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Part 17: The Tower of London and the Act of Supremacy

More and Fisher were both imprisoned in the Tower of London to await the King's pleasure. The Bishop's imprisonment lasted fourteen months, almost to the day. He was confined in an upper storey of the Bell Tower, one of thirteen towers that strengthened the inner ramparts of the fortress. It derived its name from a small wooden turret on its roof containing the alarm bell of the garrison. Its walls are from nine to thirteen feet thick and pierced with narrow windows or loopholes. The room in which the bishop was imprisoned has hardly changed over the centuries. It has the same rough stone walls, the same flagged floor. It was airy and spacious as cells go, but no housing for a feeble invalid. Although the thick walls and small windows ensured coolness in the heat of summer they made the room cold, damp, and dark in the chill of winter. The bishop's greatest suffering was to be deprived of Mass and the Sacraments, a barbarous custom in a Christian country, and his long loneliness weighed on his spirits. His repeated requests for books and the ministrations of a priest were refused. Sir Thomas More was treated more leniently, and was allowed visits and books. Cardinal Pole was amazed that John Fisher survived: "Who that considered his age, the delicacy of health which belonged to him, and the leanness of his body, could have believed that he could last even a month in prison?" By December he was brought so low that he wrote a pitiful letter to Cromwell:

I beseech you to be a good master to me in my necessity. I have neither shirt nor suit, nor yet other clothes, that are necessary for me to wear, but that be ragged and rent shamefully. Notwithstanding I might easily suffer that, if they would keep my body warm. But my diet also, God knoweth how slender it is at many times, and now in mine age my stomach may not away but with a few kinds of meats, which if I want I decay forthwith, and fall into coughs and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health. But as our Lord knoweth, I have nothing left unto me to provide any better, but as my brother of his own purse layeth out to me to his great hindrance. Wherefore good Master Secretary eftsoons I beseech you to have some pity upon me, and let me have such things as are necessary for me in mine age and especially for my health.
And also that it may please you by your high wisdom to move the king's highness to take me unto his gracious favour again, and to restore me unto my liberty out of this cold and painful imprisonment; whereby ye shall find me to be your poor beadman for ever unto Almighty God, who ever have you in his protection and custody.

Other twain things I must also desire upon you: that one is that it may please you to that I may take some priest within the Tower to hear my confession against this holy time; the other is, that I may borrow some books to stir my devotion more effectually these holy days for the comfort of my soul. This I beseech you to grant me of your charity. And thus our Lord send you a merry Christmas and a comfortable to your hearts desire.

At the Tower, the 22nd day of December.
Your poor Beadman,

As far as is known, this appeal evoked no positive response. The only consolation enjoyed by the bishop during his captivity was access to pen and paper which enabled him to write two very remarkable books for his half sister, Elizabeth White, a nun in the Dominican House at Dartford in Kent: A Spiritual Consolation, and The Ways to Perfect Religion. The fact that despite his appalling state of health and the rigours of imprisonment the bishop could write works of such profound spirituality is an evident indication of his sanctity. St. Thomas More also used his fifteen month imprisonment in the Tower as an occasion of prayer and penance, and writing devotional books, the greatest of which is the Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.


In November 1534, after the two prisoners had spent seven months in the Tower, Parliament passed three acts which were to cost both prisoners their lives. The Act of Supremacy effectively dethroned the pope and substituted the king as "the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia." 68 There was no qualifying clause "as far as the law of God allows", and the title was to pass to his heirs. 69

The second was a ratification of the Act of Succession, this time with the text of the oath included, giving it the legality that the oath tendered to More and Fisher had not possessed. It also gave retrospective legality to their illegal imprisonment. The oath contained the words: "Ye shall observe, keep, maintain and defend this Act, and the whole contents and effects thereof." It was stated that the wording of the oath was precisely the wording intended by the late Act of Succession, and that every subject was bound to take it under the penalties of the same act. The oath of succession was popularly referred to as "the oath of supremacy", but there was no oath attached to the 1534 Act of Supremacy. As was explained supra, the Act of Succession could be interpreted only as an acceptance of the supremacy of Henry and a rejection of that of the pope.

