Supreme Governor of the Church of England

Supreme Governor of the
Church of England

Supreme Governor Elizabeth
Elizabeth II

since 1952 (64 years)
Style Her Majesty
Residence Buckingham Palace
Inaugural holder Elizabeth I
Formation 1559

The Supreme Governor of the Church of England is a title held by the British monarch that signifies titular leadership over the Church of England.[1] Although the monarch's authority over the Church of England is largely ceremonial, the position is still very relevant to the church and is mostly observed in a symbolic capacity. The Supreme Governor formally appoints high-ranking members of the church on the advice of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who is in turn advised by church leaders.[1]


By 1536, Henry VIII had broken with Rome, seized the Church's assets in England and declared the Church of England as the established church with himself as its head. The Act of Supremacy 1534 confirmed the King's status as having supremacy over the church and required the nobility to swear an oath recognising Henry's supremacy.[2] Henry's daughter, Queen Mary I, attempted to restore the English Church's allegiance to the Pope and repealed the Act of Supremacy in 1555.[3] Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558 and the next year Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy 1558 that restored the original act.[4] To placate critics, the Oath of Supremacy which nobles were required to swear, gave the monarch's title as Supreme Governor rather than Supreme Head of the church. This wording avoided the charge that the monarchy was claiming divinity or usurping Christ, whom the Bible explicitly identifies as Head of the Church.[5]

"Defender of the Faith" (Fidei Defensor) has been part of the English (and since the Union of Scotland and England, British) monarch's title since Henry VIII was granted it by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition of Henry's role in opposing the Protestant Reformation.[2] The pope withdrew the title, but it was later reconferred by Parliament in the reign of Edward VI.

Thirty-Nine Articles

This royal role is acknowledged in the Preface to the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1562. It states that:

"Being by God's Ordinance, according to Our just Title, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church, within these Our Dominions, We hold it most agreeable to this Our Kingly Office, and Our own religious zeal, to conserve and maintain the Church committed to Our Charge, in Unity of true Religion, and in the Bond of Peace ... We have therefore, upon mature Deliberation, and with the Advice of so many of Our Bishops as might conveniently be called together, thought fit to make this Declaration following ... That We are Supreme Governor of the Church of England ... "

Article 37 makes this claim to royal supremacy more explicit:

"The King's majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other of his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign jurisdiction ... We give not to our Princes the ministering either of God's Word, or of the Sacraments ... but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all Godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoer ... The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England."


Church of Scotland

The British monarch vows to uphold the constitution of the Church of Scotland (a Presbyterian national church), but she holds no leadership position in this church. Nevertheless, the monarch appoints the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as his or her personal representative, with a ceremonial role. The Queen on occasion has filled the role personally, as when she opened the General Assembly in 1977 and 2002 (her Silver and Golden Jubilee years).[7]

