The Dissolution of the Monasteries:


The dissolution of the monasteries was one of the key features of the reign of Henry VIII; as the government saw it, the monasteries were a cornerstone of Papal authority in England and Wales, so in order to change this, during the early 1530’s, the government introduced several pieces of legislation, after which the Pope’s authority in England was ended.

The monasteries then became the focal point of the king’s attack, as it was assumed, so the government reported, that they would remain loyal to the Pope; however, whether the main reason for the attack on the monasteries was for spiritual or financial reasons is still disputed; though money was probably the true reason.

Religious Houses:

When Henry had become king in 1509 there were more than 850 religious houses in England and Wales and while what happened to them is termed the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’, this is in fact, a misleading term as few of the establishments were actually known as monasteries.

The larger rural religious houses, such as at Tintern in Gloucester, were referred to as Abbeys; medium sized religious houses were usually called Priories, or Nunneries, and a Friary was usually used to describe the smallest of religious houses; the most usual division between the two was that some were open while some were closed; closed religious houses were essentially closed to all those outside of those who lived in that religious house; open houses meant that the occupants worked with the local sick and provided, for example, teachers for boys in the local community.

It was common for open religious houses to be poor as what money they raised was spent on the local community; however, closed orders could be, and many were, very wealthy; though they kept themselves away from the common man, many of these religious houses relied on the local population to work for them for free; in this way, some religious orders grew spectacularly rich; it was these institutions that are frequently referred to as monasteries and they owned, it is thought about one third of all the land in England and Wales.

The thirty richest monasteries were as rich or richer than the wealthiest nobles in the land; this wealth had been acquired over the centuries, many people who had hoped to buy their way into Heaven had bequeathed much of their land and wealth to the monastries, which the monasteries now owned; for many the work of monks and nuns was an accepted and normal part of life, few people knew any different.

Henry VIII Needs Money:

Henry VIII had inherited a considerable amount of money from his father Henry VII, but by the mid 1530’s he had spent a great deal of this inheritance; he knew however, that the monasteries were the wealthiest institutions in England and Wales and advisors like Thomas Cromwell, made up stories to feed to the people, that a great deal of the monastries annual wealth went to the Vatican; this was done in order to drum up support amongst the people for the king’s campaign against the Pope; however, as stated earlier; it was known by the government that little of the monasteries wealth ever left England and Wales and that the monastries were, in fact, very wealthy.

The closing down of monasteries was not new; Cardinal Wolsey had shut down a number of religious houses years before the attack by Cromwell and Henry; he had done this with the full blessing of the Pope as some of the religious houses in England had ‘decayed’, the lack of people in them had stopped them being effective; when he closed them, Wolsey used the money raised from them for charitable purposes, including the building of a new grammar school in Ipswich; the man who did the legal work for this was Thomas Cromwell and the records indicate that what was done did not concern anyone of importance at the time.

The whole approach to religious houses changed in 1535; Cromwell, now Henry’s vicegerent responsible for the day-to-day running of the Church, ordered that all religious houses should be visited by one of his representatives; this was traditionally done by either a local bishop or a senior member of the relevant order; their task being to check on standards, etc, but in this case Cromwell ordered his own men to do the visits.

In the same year, the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’, popularly known as the ‘King's Books, was introduced; this was a full scale undertaking to examine just how much property was owned by the Church in England and Wales; the findings proved to be of great importance to Cromwell even though questions have to be asked as to the accuracy of the reports that were fed back to Cromwell because those who did the investigating were unpaid local gentry and may have only provided a cursory report.

The ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ combined with the visits ordered by Cromwell proved to be a difficult problem for the religious houses; the visits were mainly carried out by Thomas Legh and Richard Layton, both trusted employees of Cromwell; b
oth men were ambitious and would have known about Cromwell's desires; it is assumed that they may have suitably adjusted their reports to fit in with Cromwell’s plan; even though there is no proof for this, it is generally thought they provided Cromwell with a list of each house’s shortcomings as opposed to any strong points that a house might have had.

