Oath of the King’s Supremacy

Bp. Gardiner

Bp. Gardiner

The Ordinal, published in 1553, was not included in the Act of Uniformity until 1571. Inside, amongst the many prayers and collects of the Ordinal, are the Litany and the King’s Oath, giving insight into Cranmer’s theology of Royal Supremacy. The Oath and Litany illuminate England’s Erastian system– its multiple centers of authority as covenanted nation and the depth of power claimed by the King.

Regarding Supremacy doctrine, Cranmer was not Henry’s sole architect. Between Henry VIII and Edward VI, several reputable divines argued for the King’s prerogatives in the Church. Bp. Stephen Gardiner in 1535 published On True Obedience, “He is the prince of his whole people, not of a part of it, and he governs them in things, not in some only; and as the people constitute the Church in England, so he must needs be the supreme head of the Church as he is the supreme head of the people”.  Likewise, in writing Henry’s Visitation Articles, Thomas Crumwell described the Crown’s ecclesiastical powers, “to exercise, provide, and exert all and all manner of jurisdiction, authority, or power ecclesiastical, which belongs to him as supreme head”.  William Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man forms another opus elaborating Erastian power in order to extirpate the Pope. Sir Edward Coke, England’s legendary 17th century jurist, charted the Crown’s historical claims for supreme rule in the Church from William I to Henry II. 

The King extending his authority into Ecclesiastic matters was a consequence of a Sovereign ruling all bodies or “estates” within the realm. It is really a return to patristic opinion, distinguishing between body and soul, not state and church. Where the body dwelt the King had authority. Article 37 alludes to this sovereignty over the body by the King’s sovereignty over all estates, “The King’s Majesty hath chief power in this Realm of England and in all other dominions, unto whom the chief government of all estates of this realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction”. In England, royal Supremacy was the first cry of Reform given it repudiated the Pope from England, “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England” (Art. 37). The conservative nature of England’s Reformation, replacing Pope with Crown, is very clear in her doctrine of Supremacy whereby England preserved ‘monarchical’ ecclesiastical principles unlike the continent.

The Great Litany: Getting back to Cranmer’s liturgy, the Litany in a fashion delineates England’s peculiar Erastian structure. Originally written in 1544, before the Ordinal, for theological reasons, mostly iconoclastic, the litany replaced the medieval  Suffrage of Saints. But like the Suffrage, one might speculate a similar descent from ‘greater to lesser’ principalities or sovereignties, implying a notion of a  ‘mediated and hierarchic kingdom’ (highlighting again England’s conservatism).

The Litany begins with blessing the rule of Christ, then follows the King, next the Bishops, his Nobility, Magistrates, and finally the people. Cranmer’s Litany starts by asking Jehovah to  “rule and govern thy Holy Church”. Afterwards comes the King in ‘holy hierarchy’. The King is called the  ‘governor’ as well as “defender and keeper” of Christ’s Church– a title given to Henry VIII  first by Leo X (ironic) and later conferred by Parliament. The litany then raises prayer for the ministers of Christ’s Church, her Bishops and clerics, that they be illuminated with “true knowledge” and “duly execute their office committed to them”. This is followed by a prayer for the Lords of Council and Nobility, granting them ‘wisdom and understanding’. Throughout the reformation period, especially during Edward VI’s reign, the Lord’s Council (aka Privy Council), stood between King and Parliament, implying both a federal system alongside a special capacity to advise and legislate.  Next, the Litany gives intercession for England’s magistrates or judges. And, finally, for the remainder of the nation, “that it may please thee to bless and keep all thy people”.

Behind the Litany is not just “fond thoughts” for England’s civil officers but a particular outworking covenanted nation or realm where all ‘bodies’ or men governed the church,  “you are a chosen nation, a royal priesthood”, 1 Pe. 2:9. A national covenant is surmised in the Prayer Book by virtue of baptism, the Cure of Souls, and confessional standards governing each. The Uniformity Acts instituted these standards, and Archbishop Whitgift systematized them by his Three Articles requiring subscription to Supremacy, the Articles, and Prayer Book. In 1552 the former were implied by the Ordinal which required both Supremacy Oath and acceptance the Authorized Scripture, i.e, Bishop’s Bible. In the Bishop’s bible were the Articles (at the time the 10 Articles of Religion). By 1571 these were expanded to 39 Articles, and in 1628 Laud wrote His Majesty’s Declaration, requiring plain reading of England’s confessional statements.

