Henry VIII,the Reign
Dissolution of the Monasteries
Why it happened, and how it happened
In March 1533, Henry promised that he would repair the insult to Kings Henry II and John, who had been tricked into offering the realm in tribute to the Holy See. He was also determined to reunite the crown with the goods churchmen had appropriated from it.
Letters & Papers No 235 1533 Volume 6, dated 15 March 1533
Beginning of the End
For almost twenty years Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had ruled England in Henry VIII’s name. With the power invested in him by the papacy, he usurped the king’s authority. In 1529, however, the clergyman was outwitted and ousted from his dictatorial office. Inspired by a plan devised at Waltham Abbey, for only the second time in fifteen years there was a sitting of parliament, and it began to reform the power exercised by the church in England. By 1540 of the eight hundred and fifty monasteries that existed in 1529, there were none left.
Lust for Power
Wolsey’s fall opened the gates to a torrent of anti-clericalism.
After the Blackfriars debacle the 1529 royal progress – the summer royal tour – left London and was lodged at Waltham Abbey. The future Bishop of Winchester Stephen Gardiner, future Bishop of Hereford Edward Fox and future Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in the first week of August, were all lodged together at nearby Waltham Holy Cross. It was there that they devised a plan to search out old histories that would later be used to ‘prove’ that the King of England, not the pope, was head of the church in England. The final collection of these documents has become known as the Collectanea satis copiosa and was central to the legislation, the Act of Appeals that enacted the break with Rome.
On 9 August 1529, a Parliament was summoned. It has become known as the Anti-Clerical Commons.
This first session of what has become known as the Reformation Parliament is often lauded as an attempt to cajole the pope into granting Henry a divorce from Catherine so he could marry Anne. That notion, however, was not uppermost in most member’s minds. After all the years of the Cardinal Legate’s rule, they wanted to be rid of papal jurisdiction altogether.
The law to rebut Rome already existed in the Act of Praemunire, and now it was enforced against the clergy. The reform of the government of the church in England and its influence on the secular society began.
The use of praemunire in 1529 was the precursor to a raft of legislation intended to sever papal jurisdiction.
Link to Legislation
In his opening speech to Parliament Sir Thomas More referred to Thomas Wolsey as a castrated ram. During that Parliament, laws were passed to curtail what was perceived as abuse of church power. The act of Pluralism outlawed the clergy from holding farms, keeping tanning houses or breweries, dealing in cattle corn or other merchandise and as the title of the act suggests, holding more than one benefice at a time.
And so, the barrage continued against the clerics. The entire clergy was accused of praemunire and only payment (in Tudor times, a colossal sum) of £100,000 guaranteed a pardon for breaking the law. That was followed by the submission of the clergy to the king’s authority instead of that of the pope. Annual payments which had been made to Rome were stopped. The Act of Appeals was passed, it was one of the most important pieces of legislation and prevented legal appeals to Rome. By another act, the King was made the head of the church in England and to enforce the law an oath, the Oath of Supremacy was enacted. Their refusal to sign the oath cost Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher their lives, both were executed.
The architect of most of this legislation was the enigmatic Thomas Cromwell who was abetted in his rise to power by an influential land-owning family from Wiltshire, the Seymours.
Henry VIII, as the embodiment of the monarch, was now the all-powerful head of his own church in his own kingdom. Henry did not exercise that power himself, it was delegated to the de facto head of government Thomas Cromwell as Vicar General, later he also became Vicegerent in Spirituals.
The next stage in the regime’s programme was to be rid of hundreds of what were now deemed to be garrisons of Roman Catholicism, the monasteries. The monasteries accommodated an assortment of centuries-old religious orders all of which owed their allegiance to the pope. Religion, hitherto a device by which to rule, under the new regime, with the king at the head of a church which only recognised Biblical authority there was no place left for monastic life.
The 1535 Royal Progress
The war against the clergy thus far had been one-sided, and the spirituals had largely buckled under pressure. The overt dominance of Roman Catholicism in England had been all but broken–but now there were problems within the ranks of those who had broken it.
The torrent of anti-clericalism that flooded in after Wolsey’s fall had subsided and then divided into different streams. The wholly French Anne de Boulogne favoured reform of the church from within, upholding the Catholic and Apostolic faith, following the teachings of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the good news of the Gospel to the whole creation. She would have it based on the revelation contained in Holy Scripture and the Catholic creeds, interpreted in light of tradition, scholarship, reason and experience.
By this creed, influenced by her mentor in France, Marguerite of Angoulême, she would not have destroyed the monastics, the edifices would have been retained and redeployed as Mathew Parker, her daughter Elizabeth’s Archbishop of Canterbury did at the collegiate church of Stoke by Clare near Sudbury. The reforms he undertook included the appointment of a lecturer on the Bible, with teaching given in both English and Latin; a new grammar school that admitted both fee-paying and non-fee-paying pupils; and eight or ten scholarships, which could lead to a six-year bursary at Cambridge.
