The Act of Succession and its oath

Posted By on April 20, 2021

On this day in Tudor history, on 20th April 1534, in the reign of King Henry VIII, prominent Londoners were called to swear a special oath.

Just what was the Oath of the Act of Succession? What were people swearing to?

Find out the highlights in this edition of my #TudorHistoryShorts video series, and read on for more details.

The Act of Succession had been passed by Parliament on 23rd March 1534, the same day that the pope pronounced sentence on Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Following Catherine’s appeal to Rome, the pope ruled in her favour and pronounced her marriage to Henry valid. However, back in England, the First Act of Succession declared Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn valid and vested the succession in their issue. According to English law, Henry and Catherine’s daughter Mary was now illegitimate and had been removed from the line of succession, and six-month-old Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, was the legitimate heir to the throne.

The Act required subjects to swear an oath, the Oath of Succession, renouncing any foreign authority and recognising Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII’s wife and their children as legitimate heirs to the succession.

You can read more about the provisions of this act in my article The First Act of Succession.

Of course, things would change after Anne Boleyn’s fall in 1536. On 8th June 1536, Parliament passed the Second Act of Succession removing both of Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, from the line of succession and declaring them bastards. Parliament confirmed the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, which had been proclaimed by Archbishop Cranmer on 17th May 1536, and confirmed the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour, which had taken place on 30th May 1536. It described Jane as “a right noble, virtuous, and excellent lady, Queen Jane”, as the king’s “true and lawful wife”, praised her “excellent beauty, and pureness of flesh and blood”, and described the marriage as “so pure and sincere, without spot, doubt or impediment”. Parliament also stated that “the succession to the throne be now therefore determined to the issue of the marriage with Queen Jane.” The new queen wasn’t even pregnant yet, but she would go on to give Henry a son in October 1537, the future Edward VI.

3 thoughts on “The Act of Succession and its oath”

  1. Banditqueen says:

    Without going into the inns and outs of legitimate heirs, marriages null and void and so on, the most interesting part of the First Act of Succession this day 1540,_is the passage which states that if Anne and Henry didn’t have sons, then the female children will succeed. In other words, Princess Elizabeth, was here named as his heir and she would remain so if no sons were born between him and Queen Anne. This is remarkable because its exactly for the lack of legitimate sons with Katharine of Aragon that Henry had sought to declare his marriage to her null and void in the first place. If he and Katharine had have been blessed with a multitude of healthy sons and daughters, had at least one or two sons survived to adulthood, then Henry’s delicate conscience would never have been affected and he wouldn’t have cared if the marriage between him and Katharine was legal or not. Its this statement, it is clear for me, that the real reason behind his divorce is his passion for Anne Boleyn. I am not denying his genuine desire for a legitimate son and heir, but it proves that for a time anyway he was preparing for the potential of a female succession.

    So what was the difference here with Elizabeth and the birth of Mary? Mary was acknowledged as his heir for at least eleven years and sent to Ludlow in that capacity, but Henry had seen baby after baby die or never born and he was growing extremely concerned. His marriage to Katharine made him nervous because she was his brother’s wife and his advisers told him this wasn’t allowed in canon law. Anne wasn’t any relation to Henry, well not closely related, although he did sleep with her sister, also forbidden in canon law. He shouldn’t have the same concerns as he did with Katharine and therefore there should not have been the curse he had suffered with Katharine, basically being childless. Anne had conceived very early on in their sexual relationship, just as Katharine had and she gave birth to a living child. The baby was a girl, but she thrived and Henry reasoned he would now be blessed with sons. Katharine had given birth to a healthy boy on 1st January 1511 but Prince Henry, Duke of Cornwall died after just 52 days and only Mary survived afterwards. In April 1534, Anne was believed to be pregnant, although her “goodly belly’ disappeared around the end of July and we don’t know what happened. Elizabeth was now seven months old, healthy and her survival looked promising. New legislation had to be passed in order to protect the children of Henry and Anne and their marriage was confirmed again as legitimate to counter the pronounced legitimacy of his first marriage by Rome. Elizabeth had to be confirmed as legitimate and an heir designated. If Anne was his legitimate wife and Queen, it stood to reason that all children born to her were undoubtedly legitimate. Elizabeth was therefore his heir and if Anne didn’t have sins then for now at least, female children, aka, Elizabeth would succeed him, but only the female children of his second marriage with Anne, his only legitimate Queen.

