Defender of the Faith Henry Rejects Rome

Defender of the Faith Queen Elizabeth II is all smiles at a meeting with an unhappy-looking Pope John Paul II
Defender of the Faith Queen Elizabeth II is all smiles at a meeting with an unhappy-looking Pope John Paul II

by Ray Setterfield


October 11, 1521 — King Henry VIII is probably the most iconic British monarch, famous for acquiring six wives in his quest for a son and heir, and a larger than life figure renowned for hunting, feasting, mistress-taking and generally romping through his days on Earth.

He was also, on this day, the subject of one of the most ironic religious moves when Pope Leo X bestowed upon him the title, Defender of the Faith.

It came about because Henry, siding with the Pope, tore into Martin Luther, the monk who had stirred up a holy hornets’ nest by nailing his 95 Theses on a church door.

By this time in 1521 the Pope had excommunicated Luther, an action that won Henry's warm approval. But the King went much further and over the next few months found time to write a book which he called Assertio Septem Sacramentorum Adversus Martinum Lutherim (The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments Against Martin Luther).

The three-volume work savagely tore into Luther and his ideas. It was dedicated to Pope Leo and presented to him.

Later awarding Henry the style "Defensor Fidei", a Papal Bull issued only two months before the 45-year-old Pope died declared:

“We who sit in this Holy See from which all dignities and titles emanate decree that we grant to your majesty this title, namely Defender of the Faith, asking all Christians to style you with this title, and when they write to you, to insert ‘Defender of the Faith’ after the word ‘king’. ”

And that was that until twelve years later when the great irony kicked in. The new Pope, Clement VII, was allied closely to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Unfortunately for Henry, the King's wife Catherine of Aragon was Charles’s aunt.

Henry wanted a divorce from Catherine but in deference to the Emperor, Clement resolutely refused to grant the King’s wishes. A furious Henry decided there was nothing for it but a break from Rome and in 1534 his parliament made him head of the Church of England, completely severing ties to the Papacy.

Although Henry was never a Protestant and remained a devout Roman Catholic for the rest of his life, the next Pope, Paul III, excommunicated him. The Defender of the Faith designation was withdrawn, Henry's actions being considered a betrayal of the faith – but the King more or less just ignored the Pontiff. Then the English Parliament, following the King's wishes, conferred the title on him and his successors.

Since then, the title has been held by every English monarch, including today’s Queen Elizabeth II, even though only two of them were Catholics.

There could be a slight change when Prince Charles becomes King. In these days of political correctness he has declared that he would want to be defender of all faiths.

Published: October 1, 2019


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