A Catholic Monthly Magazine

‘Defender of the Faith’

by Tricia O'Donnell

This historical title has modern resonance. Trish O’Donnell reflects on the history and its implications

We know Henry VIII was not one to take ‘NO’ for an answer.  Long before his marital exploits and break with Rome he had a reputation for persistency – proved beyond doubt in his efforts to obtain a title in acknowledgement of his loyalty to the Church.Henry VII

His campaign, which lasted several years, was largely motivated by the titles held by the French and Spanish rulers who were known as the ‘Most Christian King’ and ‘Most Catholic King’ respectively.  Henry considered himself to be as dedicated to his Faith as his fellow monarchs and was offended not to be recognised as such.  When Henry received his much-sought-after title ‘Defender of the Faith’ it was intended as a one-off, for his use only, which Henry being Henry eventually made into a hereditary title.

Today of course – thanks to the aforsaid king – the Faith represented by Queen Elizabeth is Anglican, not Catholic.  She, like most of her predecessors is Supreme Governor of the Church of England and took an oath on her accession to the throne to uphold and protect the doctrines of that church.  It’s a tradition that’s destined to change however, when Prince Charles becomes king.

He has made it clear that he wishes to be known as 'Defender of Faith', in keeping with his many and varied subjects.  The implications though, are enormous as well as complicated.  Along with the necessary Parliamentary change, the Anglican Coronation ceremony would also need to be adapted to include other Faiths; it remains to be seen how the Bishops of the Church of England will react to these changes, after all, the title is currently enjoying more than three centuries of stability after its first 160 volatile years.

Henry’s move away from Catholicism was the first disruption followed by the accession of his daughter Mary who, with Philip, dissolved the title altogether.  Elizabeth I reinstated it in 1559: “In the first Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lady Elizabeth, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith.”   It was again dropped during Cromwell’s five years of power, and the first two years reign of William III.  Since 1689 it’s been in regular use.  Pick up any English coin and you’ll see the words ‘ELIZABETH II D.G. REG.F.D. or on older coins FID DEF Fidei Defensor ‘Of the Faith the Defender.’  So how did this tenacious Tudor king achieve his aim?

Nine years before Pope Leo X finally gave into Henry, Louis XII had fallen from grace with the then Pope Julius II who had threatened to divest the French king of his ‘Most Christian’ title.  Henry was assured it would be his on the condition he defeated Louis in war – what was more, Julius also promised him the throne of France.  It didn’t happen however and Henry was forced to continue his crusade with Leo X who succeeded Julius shortly afterwards.

Over the next few years Henry stubbornly requested title after title for consideration: ‘Protector of the Holy See’, ‘Defender of the Holy See’, ‘King Apostolic’ and even ‘Defender of the Faith’, all of which were rejected by the Pope for one reason or another.  Even the added support of Cardinal Wolsley carried no weight, Leo and his cardinals were intractable.  While a frustrated Henry continued to fume, happenings in Europe were to pave the way for the king to receive his semingly unattatainable title.Luther

Martin Luther was a German monk who, while causing a storm with his criticism of the Catholic Church, was also gaining a huge following.  His book “De Captivitate Babylonica” – The Babylonian Captivity, questioned various aspects of the Faith stressing the belief that only the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion were from God, the rest were man-made. He refused to accept the Pope’s authority believing he was answerable to God alone and was subsequently excommunicated for his views.

Henry was outraged with the book and responded with one of his own: “Assertio Septem Sacramenorum” – The Defence of the Seven Sacraments.  It is not known if Henry wrote the whole text, though it’s widely held he had more than a little help, from people like Thomas More and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester.  It was launched in a ceremony around the huge cross outside St Paul’s Cathedral on the 12th of May 1521.  Sermons were preached after which Wolsey, brandishing the king’s work, condemned Luther’s writings which were then ritually burned.

The Defence of the Seven Sacraments” was a great success in Rome, Paris, Frankfurt and Cologne.  In Britain too, it was a sellout.  A German translation was also among the numerous editions that came off the press.  Some of its content must have haunted Henry in later years: “the insipid water of concupiscence is turned by the hidden grace of God into wine of the finest flavour.  Whom God has joined together let no man put asunder”and “What serpent so venemous as (Luther) who calls the Pope’s authority tyrannous and esteems the most wholesome decrees of the universal church to be captivity?”

Around 30 copies of Henry’s book were soon on their way to Rome with a personally dedicated, cloth gold-bound copy for the Pope.  Leo was well pleased with the masterpiece and its collection of carefully chosen verses – Wolsey’s choice though written by Henry – especially for him.  The king wrote that the “first offspring of his intellect and his little erudition” was written so that “all might see he was ready to defend the Church not only with his armies, but with the resources of his mind.”

It had the desired effect. The Pontiff was sufficiently impressed to reconsider the little matter of that title.  The other copies were sent for the Cardinals and although there were still some who disagreed with the bestowal, many began to relent and once again suggested titles were tossed about and a list drawn up.  This time Henry himself was consulted and chose his own previously submitted ‘Defender of the Faith’ and on the 11th of October 1521 the Pope’s bull made it official – the wait was over.

Orsen Welles as Cardinal Wolsey

Orsen Welles as Cardinal Wolsey

A ‘golden bull’ was issued in 1524 reconfirming the honour; for Wolsey, who had supported Henry from the beginning, it was the ultimate reward for years of perseverance.  Indeed, there was a slight suggestion that a Cardinal so dedicated to his king’s cause might have good Papal qualities, though for Wolsey it never became a serious issue.

The first Parliamentary reference came in 1529: King of England and France, defender of the Faith and Lord of Ireland.  Henry’s conviction that the title was intended to be hereditary resulted in Parliament passing an act in 1543 to that effect.  ‘Defender of the Faith, and the Church of England and also of Ireland, in Earth the Supreme Head’ remained in the Statutes at large until his daughter Mary’s reign.

Henry’s title survived his turbulent reign.  It withstood his differences and eventual split with the Catholic Church; saw other titles such as Emperor of India, and King of Ireland disappear and – despite the hiccups – remains an integral part of the monarchy.  Prince Charles may well succeed in persuading Parliament to change the Act  but it seems certain that the Tudor king’s controversial title is destined to go on being just that.

Part Two to follow in February 2012  Issue 

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