The death of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, was a pivotal moment in Henry VIII’s quest for a divorce. Warham was the primal English prelate – and getting more and more firmly in Henry’s way.
Basically, with the Pope refusing to annul Henry’s marriage, the creation of the Church of England was the only solution. And the only way to get that done was to have Parliament act and the English Clergy submit – but Warham was opposed to it all.
His opposition started small but grew quickly. When the clergy of Canterbury were asked in the Convocation of 1531 to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church, Warham managed to limit their assent to “insofar as the Law of Christ allows.” While this considerably diluted the effect of the submission, the King ignored the snub and continued with his plans. Next came the Convocation of 1532, in which the clergy was asked to renounce its authority to make church law without royal license. The King’s position was clear: the longstanding statute of praemuniere made it treason to curtail a monarch’s supremacy, which churchmen did when they looked to the Pope (rather than the King) as an authority on any issue. Enough of the clergy were cowed into acquiescence that the resolution passed over Warham’s objection. He was about to start rabble rousing… but then he died.
The King quickly nominated Thomas Cranmer to take his place. The Pope, figuring this would be a harmless way soften the blow of his refusing Henry’s divorce, agreed to confirm the appointment and send the required bulls. This lent Henry’s new church the final trappings of legitimacy. The consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, the main authority of the Catholic Church in England approved by the Pope himself, was the one who determined that the Church of England would no longer answer to the Pope, a foreign power, but only to the King who was its Supreme Head. Thus freed, the Church of England examined the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and found it to contravene divine law – and examined his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and found it good and valid. All just in time to crown Anne in June so that the child she was due to bear in September would be the legitimate heir to the throne….
For further reading:
As always, Wikipedia is a good go-to resource for a more full biography of William Warham or a discussion of praemunire. Also, I’ve created a tag called “The King’s Great Matter” to cover the process by which Anne Boleyn (who has her own tag) became Queen of England.