Dissolution of the Monasteries

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The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland; appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided for their former members. He was given the authority to do this in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from Papal authority; and by the First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539). Although some monastic foundations dated back to Anglo-Saxon England, the overwhelming majority of the 825 religious communities dissolved by Henry VIII owed their existence to the wave of monastic enthusiasm that had swept England and Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries; in consequence of which religious houses in the 16th century controlled appointment to about a third of all parish benefices, and disposed of about half of all ecclesiastical income.



The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England took place in the political context of other attacks on the historic institutions of Western Roman Catholicism which had been under way for some time, many of them related to the Protestant Reformation in Continental Europe; however, the religious changes in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI were of a different nature from those taking place in Germany, Bohemia, France, Scotland and Geneva.

On the continent, while the nobles were acquiring a taste for Church plunder, there was the added element of mass discontent against ecclesiastical power and wealth among common people and the lower levels of clergy and civil society. In England the early Reformation was directed from the highest levels of society, but was met with widespread popular suspicion; spilling over, in other occasions and localities, into active resistance.

The dissolution resulted in few modifications to the practice of religion in England's parish churches; and in general the English religious reforms of the 1530s corresponded in few respects to the precepts of Protestant Reformers, and encountered much popular hostility when they did. The Protestant flavour of innovations expressed in the Ten Articles was reversed when Henry VIII expressed his desire for continued orthodoxy with the Six Articles of 1539, which remained in effect until after his death.

Cardinal Wolsey had obtained from the Pope a Papal Bull authorising some limited reforms in the English Church as early as 1518, but reformers (both conservative and radical) had become increasingly frustrated at their lack of progress. Henry wanted to change this, and in November 1529 Parliament passed acts reforming apparent abuses in the English Church. 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. These sought to demonstrate that establishing royal jurisdiction over the Church would ensure progress in "religious reformation" where Papal authority had been insufficient. The monasteries were next in line.

J.J. Scarisbrick remarked in his biography of Henry VIII:

Suffice it to say that English monasticism was a huge and urgent problem; that radical action, though of precisely what kind was another matter, was both necessary and inevitable, and that a purge of the religious orders was probably regarded as the most obvious task of the new regime - as the first function of a Supreme Head empowered by statute "to visit, extirp and redress".[1]

The stories of monastic impropriety, vice and excess that were to be collected by Thomas Cromwell's visitors may have been biased and exaggerated, although chronicled also by Sir Thomas More. Nevertheless, the religious houses of England and Wales, with the notable exceptions of those of the Carthusians, the Observant Franciscans, and the Bridgettine nuns, had long ceased to play a leading role in the spiritual life of the country; and other than in these three orders, observance of strict monastic rules was partial at best.[2] Donations and legacies now tended to go instead towards parish churches, university colleges, grammar schools and collegiate churches; which suggests public approbation of such purposes. Levels of monastic debt were increasing, and average numbers of professed religious were falling.[3] Only a few monks and nuns lived in conspicuous luxury, but most were very comfortably fed and housed by the standards of the time, and few any longer set standards of ascetic piety or religious observance.[4] Only a minority of houses could now support the twelve or thirteen professed religious usually regarded as the minimum necessary to maintain the proper round of the Divine Office. Extensive monastic complexes dominated English towns of any size; but most were less than half full.

Nor was it insignificant that Cromwell and Henry, from 1534 onwards, were constantly seeking for ways to redirect ecclesiastical income to the benefit of the crown; efforts they justified by the contention that much ecclesiastical revenue had been improperly diverted from royal resources in the first place. Princes throughout Europe were facing severe financial difficulties due to sharply rising expenditures, especially to pay for armies, fighting ships and fortifications. Most tended, sooner or later, to resort to plundering monastic wealth, and taxing the clergy. Protestant princes might claim a godly authority to do so; Catholic princes might seek the approval of the Papacy. The wealth of the Church offered a standing temptation for secular rulers; and idle monastic wealth was the most exposed target.

Finally, it is probably not coincidental that the dissolution of the monasteries coincided closely with the introduction of the printing press to England. This invention not only aided reformers in spreading their religious texts, it also made redundant the monasteries' most valuable service to the monarch - their painstaking copying of manuscripts.

