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Dissolution of the Monasteries

We all will have come across Henry VIII's wish to offload his first wife Catharine and how this led to a split from Rome, the establishments of the Church of England and the dissolution of the monasteries. Its often overlooked that before this time there had been a range of actions taken against some monasteries, particularly those that were priories controlled from outside of England. That similar actions had been going on in other courtiers that numbers of  occupants in, monasteries had greatly decreased and that politics, money and greed played a great part. Had Henry VIII not fallen out with Rome, had there been no problem over marriages, its still likely that the same outcome would have resulted for the monasteries.

Lets first start with a little background.

Alien priories

Alien priories were specific religious establishments in England before 1414 in which the inmates had no voice in the appointment of their superiors, who were sent across the seas by the Norman Abbots and who could be withdrawn at pleasure.

They were established in England under the first kings of the Norman dynasty, but they soon became settlements of foreign monks, whose sympathies naturally centred in their homes across the seas, and whose main duties were the collecting and guarding of English rents and tithes that were sent, year by year, out of the kingdom to the parent house.

Some of these were merely agricultural estates with a single foreign monk in residence to supervise things, others were rich foundations in their own right. Due to the fairly constant state of war between England and France in the later middle ages successive English governments had objected to money going overseas to France.

King John was the first to seize the alien priories, compelling them to pay into the Royal Treasury the sums or tribute usually termed 'apport' which they had been forwarding to the continent.

In 1295, when Edward I made war upon France to recover the province of Guienne, he seized all the alien priories, numbering about a hundred, and used their revenues to pay for the war. In order to prevent the foreign monks in southern coastal areas giving possible help to invaders, he deported many of them to other religious houses that were twenty or more miles from the coast.

Edward II subsequently followed this example, taking the alien priories into his own hands, but he not infrequently appointed their priors custodians for a consideration, obliging them to pay to the Crown the 'apport' due to their superiors.

When Edward III came to the throne he restored many of the alien priories to their original owners and waived the arrears of payments due to the Crown. But ten years later, when war broke out again with France, he reverted to the policy of his predecessors, and again seized the property of these French aliens. For twenty-three years these foreign houses remained in his hands, but with the peace of 1361 most of them were restored, only to be again sequestrated eight years later when the war was renewed.

After 1378, French monasteries (and hence alien priories dependent on them) maintained allegiance to the continuing Avignon Papacy, and so their suppression was supported by the rival Popes, conditional on all confiscated monastic property being re-directed into other religious uses.

In the time of Richard II the alien priories continued mostly in the hands of the Crown.

They finally came to an end under Henry V in 1414. Those that had not been already assigned with the Pope's assent to other religious purposes, were finally suppressed by the Parliament of Leicester, and their revenues taken into the King's hands. The properties went to the crown, some were kept, some were subsequently given or sold to Henry's supporters, others went to his new monasteries of Syon Abbey and the Carthusians at Sheen Priory, and yet others went to educational purposes, a trend Henry's son Henry VI continued in founding Eton College and Kings College, Cambridge.

The Royal transfer of monastic estates to educational foundations proved an inspiration to the bishops, and as the Fifteenth Century waned such moves became more and more common. The subjects of these dissolutions were usually small and poor Benedictine or Augustinian men's houses or poor nunneries with few powerful friends, the great abbeys and orders exempt from diocesan supervision such as the Cistercians were unaffected. The consequent new foundations were most often Oxford University and Cambridge University colleges, instances of this include John Alcock, Bishop of Ely dissolving the Benedictine nunnery of Saint Radegund to found Jesus College, Cambridge(1496), and William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester acquiring Selborne Priory in 1484 for Magdalen College, Oxford. In the following century Lady Margaret Beaufort obtained the property of Creake Abbey (whose religious had all died of Black Death in 1506) to fund her works at Oxford and Cambridge, an action she took on the advice of such a staunch traditionalist as John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. In 1522 Fisher himself is also found dissolving the nunneries of Bromhall and Higham to aid St John's College, Cambridge. That same year Cardinal Wolsey dissolved St Frideswide's Priory (now Oxford Cathedral) to form the basis of his Christ Church, Oxford, in 1524 he secured a Papal bull to dissolve some 20 other monasteries to provide an endowment for his new college. However, the friars, monks and nuns of these were always absorbed into other houses of their respective orders.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the formal process between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monastic communities in England, Wales and Ireland and confiscated their property. He was given the authority to do this by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, and by the First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539).

