Treason Under Henry VIII

I light of the 475th anniversary of the downfall of Anne Boleyn I thought I’d talk about High Treason under King Henry VIII and the Treason Acts passed in his name. When Henry ascended the throne in 1509 High Treason was basically an act against the King which was punishable by death (Hung, drawn and quartered for men unless the sentence was commuted and burning alive for women).

The first major change Henry made was his Act of Supremacy, followed by an Act of Treason to make opposition to it punishable by death in 1534. This made Henry the ‘only supreme head on Earth of the Church in England’  and that he should receive all ‘honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity.’ The careful wording of this made sure that Henry was never official named as Supreme Head in the Act, but rather that it is an acknowledged and recognised fact. It was Treason to oppose this. One of Henry’s closest friends and servants, Sir Thomas More was executed under this as he refused to denounce Rome as he was a devout Catholic. This also made it Treason to oppose Elizabeth’s position as Henry’s heir apparent (unless Henry did have a son who would then receive to title of heir apparent).

A slightly less important Act of Treason was made in 1535 which made it Treason to counterfeit the King’s privy seal, signet ring or royal sign manual.

Slightly contradictory to his Act of Supremacy and First Succession Act of 1534  in 1536 Henry passed a second Act of Succession. This barred both Elizabeth and Mary from the succession and declared them both bastards. This also made it Treason to acknowledge Henry’s marriage to either Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn or to deny his marriage to Jane Seymour. The Act also made it Treason to question the death sentence of (Saint) Thomas More. Finally, the Act made it Treason to repeal the Act (which Henry later did!) It’s shocking how changeable this man was!

In the same year was The See of Rome Act. This completely extinguished all power of the Pope in England and made it Treason to think or say otherwise. It was yet another violent attack on the Roman Catholic Church.

If any person or persons…shall, by writing, ciphering, printing, preaching or teaching, deed or act, obstinately or maliciously hold or stand with to extol, set forth, maintain or defend the authority, jurisdiction or power of the bishop of Rome [the Pope] or of his see, heretofore used, claimed or usurped within this realm…or by any pretence obstinately or maliciously invent anything for the extolling, advancement, setting forth, maintenance or defence of the same or any part thereof, or by any pretence obstinately or maliciously attribute any manner of jurisdiction, authority or preeminence to the said see of Rome, or to any bishop of the same see for the time being, within this realm…that then every such person or persons so doing or offending…being thereof lawfully convicted according to the laws of this realm, for every such default and offence shall incur and run into the dangers, penalties, pains and forfeitures ordained and provided by the statute of provision and praemunire made in the sixteenth year of the reign of the noble and valiant prince King Richard II against such as attempt, procure or make provision to the see of Rome or elsewhere for any thing or things to the derogation, or contrary to the prerogative royal or jurisdiction, of the Crown and dignity of this realm.

Next, two Acts of Parliament gave Treason more definite rulings in Ireland and Wales and gave the King authority to try to execute people in Wales and Ireland. I suppose this kept Henry happy as he had the power to kill even more people (over 70,000 is the estimated figure of people executed under Henry or his laws).

The Royal Assent by Commission Act of 1541 made the execution of Catherine Howard happen in the way Henry wanted it. Catherine was to be convicted by a bill of attainder rather than a common court of law. However, Royal Assent could only be granted by the King himself in a ceremony in which Henry would read out the whole bill. But Henry being his awkward self decided that ‘the repetition of so grievous a Story and the recital of so infamous a Crime’ in his presence ‘might reopen a Wound already closing in the Royal Bosom.’ Don’t you just love Henry? After the Act was passed commissioners specially selected could grant the bill of attainder rather than the monarch. This meant that Henry would feel less guilty about executing his wife. The Act also made it Treason for any future Queens or wives of the King’s sons to hide their previous sexual history for any more than twenty days after the marriage or for any third-party to hide any information. This made Catherine’s execution double-legal which I guess was to make Henry feel a little better about executing her.

In the Crown of Ireland Act of 1542 Henry declared himself and his successors as King of Ireland rather than Lord of Ireland.  Lord of Ireland had been used since 1171.

The Third Succession Act was passed in 1543. This restored both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession after the Prince Edward and any future legitimate children. This was later reinforced in Henry’s will. Edward VI would later break this in his ‘Devise for the Sucession’ when he made Lady Jane Grey his successor instead of Mary, which of course failed within a few days of Edward’s death.

Henry VIII really was a most changeable man!

Just quickly now a reminder of today’s events. Today is the anniversary of the five men accused of incest/adultery with Anne Boleyn. These were George Boleyn, Francis Western, William Bereton, Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton. They are often the forgotten people in Anne’s downfall and I think it’s only right for us to remember their deaths too.

But on a more positive note, my B-necklace arrived today! Thanks so much to the team at the Anne Boleyn Files for it! And back to the past, yesterday it was happy wedding anniversary to Louis-Auguste (Louis XVI of France) and the Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria (Marie Antoinette)! Think of how differently history could have gone if Louis and Marie were never wed… It’s an interesting thought methinks!



Filed under Henry VIII, On this day..., Six Wives, The Unknown..., Tudor

2 responses to “Treason Under Henry VIII

  1. Bandit Queen

    Where does the figure 70,000 come from? What is the actual official and original source for this figure or is this pure guesswork as the statutes are so wide ranging and allow for the execution of so many people from all sorts of different status in society, due to the religious and social changes that his laws brought about? Would these people have been executed under the new laws from 1534 onwards or for the many other capital crimes that already existed, for begging and theft and murder for example? How do we know how many people were executed or do historians just like to think that this number died?

    Also although the various Treasons Acts allowed Henry to execute two of his wives for adultery and treason, he could have dons so in any event under the Treasons Act 1341 that allowed the capital punishment for the sexual intercourse with the kings companion or daughter or anyone else of royal blood and for the execution of both parties if it was by consent or for the offender if it was rape. Even with the outstanding royal executions in Henry’s reign, it is still very interesting that royal and noble deaths of women were actually rare events. Henry gets pointed out by history because of his actions, because it had not happened for a long time, but in fact if we go back to Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt and Selucia, then royal and noble women were being executed or murdered left right and centre. The practice died out by the time of the Christian Era, but there are still a few instances of royal or noble ladies meeting horrible fates. These may have been more for witchcraft or being mysteriously done away with after being locked up, and very rare, but they are not totally unheard of. I think Henry is the first in many centuries to actually execute a queen, but certainly a couple in France and Spain were walled up and starved to death.

    • I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back to your comment- my laptop hasn’t been working too well and with all of the changes to WordPress recently everything’s very slow.
      The Holinshed Chronicles suggests the figure 72000 first and most historians agree with the figure. It’s the number usually stated in books and documentaries although many historians do suggest lower figures and perhaps I should have made that clearer. I like to round it to 70000 because it is such a hard figure to get right. It would be for all crimes throughout Henry’s entire reign and many executions would be carried out without the Crown’s intervention and with little documentation for the more ‘traditional’ capial crimes such as the ones you mentioned, the figure would be extremely difficult to get right.
      It is interesting how things vary between executions of noblemen and women. The divide between men and women being killed is quite fascinating. It was pretty standard practice for men to be executed but it’s the women who stick in our minds for the rarity of it… I think the change through time is due to the involvement of women in society. I think in the Ancient Era women had a bit more freedom to inolve themselves in politics and were a bit more daring in their actions. By the Christian Era I think the idea of women being totally inferior and the servants of men was very well set in which many women just accepted. Still a very interesting arguement…

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