English precedents

By the time Henry VIII turned his mind to the business of monastery reform, royal action to suppress religious houses had a history stretching back more than 200 years. The first case was that of the so-called 'Alien Priories'. As a result of the Norman Conquest some French religious orders held substantial property through their daughter monasteries in England.

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 (e.g. Lewes Priory which was a daughter of Cluny and answered to the abbot of that great French house).

Owing to the fairly constant state of war between England and France in the Late Middle Ages successive English governments had objected to money going overseas to France from these Alien Priories ('trading with the enemy') whence the French king might get hold of it, and to foreign prelates having jurisdiction over English monasteries.

Furthermore, 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 Roman Popes, conditional on all confiscated monastic property eventually being redirected into other religious uses. The king's officers first sequestrated the assets of the Alien Priories in 1295-1303 under Edward I, and the same thing happened repeatedly for long periods over the course of the 14th century, most particularly in the reign of Edward III.

Those Alien Priories that had functioning communities were forced to pay large sums to the king, while those that were mere estates were confiscated and run by royal officers, the proceeds going to the king's pocket. Such estates were a valuable source of income for the Crown in its French wars. Some of the Alien Priories were allowed to become naturalised (for instance Castle Acre Priory), on payment of heavy fines and bribes, but for the rest their fates were sealed when Henry V dissolved them by act of Parliament in 1414.

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, others went to educational purposes. All these suppressions enjoyed Papal approval, though successive 15th century Popes continued to press for assurances that, now that the Avignon Papacy had been defeated, the confiscated monastic property would revert to religious and educational uses.

The royal transfer of monastic estates to educational foundations proved an inspiration to the bishops, and as the 15th century waned such moves became more and more common. The subjects of these dissolutions were usually small and poor Benedictine or Augustinian communities (especially those of women) 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 women's monasteries 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. In all these suppressions, friars, monks and nuns were absorbed into other houses of their respective orders.

The conventional wisdom of the time was that the proper daily observance of the Divine Office of prayer required a minimum of twelve professed religious, but by the 1530s only a minority of religious houses in England could provide this; and accordingly most observers were agreed that a systematic reform of the English church must necessarily involve the drastic concentration of monks and nuns into many fewer, larger, houses; potentially making much monastic income available for more productive religious, educational and social purposes.

But what may have represented a consensus in general principle, often faced strong resistance in practice. Members of religious houses proposed for dissolution might resist relocation; the houses invited to receive them might refuse to co-operate; and local notables might resist the disruption in their networks of influence. Moreover, the bishops found intractable opposition when they sought to enforce the rigorous observation of monastic rules; especially in respect of their attempts to require monks and nuns to remain within their cloisters.

The King actively supported Wolsey, Fisher and Richard Foxe in their programmes of monastic reform; but even so, progress was painfully slow, especially where religious orders had been exempted from episcopal oversight by Papal authority.

Continental precedents

While these transactions were going on in England, elsewhere in Europe events were taking place which presaged a storm. In 1521, Martin Luther had published 'De votis monasticis' ('On the monastic vows'), a treatise which declared that the monastic life had no scriptural basis, was pointless and also actively immoral in that it was not compatible with the true spirit of Christianity. Luther also declared that monastic vows were meaningless and that no one should feel bound by them. Luther, a one-time Augustinian friar, found some comfort when these views had a dramatic effect: a special meeting of the German province of his order held the same year accepted them and voted that henceforth every member of the regular clergy should be free to renounce their vows, resign their offices and get married. At Luther's home monastery in Wittenberg all the friars, save one, did so.

News of these events did not take long to spread among Protestant-minded (and acquisitive) rulers across Europe, and some, particularly in Scandinavia, moved very quickly. In Sweden in 1527 King Gustavus Vasa secured an edict of the Diet allowing him to confiscate any monastic lands he deemed necessary to increase royal revenues; and to force the return of donated properties to the descendants of those who had donated them. In one fell swoop, Gustav gained large estates and a company of diehard supporters. The Swedish monasteries and convents were simultaneously deprived of their livelihoods, with the result that some collapsed immediately, while others lingered on for a few decades before persecution and further confiscations finally caused them all to disappear by 1580. In Denmark, King Frederick I of Denmark made his grab in 1528, confiscating 15 of the houses of the wealthiest monasteries and convents. Further laws under his successor over the course of the 1530s banned the friars, and forced monks and nuns to transfer title to their houses to the Crown, which passed them out to supportive nobles, who were soon found enjoying the fruits of former monastic lands. Danish monastic life was to vanish in a way identical to that of Sweden.

