Henry VIII, Defender of the Faith

Henry VIII, Defender of the Faith

Part of a parchment document, torn on the left edge, showing a drawing of an enthroned king within a capital H and more partial lines of text.

The sadly tattered state of this document belies its high status. It was issued in 1541 in the name of King Henry VIII. It bears his Privy Seal, about 60% of which still survives intact – you can see the impression of the king in armour on horseback in the image below. The document has also been elaborately illustrated with a miniature portrait of King Henry VIII, enthroned and carrying the orb and sceptre, within the initial H which starts the document. An elaborate intertwined pattern of flowers and leaves continues along the top line of the document, interspersed with heraldic symbols representing Henry VIII’s kingship and his family:

  • The shield of St George, the soldier saint and patron of the Order of the Garter, by now widely recognised as the patron saint of England.
  • The crowned lion, which had long been a symbol of English kingship.
  • The double rose, a symbol of the House of Lancaster, from which Henry was descended through his father, and the House of York, from which he was descended through his mother. And, combined, a symbol of the House of Tudor, which united the two lines.
  • The red dragon of Cadwaladr, this had been adopted by Henry’s father, King Henry VII, to symbolise his descent from a medieval Welsh king.
  • The fleur-de-lis, a symbol of French kingship since the thirteenth century and adopted by English kings from Edward III onward to represent his claim to be the rightful king of France.

Rectangular parchment document with a round seal attached by a tag. The document shows signs of age and damage. It is illustrated at the top with a portrait of an enthroned king and Tudor royal heraldic badges. The rest of the document is handwritten text. The seal is round and shows an impression of an armed man on horseback.

This level of decoration would have taken a considerable commitment of time and money.

The document was created to record that King Henry VIII had inspected and confirmed the details of an account roll that had been issued by King Henry VI in 1437 concerning the Rectory of Ogbourne, a parish in Wiltshire that had been donated to the Dean and Canons of Windsor in 1421 by John Duke of Bedford.

Because this confirmation is issued in the King’s name, it opens with his full style, which by this time included an interesting pair of religious titles. Alongside king of England, Ireland and France, Henry is described as in terra Anglicane et Hibernice ecclesie Supremus caput, “supreme head of the church in the lands of England and Ireland”. This is due to changes made by the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which separated England completely from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

This is surprisingly paired with the title Fidei Defensor, “Defender of the Faith”, which had been bestowed upon the king by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition of his work combatting the heresy of Church reform. There is, therefore, some irony that Henry VIII should have kept that title alongside the new one he claimed when he reformed the church in England.

The style “Defender of the Faith” has continued to be used into the present day and is part of King Charles III’s full titles. Since 1714 it has appeared on all British coins as the abbreviation “F D” or “Fid Def”.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.