Ask anyone to name an English monarch, and Henry VIII is likely to spring to mind. Now perhaps best known for his six marriages and habit of executing those closest to him, in the sixteenth century he was famous for being named ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo X in 1521.
It was Henry’s staunch defence of Catholicism against reformers like Martin Luther, who questioned established practices in the Church, which earned Henry this accolade from the Pope. Since the publication of Luther’s ninety-five ‘declarations’, his Ninety Five Theses, in 1517, print had been an important and effective way of spreading radical religious ideas across Europe. Before long, these radical works started to enter England.
Defending his faith and his rule, Henry VIII banned Luther’s work, but this was not his only response. As a Renaissance prince in a closely connected Europe, Henry took an active approach to these dangerous ideas which, he believed, threatened the very nature of his divinely ordained kingship. In later years, such threats would be dealt with by swift and often bloody action: executions have since become almost synonymous with Henry’s reign. But the young Henry lived in a world that was rediscovering ancient ideas and developing new, sometimes dangerous ones. Rather than just banning and burning Luther’s writings, Henry took to the new media of print to wage a war in words.
Gathering a team of scholars to present the counter argument, Henry set to work defending the seven sacraments against Luther’s attacks, particularly those in the reformer’s vitriolic On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). Henry’s debut work (in Latin) was published in 1521 as Assertio septum sacramentorum (Defence the Seven Sacraments) and became a hit amongst the educated elite.
But words alone, even the king’s words, were not enough: armed with a manuscript copy of the Assertio, Cardinal Wolsey denounced and burned copies of Luther’s writing at St Paul’s Cross in London in the same year.
The Assertio wasn’t just an attack on Luther’s ideas. Henry also used the book to defend papal authority, arguing that the Church was key to ensuring unity across Europe. In case this point had been lost on the Pope, the book was dedicated to him and a luxurious copy sent to the Vatican in September 1521. The Pope’s gratitude included Henry’s new title ‘Defender of the Faith’ (‘Fidei Defensor’) putting the English monarch in the front rank of European rulers, alongside rivals such as France (known as ‘the Most Christian King’) and Spain (‘Catholic King’). Through this book, Henry succeeded in arguing the supremacy of the old, Catholic Church and showing himself as an enlightened Renaissance prince.
The John Rylands Library’s first edition of the Assertio is printed on vellum with an extravagantly hand decorated title page and illuminations throughout. It also holds a mystery: a small inscription which reads ‘Regi daciae’. Dacia usually refers to an area of Eastern Europe, so for a long time it was assumed this book had been a gift to the King of Hungary, although there is no clear link between the two kings. However, Dacia was also the Latin name given to the combined kingdom of Denmark and Sweden (from the Latin names Dania and Suecia) which was ruled for a brief time by King Christian II of Denmark (and also Norway). We know that Henry VIII and Christian II met in London on 30 June 1523 to confirm a peace treaty, at the time when Henry was still basking in his role as Fidei Defensor. What better way for Henry to demonstrate his Renaissance credentials to a fellow king than to present Christian II with a luxuriant copy his own bestseller?
Henry’s role as the European defender of the Catholic Church did not last much longer, although it is likely that he remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. If this book belonged to Christian II, it seems he did not take its messages to heart either: he was forced into exile in the year he met Henry and soon became a committed Lutheran.
Just like the portrait shown above, the Assertio reveals a different Henry to the figure famous today for executions and religious turmoil in England, presenting himself as one of the foremost Renaissance princes of his generation
Religion, faith and power have always played a complex role in society. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s Ninety Five Theses, kick-starting public debate and the rapid spread of ideas which led to centuries of upheaval across Europe.
The Reformation, a free exhibition, will run from 7 September to 4 March at John Rylands Library, Deansgate. This opulent copy of Assertio will be amongst the treasures on display.
With thanks to Ester Camilla Peric, Università degli Studi di Udine.