Henry VIII’s monstrance to Our Lady of Halle, a political act of piety.

I wrote this paper for the course of Politics and Societies in the Early Modern Age, as part of my Masters in History at KU Leuven. I currently continue my research based the dating of the monstrance by the KIK in the period 1525-1530. Remarks are welcome.

The politically motivated donation of the statue of Our Lady to the city of Halle by the Counts of Hainaut in 1267, as a territorial claim on their county against the count of Flanders and the city’s ideal location on the crossroads of Hainaut, Brabant and Flanders, resulted in frequent visits and favours by many protagonists of the late medieval and early modern political scene. The English kings Edward III and Henry VIII, the House of Burgundy, the Holy Emperors Louis IV of Bavaria, Maximilian I and Charles V, the house of Habsburg and the Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella were all benefactors of the shrine. Among the gifts remaining today in the crypt of the St.-Martin’s basilica are the monstrances of the French dauphin (and later king) Louis XI (1460) and the English king Henry VIII (1513).[1]  This paper considers the donation of a monstrance by Henry VIII as a political act of piety. Looking into the siege of Tournai (1513) as the direct cause of the donation, the relation of Henry VIII’s allies to Our Lady of Halle, Henry VIII’s religion and his devotion to the Holy Virgin and Our Lady of Halle in particular offer insight on how his devotion influenced both his personal and political agenda and vice versa.

After he ascended the English throne in 1509, Henry VIII revived his ancestor’s claim on France. In 1511, he joined the ‘Holy League’ with Ferdinand of Aragon, Pope Julius II, and the Holy Emperor Maximilian, and one year later, in 1512, he resumed the hostilities toward France.[2] In early September 1513, after the sack of Thérouanne, the Anglo-Imperial army approached Tournai led by Henry VIII himself.[3] On the 25th of September, Henry VIII made his royal entry into the city.[4] In the aftermath of this siege, Henry VIII is told to have offered the above-mentioned silver monstrance at Our Lady of Halle to thank her for his swift victory.[5]

Whether or not he donated it personally is not clear due to the absence of records describing the event. Although Fernand Crooy assumes he did.[6] The oldest historical source on Henry VIII’s veneration of Our Lady of Halle is Justus Lipsius’ work ‘Diva Virgo Hallensis’, published in Latin in 1604. Lipsius, however, mentions the monstrance of Louis XI but remains silent on Henry VIII’s. He only refers to the latter as ‘Henricum Octavum, Eidem Caesari amicum’.[7] He probably wanted to stay on the safe side, since Henry VIII was already excommunicated by Rome at the time of his writing. By just mentioning him, Lipsius could not be accused of any sympathy towards the English King. In 1651, Claude Maillard published his ‘Histoire de Notre Dame de Hal’ and he, on the contrary, did give a detailed account of Henry VIII’s relation to Our Lady of Halle. He, however, only does so after a lengthy introduction on Henry’s Catholic period,  expressing his regret over the fact that Henry VIII, by turning his back to the ‘true Faith’, denied himself a bright future as a true Catholic king earning himself a place in history among the great Catholic rulers.[8] The omission of the monstrance by Lipsius, and Maillard’s lamentation on Henry VIII’s religious course, is to be interpreted in the context of the contra-reformation embodied in Halle by Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella’s installation of the Order of Jesus in the city in 1621 – Maillard was a Jesuit – to purify the veneration of Our Lady of Halle.[9] The shrine was of great importance to the Archdukes, who visited regularly. This could explain both author’s caution at the time of their handling of the excommunicated Henry VIII.

In a society where religion and politics were intrinsically linked, it is not surprising that, given its favourable location and its church hosting a miraculous shrine of Our Lady, Halle became a place for diplomatic encounters. Witness hereto is the long list of benefactors in the Golden Book of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Halle, founded in 1341 as a result of Henry VIII’s predecessor Edward III’s encounter in Halle with his allies in support of Edward’s claim for the French throne in 1338. This alliance led up to the Hundred Years War with France.[10] It is imaginable that Henry VIII, when reviving his claim on the French throne, also turned to Our Lady of Halle for her support in 1513 since he considered his war on France as a ‘just war’ defending the Papal throne of Julius II against the schismatic challenges of the King of France Louis XII, son-in-law of Louis XI whose monstrance was already in the Lady Chapel in Halle since 1460.[11] An educated and self-conscious king like Henry VIII must have been acquainted with this part of his country’s history,

Before his affection for Our Lady of Halle grew, Henry VIII already maintained a strong veneration of the Holy Virgin, being an annual benefactor of her shrines in Ipswich, Walsingham, Southampton, Northampton, Caversham, and Coventry. Furthermore, before his breakup with Rome, he respected and fully accepted the concepts of pilgrimage and the doctrine and practices of indulgences. Seeking the Holy Virgin’s support in 1513 fits in this perspective. In 1521, Pope Leo X granted Henry VIII the title of ‘Fidei Defensor’ or ‘Defender of the Faith’ as a reward for his book ‘Assertio Septem Sacramentorum’ in which he defended the doctrine of indulgences.[12] In 1524 the English king expressed his profound gratitude for a plenary indulgence bestowed upon him and his wife Catherine of Aragon by Pope Clement VII along with the Papal golden rose.[13] An honour he shared with his ally, Emperor Maximilian I, who earlier received a golden rose from Pope Julius II, namely in 1509, the year Henry VIII ascended the English throne. Considering their close relationship and alliance, and taking into account Henry VIII’s piety, he must have known about Maximillian’s rose. If Henry VIII had visited Halle after his victory in Tournai in 1513, he would even have seen Maximillian’s rose in the Lady’s Chapel as Maximilian donated his golden rose in 1509.[14] Seeing his ally rewarded by the Pope could have convinced Henry VIII to offer a gift himself. According to Maillard, it was the familiarity and friendship with Charles V, a great benefactor of Our Lady of Halle, that provoked Henry VIII’s specific affection to Our Lady of Halle and pushed him to imitate the emperor by offering the monstrance and made him strive to become a member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Halle, together with his wife Catharina of Aragon. Above all that, Maillard wrote, he donated the Lady’s Chapel in Halle two plaster portraits of Catherine of Aragon and himself.[15] Henry VIII’s following of Charles V’s example has a double layer of meaning. On the surface, it was a pious gift, but in fact, it had also a political motivation.  