List of Supreme Governors

Name Years Notes
Henry VIII 1536–1547 As Supreme Head. With the assistance of Thomas Cromwell, repudiated his father's alliance and brother's marriage with Spain, by marriage to Lutheran Anne of Cleves, attached to the Schmalkaldic League. England and Ireland made Protestant through the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio; France out of reach and whose Huguenots formed a rival magisterial Reformation to influence John Knox in the Church of Scotland through the Auld Alliance.
Edward VI 1547–1553 As Supreme Head. With Thomas Cranmer, authorized the Book of Common Prayer. Initiated a premature Calvinist Reformation in concert with the Church of Scotland, as his father had intended for Mary Stewart, to bring him the Scottish throne.
Jane 1553 As Supreme Head. A Calvinist martyred by Mary afterward. Her brother-in-law would later become Elizabeth's Governor-General of the Netherlands in order to oppose the return of the latter's brother-in-law's Spanish Armada.
Mary I and Philip 1553/1554–1555 As Supreme Head (from 1554 the Queen omitted the title, without statutory authority until authorised by Parliament in 1555). Brought about Counter-Reformation.
Elizabeth I 1559–1603 See Thirty-Nine Articles. Authorized the first Anglican colonizing efforts under Sir Walter Raleigh in Virginia.
James I 1603–1625 Authorized the King James Version Bible. Pursued Spanish Match on the one hand and installed his son-in-law as the Winter King of Bohemia, bastion of Hussites and the Protestant Union.
Charles I 1625–1649 Known as Saint King Charles the Martyr, who caused the Bishops' Wars.
Interregnum 1649–1660 Episcopate replaced by New England model Congregationalism, based upon James I's dictum of "No Bishop, no King." England ruled by Oliver Cromwell, nephew of Thomas Cromwell and kinsman of regicides in Connecticut Colony. At this time, there were only two Calvinist republics in Europe, both with American colonies, England and Holland, forming the basis of the Dominion of New England.
Charles II 1649–1685 First married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, and last became a Roman Catholic on his deathbed, and whose conspiracy with France, along with the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, were the actual substance behind the Popish Plot.[8]
James II 1685–1688 Roman Catholic who married an Italian duchess, deposed both in England and in his proprietary colony the Province of New York, which dissolved the Dominion of New England. Founder of Jacobitism, which had legitimist claims entwined with religion. Origin of nonjuring schism.
Mary II 1689–1694 Granddaughter of Clarendon, a prominent supporter of the Clarendon Code as a member of the Cavalier Parliament. Held jointly with William III.
William III 1689–1702 Held jointly with Mary II, 1689–1694. Calvinist, fought the War of the Spanish Succession to keep Catholics out of Holland and to suppress Jacobitism.
Anne 1702–1714 First Lutheran marriage in a century was to Prince George of Denmark. Had her Anglican cousin installed as Governor of the Province of New York.
George I 1714–1727 Lutheran Elector of the Roman Catholic Empire in Germany. First Protestant in the line set forth by the Succession to the Crown Act 1707, Protestant in both terms of parentage and marriage, the first since Jane.
George II 1727–1760 Lutheran Elector of the Roman Catholic Empire in Germany. Fought for Catholic Austrians in the War of the Austrian Succession.
George III 1760–1820 Head of the Lutheran church in Hanover. Allowed his subjects in New France alone to keep their Roman Catholic faith in the Province of Quebec (1763–91), counted as one of the Intolerable Acts, since the Irish Catholics were disallowed this, while the Crown had opposed similar liberties for Calvinists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had direct influence on the American Revolution.
George IV 1820–1830 Eloped with Roman Catholic Maria Fitzherbert against his coronation oath. Oversaw Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829.
William IV 1830–1837 Oversaw the initial dissolution of the Prince-Bishopric of Durham, part of the Reform Acts, and thus sweeping away the last territory of the Lords Spiritual.
Victoria 1837–1901 By the first Jewish Prime Minister (see Emancipation of the Jews in the United Kingdom), made Empress of India, a nation largely defined by Hinduism, apart from the minority of Saint Thomas Christians. This was a time of Victorian restoration, Commissioners' churches, and the Oxford Movement, while the Church of Ireland became disestablished.
Edward VII 1901–1910 First Defender of the Faith to start his reign without a majority of Protestant subjects.
George V 1910–1936 Church in Wales disestablished.
Edward VIII 1936 First time the head of the CoE pressured to abdicate for his wish to marry another Anglican--a multiple divorcee.
George VI 1936–1952 Loss of the Irish Free State, with Northern Ireland remaining Presbyterian on par with the Unionist Ulster Scots people. This is similar to the long standing of the Episcopal Church (United States) with regard to the Anglican Communion. Other comparable events occur in India and Pakistan, which reduces the presence of Protestantism in the region considerably.
Elizabeth II 1952–present South Africa also becomes a republic, severing the Queen's direct ties to the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, leaving chiefly Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in addition to Great Britain proper as being both monarchic and having a member church of the Anglican Communion.


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