Some time earlier a protestant reformation had started in Europe, so this was not in isolation. Between 1520 and 1530 a large number of monasteries across many countries had been dissolved and assets used, at least in theory towards educational projects and overcoming the problems of the poor. As we have seen above this was also happening in Britain. Sweden in 1527, Switzerland in 1523, Denmark in 1528, and others had all taken a large number of rich properties into Royal hands in a variety of ways.

The numbers of monks and nuns in many Monasteries by this time had fallen greatly, and some were little more than wealthy landowners collecting in rents. Some others had fallen into disrepair. Monastic life, numerically speaking and to some extent in the rigour of their lifestyle, had been in decline for some time. By 1536, the thirteen Cistercian houses in Wales held only 85 monks amongst them. In most cases large numbers of monasteries could be closed and their occupants go to other part empty monasteries. They were not seen by most as offering any benefit to society but in living well off the work of others. Monasteries between them at this point owned about 16% of the land in England.

Thomas Cromwell, shortly to become Henry VIII's chief minister, who promised to make his king wealthier than any previous English monarch, and the only obvious way he could have envisaged this was by taking lands and assets from the monasteries. By the time Henry VIII launched his campaign against the monasteries, Royal confiscations of the property of religious houses had a history stretching back more than 200 years with alien prioress and endowment of colleges by dissolving monasteries and transferring assets covered above.

In Britain some reforms had been in progress from 1518, but most people had become frustrated by the lack of progress being made, also parliamentary acts reforming alleged abuses in the Church were passed in November 1529. They set caps on fees for probating wills and mortuary expenses for burial in hallowed ground, tightened regulations covering rights of sanctuary for criminals, and reduced to two the number of church benefices that could in the future be held by one man.

On failing to receive his annulment from the Pope, Henry had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in England in February 1531. In April 1533 an Act in Restraint of Appeals eliminated the right of clergy to appeal to "foreign tribunals" (Rome) over the King's head in any spiritual or financial matter. Those who refused to assent to the Royal Supremacy were liable to execution for treason, leading to a number of confiscations of religious houses when they broke this law.

In 1534 Henry had Parliament authorise Thomas Cromwell, to "visit" all the monasteries (which included all abbeys, priories and convents), ostensibly to make sure their members were instructed in the new rules for their supervision by the King instead of the Pope, but actually to conduct an inventory of their assets (see Valor Ecclesiasticus). A few months later, in January 1535 when the consternation at having a lay visitation instead of a bishop's had settled down, Cromwell's visitation authority was delegated to a commission of laymen including Layton, Pollard and Moyle, for the purpose of ascertaining what wealth the monasteries held and find pretexts for their closure.

This phase is termed the "Visitation of the Monasteries." In the summer of that year, the visitors started their work, and "preachers" and "raliers" were sent out to deliver sermons from the pulpits of the churches on three themes:-

  • The monks and nuns in the monasteries were called sinful "hypocrites", "sorcerers" and "idle drones", who were living lives of luxury and engaging in every kind of sin.

  • Those monks and nuns were living off the working people and giving nothing back, being a serious drain on England's economy.

  • If the King received all the property of the monasteries, he would never again need taxes from the people.

Political spin and the truth have never been very close.

