In April 1536, the 27th year of King Henry VIII’s 38-year reign, more than 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries were nestled across England—communities of prayer and devotion for abbots, monks, priors and nuns, providing sanctuary, tending the sick and employing more than 24,000 people.
Four years later, there were none. The intervening years of upheaval and religious unrest are known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Several things are inextricably linked to Henry VIII:
- His Six Wives—and it ended badly for all of them, except the last, who outlived him.
- England’s Protestant Reformation, during which he severed ties with Rome and created the Church of England
- His penchant for beheading subjects at the slightest provocation, usually characterized as “treason”
- War, war and more war with France and Scotland
The real puzzler is the Dissolution of the Monasteries, involving.
- Forcible seizure of assets and willful destruction of property
- Executing 200 monastic clergy who openly opposed it (some very gruesomely)
- Ending the monastic way of life, which had existed for more than a thousand years
Why? Henry VIII had already been granted his much-desired divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533 and had married Anne Boleyn. He got what he wanted—and yet, and yet…
It’s complicated, but the nub of the matter was money. Henry was always short of cash. He lived large, and thanks to his predecessor, King John and his Magna Carta, Henry had to keep going, cap in hand, to Parliament to get more money.
Religious houses held one-quarter of the property in England. The significant monasteries were wealthy, and their abbots were very powerful. A fairly simple case of You have it; I want it. Give it to me, or I’ll take it by force.
Destruction certainly followed. You oppose me; I will destroy you—don’t even think about defying me again—the mantra of thugs and dictators alike. But a fascinating aspect of human nature is the bone-deep need to maintain our high opinion of ourselves. A thug? Moi? No, no, no. I had no option; I was forced into it. You started it. If you had not done A, I would not have done B.
Henry had plenty of company on his way to perdition, particularly three of his four Tetrad of Thomases:
- #1 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
- #2 Thomas More
- #3 Thomas Cromwell (yes, there were two Cromwells—Thomas, and later, Oliver—each as evil as the other)
- #4 Thomas Cranmer
The early monks lived informally, spending their time in solitary prayer and meditation, meeting weekly for worship and communal meals. But in the 6th century, the Rules of St. Benedict of Nursia were adopted by Benedictine houses across Europe and in Britain. Benedictine monks lived in communities for worship and prayer; they had no worldly role other than charitable endeavours. Aidan and his followers were Celtic monks—reclusive and ascetic. In 673, Ethelreda established a community of women at Ely, and Frideswide founded a nunnery at Oxford in 700. Some monasteries were small and in remote locations, but others flourished into what became great cathedral cities
Viking raids started at Lindisfarne in 792, devastating the monastery. They continued and were countered most valiantly by King Alfred of Wessex, who worked to re-establish monastic communities in England. Abbots grew in power, with St Dunstan, former abbot of Glastonbury, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 959.
The Norman Conquest in 1066 replaced many Anglo-Saxon bishops with Norman. Still, the monasteries carried on with their daily routines of prayer and worship, tending flocks, vineyards, orchards and fish ponds.
The Cistercian order was established during the 12th century, challenging the perceived laxity of the Benedictine monasteries. The monks built enormous, elaborate buildings which contrasted sharply with their simple ways of life.
Augustinian and Premonstratensian canons owed their allegiance to St. Augustine, teaching and evangelizing in towns, bringing Christianity to the sick and poor.
Most monasteries were built to a similar plan. The church was as grand as the community’s resources would allow and usually cruciform in shape and laid along an east/west axis. The main doors were in the west, and the altar was in the east; north and south transepts jutted out from the choir. The cloisters were arranged against the southern, sunny side of the church; these contained the domestic buildings, including the Chapter House, which usually extended beyond the south transept. In many abbeys, a stairway extended from the dorter (dormitory) to allow the monks direct access to the church for matins. The treasury was usually located within that staircase. The frater (reflector) and kitchens often filled the southern arm of the cloisters. Infirmaries and guest halls were located at some distance from the main complex. A single, imposing gatehouse often allowed the sole point of access to the walled abbey precinct.
