In 1520, Martin Luther wrote and published a 3 part treatise speaking against the Catholic Church denouncing the Papal system and the doctrine of the sacraments. In response to the increasing popularity of Luther in his protests against the Catholic Church and particularly as a reply to his De captivitate Babylonica, Henry VIII wrote a treatise against Luther’s views entitled Assertio Septem Sacramentorum or Defence of the Seven Sacraments.
The fervour with which this reply was written can be seen in the strong language used. The book finishes with exhorting readers not to be influenced by heretics like Luther.
Do not listen to the Insults and Detractions against the Vicar of Christ which the Fury of the little Monk spews up against the Pope; nor contaminate Breasts sacred to Christ with impious Heresies, for if one sews these he has no Charity, swells with vain Glory, loses his Reason, and burns with Envy. Finally with what Feelings they would stand together against the Turks, against the Saracens, against anything Infidel anywhere, with the same Feelings they should stand together against this one little Monk weak in Strength, but in Temper more harmful than all Turks, all Saracens, all Infidels anywhere.
The Church was grateful for the English support and on 11th October 1521, Henry VIII received and accepted the title of Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith (the Faith being Catholicism), the bull signed by Pope Leo X and his Cardinals.
However, there is a popular belief that it was not Henry who wrote this book, but one of his friends. Speculations have been made whether it was Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More or Bishop Fisher.
According to John Fox:
“This book, albeit it carried the King’s name in the title, yet it was another that administered the motion, another that framed the style.”
According to a letter written by Richard Pace to Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s loathing towards Luther and his views are clearly shown.
“At mine arrival to the King this morning, I found him looking upon a book of Luther’s. I looked upon the title thereof, and perceived by the same that it is the same book put into print which your Grace sent unto him by me written.”
“the King was very joyous to have these tidings from the Pope’s Holiness at such time as he had taken upon him the defence of Christ’s Church with his pen;”—and had resolved to “make an end therein the sooner.”
There isn’t a way to know how much of it Henry wrote himself, but it is definite that this detraction of his scholarship originates from Luther himself, and is more political than genuine. While the love fest between Henry VIII and the Catholic Church continued unabated, Luther read and countered Henry’s Defense with a simple and effective tool. He claimed that Henry was not the author of the treatise and hence, it must not be taken seriously.
However, a little after this time, Luther apparently extended a hand of friendship to Henry. In a letter in 1525, Luther wrote to Henry apologizing for his attack on the King and for claiming that the book was not his work. The only way it could be done, he puts the blame squarely on Wolsey’s shoulders.
“præsertim illud monstrum et publicum odium Dei et hominum, cardinalis Eboracensis, pestis illa regni tui”/ “especially a monster and the public menace to God and man, the cardinal of York, the scourge of thy kingdom”
At this time, Wolsey’s influence over Henry still held, and the King wrote back to Luther in fierce defence of his minister, claiming that Wolsey would be dearer to the King the more he is hated by Luther and other heretics. He also praises the Cardinal and credits him with many advantages incurred by the Kingdom due to the Cardinal, especially opposition to heresy.
Claiming that he had been influenced by Henry’s enemies, Luther gave his excuses for such an action and begged for the King’s friendship and forgiveness. Luther had also offered to publicly recant on his take of the authorship of this book and expressed his wish to write a book in praise of King Henry, which offer Henry declines in this letter.
After such consistent refusal of friendship on Henry’s part, it was not surprising that Luther later refused to stand by him in his hour of need. When the Catholic Church was unable to grant a divorce to Henry, he turned elsewhere for support. Martin Luther, while not influenced by the endless debate on Papal dispensations, claimed to believe in the sanctity of marriage and supported Catherine de Aragon in this feud. Earlier, Henry had advised Luther to give up his wife and retire to a convent. Now Luther advised him not only to keep his old wife, but take a new one as well, namely, Anne Boleyn.
In 1354, Chapuys wrote to the Emperor, setting out the political scenario with respect to this book that had become controversial in the wake of Henry’s break from Rome.
“As the King’s present conduct is contrary to the book formerly written in his name, he has printed a translation of a letter from Luther, saying that the book did not proceed from his own will, but that he was seduced into writing it by the cardinal of York and other prelates.”
The issue of authorship of this book has been shot back and forth according to the political climate of the times. It is but natural that Henry and his ministers would take advantage of any possibility to cut off a connection to Rome in the later days, and it is possible that Henry VIII himself had written the book with some help, but later decided to refute authorship on the basis of his break with Rome.
John Schofield: The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volumes 3, 4 & 7
Henry VIII: Defense of the Seven Sacraments
John Foxe: Book of Martyrs