This piece appeared as a thread on Today in Alternate History. Here we've woven it together with speculation of the timeline.
November, 1534 – Act of Supremacy
names English Pope
Henry Tudor, who finally settled
generations of civil war in England as the unquestioned Henry VII, strove to
create a lasting dynasty through his oldest son, Arthur. To add international
political clout and a great deal of military might to this, he arranged Arthur’s
marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The plan went awry, however, upon Arthur’s
untimely death of an unknown ailment just six years after the two teens were
One year after Arthur's death, Henry
VII renewed his efforts of sealing a marital alliance with Spain by arranging
for Catherine to marry Arthur's brother Henry, the new Prince of Wales. Catherine
claimed that there had been no consummation of her previous marriage, so Pope
Julius II annulled it. The younger Henry was opposed to the marriage, but in
1509 soon after ascending the throne, he determined to go forward with it.
Catherine and Henry soon began having children of their own including several
boys, but they all died young. Only their daughter Mary survived.
Henry was notably tortured by the
passage from Leviticus 20:21, “If a man shall take
his brother's wife it is an unclean thing ... they shall be childless.” With a
potential male heir on the way from his girlfriend Anne Boleyn and Catherine
growing old, Henry requested an annulment from the pope as Catherine had once
gotten. Although Henry had been proclaimed “Defender of the Faith” by Leo X for
his rebuttal of Martin Luther’s attempts at Reformation, Pope Clement VII
refused. Henry’s arguments were feeble, and moreover Clement was virtual
prisoner in the Vatican, that is, of his political master Charles V of Spain
who controlled the Papacy for his own purposes.
To obtain the divorce Henry created an Anglican Church
with its own pope that might grant him the annulment and thus (he hoped) save
the royal line. Although he chose to rid England of Catholic Popery,
indeed might even have done so for political reasons anyway, he was reluctant
to assume Spiritual Leadership of an Anglican Church himself. He reasoned that
no King or Emperor had ever expressed the slightest interest in actually being
Pope, and, furthermore, there might arise questions of celibacy for spiritual
purity, although that would be settled later by acts allowing priests to marry.
In searching for a solution he prized upon the Avignon Papacy, a similar
situation which had arisen from the conflict between the Papacy and the French
crown. So, Henry saw it as being in his interest not to displace the Pope, but
to make the Roman Pope irrelevant, at least temporarily.
The Act of Supremacy was the last of
a string of acts by the “Reformation Parliament” that severed England from Rome
and installed a new church based in Canterbury headed by the tame Pope-let
Thomas Cramner. As the Anglican Church grew, so did Henry’s family by a daughter
Elizabeth (by Anne Boleyn, who would soon be executed for treason), and later a
son Edward (by Jane Seymour). Edward VI ascended upon his father’s death, but
the teenager’s power was largely overshadowed by Pope Thomas, who instilled
reforms such as the Common Book of Prayer.
Upon young Edward’s dead after only
six years of rule, Catherine’s daughter Mary assumed the throne. She attempted
to revive Catholicism in the country and return its attention to Rome, but this
proved impossible due to the separation with the Crown, in fact it would have
been far better for Mary if Henry VIII had made himself Spiritual Leader of a
Church of England. Despite her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain, her military
power could not circumvent the spiritual law set in place. Pope Thomas worked
in his final years to pass over Mary’s anticipated pope Reginald Pole whose
Catholic loyalty might restore Catholic authority and hold an election in 1556
to name England’s second pope, Matthew Parker. The political struggle ended
with the death of Mary and the crowning of Elizabeth, who largely distanced
herself from spiritual turmoil.
Not exactly known for having a low
opinion of his own importance in the scheme of things, even Henry VIII could
not imagine the succession crisis that followed his demise. If Edward VI had
perhaps lived longer to come into his own and step beyond Cranmer’s power,
history may have been different, but the crisis in fact affirmed the English
pope’s position. During this period known as the "Twilight of the
Tudors" a powerful theocracy rose and the crown for a century would be
under the thumb of the Anglican Church, leading to bloody civil war in the
mid-1600s and recurring revolts in Calvinist Scotland.
In the long-run, the enactment would encourage France to revive its own pope at
Avignon, and even the Hapsburgs in Austria to name a pope in Vienna while Spain
controlled the Vatican to take similar actions themselves for achieving greater
monarchical rule. The Italian Peninsula would be torn apart for centuries as
the Catholic heads of Europe attempted to seize Rome, despite ground lost to
the north to Protestantism.
in reality Henry instituted a number of statutes that dealt with the
relationship between king and pope and hence the structure of the nascent
Church of England. Supreme Head of the Church of England was a title held by
Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI of England, signifying their leadership,
although Elizabeth I revised the Oath of Supremacy changing Supreme Governor of
the church rather than Supreme Head, a move designed to be more inclusive of