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Title page to Henry VIII's Defence of the Seven Sacraments. © University of Canterbury (5MB)

  • The blue ink stamp indicates that this volume was once part of the library of Christchurch's first Roman Catholic Bishop, John Grimes

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Henry VIII dedicates his work to Pope Leo X, from the Defence of the Seven Sacraments © University of Canterbury (4.5MB)

  • Henry's book included a vigorous defence of papal authority as well as arguments in support of the traditional interpretation of marriage as a sacrament
  • Henry's need for a male heir would later lead him to revise his position on both topics
  • Reflecting on this issue, Henry concluded in 1537: ‘We princes wrote ourselves to be inferiors to popes; as long as we thought so we obeyed them as our superiors. Now we write not as we did.’

Henry VIII & The Reformation

Even before he split with the Church of Rome, the English king Henry VIII was no stranger to controversy. In 1521 the young king published a Defence of the Seven Sacraments in response to the German monk Martin Luther’s attacks on the authority of the Pope. Henry’s book, written in Latin, offers an argument strongly in favour of traditional medieval doctrine, and excoriates Luther for his ‘impertinent calumnies’. Given Henry’s later career, the book is also notable for its defence of papal authority and the indissolubility of marriage.

Scholars largely agree that although the King doubtless received some assistance, the book was largely Henry’s own work. It evokes an image of an educated Renaissance prince keen to engage with contemporary biblical scholarship. Yet Henry also had less scholarly reasons for writing his book: in return for the King’s literary efforts, the Pope gave Henry a title he had long coveted, ‘Defender of the Faith’.

Today New Zealand remains one of only three Commonwealth countries – the other two are Britain and Canada – to continue to use Henry’s title as part of the official style of the head of state.

Henry’s personal religious beliefs remain something of a mystery; he certainly despised Martin Luther. Nevertheless, a political break with the Roman Church over the question of his marriage later led Henry to become the first English king to support the publication of an English Bible.

Canterbury’s copy of Henry's Defence is a version printed in Paris in 1562. It was one of many polemics reprinted on the eve of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics that became known as the ‘French Wars of Religion’. The book, which entered the University collection via that of John Grimes, the first Roman Catholic bishop of Christchurch, is a reminder that the Reformation debates over the Bible had tremendous political and social consequences for Europeans; it is also New Zealand’s oldest tangible link to its British constitutional inheritance.

Further Reading

B. S. Allom, 'Bishop Grimes: His Context and Contribution to the Catholic Church in Canterbury' (unpublished MA thesis, University of Canterbury, 1968).

Chris Jones, 'Henry VIII, Defence of the Seven Sacraments', in Treasures of the University of Canterbury Library, ed. by Chris Jones, Bronwyn Matthews and Jennifer Clement (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2011), pp. 141-144.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s house divided, 1490-1700 (London: Penguin, 2004).

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity: The first three thousand years (London: Allen Lane, 2009).

Resources Online

‘Royal Titles Act 1974 no.1 (as at 03 September 2007)’, Public Act, New Zealand Legislation.

Assertio septem sacramentorum or Defence of the Seven Sacraments by Henry VIII., King of England, ed. with an intro. by Louis O’Donovan (New York, NY: Benziger Brothers, 1908).

Resources @ Canterbury

Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Mart. Lutherum, Henrico VIII. Angliae Rege auctore; cui subnexa est eiusdem Regis epistola, assertionis ipsius contra eundem defensoria; accedit quoque R. P. D. Iohan. Roffen. episcopi contra Lutheri Captivitatem Babylonicam, Assertionis Regiae defensio (Paris: Guillaume Desboys, 1562).

Heinrich VIII. Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum, ed. by P. Fraenkel (Münster: Aschendorf, 1992).

Henry VIII Fid. Def.: His Defence of the Faith and its Seven Sacraments, intro. by Richard Rex (Sevenoaks: Ducketts Booksellers/Fisher Press, 2008).