For a nearly a thousand years until the 1530s, most people worshipped as part of an English Christian Church which stood within the wider Catholic Church governed from Rome by the Pope.
England’s kings protected the it, and in doing so acquired much influence. However, supreme control was exercised from Rome.
The organisation of the English Church was radically altered when Henry VIII broke with the Papacy between 1532 and 1536.
The King established an entirely independent Church of England with himself as supreme head. This transformation – part of the wider European reformation – was initiated through a series of unprecedented parliamentary statutes and extended by further laws during the reigns of Henry’s children.
Over the next 150 years legislation established and protected the Church and was dominant in shaping the religious life of the nation.
The established Church
The Church of England became the established or, official, Church of the nation and of the English people. But there were still some who followed the old Catholic religion.
Others – known as nonconformists or dissenters – felt that the Anglican Reformation had not gone far enough and chose to live outside the Church in their own communities.
During the 16th and 17th centuries Parliament, guided by the bishops in the House of Lords, took a hard line against the Church’s opponents, and passed many laws denying basic rights to Catholics and nonconformists.
Differing religious beliefs were also behind much of the tension between Charles I and the House of Commons which led to the English Civil War.
An important turning point was reached in 1689 when the religious rights of nonconformists were recognised by Parliament. Since then it has maintained the Church of England’s position as Britain’s established church.
Over the last two centuries it has also recognised the growth of religious diversity amongst the British population, and has extended religious and civil rights to other Christian, as well as to non-Christian faiths, and to those of no faith at all.