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Defender of the Faith: Then and Now


Last weekend was a very special one for the citizens of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as they observed  4 days of celebration to mark the Platinum Jubilee of  Queen Elizabeth II. She is the longest-reigning monarch in British History with the previous record-holder being her great-great-grandmother, Victoria who was on the throne for 64 years.

Her son and successor, Prince Charles will not rule as long as he is already 73 years old, having been born just 3 years before she began her reign. When he does become King, he will be the oldest monarch to ascend the throne.  Nor will we see a Queen again for the foreseeable future because the eldest child of Charles’ son and heir, Prince William, is a boy, Prince George.

Of course, we never can foretell the turn events will take.  Elizabeth was not born to be Queen. It was the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII in 1936  which resulted in her father, the Duke of York becoming King. Had Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret been male, or had they had a brother he would have taken precedence because Salic Law, which prohibits females from succession even if they are the eldest, was not changed until 2013, with the Succession to the Crown Act.

Although Elizabeth inherited an emphatically Protestant monarchical tradition, it had not always been that way.


On 2 June 1953 Elizabeth was crowned: ‘Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.  This last is particularly noteworthy because when it was originally bestowed it referred to the Roman Catholic faith.  And in a very ironic twist it was given to Henry VIII who would go on to separate from Rome setting in motion a process that would change the face of religion- and indeed politics  – in England forever.

When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509,  he did so as a Catholic king who, like his fellow monarchs in Europe, owed spiritual allegiance to the Pope in Rome.  Henry regarded himself as a good Catholic and desired to be recognized as such.  One way to do this was to make a bold stand against Martin Luther who had published a 3-part treatise speaking against the Catholic Church, denouncing the Papal system and the doctrine of the sacraments.

The King wanted to respond to the reformer’s 95 Theses with a written refutation, but he lacked the patience and mental discipline for producing a theological treatise.  However, with the aid of a team of English theologians, he produced Defence of the Seven Sacraments and had a lavish copy presented to Leo X.

The Pope responded by granting Henry the title Defender of the Faith.  It was a title he held onto defiantly even after his break with Rome when he founded the Church of England.  He made himself Head, while his daughter, the first Elizabeth, called herself Supreme Governor of the Church of England, saying Jesus Christ was its head.


Today, the role of Supreme Governor indicates the British monarch retains a constitutional role regarding the established Church of England but does not govern or manage it.  The modern Elizabeth has left that to the bishops, although she addresses general synods and has a role as a listener and guide to her primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But while Defender of the Faith has been over the years an inherited title and little more, the  Queen appears to have embraced it and made it her own, speaking out very openly in recent years about her own Christian faith and explaining how it has provided the framework of her life.  She has done this mostly through the medium of her annual Christmas message, a tradition begun by her grandfather, George V, in 1932, and continued by her father, George VI.

In 2016, she did something unusual for a sovereign who has never spoken politically or given an interview; she wrote the foreword for a small book published by the Bible Union about her Christian faith for her 90th birthday, titled, The Servant Queen and the King She Serves.   As the book noted, “Many commentators have noted the depth of her trust in God, but few have explored it.”

Could this be that they are just not interested?  While Elizabeth has become increasingly outspoken about her faith, society is becoming increasingly more secularized.   One Vatican official told the London Guardian newspaper that she is the “last Christian monarch.”  Perhaps this is because she has been sovereign for so long, starting when religion was an integral part of culture and society.

Others agree that Elizabeth may be the last thread that connects Britain with a Christian heritage.  Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke critically about how ignorant and under-informed too many young people were about that heritage of faith.

Catherine Pepinster a former editor of The Tablet believes that the Queen has transformed the relationship with the Catholic Church.  She has met five Popes and hosted two – Pope St John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict, a remarkable turnaround for a monarchy that all those centuries ago broke so spectacularly from Rome.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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