In the autumn of 1535, the visiting commissioners were sending back to Cromwell written reports of all the lurid doings they claimed to be discovering, sexual as well as financial. However, the claims of misbehaviour were greatly exaggerated, often recalling events and scandals from a number of years before. A horrified Parliament enacted laws in early 1536, relying in large part on the reports of "impropriety" Cromwell had received, providing for the King to forcibly dissolve monasteries with annual incomes of less than 200, amounting to around 304 houses. Monasteries proposed for dissolution could, however, put a case for continuation; and around 70 successfully did so, paying substantial fines in recompense. The property of the dissolved smaller houses reverted to the Crown and Cromwell established a new government agency, the Court of Augmentations to manage it, while the monks and nuns were given the option of secularization or transfer to a continuing larger house of the same order. The majority chose to remain in the religious life, and, in some areas, new religious houses were founded by Henry VIII to provide for them, but few were needed as there was so much space in others initially. 

These moves did not raise as much capital as Henry had hoped; and also contributed to popular discontent in the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536; an event which led to Henry increasingly associating monasticism with treason, as members of several religious houses (more or less willingly) sided with the rebels.

Government lawyers then established a key legal principle that the superior of a religious house (abbot, abbess, prior or prioress) was the nominal owner of the monastic property of the house, and hence, if the superior were to be convicted of treason, all the property of the abbey would legally revert to the crown. One major Abbey whose monks had been closely implicated in the rebellion was that of Furness in Lancashire and the abbot, fearful of treason charges, petitioned to be allowed to make a voluntary surrender of his house, which Cromwell gratefully approved. From then on, all dissolutions that were not a consequence of convictions for treason, were legally "voluntary", a principle that was taken a stage further with the voluntary surrender of Lewes Priory in November 1537, when for the first time the monks were offered life pensions if they co-operated. This created a "stick and carrot" in favour of further dissolution. Abbots and priors came under pressure from their communities to offer voluntary surrender, if they could obtain on favourable terms for pensions, while also knowing that if they refused to surrender, they might be accused of treason and their religious house would be dissolved anyway. In 1538 applications for surrender became a flood, and Cromwell appointed local commissioners to encourage rapid compliance with the King's wishes, to supervise the orderly sale of monastic goods and buildings, and to ensure that the former monks and nuns were properly provided for with cash gratuities and clothing. Monks or nuns who were handicapped or infirm were marked out for more generous treatment, and care was taken throughout that there should be nobody cast out of their place un-provided for and who might otherwise have increased the burden of charity for local parishes. The endowments of the monasteries, landed property and appropriated parish tithes and glebe, were transferred to the Court of Augmentations, who would thereon pay out life pensions at the agreed rate (subject to a 10% tax deduction).

None of this process of legislation and visitation had applied to the houses of the friars. At the beginning of the 14th century there had been around 5,000 friars in England, occupying extensive complexes in all towns of any size. But by the 16th century their income from donations had collapsed, their numbers had shrunk to under 1,000 and their buildings were often ruinous, or leased out commercially. Consequently, almost all friars were now living outside their friaries, and many, in contravention of their formal rules, supported themselves through paid employment and held personal property. In 1538 Cromwell deputed Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover and former Provincial of the Dominicans, to obtain the friars' surrender, which he did by drafting new injunctions that strictly enforced each order's rule, facing the friars with the choice of compliance with the King's wishes, or starvation. On surrender, the friars received a gratuity of 40 shillings each, but were not offered pensions.

In April 1539 Parliament passed a new law legalising acts of voluntary surrender, but by then the vast majority of monasteries in England, Ireland and Wales had already been dissolved.

Some resisted, and that autumn the Abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury, and Reading were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason. St. Benet's Abbey in Norfolk was the only Abbey in England which escaped formal dissolution, its estates being transferred directly to the Bishops of Norwich.

The local commissioners were instructed to ensure that, where abbey churches were also used for parish worship, this should continue. Accordingly over a hundred monastic churches survive in whole or in part. Otherwise the most marketable fabric in monastic buildings was likely to be the lead on roofs, gutters and plumbing, and buildings were burned down as the easiest way to extract this. Building stone and slate roofs were sold off to the highest bidder. Many monastic outbuildings were turned into granaries, barns and stables. In some instances, wealthy parishes purchased a church for their own purpose, and many others bought choir stalls and stained glass windows.

