Henry VIII’s Assertio

With the 500th year anniversary of Hampton Court Palace this year, there has been a great interest in the Tudor period in recent months. This blog post explores some sources of Tudor history in the College’s special collections.

Title page

Title page of PL 1481(1)

PL 1481(1) Henry VIII. Assertio septem sacrameto.. aduersys Marti. Luther. Romae, opera Stephani Guilliretti, 1521)

The Assertio septem sacrameto, or ‘The defence of the seven sacraments’ was Henry VIII’s refutation of Martin Luther’s heretical challenge to the Pope and church. For Henry’s efforts, the Pope Leo X granted to him and his successors the title ‘Fidei Defensor’ or ‘Defender of the Faith’.

Spine of PL 1481

Spine of PL 1481

In this rare Italian edition housed in the Pepys Library, the Assertio is preceded by introductory leaves containing the text of Leo X’s letter to Henry VIII. The edition was published in 1521, the same year as the ‘Fidei Defensor’ title was bestowed. When we speak of the current monarch as the ‘Defender of the Faith’, it is a reference to the Catholic Church, although it is sometimes misconstrued as a title associated with the monarch being the head of the Church of England. This edition of the Assertio was published by Etienne Guillery. Originally from Lunéville in France, he was active in Rome as a printer, publisher and bookseller where he was known as ‘Stephani Guilliretti’. Six years after this edition was published, Henry initiated the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, paving the way for the English Reformation, and distanced himself from the authorship of the Assertio.

Final page of Pope Leo X's letter to Henry VIII; printer's colophon

Final page of Pope Leo X’s letter to Henry VIII; printer’s colophon

Henry VIII may well have been influenced by Thomas More or Cardinal Wolsey in the publication of the Assertio. The 1576 edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, (otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), goes further and claims that ‘This booke, albeit it carryed the kynges name in the title, yet it was an other that ministred the motion, an other that framed the stile.’. There is a 1576 edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in Magdalene’s Old Library, donated to the college last year. Here is an images of the relevant page, with the passage relating to the Assertio highlighted on the bottom left hand side:

Old Library H.20.49

Old Library H.20.49

Samuel Pepys owned a set of the 8th edition of Foxe’s book of Martyrs published in 1641, and the excerpt concerning the Assertio remains in the text of this later edition :


PL 2536. Foxe, J. Acts and monuments of matters…happening in the Church [‘Foxe’s book of martyrs’]. London : for the company of stationers, 1641.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections


‘The Acts and Monuments Online’. Accessed 12 March 2015. http://www.johnfoxe.org/.

‘Il Censimento Nazionale Delle Edizioni Italiane Del XVI Secolo’. Accessed 12 March 2015. http://edit16.iccu.sbn.it/web_iccu/imain.htm.

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