The popular understanding of the founding of the Church of England was that lusty old King Henry VIII wanted to marry his pretty little mistress. The Pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce, so Henry sent the Pope packing and founded his own Protestant church. Well, yes, but not really.

Of course, it was all much more complicated than that. It’s true that Henry VIII wanted a decree of nullity from Queen Catherine of Aragon, and it is possible that he really believed the marriage was null because she had first been married to his older brother Arthur. It could be that he really convinced himself that her inability to produce a male heir was God’s punishment for the illicit marriage.

So his lawyers argued with the Pope and made their case. Matters were further complicated by the fact that Pope Clement VII had been imprisoned by Emperor Charles V, who was a nephew of Queen Catherine, and the emperor was not in favor of Henry VIII’s proposed divorce and remarriage.

Eventually, in November 1532, Henry and Anne Boleyn were secretly married. Regarding religion, Henry at first had no sympathy for the Protestant cause. Indeed, he had written a pamphlet against Lutheranism, for which the Pope declared him “Defender of the Faith.”

There was a Protestant faction at the court, however, and the Boleyn family was sympathetic to the Protestant cause. Some believe Anne herself was enthusiastic about the new religion and that she gave Henry a heretical pamphlet — perhaps Tyndale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man” or a tract by Simon Fish called “Supplication for Beggars,” which called on kings and princes to rein in the excesses of the Catholic Church.

Anne’s biographer Maria Dowling wrote, “Anne tried to educate her waiting-women in scriptural piety,” and others believe she had a genuine religious awakening within the new Protestant spirituality.

So the seeds of Protestantism were planted in Henry’s life. Even when he suppressed the monasteries and appointed himself as governor of the new English church, he intended the church to remain Catholic. The term “governor” of the Church of England was originally a title to distinguish the monarch from the head of the church — who was acknowledged to still be the Pope. When Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury, he did not intend to start a great theological or liturgical revolution in the English church.

The real shift to Protestantism came during the reign of Henry’s young son Edward. Nine-year-old Edward was the child of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. The Seymour family was of the Protestant faction, and it was during Edward’s reign that his uncles worked with Cranmer to make radical changes.

Cranmer wrote and compiled the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, a comprehensive Anglican liturgy. With the help of several continental reformers who had sheltered in England, Cranmer altered the sacramental theology, ended clerical celibacy, attacked images in places of worship and condemned the veneration of saints.

Cranmer then began the hard work of imposing the new beliefs on a conservative and resistant populace. He visited parishes and decreed that his written homilies teaching Protestant doctrine should be used. He declared that any images that were being venerated should be destroyed, and he attacked monasticism and what he perceived as a religion of good works.

Cranmer had been in contact with Martin Bucer, a Lutheran reformer who had been a Dominican priest. Under his influence, Cranmer moved to a more Protestant understanding of the Eucharist — denying the Real Presence and banning Eucharistic adoration.

These, however, were only first steps. When he was forced out of Strasbourg in 1549, Bucer moved to England and helped Cranmer with further revisions of the prayer book. They brought in a Protestant form of the ordination service, and in 1550 Cranmer wrote The Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In the preface, Cranmer compared Catholic practices of “beads, pardons, pilgrimages, and such other like popery,” with weeds. And going even further, he says the weeds are rooted in the doctrine of transubstantiation.

By 1553, the young king was fatally ill with tuberculosis. His half-sister Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine, was waiting to ascend the throne of England.

With Mary, the Catholic religion was restored for five years before her own death and the ascent of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth. During Mary’s reign, Catholic bishops were put back into place, and Protestantism was punished. Among others, Cranmer and his fellow bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were imprisoned, tried for heresy and burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1556.

When Elizabeth came to the throne two years later, the triumph of Protestantism in the Church of England was complete. A shrewd politician, Elizabeth sought to bring unity to the Church of England while still retaining her independence from Rome.

Her “Religious Settlement” in 1559 consisted of two acts of Parliament. The Act of Supremacy of 1558 echoed her father’s similar legislation. It established Elizabeth’s independence from the papacy, making her the “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” The Act of Uniformity of 1559 set out the legal form the Church of England would have, and it established Cranmer’s Protestant Book of Common Prayer as the rule for doctrine and liturgy.

Despite ecumenical and liturgical developments — especially in the last 60 years — the Church of England’s doctrine and liturgy is still based on Cranmer’s work.

While the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is commemorated this year, it is necessary to understand the full impact and implications of the tumultuous events 500 years ago. The Protestant Revolution broke Christendom into a multitude of little pieces, and while this legacy continues, the goal of real and lasting unity is the task all Christians should now remember.


Father Dwight Longenecker is a convert from Anglicanism and  is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.