(Posted with permission from Phil, originally posted on the Catholic Debate Forum ).
I am not so sure that Martin Luther was protesting against abuses in the Church as much as he was fighting against a local prince-bishop seeking to raise money so he could become an absentee bishop of another diocese.
The guy that got Luther's back up was a Dominican friar named John Tetzel who had been hired by the prince-bishop and who was preaching about indulgences. The indulgence being preached was for donating money or goods for the good work of building saint Peter's basilica in Rome. Tetsel's preaching apparently sounded like extortion to Martin Luther so he got angry and wrote a few tracts against the practise and also the famous 95 theses that in legend was nailed by Luther to the Castle Church door at Wittenburg on 31st October, 1517. Around three years later Luther was excommunicated for writing a number of books and tracts against the Pope and the Church.
The whole affair was mixed with the politics of the German states, the Holy Roman Empire, and unfortunately some corrupt popes. It was a bad time for the Church, yet Luther's action did not help matters. He managed to precipitate a peasant's revolt and series of wars in Germany that lasted for about thirty years and helped to reshape the map of northern Europe. Sweden became a major power as a result of these wars. France gained power at the expense of Spain - one of the saddest signs of the corruption of power within some parts of the Church is the fact that the French Cardinal Archbishop Richelieu funded and aided the protestants in the Germans wars, he did so to disadvantage Spain, it was a very sordid period in European history.
Henry VIII motive was to get rich as well as to divorce a wife he no longer was attracted to; he raided the monasteries for land to sell to the nobility of England and used the money to fight wars in France. The wars didn't work out well, so the money was almost gone by the time Henry died. His Son Edward VI was tutored by protestants who shared much of Luther's theology and that is when the English church became protestant in theology. After a brief return to Catholicism under Mary I, Elizabeth I ascended the throne and England became the protestant nation that we know today.
Nobody should harbour the myth of protestant faith being freely accepted by the people of Europe. In England the Church of England was a state church and membership was enforced upon the whole population by law. In Sweden, Norway, and Denmark the Lutheran Church was the state Church and membership was enforced upon the whole population by law. In the north eastern parts of Germany similar laws enforced membership of the Lutheran Church. Catholic states acted in similar ways, enforcing Church membership by law.
It was a cruel time. Many good people died because they would not yield to the laws that demanded that they violate their conscience. We should all be glad that such cruelty has past in the west.