By reason of baptism even the King paid duty to God. Confirmation spells these duties, and for the King this meant not only men love their neighbor but love God. Given Kingly power over bodies, the bodies of men could be compelled to attend, pray, and support the Church. In this sense, the King was the “Godparent” of all his subjects. This is interesting because Puritans wanted to strike out the term ‘godparent’ from baptism, but by doing so the scope of household, even realm, would be narrowed to a private sphere. (For the duties of Godparents and requirments for worship, see pp. & 291, pew-size 1928 BCP)

The King’s Oath: The King was also England’s “Senior Warden”. From medieval times the patron of a chapel was like the ‘senior warden’– electing the rector, provisioning the building, and sharing in discipline over both lay and ordained. Secular corruption led monasteries to seek Papal refuge.  The Reformation restored secular patronage and even elevated the role of laymen, the King of England being first amongst all. The depth of Kingly power and patronage is outlined by Supremacy Acts or Oaths.  In Cranmer’s 1553 Ordinal, the Oath follows the Litany with a collect between, requiring Bishops, Priests, and Deacons to swore:

“From Henceforth I shall utterly renounce, refuse, relinquish, and forsake the Bishop of Rome, and his authority, power, and jurisdiction. And I shall never consent nor agree, that the Bishop of Rome shall practice, exercise, or have any manner of authority, jurisdiction, or power within this realm, or any other the King has dominion, but shall resist  the same at all times, to the uttermost of my power. And I pledge and henceforth will accept, repute, and take the King, his Masjesty, to be the only Supreme head in the earth, of the Church of England: And to my cunning, wit, and uttermost of my power, without guile, fraud, or other undue mean, I will observe, keep, maintain and defend, the whole effects and contents of all and singular acts and Statutes made, and to be made within this realm, in derogation, extirpation, and extinguishment of the Bishop of Rome and his authority, and all other Acts and Statutes, made or to be made, in confirmation and corroboration of the King’s power, of the supreme head in earth, of the Church of England, and this I will do against all manner of persons, of what estate, dignity or degree, or condition they be, and in no wise do not attempt, nor to my power suffer to be done or attempted, directly or indirectly, any thing or things, privily or apertly, to the let, hinderance, damage, or derogation thereof, or any part thereof, by any manner of means, or for any manner of pretence. And in case any oath be made, or hath been made by me to any person or persons, in maintenance, defence, or favour of the Bishop of Rome, or his authority, jurisdiction, or power, I repute the same, as vain and annihilate, so help me God through Jesus Christ.”

More on Supremacy from Cranmer’s mind may be found in the 1547  homily on Good Order. In 1559 the Supremacy Oath, along with the Act was ‘sanitized’, omitting that phrase, “the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome” and “Supreme Head” from both the Litany and Oath. But Anglican ecclesiasal doctrine is certain: the Pope has no power or discipline in England or her dominions. The 1559 version carried into the 1662 BCP, and it was only recently rescinded by Elizabeth II. That 1662 Oath read:

“I, AB, do utterly testify, and declare in my conscience, That the King’s Highness is the only Supreme Governor of this Realm and of all other his Highnesses dominions, and countries, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastial things, or causes, as temporal: And that no foreign Prince, Person, Prelate, State, or Potentate hath, or ought to have any Jurisdiction, power, Superiority preeminence or authority ecclesiastical, or spiritual within this Realm. and therefore I do utterly renounce, and forsake all foreign Jurisdictions, Powers, superiorities, and Authorities; and do promise that from henceforth I shall bear faith and true Allegiance to the King’s Highness heirs, and successors; or united, and annexed to the Imperial Crown of this Realm. So help me God, and the Contents of this Book.”

Acts/Oaths of Supremacy, regardless of period, share the King’s “preeminance and authority in ecclesiastical” (1571) or “all spiritual and ecclesiastical things or causes” (1552). This was noting other than a return to ancient custom, the sum of supremacy claims made since William I, from England’s Norman Conquest into her late medieval church. But what did this practically amount to? The 1534 Supremacy Act designates royal powers as:

“..full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed, repressed, ordered, redressed corrected, restrained or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God,for the increase of virtue in Christ’s religion, and for the conservation of the peace, unity and tranquillity of this realm”

Crumwell’s Visitation Articles (1535) were more specific, giving the King positive powers over church property, elections, discipline, and canon. The Visitation Article said:

“to make inquiry concerning the same, both in spirituals and temporals, the life, manners, and conversation of their presidents and prelates, of whatever name and dignity, even if it be archiepiscopal or episcopal; to correct, punish and restrain those whom they shall find culpable, and, if necessary. to remove them altogether from their benefices, or to suspend them; to sequestrate the revenues of the church or palace, and keep them in safe ward; to make statutes, ordinances, and injunctions for the government of religious houses; to call synods, chapters, and convocations for any cause which may appear to them necessary; to hold courts, and summon before them any of the King’s subjects; receive resignations and cessions of churches, and deal in any way with property; preside at and direct elections of prelates, confirm those rightly made, and annul the contrary’ institute and induct possession of churches”

