Diameter: 54.000 mm
Edward Hawkins Collection
Room 46: Europe 1400-1800
Gold medal of Henry VIII as Head of the Church of England
London, England, AD 1545
'Defender of the Faith'
The importance of having a male successor to the Tudor dynasty caused a great rift between Henry VIII (1491-1547) and the Roman church, which eventually led to the English Reformation. Henry's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon had not produced a male heir, and by the 1520s, the king was desperate to marry again. Pope Clement VII's refusal to grant Henry a divorce created a stalemate that led to Cardinal Wolsey's downfall. Thomas Cromwell, his successor as Lord Chancellor, used Parliament to pass Acts against papal power, allowing Henry's divorce and marriage to Anne Boleyn. The Pope reacted with excommunication; in response, Parliament passed laws proclaiming the sovereignty of England, making Henry 'the only supreme head of the Church of England' in 1534.
Henry asserted his new authority in official imagery, as we see on this medal by an anonymous artist. The king is shown wearing a jewelled cap, ermine robe and jewelled collar, with a legend in Latin around the edge divided by Royal emblems. It translates as 'Henry VIII, King of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith, and under Christ, the supreme head on earth of the Church of England and Ireland'. The same message is presented on the reverse in Hebrew and Greek, the other two languages of the Bible, to affirm the legitimacy of Henry's appointment. This is one of only two known surviving examples in gold.
E. Hawkins, Medallic illustrations of the (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1885)