In Switzerland, too, monasteries came under threat. In 1523 the government of the city-state of Zurich pressured nuns to leave their monasteries and marry, and followed up the next year by dissolving all monasteries in its territory, under the pretext of using their revenues to fund education and help the poor. The city of Basel followed suit in 1529 and Geneva adopted the same policy in 1530. An attempt was also made in 1530 to dissolve the famous Abbey of St. Gall, which was a state of the Holy Roman Empire in its own right, but this failed, and St. Gall has survived.

It is inconceivable that these moves went unnoticed by the English government and particularly by Thomas Cromwell, who had been employed by Wolsey in his monastic suppressions, and who was shortly to become Henry VIII's chief minister. However, Henry himself appears to have been much more influenced by the opinions on monasticism of the humanists Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More, especially as found in Erasmus's work In Praise of Folly (1511) and More's Utopia 1516. Erasmus and More promoted ecclesiastical reform while remaining faithful Catholics, and had ridiculed such monastic practices as repetitive formal religion, superstitious pilgrimages for the veneration of relics and the accumulation of monastic wealth. Henry appears from the first to have shared these views; never having endowed a religious house, and only once having undertaken a religious pilgrimage (to Walsingham in 1511). From 1518 Thomas More was increasingly influential as a royal servant and counsellor, in the course of which his correspondence included a series of strong condemnations of the idleness and vice in much monastic life; alongside his equally vituperative attacks on Luther. Henry himself corresponded continually with Erasmus; prompting him to be more explicit in his public rejection of the key tenets of Lutheranism, and offering him church preferement, should he wish to return to England.


Visitation of a monastery

On failing famously to receive his desired 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. All ecclesiastical charges and levies that had previously been payable to Rome, would now go to the King. Those who refused to assent to the Royal Supremacy were liable to execution for treason - a fate which befell the London Carthusians and Observant Franciscans in 1535, with the consequent confiscation of their religious houses. By the Submission of the Clergy, the English clergy subscribed to the proposition that the King was, and had always been, the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Consequently, in Henry's view, any act of monastic resistance to royal authority would not only be treasonable, but also a breach of the monastic vow of obedience.

In 1534 Henry had Parliament authorise Thomas Cromwell to "visit" all the monasteries, including those like the Cistercians previously exempted by Papal dispensation, to purify them in their religious life, and to instruct them in their duty to obey the King and reject Papal authority. In the meanwhile, Cromwell had also undertaken an inventory of the assets and income of the entire ecclesiastical estate of England and Wales, including the monasteries (see Valor Ecclesiasticus), through local commissioners who reported in May 1535. Once the valuation was complete, Cromwell delegated his visitation authority to hand-picked commissioners; chiefly Richard Layton, Thomas Legh, John ap Rice and John Tregonwell; for the purposes of ascertaining the quality of religious life being maintained in religious houses; of assessing the prevalence of 'superstitious' religious observances such as the veneration of relics; and for inquiring into evidence of moral laxity (especially sexual). The chosen commissioners were mostly secular clergy, and appear to have been Erasmian in their views, and dismissive of the value of monastic life. An objective assessment of the quality of monastic observance in England in the 1530s would almost certainly have been largely negative, but Cromwell did not leave such matters to chance. Monastic life, both numerically speaking and in the rigour of religious observance, had been in decline for some time. By 1536, the thirteen Cistercian houses in Wales held only 85 monks amongst them. However, where the reports of misbehaviour returned by the visitors can be checked against other sources, they commonly appear to have been greatly exaggerated, often recalling events and scandals from years before.

Altarpiece fragments (late 1300 – early 1400) destroyed during the English Dissolution, mid-16th century.

