Henry VIII's "Assertion of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther"

Henry VIII, King (1491-1547)

Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum

Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1561


Quarto: 21 x 15.5 cm. xxxxvj, 195, [1] p. Collation: bb-nn, a-z, A4, B2

First printed in 1521, this 1561 edition of the "Assertio" marks the first appearance of the historical preface by Gabriel de Saconay (1527-1580), who has added Luther's 1525 letter of apology to Henry VIII (written while under the impression that Henry had come around to the Lutheran position), and Henry's brutal response (1526), in which he once again condemns Luther and his positions, and insults Luther's wife.

An excellent copy with some very light damp-staining and slight browning to a few leaves. Bound in contemporary limp vellum with the original ties. With a woodcut title page border.

Written in 1521 in response to Martin Luther’s “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” -the reformer’s radical exposition of the Protestant faith and attack on the papacy- Henry VIII’s “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” won for its author the coveted title of “Defensor Fidei” (Defender of the Faith) from Pope Leo X. Coming as it did from such a powerful Christian prince, Luther was forced to respond to Henry’s work, which he did with more than his usual severity, insulting the king and challenging his theological points. In turn, Henry’s most talented theologians, Thomas More and John Fisher, penned defenses of the king’s “Defense” and further challenges to Luther’s religious views, in what was to become one of the most important debates on the substance of Luther’s doctrine in this crucial, early period.

Henry VIII’s “Defense of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther” was published in the summer of 1521, by which time Luther had already been excommunicated and outlawed, but his creed was spreading fast and had begun to penetrate England:

“The body of Henry’s ‘Assertio’ is primarily concerned with a defense of the seven sacraments against Luther’s attack but there are occasional digressions to take up other controversial points in Luther’s theology. Henry began the main body of his work by castigating Luther for having once acknowledged the value of indulgences, which he openly condemned in his ‘95 Theses’. Similarly, he criticized the reformer because of his earlier acknowledgement of a papal authority that he now rejected in favor of a law of his own establishing.

“Henry VIII could not conceive of a serpent more venomous than the author of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’. Luther, he said, had put his own sense and meaning into the sacraments to the destruction of ecclesiastical rites and ceremonies. He had despised the holy and ancient interpreters of scripture; he had called Rome Babylon and the authority of the popes tyranny. For Henry, Luther was a detestable trumpeter of pride, calumny and schism….

“Henry was outraged by Luther’s view that marriage, instituted by God, could unite husband and wife without carrying with it a divinely infused grace. Henry countered that marriage must be regarded as something more holy than a mere care for propagating the flesh. The more holy thing, he said, is the grace that God, the Prelate of all sacraments, infuses into married people in a consecrated marriage. Gravely, and no doubt sincerely, this man of many future marriages said, ‘Carnal concupiscence, by the grace of God, is changed into wine of the best taste. Christ says, ‘What God has put together let no man put asunder.’ O admirable word, which none could have spoken but the Word made flesh.’

“The king was bitterest of all in attacking Luther’s views on the sacrament of holy orders. The special order and authority of the priesthood was the very essence of the order and authority so important to the king. In place of the order of this sacrament, Luther is substituting anarchy and gathering into it all the treasuries of his malice. For what else, Henry asked, does Luther aim at by taking away the sacrament of the priestly orders than to render the ministers of the church contemptible, to procure that the sacraments of the church may also be despised and undervalued as being administered by vile and illegitimate ministers, which is the only drift of Luther’s work? To the king of England, Luther represented a menace to stability and authority, a threat to the existing social and political order.”(H. Maynard Smith, “Henry VIII and the Reformation”)

From a historical perspective, it is a great irony that the king who would himself be excommunicated and establish himself as the head of a Protestant English church should defend the legitimacy of the papacy and –a greater irony still- the sacramental nature and sanctity of marriage. However, the true power and “historical value” of Henry’s “Defense” is its demonstration of the seriousness of the threat posed by Luther and his ideas to the institutions of power, both temporal (i.e. the kings and potentates of Europe) and spiritual (i.e. the pope and the priesthood who held a tight grip the keys to salvation.)

Coming as it did from such a powerful Christian prince, Luther was forced to respond to Henry’s "Assertio", which he did with more than his usual severity, insulting the king and challenging his theological points. In turn, Henry’s most talented theologians, Thomas More and John Fisher, penned defenses of the king’s book and further challenges to Luther’s religious views, in what was to become one of the most important debates on the substance of Luther’s doctrine in this crucial, early period.

II. Luther’s Letter of Apology to Henry VIII

In 1525, George Spalatin, court secretary to Frederick the Wise, communicated to Luther the spurious report that Henry VIII had become “inclined to the Gospel” and urged Luther to write a conciliatory letter to the king. Despite his skepticism (and no doubt his anger and pride) Luther wrote, on September 1st 1525, a letter “in which he apologized for his rude book so meekly and submissively that a German biographer remarked aptly that but for his monastic background and training, Luther could never have achieved its composition.”(Doernby)

Luther wrote: “Shame should prevent me from writing to your Royal Highness, since I know so well that I have given you offence with the book against Your Majesty, the hasty and speedy printing of which was necessitated not through me but through those who are not well disposed towards Your Majesty. However, I draw confidence and courage through your natural graciousness of which many people have told me in letters and by word of mouth, day by day and evermore frequently. I presume that your Royal Highness, in the awareness of being mortal, will not countenance eternal wrath and hostility.”

