Saturday, March 18, 2017

Was King Henry VIII A Willing Reformer?

We’ve all, at one time or another heard the story. Henry VIII, the King of England, split from the Catholic Church and divorced or killed his wives so he could have a male heir. While there is truth behind this picture of Henry VIII it might not be the full picture.

Portrait of Henry VIII
by Hans Holbein the Younger

The Defender of the Faith

On the 11th of October in 1521, Pope Leo X declared King Henry VIII the Fidei Defensor (a.k.a. Defender of the Faith) This was done in response to Henry’s writing of a book titled Defence of the Seven Sacraments. In Defence of the Seven Sacraments, Henry defends the teaching of the Catholic faith against the heresies promoted by Martin Luther. Regarding marriage, he defends the indissolubility of marriage based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 19. He also dedicates the book to Pope Leo X and in a letter to the Pope states...

“As We Catholic sovereigns should uphold religion, when We saw Luther’s heresy running wild, for the sake of Germany, and still more love of the Holy Apostolic See, We tried to weed out this heresy.” 

Henry goes on further to subject the contents of his work to the approval of Pope Leo X.

How could a man declared the Defender of the Faith, a staunch defender of the indissolubility of marriage, and a dedicated supporter of the Holy See turn around and become a tyrant who broke from Rome, divorced numerous wives and execute countless Catholics in his country? 

The Rest of the Story

Some say he was a capricious tyrant who defended the faith so long as it suited him and his political gain. But is there another possibility? Could something have happened that led to the downfall of the Defender of the Faith? Three Researchers from the Department of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine think so.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, Ikram, Sajjad and Slardini delve into the medical history, biographies and personal letters of King Henry VIII to evaluate this question. What they found was a man who was “vigorous, generous and intelligent in his youth” who turned into “a cruel and petty tyrant in his old age.” This transition happened after Henry received two successive head injuries one during jousting and one during hawking, the practice of pole vaulting over ditches filled with water. These occurred in 1524 and 1525 respectively. It was after these injuries that Henry would begin his acts of tyranny. He then suffered another severe head injury while jousting in January of 1536 and in May of 1536 he would condemn Anne Boleyn to death. She would not be the only wife executed on the orders of the King, Katherine Howard, wife number five, was executed in 1542. 

Is it possible that King Henry VIII was not culpable for his actions separating the Church in England from the Church in Rome? Should we end this blog with, “King Henry VIII, pray for us?” 

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have Mercy on Us.


Ikram, Muhammad Qaiser, Fazle Hakim Sajjad, and Arash Salardini. "The head that wears the crown: Henry VIII and traumatic brain injury." Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 28, no. 1, 2016, pp. 16-19.

Henry VIII, King of England, Assertio septem sacramentorum, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, translated O’Donovan, Louis.

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