The German ideal, however, from which the Cromwell – Seymour regime took its lead was based around the preaching of Martin Luther, who lambasted monkery. Closure of the monasteries was inevitable, simply because under that creed, there was no scriptural basis for monastic life.
In the summer of 1535, following the executions of More and Fisher, Henry’s court left on the royal progress – royal tour – bound for the Vale of Berkley and Bristol. Its purpose was to cajole the king into the rejection of monasticism and destroy his marital relationship with Anne Boleyn and the policy of her faction. Alongside it, in the West of England, a visitation of the monasteries, essentially an audit, began. It was undertaken by commissioners headed by men whose names have become synonymous with the Dissolution, Richard Layton, Thomas Legh, John ap Rice and John Tregonwell. They investigated, using various methods, for example, the quality of religious life maintained in the houses; assessed the use of 'superstitious' religious observances such as the veneration of relics; and looked for evidence of moral laxity.
By the time the royal entourage returned at the end of October, the Cromwell – Seymour faction had won, Seymour had trounced Boleyn in the marriage stakes, and Cromwell would have his way over the monasteries.
A parliament had been called for 3 November but was postponed, ostensibly because of the plague, and instead began on 4 February 1536.
Anne de Boleyn and her followers in the outgoing regime were executed that spring, and to seal his union with the incoming government, Henry VIII was married to Jane Seymour.
Stages of the of the Dissolution
The first winding up order came in the form of the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries. This applied only to small houses "which have not in lands, tenements, rents, tithes, portions, and other hereditaments, above the clear yearly value of two hundred pounds".
This was the start of it. That which followed was in three stages: stage one, the suppression of houses by the Act of 1536; stage two, ‘voluntary’ surrenders 1536 – 1540; stage three, the small number of houses that fell by the attainder or disgrace of the abbot or other seniors.
Initially, the religious could if they wished to transfer from their suppressed lesser house to one of the larger monasteries or with an expression of regret for their monkery were given a pension and a small reward – in effect paid off.
With the monks or nuns gone the plate and jewels were sent up to London, furniture and domestic items were auctioned on the spot, often in the cloister or chapter house. It seems there were bargains to be had including at one auction, an alabaster table, a door and the high altar – seven bob the lot.
All done, and just the deserted stone structures remained.
The commissioner’s instructions were to ‘pull down to the ground all the walls of the churches, stepulls, cloysters, fraterys, dorters, chapter howsys’.
The church, of course, owned a vast amount of land, and that together with much of the building material from the destroyed buildings was sold off.
“The nest has been destroyed lest the birds build there again.”
The government formed a new department called ‘the Courte of thAugmentacions of the Revenues of the Kinges Crowne’, to look after all this, and ‘reunite to the crown the goods which churchmen held of it’. The department employed a chancellor, treasurer, attorney, and a myriad of other staff including receivers and visitors.
While the Exchequer administered the Crown’s traditional revenues, it was not fit to manage such an enormous upsurge in business. Neither was it capable of running the vast, newly acquired, landed estates.
The new government department of Augmentations was designed to cope. It was set up on a model of the tried and tested systems of the vast Duchy of Lancaster. At the head of this new body of bureaucrats were Sir Richard Rich as chancellor and the somewhat ironically named Thomas Pope who was treasurer.
Enormous Armed Rebellion Against the New Government
The policy against the monasteries, for the new regime, was all going to plan when suddenly, in October 1536, in Louth, Lincolnshire an enormous armed rebellion erupted. It spread to the counties of York, Durham, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Cumberland, Lancashire and Cheshire. It was of sufficient size and force to bring down the entire government and even the king himself.
An army of about forty thousand stood ready to march south when at Doncaster in early December the rebels accepted an offer for the king to visit the north in person and hold a parliament at York to air the rebel’s grievances and debate their demands.
The leader of the insurgents, Robert Aske, was invited to spend Christmas with Henry VIII, and the Pilgrims as they have been called since, agreed to a compromise. However, they failed to extract any form of guarantee. The army was disbanded, that was their undoing because miss trusting the government, the following January, Sir Francis Bigod headed an unsuccessful rising at Beverley. The crown by now, however, had superior forces, and Cromwell turned his wrath on the north.
The Duke of Norfolk was back to exact revenge on the monks and with him was the Earl of Sussex and they ‘must cause dreadful execution upon a good number of the inhabitants, hanging them on trees, quartering them, and setting their heads and quarters in every town.’
They went after the ringleaders.