Was England’s Supremacy doctrine thus ‘absolutist’? First, Supremacy was patristic (see section Erastian Before Elizabeth?), even Byzantine, in thought. While the King’s authority extended to all estates Anglicana, whether things temporal or spiritual, the ‘chancel’ still refused the King, who according to the 39 Articles could neither preside over the eucarhist rite nor wield the spiritual sword (Christ’s keys). The 37th Article says, “we give not to our princes the ministering either of God’s Word or Sacraments”.  The Bishops dispensed sacraments, preached the Word. The Prayer Book asserts the bishoprics’ prerogative to confirm catechists; make, order, and consecrate clergy. Rev. Patterson said in his book, the History of the Church of England, p. 224,

“Henry never claimed to be the source of purely spiritual powers, i.e. ‘the powers given by God to the clergy according to Holy Scripture.’ Henry never claimed for himself the power to ordain or administer the sacraments. His was not a jus ordinis, but a jus potestatis. He claimed not that he was the source of spiritual power– the spiritual authority came to the clergy through the Apostles from Christ Himself– but that he was the source of jurisdiction.”

Second, England’s Erastian system was far from monistic but contained other centers of authority listed in the Litany (and the bidding prayers), borne from England’s political covenants and course of history. Parliament authored and legitimized the 1535 and 1559 Acts of Supremacy.  Also, given the Crown’s flirtations with Roman Catholicism (i.e, the Stewart’s later marriages to France and Spain ), even Supremacy itself was not ‘absolute’. It was capable of reversing or humiliating itself, returning England to the fold of the notorious Roman Pall. Behind this notion of self-restriction is also a doctrine of extraordinary action where the Crown could break or reverse its own oaths, constitutions, and declarations, in extremis, later known as evangelical necessity. This was a power all Christians possessed within their callings. In A History of the British Church, G. Perry admits Henry’s claim for overweening powers, but these were mostly theoretical– reserved in terrorem– where and when English bishops failed reform. According to Perry, the Crown never applied in terrorem powers, so English practice knows little regarding regular absolutism. In fact, it would be antithetical to her normal order.

More Thoughts: While the Supremacy Oath, based on ancient custom, rendered Henry ‘Senior Warden’ and ‘Godparent’ of England, how it otherwise was applied occasions controversy particularly in ‘heirs and lawful successors’ (as the 1559 Oath said). From the light of Crown, the Stewarts were proper heirs, but they were Roman Catholic (see non-jurors). From light of Parliament and Nation, the Hanoverans were legitimates.  There are also implications for dominions once “united or annexed to the Imperial Crown”, like the New England and Virginian colonies, which separated, surrendering royal protection from Romanism? The lack of Supremacy has been a factor in confessional decomposition. Down the road I hope to explore Hooker’s church/state as both custom and divine right, bringing catholic and evangelical camps by way of a ‘double covenanted’ view, bringing Stewart monarchism into a  ‘constitutionalist’ or Orange fold.

4 responses to “Oath of the King’s Supremacy

  1. Peter Escalante

    Interesting essay. You’re right that “Erastianism” deserves a second look, and you’re one of the few who seem to be able to see that the Reformation was in many respects simply a renewal of the old imperial order, and that English royal supremacy was hardly absolute. But a couple points to consider:

    First, the English Reformation did not simply continue the settlement of Henry; and the Royal Supremacy after him was understood in fully Protestant terms, including justification by faith alone and unmediated membership in the mystical church. Justification by faith alone, and a sharp distinction between the mystical and the visible church, is the core of Hooker’s doctrine (see the decisive works of WJT Kirby for this). That distinction is still present in genuine old High Church ecclesiology as late as the 19th c, as one can see in the teaching of Christopher Wordsworth.

    Second, the Continental Reformation was most definitely monarchical, wherever the civic polity was monarchical (eg, Sweden, the German princedoms), but republican where that form of civic polity was in place. The reason, as Hooker makes clear (following Luther), is that there is no de jure divino form of polity of the church. There might be ideal forms, all things considered; Hooker clearly thought a moderate monarchy was such an ideal form, both in secular and sacred aspects of the one Commonwealth. But others would be permitted in theory, since the exact form of polity falls under the head of adiaphoron and prudence.



    • Hello Peter,

      First allow me the pleasure to welcome you! It is an honor to have you visit! I follow your comments and writings on the reformed catholic “blog-o-sphere” and always enjoy and learn from what you say. Project Basilica is a great theonomist resource, and I link to it frequently.

      I am in agreement with everything you said above. However, to clarify my comment on Supremacy being a cornerstone of reformation in England, I meant Supremacy was a precondition of such. In otherwords, it simply removed the jurisdiction of Rome so reformation could proceed without obstruction and with royal approval. However, that was not entirely the case. Sometimes the Crown retarded or even reversed reform. Thus, Supremacy, more often than not, resisted radical change, giving England’s reformation a conservative reputation and sometimes even a more catholic one?

      Anyway, I am both surprised and pleased to have your input! Welcome Peter! For anyone reading, Basilica can be found at: http://thebasilica.wordpress.com/

      And, Peter, if I hear back from you, please, if you wish, post links to your church and/or other blogs. I think I remember Paul Owen at Evangelical Catholicity (?) who was in the APA (1928 BCP church).


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