn was in church reform. Now, acknowledging his guilt and begging for mercy, the Bishop is allowed to resume his See, the crackdown being aimed at Syon Abbey itself.

Also in May 1538 occurs one of the curious moments of the Supremacy, when a Franciscan friar by the name of John Forest is dragged to Smithfield to earn the dubious distinction of being the only Catholic martyr to be burned to death.

This is the death of the heretic: Catholics who resist the Supremacy are condemned as traitors, and so are usually hanged, drawn and quartered. However, Forest is not burned at the stake – he is hung in chains over a fire and roasted to death.

It would seem that this is a new departure – to submit a Catholic to the death of the heretic appears to make the statement that to resist the place of the monarch as Head of the Church is now heretical. Possibly this is why the firewood beneath Forest contains a sizeable wooden statue of the Welsh St Derfel, removed from the church at Llanderfel in north Wales. It is at this time that the churches of England and Wales are being despoiled. The statues of saints and the Virgin Mary are being removed, and shrines destroyed. A statue of Forest can be found on the south wall of the church of St Etheldreda in Ely Place, Holborn.

The attack on church statues and shrines leads Henry to direct an attack on London’s popular spirituality by taking on the power of a long-dead Londoner – St Thomas Becket. Henry issues a proclamation to ‘unsaint’ Becket and to obliterate his cult. Becket has for a long time been challenging St Paul for the hearts of Londoners. After all, Becket was a Londoner, being born on Ironmonger Lane, which was more than could be said for St Paul. He is featured on London’s Great Seal, and has a chapel on London Bridge itself for pilgrims heading down to his shrine at Canterbury.

Dated 16 November 1538, the proclamation orders that Becket’s shrine in Canterbury is to be torn down and broken up, and his bones burnt. (Hearing the news of the destruction of Becket’s shrine, the horrified Pope excommunicates Henry on 17 December.)

Henry orders also that all instances of Becket’s name are to be obliterated from books, as can be seen in the account of the translation of his relics in the Stowe Breviary (written circa 1322-25). Soon most public representations of Becket have been destroyed, along with the chapel to Becket on London Bridge, and in 1539 his image is removed from the City seal.

This is however more than just Henry asserting his authority. When Henry II made Becket Lord Chancellor in 1155, the new appointee proved a loyal servant to the king. However, when appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, Becket changed allegiance, being now as loyal to the church as he had been to the king. His opposition to Henry II’s attempts to impose his authority on the church and to sideline the influence of the Pope makes him too much of a challenge for Henry VIII nearly four centuries later.

1538 however is a turning point in Henry’s plans. It is a popular error that Henry VIII made England a Protestant country. This was achieved during the reign of his son Edward VI. Henry died a good Catholic – in his own eyes at least. Though 1537 saw him seeking diplomatic relations with the Protestant Schmalkaldic League of Germanic states, this is largely the doing of Thomas Cromwell. It is Cromwell’s hope of an alliance with a Protestant state that leads to the disastrous marriage to Anne, daughter of the Duke of Cleves, in 1540.

The bitter disappointment of his marriage to Anne, and the humiliation of the annulment proceedings, allow Henry to be influenced by Cromwell’s enemies. Soon Henry’s eye has been caught by Catherine Howard, niece of Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke is a devout Catholic, and an enemy of Cromwell. Soon Cromwell is condemned for treason, without a trial, and on 28 July 1540 he is beheaded on Tower Hill; along with him die the hopes of church reform in England under Henry VIII.

On the same day Henry marries Catherine, his fifth queen and the niece of Cromwell’s enemy. Never again does Henry allow anyone to get as close to him as were his two right-hand men, Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. The political expediency which caused him to tear his country in half now means that in his last years Henry has done with all that, as he begins to court an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor.

Image credits:

  1. John Stokesley – https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/662313/john-stokesley-bishop-of-london
  2. John Forest – http://www.stetheldreda.com/index.php/gallery
  3. Thomas Becket’s birthplace – https://thestreetnames.com/tag/ironmonger-lane
  4. Stowe Breviary, Stowe MS 12, folio 270 recto, with Becket’s name obliterated – http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/07/the-translation-of-thomas-becket.html
  5. Plaque commemorating Cromwell’s execution – https://lostcityoflondon.co.uk/2016/07/28/the-execution-of-thomas-cromwell-1540-3/plaque-marking-site-of-execution-on-tower-hill-2/
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