Their list of ‘comperta’ was certainly much greater than any positives each house had; many houses subsequently complained about the bullying tactics of Legh and Layton but it seems that Cromwell ignored these complaints; such was their reputation that the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 specifically called on the “evil councillors” to receive “special punishment”.

In March 1536 Parliament passed an act that many in the monasteries had feared; the act stated that any monastery with an income of less than £200 a year, as assessed by the Valor Ecclesiasticus, was to be dissolved and their property passed to the Crown; the heads of the houses were to be offered a pension while those who lived in each religious house were given the choice of transferring to a larger one or going to live in society free of any vows of poverty and obedience, but still having to respect their vow of chastity.

Three hundred religious houses fell within this category of having an income of less than £200 a year; the majority were closed down but at least 67 were given royal permission to remain open as the act gave Henry the right to do this; however, those religious houses that were ‘saved’ had to pay for their survival; this was usually around a year’s income, which would have earned the king roundabout £13,500, though it is thought that another 10 religious houses fell into this category but their records have been lost; if so, the 77 houses involved would have meant that Henry received roundabout £15,500 from them.

It appears that to gain the king’s exemption, a house only had to have government connections in the right places, so someone was there who could put in a right word to Henry; those houses that did not have such contacts were effectively doomed; either way, Henry’s income increased quite markedly.

Once the act was passed, government commissioners moved with speed to shut down the religious houses; they feared that any delay in their actions would allow the moveable treasure and wealth of these houses to ‘disappear’; these small monasteries were easy targets and could do little against the government; their valuable metal gold, silver, bronze and lead was taken by the government to be melted down and the land was swiftly rented out.

Other items not required by the government were auctioned off locally; what the government did not require was taken by the local population, such as well cut bricks and fences etc were all well received by the locals; this explains why so many monasteries became classic ruins so quickly, they were all but dismantled by either the government or by the locals, with the government’s support.

The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536:

The one area where this did not happen speedily was in the North, where the local population did not support what was going on and the attempted actions of the commissioners in the North were one of the causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace in October 1536 and some religious houses were charged with helping the rebels .

Once order was restored though, Henry showed no mercy; the head of each religious house thought to be involved was declared a traitor in an act of attainder and executed; in an act of dubious legality, it was declared that the houses of the executed religious leaders were their property; therefore, after their execution all this ‘private’ property transferred to the Crown, as was required by an act of attainder.

However, even after the Pilgrimage of Grace had ended, many powerful and rich monasteries remained, those that had an income of more than £200 and had not come under the 1536 Act and were south of the area affected by the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Action against these houses was piecemeal as no equivalent of the 1536 act was passed; Cromwell sent out commissioners to each of the houses; those that seemed prepared to fight were noted but Cromwell had told the commissioners to leave these houses once they had spread some degree of fear in them; t
he method used by the commissioners to persuade each head of a religious house was to make a threat couched in ‘if you love the king’; with the example of what had happened to abbots in the north for their ‘disloyal’ behaviour to the king during the Pilgrimage and many abbots succumbed to this royal pressure.

In 1539 an act was passed in Parliament that stated that any religious house that had surrendered its property voluntarily to the Crown was part of a legal act, as would be any future surrender of property; the act also included a rider that there could be no challenges to the validity of the king’s title of ownership once a monastery had voluntarily dissolved; if the king then transferred ownership of titles, these too could not be contested in a court.

The government’s commissioners went about their task with great energy; there is little doubt that the threat posed by the government led to many heads of religious houses handing over their land and wealth, just as Henry and Cromwell would have wished; however, there were some abbots and religious house leaders who would not be bullied; they had to face the full force of the law, as it was perceived then.

The Abbot of Glastonbury led what was a very wealthy monastery, one of the wealthiest in England; he was charged with secretly hoarding gold and “other parcels of plate, which the abbot had secretly hid from all commissioners”; he was executed and the buildings in the monastery were all but destroyed and the land passed to the king; by 1540, over 800 monasteries had been dissolved; the process had taken just about four years.

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