On this day in Tudor history, 11 February 1531, the ecclesiastical assembly known as convocation granted King Henry VIII the title of "singular protector, supreme lord, and even, so far as the law of Christ allows, supreme head of the English church and clergy".
The person responsible for persuading convocation to grant the king this title was Anne Boleyn's brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. It was a big responsibility for the young diplomat and courtier.
Find out more about what happened in today's talk.
Also on this day in Tudor history, 11th February 1466, Elizabeth of York, wife of King Henry VII, was born. She also died on this day in history, 11th February 1503. Find out more in last year's video
Also on this day in history:
- 1542 – The bill of attainder against Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, and Queen Catherine Howard received royal assent. According to this bill, the two women were guilty of treason and could be punished without there being any need for a trial.
On this day in Tudor history, 11 February 1531, the ecclesiastical assembly known as convocation granted King Henry VIII the title of “singular protector, supreme lord, and even, so far as the law of Christ allows, supreme head of the English church and clergy”.
This was during the King’s Great Matter, Henry VIII’s quest for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry his sweetheart, Anne Boleyn. The king had come to believe that as a ruler and God’s anointed king, he was answerable only to God, and not to the pope.
Anne Boleyn’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, played a prominent role in persuading convocation of the scriptural case for the king’s supremacy, and I’d like to share an excerpt from George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat, a book I co-wrote with my dear friend, Clare Cherry, to explain a bit more about this.
“The Convocations of Canterbury and York were the English Church’s legislative body which, like Parliament, was made up of two houses: the upper house of bishops and the lower house of general clergy. The Convocation of Canterbury ran at the same time as Parliament, and the King’s articles were introduced to them on 7 February 1531, following which Convocation met on five consecutive days between 7 and 11 February.
George Boleyn, by now a member of the Privy Council, was chosen by Henry to express his growing anti-papal sentiments and Parliament’s arguments in favour of supremacy. He was sent to Convocation on the afternoon of Friday 10 February and delivered various tracts, one of which still survives today. George announced to the legislative body that the King’s ‘supreme authority grounded on God’s word ought in no case to be restrained by any frustrate decrees of popish laws or void prescripts of human traditions, but that he may both order and minister, yea and also execute, the office of spiritual administration in the church whereof he is head’.
Convocation did not want to deal with this 26 year-old envoy, they wanted to deal directly with the King but when they sent members of the lower house to see the King, they were turned away and instructed to deal with George. Henry, ever the coward, was happy to use the inexperienced young man as a buffer between himself and Convocation, and this was no doubt to the extreme satisfaction of the Boleyns. The position in which Henry was happy to put George can have done nothing to temper the young man’s pride, and it is hard to imagine that Thomas Boleyn was unmoved by his son’s extraordinary prominence at such tender years.
Convocation initially balked at the idea of recognising Henry as head of the church, and eventually a suggestion was made, either by Cromwell, Thomas Audley or even George Boleyn himself, to qualify the demand with the words ‘as far as the law of Christ allows’. The following day, upon hearing the King’s agreement to the limitation clause, the clergy agreed the amended wording, thereby accepting royal demands to recognise Henry as ‘Head of the Church of England, as far as the law of Christ allows’. Although this was a victory for the Boleyns and their supporters, verbal acceptance by the clergy and actual compliance were two different matters, and any act of Convocation had to be agreed on by Parliament to be enforced.”
In November 1534, the Act of Supremacy was passed, declaring “Albeit the King’s Majesty justly and rightfully is & oweth to be supreme head of the Church of England and so is recognised by the Clergy of the Realm in their convocations.” On 15th January 1535, in the presence of Sir Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor; Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolkand treasurer of England; Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and keeper of the Privy Seal, and Thomas Cromwell, chief secretary, Henry VIII proclaimed that he was now Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Act of Supremacy came into force in February 1535. With the act came the Oath of Supremacy which the nobility and anyone taking public or church office in England were required to take. Some people, like the Carthusian monks of London Charterhouse and Sir Thomas More, refused to sign the oath, believing that only Christ could be head of the church, and they ended up being executed as traitors.
Today, Queen Elizabeth II is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a title which Elizabeth I chose to use rather than supreme head.