Despite Henry VIII’s piety, politics was never far away in Henry VIII’s decisions. He took his religion very seriously which, according to Wooding (2008), cannot be dismissed as merely conventional behaviour. Henry VIII, as much as his subjects, believed he was appointed by God and he considered a successful kingship as inseparable from a pious kingship.[16] Bernard Rex elaborates on this point saying that conventional behaviour is still a subject of choice and that the choice to subscribe to a convention or to break with it, is in itself highly significant as in 1533 Henry VIII decides to ban the practice of pilgrimage and indulgences. The gift of the monstrance and his specific request to have his and his wife’s name written down as a member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Halle can thus be seen as a well-considered act to emphasize his divine kingship and claim his place amongst the great catholic rulers of his time. 

The fact that none of the authentic parts of the monstrance carries any mark referring to Henry VIII or his wife, supports the thesis that the offering could have been a quick but well-considered decision of Henry VIII. Crooÿ sees in this absence of identification a possible proof that Henry VIII probably bought it ready-made in Brussels.[17] Given the fact that his plans for a large-scale invasion of France in 1514 were under pressure due to both the lack of enthusiasm on the part of Maximilian and an attractive offer by the French king Louis XII, Henry VIII could have decided to the offering to humour his political allies Maximillian, Charles V and Pope Julius II whose support he needed for his ‘just war’ against France[18]. Time restraints could have led to his decision to buy a ready-made monstrance in Brussels in 1513. This argument can be challenged by KIK-IRPA dating the monstrance back to ca. 1525 – 1530 when Henry VIII’s rule over Tournai had already ended.[19] Whether or not he offered the monstrance after his victory between 1513 – 1519 or between 1525 – 1530, the argument for his political motivation still stands, but in a different context. In 1525, Henry sought Charles V and Pope Clemens VII’s consent to divorce Catharina of Aragon as she could not give him a male heir for his divine kingship. That same year he met Anne Boleyn and married her in 1533. Considering this timeframe and the dating of the monstrance by KIK-IRPA, the offer could still be interpreted as an attempt to win the emperor and the pope for his cause.

Due to the solely indirect sources like Lipsius (1606) and Maillard (1651), the lack of contemporary sources, and the lack of a direct reference to Henry VIII on the artefact itself the research on the context and motivation that led to the donation of the monstrance is open for further debate. Insight in the political context between 1513 and 1530 and in Henry VIII’s religion leads however to a (preliminary) conclusion that Henry VIII’s offer of the monstrance to Our Lady of Halle was a well-considered political act of piety, driven by his personal religious and political agenda. 

[1] ‘Balat Object: 28207’, BALaT KIK-IRPA, geraadpleegd 14 april 2021, http://balat.kikirpa.be/object/28207.

[2] Neil Murphy, ‘Henry VIII’s French Crown: His Royal Entry into Tournai Revisited’, Historical Research: The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 85, nr. 230 (2012): 617, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2281.2012.00598.x.

[3] J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, Yale English Monarchs, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, 35–36.

[4] Murphy, ‘Henry VIII’s French Crown’, 622.

[5] Raymond Clement en Jan Decreton, Halle: een Bourgondisch feest (Tielt: Lannoo, 1991), 80.

[6] Fernand Crooy, Les orfèvreries anciennes conservées au Trésor de Hal (Bruxelles: Van Oest, 1910), 16.

[7] Justus Lipsius, ‘I. Lipsi diva virgo Hallensis: Beneficia eius & miracvla fide atque ordine descripta’ (Antverpiæ: ex officina Plantiniana, apud viduam & filios IoMoreti, 1616).

[8] Claude Maillard, Histoire de Nostre Dame de Hale, Divisée en trois parties. La premiere de la ville, de l’image, & de l’eglise. La seconde des merveilles & miracles. La troisiéme des honneurs deferez à noste [sic] Dame de Hale. (Bruxelles: Hubert Anthoine Velpius, 1651), 340–45.

[9] Johan Vencken, ‘Diachronische studie van de devotie van Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Halle met betrekking tot het ontstaan – het beeld – de legenden – de processie, Vencken, Johan ; o.l.v. Prof. Dr. S. Top’ (s. n. Leuven, sn, 1999), 31.

[10] Clement en Decreton, Halle, 50.

[11] RICHARD REX, ‘THE RELIGION OF HENRY VIII’, The Historical Journal 57, no. 1 (2014): 5, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X13000368.

[12] Lucy Wooding, ‘HENRY VIII AND RELIGION’, History Review (Bedford, England), nr. 62 (2008): 44.


[14] Lipsius, ‘I. Lipsi diva virgo Hallensis’, 76.

[15] Maillard, Histoire de Nostre Dame de Hale, 343–44.

[16] Lucy Wooding, ‘HENRY VIII AND RELIGION’, 43.

[17] Crooy, Les orfèvreries anciennes conservées au Trésor de Hal, 15.

[18] Murphy, ‘Henry VIII’s French Crown’, 627.

[19] ‘Balat Object: 28207’, BALaT KIK-IRPA, geraadpleegd 14 april 2021, http://balat.kikirpa.be/object/28207.

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