In 1517 an obscure German priest and academic, Martin Luther, set Europe ablaze with his Ninety-Five Theses protesting against the corruption of the Catholic Church. The Pope declared Luther a heretic, but his writings spread rapidly thanks to the printing press.
In England, converts to the reformed faith surfaced at the universities, the Inns of Court, and even within the royal household. Henry VIII had met Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar who had long been critical of aspects of Catholic practice, but was horrified by Luther’s more violent brand of reform.
With his secretary Thomas More, Henry wrote a defence of the traditional seven sacraments of the church – the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum – and dedicated it to Pope Leo X in 1521. His reward was the title Fidei Defensor, ‘Defender of the Faith’. The letters ‘F.D.’ appear on British coins to this day – look at one in your pocket! A different perspective on Henry’s self-belief is provided by the early sixteenth-century panel painting of King Athelstan (ruled 924-939), one of the great warriors of Anglo-Saxon England and a devoted son of the church; it may have come from Henry VIII’s palace at Eltham.
The Saxon Kings
These fragments of early sixteenth century painted panelling were once part of a frieze featuring many of the great Saxon Kings. While the cycle was broken apart many years ago, historians have identified the pieces in the Society’s collection as part of a whole thanks to the brocade curtain…