The site was chosen specifically to provide an adequate supply of fresh water, and many monks were skilled at redirecting streams to access drinking water and carry away waste.
All went swimmingly until the 14th century. Then, the Black Death hastened the decline in monastic numbers; enthusiasm for religious life waned.
The problems were multipronged. Many of the larger abbeys became embroiled in bureaucratic problems typical of property owners. Senior monks were awash in administration and management, dealing with tenants, or embroiled in litigation regarding the monasteries’ rights and responsibilities, ineluctably drawn into a secular way of life. Monasteries still gave shelter to travellers, medical care, sanctuary and education, but their halos had slipped a bit in public opinion.
As the larger monasteries became more wealthy, they were seen as a resource to the crown, who looked to them to provide the same services as secular landowners. Thirty of the prominent abbots sat in Parliament, having little in common with the workaday experience of their monks. They lived in separate lodgings with their servants. The smaller monasteries didn’t have the same degree of worldly temptations but suffered from the same spiritual malaise.
The Cathusians were bastions of moral rectitude, however. Living under a vow of silence in self-contained cells with a small walled garden, monks of this order had little contact beyond daily mass and the occasional community assembly. The Carthusians continued attracting the most devout and expanded while other orders dwindled.
When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, the Protestant Reformation was gathering steam across Europe, driven by the zeal of Martin Luther and John Calvin. The church of Rome was under attack—bishops and monks were seen as corrupt and indolent, overfed and underworked. Saintly relics, the sale of indulgences and the ecclesiastical structure acting as an intermediary between parishioners and God were all viewed with gimlet-eyed scepticism.
A well-recognized scholar and theologian of the time, Desiderius Erasmus (a long-time friend of Thomas #2, Thomas More) took a very dim view of monasteries, deeming them lax, worldly, wasteful of scarce resources, and superstitious. He came down firmly on the side of the bishops (always at odds with the abbots in a game of “you’re not the boss of me”). The bishops of the cathedrals and abbots of the monasteries at Rochester and Durham were legendary for their enmity with one another.
The bishops thought that resources spent maintaining the monasteries and nunneries would be better employed endowing grammar schools and university colleges and training men as parish priests. Pastoral care was deemed much more important than the monastic focus on contemplation, prayer and performance of the daily office.
Further, Erasmus criticized their withdrawal from the world into communal life as elevating man-made rules of poverty, chastity and obedience above the God-given vows of sacramental baptism and the God-given teachings of the Gospels. Though he acknowledged that many communities lived a genuinely austere life of praiseworthy charity, many abbeys and priories were hotbeds of idle louts, contributing nothing to the spiritual needs of their flock. Lastly, he was appalled at the promotion and profiteering from the veneration of relics—pilgrimages and indulgences. He saw it as fraud, pure and simple.
Still, Henry was a devout Catholic, albeit one perpetually short of funds and long on ambition, obsessed with the succession.
Enter Thomas #1 – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s Lord Chancellor, a man of substantial ambition and considerable expense; using his significant secular and ecclesiastical powers, he accumulated wealth second only to the King. Hampton Court Palace was his residence, if that clarifies matters. Not overly modest, is it?
Wolsey was also interested in building his legacy. In the 1520s, he closed 29 assorted religious houses and used the proceeds to endow a grammar school at his birthplace in Ipswich and another new college, Christ Church, at Oxford. This was “redeployment”, not “dissolution”. Shoot bullets, then cannonballs.
Wolsey met a bad end, however. He had failed to procure Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and died in 1530 awaiting trial for treason. Take note—Henry doesn’t “do” failures.
Enter Thomas #3 – Wolsey’s successor, Thomas Cromwell. He took a slightly different tack, one of moral indignation. Acting as vicar-general in spirituals, he conducted the “Valor Ecclesiastious”, a detailed assessment of all clerical incomes.
