Do you have a British coin in your purse or pocket? If so take it out and have a look at the abbreviations around the Queen’s head. Just before the date you will see the letters FD. It’s a Latin abbreviation for Fidei defensor in the male and Fidei defensatrix in the female form. It means Defender of the Faith, a title originally accorded to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 after the publication of Assertio Septem Sacramentorum – Defence of the Seven Sacraments -, a treatise rejecting the reformist teachings of Martin Luther.
Eamon Duffy, professor of the History of Christianity at
Cambridge, mentions it in the opening paragraph of a polemic published by the Telegraph at the weekend (The Story of the Reformation needs reforming). Since 1558, he writes, it has meant defender of the Protestant faith.
What he neglects to mention is that the original title was revoked by Pope Paul III in 1530 after Henry’s break with
Rome. It made no practical difference, as the style continued to be used in official documents, and was formally ratified by Act of Parliament in 1544. Rather ironically, though she never used the title, even Bloody Mary was FD by parliamentary grant!
That seems to me to be the whole point of the English Reformation – it was about empowerment and national sovereignty, a contention I advanced in previous articles touching on the subject. Above all it was about breaking free from the authority of
Rome, as much a temporal as a spiritual power at the time. It really is worth stressing that Henry never abandoned Catholic orthodoxy as a personal standard of faith. His Reformation was based wholly on the rejection of papal tutelage.
Duffy proceeds, as polemicists are wont to do, with a one-sided and historically unbalanced argument. He is quite right to point out some of the tragic consequences of the English Reformation, a lengthy process rather than a single event. He is right to lament the cultural vandalism that accompanied the religious and social upheaval, in the course of which so much of
England’s Catholic and medieval heritage was lost.
But he is wrong to see a process which shaped a new and greater nation as a wholly negative event. In my own polemical style I have no hesitation at all in saying that the Reformation was a great and necessary metamorphosis. In the place of medieval mystery plays came the dramas of Shakespeare. In the place of Latin bibles, read and interpreted by priests, came the vernacular translations of William Tyndale followed by the King James Version, great well-springs of our language and literature. In the place of controlled thought came free thought, the greatest legacy of all. As the sun set on Galileo and the Catholic south it was to rise on
Newton and the Protestant north.
There was nothing inevitable about the Reformation, Duffy contends. True; for nothing in history is truly inevitable. That does not mean to say that there was nothing necessary about a process that swept virtually the whole of northern Europe, a process that freed the imagination from the straightjacket of traditional dogmas, a process that transformed
England from an outpost of the Roman-focused medieval world to a great outward looking imperial and seafaring power.
The professor touches on past injustices. He touches on the anti-Catholic narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which turned the faith into the malevolent doctrine of an obscurantist and foreign power, a view entrenched in popular consciousness after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Gilbert Burnet, the seventeenth centaury divine, earns his animus as the ‘chief propagandist’ of this event, the author of the History of the Reformation, in which he describe Catholicism as tyranny. “They hate us”, Burnet wrote, “because we dare to be freemen and Protestants.”
‘They’, in a general sense, is certainly a bit sweeping. There were many English Catholics who may have taken spiritual solace from
Rome but whose secular loyalty was to the land of their birth. But always, always, we have to consider the context of the times. Louis XIV certainly hated freemen and Protestants, as the Huguenot refugees who flooded into London prior to the Glorious Revolution would have testified. His imperial ambitions, moreover, were a serious threat to the integrity of Protestant Europe. This was no imagined danger.
The professor concludes his piece by saying that the slaughtered Popish martyrs look less like an alien fifth column than “the voices of a history that
England was not allowed to have.” Would the ‘slaughtered Popish martyrs’, I wonder, include the conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot? I think it best to let that pass. What I cannot let pass, though, is an earlier suggestion that John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, detailing the horrors of Mary Tudor’s Catholic reaction, simply served as propaganda against Catholicism at home and abroad. So far as Duffy is concerned it would appear that some martyrs are more equal than other martyrs, some voices more essential, some narratives more valid and some histories more complete.