    To make things even more complicated, ordinary people were aware that not only had Queen Katharine refused to budge on the question of her title as Queen, but Mary refused to call Anne Queen and the majority of foreign powers, especially Spain and Rome, the majority of English people also, recognised Mary as the legitimate heir. Anne’s marriage to Henry had been declared legitimate in England but unlawful in Rome. Katharine had also received the Bull telling her that her marriage to Henry was good and entirely lawful. Rome had threatened Henry with excommunication and told him to return to Katharine. Katharine was still in exile, however and Henry and Anne carried on regardless. Now the marriage was being confirmed as lawful by Parliament and everyone in public office or services or any artisan and so on, had to swear an oath that this was so. The Act of Succession went further. It made it unlawful to speak anything or write anything against the new marriage and against the heirs from this marriage and this marriage only. Men like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher and Father John Huddleston and Father Richard Reynolds could not swear to the Oath because it incorporated parts of the Supremacy. More said the Succession was the King’s business but his reservations were to do with who had the right to say which marriage was lawful and the marriage with Anne itself. An Act of Treason made the refusals to sign such an Oath treason while the Act itself said they were guilty of misprison of treason. More and Fisher were arrested and taken to the Tower but at this point they were not going to be charged with treason as the law was yet to change. This was the pathway on which King Henry Viii began his decent into tyranny and the decline into paranoia, aided by a neurological disorder and possibly a rare blood disorder, chronic pain and lead poisoning after his accidents in 1536. By then he had started to see a repeat of the pattern of miscarriages that he had suffered with Katharine and his strong desire for a son and heir became a brutal obsession which cost Anne her life.

    Convenience was to play a big part in the role of truth around Henry Viii and the legality of his marriages, as well as the legitimacy of his heirs. Claire reminds us in the Article that in July 1536 after the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry changed everything yet again, having Parliament this time equally declare both of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, illegitimate so as his children with Jane Seymour would have no siblings to rival them as heirs. Anne’s own marriage was declared null and void before her execution because Henry could not do so through her execution and Elizabeth was thus made illegitimate. Now Queen Jane was his only true wife and Queen and luckily for this poor lady, she gave Henry his son and heir, Prince Edward, but at the cost of her own life.

  2. Christine says:

    Henry really created such a faff in his kingdom, first Mary was legitimate then she was not, Elizabeth then was the lauded heir then she to, was made illegitimate, now both sisters were illegitimate and their little brother Edward was the one true legitimate heir of their fathers one true queen, he still hoped for more sons yet, but as he neared the end of his life, he realised he was never going to be blessed with anymore, possibly with a certain amount of regret, he acknowledged both daughters as his legal heirs and put them back in the line of succession, yet he had not made them legitimate again, of course how could he after he had repudiated both their mothers, his actions stink of hypocrisy yet we know it was all for a son, I agree the acknowledgment of daughters by Anne to succeed after him, when he had divorced Katherine because she was not able to give him a son speaks volumes about his feelings towards his second queen, and it must have made Katherine so angry when she heard about it, yet when he fell out of love with Anne little Elizabeth was also made illegitimate, yet Mary was always much more fortunate than her baby sister, she was looked on as the true heir no matter what Henry V111 said and Parliament said, Henry V111 created such a legal quagmire over his unfortunate marriages, that he must have made his lawyers tear their hair out with worry, both respected men More and Fisher had lost their lives because they had refused to sign the oath of supremacy, and now it was considered treason not to acknowledge Queen Anne and her heirs as the rightful successors to the throne, people were rounded up and punished quite harshly for slandering Anne and Elizabeth, the nun of Kent was put to death which was inevitable really, as she had been vocal in her support of Katherine for years, and had told the king himself he would be cursed if he didn’t not return to her, after Anne’s death Mary rather naively hoped for a reconciliation with her father, but dead queen or no and Elizabeth now a bastard, did not mean that his first marriage was lawful and Mary, was still considered a bastard, she maybe his daughter his pearl, but she was still his subject and had to bend to his will, he would only allow her back to court and there would only be a reconciliation if she acknowledged her mother’s marriage illegal, when she became queen she reversed the act of titular Regis which meant she was legitimately born of a lawful marriage, Elizabeth however did not when she became queen, and it was like everything else to do with her mother, she put up a wall of silence, her father had created such a scandal over Anne Boleyn, that her name was for many years afterwards still spoken of in Catholic circles as a whore and a heretic, half a century after she was dead and her daughter Elizabeth was on the throne, an enemy of the virgin queen called her the offspring of that infamous concubine Anne Boleyn, and Nicholas Sander who had fled England because of the persecution he had faced being a Catholic, derided both her appearance and reputation, the ripples Anne had caused when she first became involved with Henry V111, created such a storm the after effects which lasted well into her daughters life time, is it hardly surprising that Elizabeth 1st was never heard to ever publicly speak her name ?