Cromwell’s 1536 Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries emphasized the worthiness of the great institutions where observance was “right well kept”, contrasting the smaller houses “sunk irredeemably in iniquity”, the latter deemed to have a gross income of less than £200 per annum and fewer than twelve inhabitants.
How convenient that vice seemed to stalk the smaller houses while leaving the larger ones untouched! The larger ones, whose abbots sat in Parliament and whose votes were needed to pass the Act of Suppression. Coincidence, no doubt.
The direction of travel was clear: “The idle and dissolute monks and nuns that live in these little dens of vice should be dispersed among the greater abbeys where the will, by discipline and example, be brought to mend their ways. The properties and endowments thus vacated can then be transferred to the King, to put to such better uses as he may think fit.” (emphasis mine). “Better use” turned out to be right into the crown’s coffers.
The first round of suppression went smoothly—for the crown. Not so pleasant for the monasteries. Still, the clergy received fairly generous pensions; those that wished could be transferred to another house of the same order or relinquish their vows to pursue a life in the secular world. The new owners often retained the farmhands and servants. So far, so fair.
Or so Henry and Cromwell wished to believe. But there was considerable hostility towards the plan, particularly in the North. In October 1536, Lincoln and York were briefly seized during a rebellion known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace”, wherein the rebels demanded the restoration of the suppressed abbeys. To cut a long and miserable story short, Henry appeared to accede to their demands (he’d been caught short with inadequate troops) but later reneged and crushed the protestors without mercy; the rebellion gave him all the excuse he needed to move onto the larger houses.
Furness Abbey was a turning point. Cromwell had a bit of a dilemma—he couldn’t produce a case against the abbot, but some of the abbey monks had expressed sympathy for the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace, a definite point of leverage for Cromwell. So the abbot was persuaded to “voluntarily” surrender the properties.
By the second half of 1537, momentum was building. Emboldened by his success, Cromwell moved more decisively. Monks under the age of 24 were banished; the remainder were forbidden to leave the grounds of the monasteries under any circumstances. Fear among the monks spread as talebearers were encouraged to report against their brethren. Within a year, twenty monasteries a month were closing. The gloves were off—the pretence of reformation had been cast aside.
Cromwell’s men embarked on a new round of visitations to encourage the more obstinate, bringing serious charges to bear. The Abbot Whiting of Glastonbury (the wealthiest monastery) was dragged to the top of the Tor and executed; his body was quartered, the parts displayed in four separate towns, and his head hung on the abbey gate.
The effect is what you’d expect. Surrenders accelerated, each separately negotiated, terms reached on a case-by-case basis. Resistance was met with bland assurances that surrenders were made free and voluntary. No one was fooled.
As each property passed into the hands of the crown, the altar plate and vestments were gathered into the King’s jewel house. Bells were recast as cannon at the Tower foundry. Lead was stripped from the roofs and melted into ingots for transport using the roofing timbers and pews as fuel for the fires.
The local populace purchased some monastic churches, such as Tewkesbury. Fourteen became Cathedral churches of the Church of England. Likewise, their new lay owners, such as Lacock Abbey and Beaulieu, converted some cloisters and monastic buildings into manor houses. Many simply fell into disrepair or were raided for stone for local buildings.
Several monks continued their religious vocations within the Church of England. However, the nuns had a much worse time, receiving meagre pensions and having fewer options in terms of employment.
The 1539 Act ended matters for the greater monasteries; Waltham Abbey in March 1540 was the last.
In the second-to-final note of irony, Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell executed in July 1539. Job done.
The question is, then, what did all this accomplish? The Dissolution avoided royal bankruptcy for about twenty years. Not only did the crown now have a lot of monastic properties to maintain, but the pensions were not chump change, either. As Henry continued to wage war with France and Scotland, he was forced to sell more and more of the properties; by the time he died, more than two-thirds of them had changed hands.
The final note of irony: In the end, Henry VIII was back where he started—skint and dependent on Parliament.