John Wycliffe and the Lollard
In the 1520s when Henry VIII started to think about breaking from Rome, heresy already existed in England, before Luther started the Reformation in Wittenburg during 1517. The main groups of heretics were the Lollards who followed the teachings of John Wycliffe. Predating Protestant thought Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English and had questioned Papal authority. Copies of his bibles were still available in the 1520s.
Not only had Wycliffe rejected the Papacy, but the Lollards also received communion in both kinds and believed in the supreme authority of scripture. Lollardy persisted despite persistent attempts by the government to wipe it out; it had remained strong in East Anglia, the Midlands, London and the North. Lollardy and later Protestantism seemed to do well in towns such as Colchester that had strong trading links with London and Flanders. Colchester would suffer more than most towns during the Marian reaction of the 1550s (Collinson & Craig, 1998 p.23).
Lollard Rebellion in 1414
In 1414 there had even been a Lollard uprising led by Sir John Oldcastle, easily crushed by the government of Henry V. They failed to gain control of London and loyal soldiers crushed the uprising leaving many dead and the others facing execution. The Lollards were no longer in a position to overthrow the Church and suffered long term persecution (Poulsen 1984 pp. 49-50).
Lollardy attracted merchants and artisans, during the 1520s. Lollards came into increasing contact with those influenced by reformist or Lutheran leanings. Limited numbers of protestant or reformist books were smuggled into the country, some of the nobility, those at the universities, and merchants who traveled in Europe became infected (as the government would have viewed it) with reformist ideas.
Lollard Survivors and the links with Protestantism
New thinking linked with humanist thinkers such as Erasmus had led to a significant increase in the study of the Bible, in Greek and Hebrew and in the early church. Erasmus was to prove influential in the Reformation that followed, even though he personally did not want it to happen. At Cambridge students and academics involved in biblical studies included Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker, both of whom would become surprisingly Archbishop of Canterbury (Ayris & Selwyn 1999 pp. 8-9).
Thomas Cranmer himself owned a large collection of humanist works that seemed to make him more receptive to Lutheran ideas. Parker's collection of works and books was also wide-ranging. There was only a slow spread of Protestantism in England that would have stayed as an underground minority movement but for the government breaking from Rome and eventually following mild and limited Protestant reforms despite Henry's in-built religious conservatism (Smith 1997 pp14-15).
Ayris, P & Selwyn, D (editors)Thomas Cranmer Churchman and Scholar
Collinson, P & Craig, J (editors) The Reformation in EnglisTowns 1500 - 1640, Themes in Focus
Poulsen, C. the English rebels (1984) The Journeyman Press, London & New York
Smith, A G R the Emergence of a Nation State the Commonwealth of England 1529-1660 (1997) 2nd edition Longman