‘For so much as all these troubles have ensued by the solicitation and the traitorous conspiracy of the monks and canons of these parts; we desire and pray you at you repair to Sawley, Hexham, Newminster, Lanercost, Saint Agatha, and all such other places as have made any manner of resistance, or in any way conspired, or kept their house with any force, sithens the appointment of Doncaster, you shall without any pity circumstance…cause all the monks and canons, that be in anyway wise faulty to be tied up, without further delay or ceremony, to the terrible example of others.’
Surrender of Larger Monasteries
News of the dreadful retributions had reached the wealthy abbey of Furness by the time the Earl of Sussex arrived. Here, the abbot offered his surrender and declared that ‘knowing the missorder and evil life both unto God and our prince of the brethren of the said monastery’, he gave freely ‘in discharge of [his] conscience’ to the king and his heirs all such interest and titles as I have had, had, or may have’, in the abbey. The deed was signed by the abbot and the monks, the surrender was complete, and a precedent had been set.
Thus, on 11 November Lewes, another of the larger monasteries surrendered, it took with it Castleacre.
Titchfield Abbey fell soon afterwards and went to Thomas Wriothesley who later became Earl of Southampton, and so others followed; Peterborough, Ramsey, Sawtry and St Albans. ‘The pears were falling off one by one.’
There are various accounts of the surrenders of the larger houses, by force or more often by some form of a pension arrangement. Cromwell issued a denial of a suppression policy towards ‘any religious house that standeth.’ That was true enough, the abbots and brethren waited for their turn to offer up the deeds and accept a tidy sum in settlement, and so leave their monasteries.
Some went with more bluster than others. ‘The abbot of St Albans who in December 1538, had stated haughtily that he would ‘rather choyse to begge his bread alle the days of his lif than consent to any surrender;’ did, in fact, accept some kind of pension when he was deposed.
The End Waltham Abbey
Waltham Abbey church engraving
The process famously continued until 1540, and by accident or design, it ended where it started, at Waltham Abbey. Waltham was the last of the eight hundred and fifty or so monastic buildings to surrender, reputedly on 23 March that year. Among those there who received a settlement to leave was Thomas Tallis, who was organist and master of the choristers, his musical legacy is famously popular to this day.
If through Thomas Tallis’s legacy at least some of the music of the monasteries has been saved what has been lost?
Probably a lot more music.
David Knowles (1896 – 1974) was an English Benedictine monk, a Catholic priest, historian and Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He was also an excellent writer, unrivalled in command of his subject, English Monasticism. His book Bare Ruined Choirs is a remarkably balanced history of Monasticism in England and in his epilogue, he reflects on the loss of the monasteries.
He is candid and concludes that on a spiritual level the dissolution was not of itself a great catastrophe, by enlarge the body ecclesiastical was lukewarm and the monasteries had little warmth to spare for others.
However, even a reasonably run house had an encouraging influence upon the neighbourhood, and he reminds us of the practical uses of monasteries, such as employment as a school, an alms-house, a bank or an inn. Also lost was the rich liturgical life of chant and ceremony, only the parish church remained and they to awaited reform.
Knowles concludes his assessment.
‘Finally, and most important of all, there was a negative result. Good or bad, the monasteries were an important and integral part of the traditional church life of the Middle Ages. Had they stood, the tide of Protestantism in this country would have been, if not halted, at least checked and divided. Their disappearance, especially when their lands and wealth were held by a great number of all the higher classes, rendered any complete revival of the old ways extremely difficult.
Without the support and example of the revitalized religious orders on a fairly huge scale, Mary, had she lived to be eighty would have had a hard task to re-establish Catholicism, and any large restitution would have been met with sullen hostility and fear on the part of the landowners of the country.
Probably neither Henry VIII nor Cromwell fully realized in this respect what they were doing. They thought of the religious orders primarily as a source of wealth, and only very occasionally as a potential enemy of change.’
David Knowles knowledge of his subject is undisputed, and history aside his literary skills are rightly acknowledged as being quite outstanding, and no student of the reign of Henry VIII should be without a copy of Bare Ruined Choirs.
However, I do take issue with the above piece of narrative, in that the first two paragraphs surely defeat the third. Cromwell (Henry went with the flow) did fully realise what he was doing. He set out, primarily, to achieve exactly what Dom Knowles describes in the first two paragraphs, it was intended in the long term to defeat monasticism and Catholicism in England and extinguish hopes of a revival.
That the closures brought with them a short-term – indeed very short-term – financial benefit was of subordinate importance.
Notwithstanding, David Knowles, however, does not suggest for one moment the dissolution was orchestrated to satisfy the greed of one man – Henry VIII – as all too often appears as the popular explanation, and to propagate that fairy tale is at best naive.