Cromwell had already instigated a campaign against "superstitions", pilgrimages and veneration of Saints, in the course of which, ancient and precious valuables were grabbed and melted down, their relics destroyed or dispersed. Great abbeys and priories like Glastonbury, Walsingham, Bury St Edmunds, and Shaftesbury which had flourished as pilgrimage sites for many centuries, became ruins. However, the tradition that there was widespread mob action resulting in destruction and iconoclasm, that altars and windows were smashed, partly confuses the looting spree of the 1530s with the vandalism brought by the Puritans in the next century.

The Crown became richer to the extent of around 150,000 per year, and Cromwell had intended that the bulk of this wealth should serve as regular income of government. However, after Cromwell's fall in 1540, Henry needed money quickly to fund his military ambitions in France and Scotland and so monastic property was sold off, usually at the market rate of twenty years' income, raising over 1.4m by 1547. The purchasers were predominantly leading local magnates and gentry, with no particular interest in terms of Catholic or Protestant opinion.

Effects of dissolution

Numbers in monasteries were already low, and many monasteries would have closed, at the point the magnificent Tintern Abbey was surrendered to the Crown it had an Abbot, 12 monks and 35 monastic servants.

Monasteries however distributed about 5% of their income to the poor, plus provide a form of hospital and shelter for those in need. While those receiving aid at the time were looked after, removing this provision, with over 800 closed in a short time, without adding any other provision provided a large gap in the social provision, increased vagrancy and forced many into crime over the following period.

Universities had already started, and taken over the teaching role that monasteries had historically provided, however a great many books were lost in the process, some to looters and sold off, others destroyed, of 600 books in Worchester Priory, only 6 now are known to have survived. At the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York, a library of 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three known survivors. A number of people were active at this time in saving some books, mostly feeding them to the universities.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries impinged relatively little on English parish church religion. Most parish churches were endowed with chantries, maintaining a stipendiary priest to say mass for the souls of their donors. In addition there remained over a hundred collegiate churches in England, whose endowments supported a collegiate body of canons, prebends or priests. All these survived the reign of Henry VIII largely intact, only to be dissolved under the Chantries Act of 1547, by Henry's son Edward VI, their property being absorbed into the Court of Augmentations, and their members being added to the pensions list. Since many former monks had found employment as chantry priests, the consequence for these clerics was a double experience of dissolution, perhaps mitigated by being in receipt thereafter of a double pension.

The Deans and prebends of the six new cathedrals were overwhelmingly former heads of religious houses. The secularised former monks and friars commonly looked for re-employment as parish clergy and consequently numbers of new ordinations dropped drastically in the ten years after the dissolution, and ceased almost entirely in the reign of Edward VI. It was only in 1549, after Edward came to the throne, that former monks and nuns were permitted to marry, but within a year of the permission being granted around a quarter had done so, only to find themselves forcibly separated (and denied their pensions) in the reign of Mary. On the succession of Elizabeth, these former monks (happily re-united with both their wives and their pensions) formed the backbone of the new Anglican church, and may properly claim much credit for maintaining the religious life of the country.

Although it had been promised that King's enhanced wealth would enable the founding or enhanced endowment of religious, charitable and educational institutions, in practice only about 15% of the total monastic wealth was re-used for these purposes. This comprised, the re-foundation of eight out of nine former monastic cathedrals (Coventry being the exception), together with six wholly new bishoprics (Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough, Westminster) with their associated cathedrals, chapters, choirs and grammar schools, the re-foundation as secular colleges of monastic houses in Brecon, Thornton and Burton on Trent, the endowment of the Regius Professorships in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the endowment of the colleges of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford and the maritime charity of Trinity House.

About a third of total monastic income was required to maintain pension payments to former monks and nuns, and hence remained with the Court of Augmentations. This left just over half to be available to be sold at market rates. Very little property was given away by Henry to favoured servants as often stated, and any that was, tended to revert to the Crown once their recipients fell out of favour, and were indicted for treason.


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