Having passed part of the blame for his letter to the king on to others, Luther next offers Henry an opportunity to do the same. Seizing upon the (mis)information that Cardinal Wolsey had fallen from Henry’s grace, Luther offers Henry an opportunity to ascribe the “Defense of the Seven sacraments” to Wolsey:

“Furthermore, I have been told by trustworthy people that the book which was published under the dignified name of the King of England was not in fact Your Majesty’s own, as was broadcast by the cunning sophists who thus misused Your Majesty’s title and name. They did not realize the peril they would bring upon themselves by heaping shame and dishonor on the Royal Name, especially and above all others that monstrous beast, hated by God and by men, the Cardinal of Eborac [Cardinal Wolsey], that pernicious plague and desolation of Your majesty’s kingdom.”

Now that he has heard of Henry’s friendly inclination to the Gospel, Luther begs for forgiveness and recants his previous, hastily written statements:

“I am so ashamed that I do not dare lift up my eyes to Your Majesty, to so exalted a potentate and so mighty a king, considering that I am quite unworthy, a despised person, a mere worm, who should have been rendered helpless simply by means of contempt, as being unworthy of any attention…. Therefore I prostrate myself with this letter before thy feet and I pray and implore your majesty for gracious forgiveness and pardon for everything wherewith I have given offence to Your Majesty…. Further, if it is not contrary to your desire, I would offer you a recantation and I would render honor to Your majesty by the means of a printed book…”

Luther then prays that God, who has begun it, will cause Henry to “grow and increase in the attainment of the inclination and obedience towards the Gospel” and that Henry will consider independently Luther’s teachings “as follows: what can possibly be evil in Luther’s teachings, considering he teaches nothing else but that we shall be redeemed by faith in Jesus Christ?”

III. Henry VIII’s Response:

“Henry replied after a long delay which he excused by writing that he had been traveling through his realm for a long while, and that Luther’s letter had therefore taken some time to reach him. His answer was aggressively ungracious and most vigorously dispelled any such expectations as those cherished by Luther and Spalatin. Once again, it is impossible to say with any certainty who actually wrote the reply. It was certainly written immediately after the king had seen Luther’s letter. Henry desired to make his reply known as quickly as possible among the German princes, together with a copy of Luther’s letter. There was some delay, however, owing to the fact that at the crucial moment Luther’s letter could not be found; it was only known that it had last been in the possession of Thomas More. The King became impatient but Wolsey strongly advised against the dispatch of his reply without the text of Luther’s letter.

“Henry’s book opens with a long introduction in which the King addresses his subjects: ‘Martyn Luther late a frere Augustyn and now ron out in apostasy and wedded hath nat onely scraped owt of the ashen and kyndeled agayne almost all the embers of those foule errours and heresyes that ever heretyke held sythe Christ was borne hitherto; but hath also added some so poisoned pointes of his owne so wretched, so vyle, so detestable, provoyking men to myschefe, encoragying the worlde to syn… that never was there erst any heretyke so farre voyde of all grace and wyt, that durst for shame speke them…’

“In a modest tone the King recalls how he had written his ‘lytell treatise’ and that by now Luther is forsaken by all and in despair. As to Luther’s letter, the King advises his subjects to consider Luther’s doctrine and to ‘understande his doctryne so abhominable that it must nedes make the man odious’. There follow some special admonitions against heretical trends, advising the people not to trust in their own interpretations of doctrine but to rely on the advice of their ‘pastoral fathers of the soule.’

“In his reply to Luther, the King begins with a summary of the latter’s communication and offered severe criticism of Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora: ‘ye being Frere have taken a Nonne and not onely vyolate her (whiche if ye had done among the olde Romayns that were paynyns she shulde have been buried quicke and ye beaten to deth) but also which mouche worse is have openly married her & by that menes openly abused her in synne.

“Henry made his attitude to Luther’s reforming activities very plain: ‘…what ruinous building ye reare upon the false foundation of your unfaithful faythe… Ye were justly condemned by our holy father the pope and the holy college of cardinals…’

There is a memorable passage in which Henry VIII particularly attacked those aspects of the Lutheran reforms which resulted in monks and nuns leaving their communities” ‘Good religious folke be dayly by your meanes expelled oute of their places in whyche they were determined in chastity, prayer and fastynge to bestow theyr lives in Godess service…’

“Luther’s remarks about Wolsey produced a warm eulogy from the King. Finally, the King informed Luther that no further disputation with him was intended. In the course of the King’s reply, the doctrine of justification by faith is rejected and Luther’s denial of free will criticized. Of course, the King did not did not forget to make Luther responsible for the Peasants’ War.”(Doernby, “Henry VIII and Luther”, Part II ‘Luther’s Apology of 1525 and its reception by Henry VIII”, pp. 51-59)

Adams H 250