The Act of Supremacy, which declared King Henry VIII head of the newly minted Church of England, had a lot more to do with politics than it had to do with theology. It was spurred on by Henry’s complicated, Jerry Springer-worthy personal life and the urgent need to sire a male heir. Henry lost his shit when the Pope — after years of stalling — refused to grant him an annulment from his wife, Katherine of Aragon, so he could wed his love, Anne Boleyn.
Heads would, quite literally, roll.
King Henry's marriage to Queen Katherine, although a happy one for many years, had failed to produce a male heir. This was no small matter in a royal marriage. The Tudor dynasty was a new one, founded when Henry VII seized the Crown after many years of bloody civil war. Henry and Katherine had a daughter, Mary, but the King needed a healthy son to avoid any dynastic squabbles after his death.
As the years passed and the odds of Queen Katherine delivering a healthy prince lessened, Henry convinced himself he was being punished for marrying his brother’s widow (Katherine had been married to his older brother Arthur very briefly before he died at 15). The young couple never sealed the deal, but the Pope provided a dispensation when Henry and Katherine married as extra insurance. No-one batted an eye at the time, as Arthur was a sickly kid and Katherine, who was pious even for the times, had sworn on damnation of her soul that they had never consummated their union.
Then the elegant Anne Boleyn bleeped Henry’s radar and getting rid of Katherine took on a whole new urgency. He put his best guys on it — first Cardinal Wolsey, then Thomas Cromwell, then Thomas Cranmer (who by 1533 was Archbishop of Canterbury). Unfortunately, Pope Clement feared Queen Katherine’s powerful nephew, The Holy Roman Emperor right up the road a lot more than the King of England across the ocean, so he put off dealing with the situation. For years and years and years.
By the fall of 1534, Anne Boleyn was Queen Anne, and the couple welcomed daughter Princess Elizabeth in September(but princes were sure to follow)! Obviously, Henry was tired of being jerked around by Pope Clement. Calls for reformation in the Church had been growing for some time. Respected humanists such as Erasmus and his close friend, the English scholar Thomas More agreed the Church needed an overhaul. But these men had never dreamed of breaking with the Church of Rome.
But Henry did. Those around him hoping the King would split completely with Rome filled the King’s ears with talk of the Pope ruling his kingdom, and his prelates and subjects serving the Pope before their King. Henry was convinced that swearing loyalty to Pope made all Englishmen “half his subjects.” This, of course, would never do. And Clement had excommunicated Henry anyway, so what did he have to lose?
So Henry broke with the Catholic Church, and declared he was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England” and that the monarch shall possess “all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity.”
But, in reality, Henry was no maverick. The only real difference was the absence of the Pope. The Protestants in the realm who thought they won a major theological victory were sorely disappointed when the King deviated very little from traditional Catholic doctrine or ritual. Henry just wanted to be the boss — and to have access to all of the Church’s vast riches in his kingdom, which he plundered with great gusto.
It’s good to be the King.