  3. Banditqueen says:

    Henry Viii did and believed what was convenient for Henry as historian David Starkey said once. That didn’t mean it mean it was convenient for anyone else or that it made much sense. Henry’s mind changed to fit his circumstances and to prevent himself from looking a fool. If one marriage didn’t suit him, if he didn’t get the son and heir he wanted, he simply said it was invalid. O. K it wasn’t that simple but it was to him. Henry couldn’t understand why the world didn’t see things as he did and he couldn’t accept opposition to his will. He couldn’t face the long years it had taken to win Anne over, to fight to end his marriage to Katharine and the opposition by Rome. He had suffered the indignity of being strung along for almost seven years before he took action against Rome and broke away. Henry had taken on the power and the responsibility himself as Head of the Church in England. His second marriage was based on the absolute belief that he was right and righteous on the matter of the validity of his first marriage. Henry had crowned Anne as Queen and King with both crowns to emphasis her position as his true wife. Her unfortunate failure, in his eyes, to give him the true son and heir he was promised, was a betrayal of that promise and showed Henry he was wrong. He worked out a formula which sounded good in theory that made him look good and twisted everything in the Act of Succession round to say, not that Henry was wrong, but that he had been deceived and Anne had tricked him through seduction into marriage. I must admit Henry actually made everything sound reasonable and must have given it all some intelligent thought. Whether he really believed any of this or whether it was just to rewrite history for his own convenience, it was deadly and clever. The genius of Cromwell could only have worded these legal and Parliamentary documents. Henry would look a complete idiot if he now declared his marriage to Anne invalid and annulled it, leaving her free as he did Anne of Cleves because of the things he had done to legally marry her. By accusing her of having scorn for her marriage and intending to live a debauched life as Queen, Henry could claim it was Anne’s fault everything had gone wrong and that she had plotted against him and dishonoured him. If a wife slept with another man, the husband was seen as being at fault and not controlling her. If a King couldn’t control his wife and household, how was he meant to control his kingdom?

    This was one of the reasons so many charges were brought against Anne, to paint her as a woman who was immoral and evil, out of control, sleeping with so many men that the King could only be a victim of her depravity. Once guilty of treason and adultery he could declare his marriage to her unlawful for the purposes of making Elizabeth illegitimate and start again with Jane Seymour.

    It must have caused absolute confusion as what was true and what to believe. One moment one daughter was legitimate, then illegitimate and then they were both illegitimate. Henry’s desire for a son and heir turned toxic and went too far. He was unable at times to think of anything else and it consumed him. He abandoned a loving wife of 24 years because of it and now he would kill a woman for whom he had turned the world upside down to have and marry for the same purpose. Henry sacrificed loyal servants and friends of long acquaintance and he sent many of his subjects to their deaths because of his obsessions and even when he had a son he didn’t return to the King he had once been because it was too late. He had gone too far and the darkness had taken his mind and soul.

    In 1544 the Third Act of Succession did restore Mary and Elizabeth to the succession after their brother Edward but they were never made legitimate again because Henry couldn’t admit his errors even then. He was leaving to fight in France and may not return. His choices were limited now and he knew his age was catching up with him. He didn’t have any more children. Mary was determined to reverse the trouble her father had caused and having defended her right to the crown her first Act was to make certain everyone knew she was legitimate legally and the marriage of Henry Viii and Anne Boleyn lawful and legitimate. Elizabeth was also her father’s daughter and although she didn’t do anything over her own legitimate status, she made sure everyone knew Henry and Anne were her parents and she was proud of them.

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