Henry VIII, the Reign - the Blog
By Mark Holinshed
Dissolution of the Monasteries
Why it happened, and how it happened - Part 1
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.
End of Part 1