A well-known title of the reigning British monarch is “Defender of the Faith.” It is a title so commonly used that most people don’t often give it a second thought. This is most likely because it has been associated with the British Monarchy for nearly five centuries.
One of the most surprising facts about the title is that King Henry VIII, the first “Defender of the Faith” would be considered an unlikely candidate by today’s standards.
Naturally, one might ask why a king as infamous as Henry might be granted a very pious sounding title. The answer lies with Henry’s vocational path before he became king. Growing up, Henry’s older brother, Arthur, was expected to become king. This allowed Henry the opportunity to study for the priesthood. His brother’s death left Henry heir to the throne. And although Henry gave up his goal of becoming a priest, he didn’t give up his interest in theology.
When Martin Luther published Babylonian Captivity in 1520, he challenged the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church by suggesting that there were only two sacraments as opposed to seven. Henry felt the need to respond to Luther’s work. With the help of Thomas More (whom Henry would later execute), he prepared The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments. This defence of the sacramental system impressed Pope Leo X who granted it to King Henry VIII on October 11, 1521.
As we all know, Henry’s marital problems eventually led to the separation of the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church. And after the split, Pope Paul III revoked the title. He conferred it on King James V of Scotland on January 19, 1537. The rationale behind the pope’s action was that by referring to the Scottish Monarch as “Defender of the Faith,” it was implied that the King of Scots would resist the path that his uncle, Henry VIII, had followed.
This had little effect on Henry who really liked being called “Defender of the Faith.” So in 1544 the Parliament of England conferred the title “Defender of the Faith” on King Henry VIII and his successors.