As archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer played a key role in the English Reformation. When he first heard about his appointment, though, he balked. Away in Europe, he delayed his return to England for seven weeks, hoping Henry would get impatient and appoint someone else.

Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy of the Anglican church (including the Episcopal church), is known for its memorable expression of Christian theology. But Cranmer was only a modestly talented student, ranking thirty-second in his Cambridge class of 42.

Before he was a priest, Cranmer married, but his wife died in childbirth within a year. After becoming ordained as a priest, Cranmer married again, and he kept the marriage a secret for his first 14 years as archbishop because priestly marriage was forbidden.

Some have accused Cranmer of making a deal with Henry: if appointed archbishop of Canterbury, he would resolve Henry’s “privy question”—his need to legally divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Long before his appointment, Cranmer believed Henry’s divorce was justified and had encouraged Henry to gain wider approval for it.

The divorce question was debated in Europe’s major universities, and many theologians had opinions about it. The most unusual may have been Martin Luther’s: “I would rather permit the king to marry still another woman and to have, according to the examples of the patriarchs and kings [of Scripture], two women or queens at the same time.”

Henry VIII was not a Protestant, even after his break from Rome. He believed in transubstantiation, priestly celibacy, and other Catholic doctrines. He wanted Catholicism without the pope. Thus he had both Protestants and Roman Catholics executed in his reign—anyone who would ...

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