The third act was a ferocious Act of Treasons which declared that to deny the king any of his titles was high treason, and therefore to state that the king was not Supreme Head of the English Church incurred the death penalty. A refusal to take the Oath of Succession could now be interpreted as a treasonable denial of a royal title punishable by the block. Parliament dutifully observed that the new duties imposed upon Henry by his office as head of the Church merited an increase in his income, and passed a subsequent act for "the augmentation of the royal estate and the maintenance of the supremacy." The first fruits (annates) of all benefices, offices and spiritual dignities, and the tenths of the annual income of all livings were annexed to the crown for ever.

In the spring of 1535 the bishops, one by one, surrendered to the king the papal bulls that made them bishops. They petitioned the king, and received from him commissions under the king's seal reappointing them as bishops. This commission stated that "all jurisdiction, as well that which is called ecclesiastical as that which is secular, derived its first origin from the royal authority as from the supreme head." Henry, in the words of Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, was pope in England. Father Constant sums up the result of this legislation by stating that the Church had been nationalized:
"Shorn of its pristine characteristics of universality, it ceased to be a branch of the Catholic Church in England and became the Church of England. England. The Act of Supremacy was in reality a revolution in which the crown alone gained and the Church lost." 70 On 31 March 1535 the Convocation of Canterbury declared by 34 votes to 4 (and one doubtful vote) that according to the Scriptures the Bishop of Rome had no more power in England than any other foreign prince, and no more jurisdiction than any other foreign bishop. The Convocation of York reached the same decision unanimously on 5 May. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge made similar pronouncements. On 9 June a proclamation by the king abolished the "Pope's usurped power." Commissioners travelled throughout the entire country receiving the oath from churchmen and meeting with no difficulty. Monsignor Hughes has no hesitation in concurring with Father Constant, that the repudiation of the papal supremacy, for which More and Fisher died, constituted a repudiation of the Divinely founded Catholic Church, despite the fact that, as will be explained infra, for the ordinary Catholic religion appeared to have undergone little change during Henry's reign; despite the fact that most Catholic doctrine continued to be upheld, particularly with regard to the Sacraments; despite the fact the immemorial Latin liturgy continued to be celebrated; and despite the fact that Lollards, 71 Lutherans and other Protestants continued to be burned at the stake. He writes:
It is the repudiation of the doctrine, and the fact, that the pope is primate over the Church of Christ wherever this be found, that is the really substantial change, by the side of which all others are mere detail. For here is the act by which the mass of Englishmen cease to be what all Englishmen have been for a thousand years nearly; here is what matters most, in the whole mass of changes, name that the English are now, by their own act, outside a particular religious society, to wit, the pope-governed Church, which society, so they have all believed until now, was founded by God as the shrine and guardian and interpreter of the doctrines revealed to mankind through Christ Our Lord. 72

68. The section of the Act of Supremacy which was to result in the Martyrdom of Thomas More and John Fisher reads as follows:

Albeit the king's majesty justly and rightfully is, and ought to be supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognized by the clergy of this realm in their convocations; yet, nevertheless, for corroboration and confirmation thereof and for increase of virtue in Christ's religion within this realm of England, and to repress and extirpate all errors, heresies, and other enormities and abuses heretofore used in the same; be it enacted, by the authority of this present Parliament, that the king our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed, the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof; as all honours, dignities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of supreme head of the said Church belonging and appertaining.

And that our said sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall have 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 of spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought to be or may be lawfully reformed, repressed, corrected, restrained, or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God, the increase of virtue in Christ's religion, or for the conservation of the peace, unity, and tranquillity of this realm, any usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority, prescription, or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notWithstanding.  

69. On 15 January 1535 the king's full style was proclaimed to be: Henricus Octavus, Dei gratia Angliæ et Franciæ Rex, Fidei Defensr et Dominus Hiberniæ, et in Terra Supremum Caput Anglicanæ Ecclesiæ.
70. Constant, op. cit., p. 126.
71. Lollards were originally the followers of the English heresiarch John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384). Wycliffe, referred to by Protestants as "the Morning Star of the Reformation", anticipated in almost every detail the Eucharistic heresies of the sixteenth century Reformers. Lollards were few in number by the sixteenth century, and by that time the name had come to be used in England for anyone deviating from orthodoxy or even seriously critical of the Church.
72. Hughes, op. cit., p. 196.


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