England’s Empire

The word “empire” commonly holds the connotation of territorial expansion. In early modern Europe, England’s case for empire was unique because Henry VIII established England as an empire, and then further expanded his territory. Henry VIII used Parliamentary statute, the Act in Restraint of Appeals and the Act of Supremacy to make England an empire and to make himself, for all intents and purposes, emperor. Though the way in which England developed into an empire was quite unique, with a strong, centralized government and close relationship between king and Parliament, the English empire grew to be influential in Europe. Henry’s empire demonstrated how the term “empire” evoked both a consistent governmental stronghold as well as territorial sovereignty. It was only after this empire was first established did Henry then expand his imperium with the incorporation of Ireland and Wales.

An early modern empire usually meant an expansive, dominant state. An empire was oftentimes “a territory of greater extent than a kingdom.” The word “empire” originated as an Anglo-Norman and Middle French word within and around England. While expansion was a key feature elicited by “empire,” Henry’s English empire first established its itself as empire and later expanded beyond a single kingdom. In the context of England, an empire was a “country that is not subject to any foreign authority”[1] and was “free from dependence on the goodwill of any outside master.”[2] This definition specifically emphasized the importance of independence without any foreign influence. Another idea of empire highlighted the necessity for a dominant, imperial ruler having great influence over government: one who made decisions over the government, people, and, in cases such as Henry’s, even the church. Power was “exercised by an emperor, or by a sovereign state over its subject territories”[3] and all supremacy and decision making ultimately was within the king’s rights. The combination of restrictions on foreign influence and the idea of sustaining an all-powerful emperor both help to define Henry’s empire.

The Act in Restraint of Appeals somewhat dramatically stated “England is an empire”—a self-declared empire perhaps, but an empire nonetheless. The English Empire was to be “governed by one supreme head and king… spirituality and temporally”[4]. This Act clearly defined the imperial power of the king, Henry VIII. Similarly, the Act of Supremacy reiterated, “the king’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England.”[5] The king’s authority reached beyond that of the temporal realm and entered into the spiritual sector as well. Within the last sentence of the Act of Supremacy, foreign involvement and any outside influence was discouraged, “for the conservation of the peace, unity and tranquility of this realm: any usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority, prescription or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.”[6] Due to Henry’s break with Rome in order to secure his divorce, he intended to root out all foreign influence within England. In doing this, Henry displays his confidence in the strength of his English empire and it’s governmental system. With both the Act in Restraint of Appeals and the Act of Supremacy, Henry VIII not only solidified his position as supreme head of both church and state, he also shaped the image of the English empire as an independent, self-sufficient realm in which no outside influence was permitted or necessary. The English empire under Henry VIII highlighted the supremacy of the king as well as its independence, rather than specifically on territorial expansion.

Parliament played a critical role in England’s transformation into an “empire.” The idea highlighting the king’s sovereignty, known as the “king-in-parliament,” outlined how the king must work with Parliament and must receive approval for all legislation. This way, in the eyes of the common people, the king’s power was spread out evenly and tried before councils. On the surface at least this provided for a seemingly balanced relationship in which the king still executed his authority yet had to systematically go through Parliament. It was the king’s supremacy as well as his relationship to and within Parliament that made the English government a perfect foundation for a unique empire to be built.

Rather than expand its territory and then call itself an empire, England declared itself an empire first and then expanded. Henry turned to Wales and Ireland. In Ireland there “was nothing revolutionary about his proposals- which included strengthening the Dublin administration and reducing magnate power through the extension of royal authority into the Irishy”[7]. Henry’s emphasis on the importance of unity in government, demonstrated his intent to bring more land and peoples under the English empire. Similar to Ireland, the “‘land of Wales’ remained subject to laws made by the king and his council,”[8] extending a consistent and unified government system and legislation throughout newly conquered territories and kingdoms.

It was significant that Henry VIII established his empire through legislation and his ties to Parliament. Unlike many other empires, expansion came secondly for England. With expansion, Henry sought to achieve a homogeneous governmental system and legislation that was not only administered in England but was active throughout the entire English empire.

-Ellie Zuk


[1] “Empire, N. and Adj.” Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed October 5, 2015.

[2] David Sacks “The True Temper of Empire: Dominion, Friendship and Exchange in the English Atlantic, c. 1575-1625,” Renaissance Studies, 26, no 4 (2012): 531-558.

[3] Documents of the English Reformation, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co., 1994), 78-83.

[4] Documents of the English Reformation, 78-83.

[5] Act of Supremacy,1534, Henry VIII.

[6] Act of Supremacy,1534, Henry VIII.

[7] Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (London: Longman, 2005), 162-183.

[8] Peter Roberts, “The English Crown, the Principality of Wales and the Council in the Marches, 1534-1641,” The British Problem, c. 1534-1707: State Formation in the Atlantic Archipelago, ed. Steven Ellis and Sarah Barber (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 118-147.

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