In the autumn of 1535, the visiting commissioners were sending back to Cromwell written reports of all the lurid doings they claimed to have discovered. In a few instances, impropriety and irreligion had been so great that the commissioners had felt compelled to suppress a house on the spot; in others, the abbot, prior or noble patron was reported to be petitioning the King for a house to be dissolved. Such authority had formerly rested with the Pope, but now the King would need to establish a legal basis for dissolution in statutory law. Accordingly Parliament enacted the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act in early 1536, relying in large part on the reports of "impropriety" Cromwell had received, establishing the power of the King to dissolve religious houses that were failing to maintain a religious life; and consequently providing for the King to compulsorily dissolve monasteries with annual incomes of less than £200 (of which there were potentially 419); but also giving the King the discretion to exempt any of these houses from dissolution at his pleasure. Accordingly, many monasteries proposed for dissolution put forward a case for continuation, offering to pay substantial fines in recompense; and many of these cases were accepted, so that only 243 houses were actually dissolved at this time.

The houses identified for suppression were then visited by a further set of commissioners charged with effecting the arrangements for closure, and empowered to obtain prompt co-operation from monastic superiors by the offer of pensions and cash gratuities. 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 ordinary monks and nuns were given the choice of secularization (with a cash gratuity but no pension), or of transfer to a continuing larger house of the same order. The majority chose to remain in the religious life, and, in some areas, the premises of suppressed religious houses were recycled into newly founded houses to accommodate them. Two houses, Norton Priory in Cheshire, and Hexham Abbey in Northumberland, attempted to resist the commissioners by force; actions which Henry interpreted as treason, resulting in his writing personally to demand the summary brutal punishment of those responsible. The prior and canons of Norton were imprisoned for several months, and were fortunate to escape with their lives; the monks of Hexham, who made the further mistake of becoming involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, were executed.

This first round of suppressions contributed to popular discontent in the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536; an event which led to Henry increasingly associating monasticism with betrayal, as most of the spared religious houses in the north of England (more or less willingly) sided with the rebels; while former monks resumed religious life in several of the suppressed houses. Although Henry continued for a while to maintain that his sole objective was monastic reform, it became increasingly clear that official policy now envisaged the total end of monasticism. Hugh Latimer, appointed bishop of Worcester in 1535, and a reformer with pronounced Lutheran sympathies, had successfully encouraged the wealthier monasteries in his diocese to provide active support in preaching, prayer and charity to their local communities. Latimer wrote to Cromwell in 1538 to plead for the continuation of Great Malvern Priory, and of "two or three in every shire of such remedy", but by then only total surrender was acceptable. Government lawyers scripted a legal pretext, in that the superior of a religious house (abbot, abbess, prior or prioress) was the "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 Pilgrimage of Grace was that of Furness in Lancashire; the abbot, fearful of a treason charge, petitioned to be allowed to make a voluntary surrender of his house, which Cromwell happily 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, and were not accorded the option of transfer to another house. 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 favourable terms for pensions; while also knowing that if they refused to surrender, they might suffer the penalty for 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 provided with pensions, 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 unprovided for (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).

St Benet's Abbey in Norfolk, the only monastery in England not to be formally dissolved.

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; many, in contravention of their formal rules, supported themselves through paid employment and some 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 last two abbeys to be dissolved were Waltham Abbey and Shap Abbey, both in January 1540.

Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, Benedictine abbey, purchased by the town as a parish church

The local commissioners were instructed to ensure that, where abbey churches were also used for parish worship, this should continue. Accordingly over a hundred former monastic churches remained in use for parochial worship in whole or in part, in addition to the fourteen former monastic churches that continued as cathedrals. 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 a few instances, wealthy urban parishes who were cramped for space purchased a complete former monastic 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; the tombs of saints and kings ransacked for whatever profit could be got from them, and their relics destroyed or dispersed. Even the crypt of King Alfred the Great was not spared the looting frenzy. Great abbeys and priories like Glastonbury, Walsingham, Bury St. Edmunds, and Shaftesbury which had flourished as pilgrimage sites for many centuries, were soon reduced to 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 wrought by the Puritans in the next century against the Anglican privileges.

The Crown became richer to the extent of around £150,000 (£63,606,300 as of 2011),[5] per year, although around £50,000 (£21,202,100 as of 2011)[5] of this was committed to fund monastic pensions; 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 £1,400,000 (£481 million as of 2011).[5] by 1547. The purchasers were predominantly leading nobles, local magnates and gentry; with no discernible tendency in terms of conservative or reformed religion, other than a determination to maintain and extend their family's position and local status. The Court of Augmentations retained lands and spiritual income sufficient to meet its continuing obligations to pay annual pensions; but as pensioners died off, or as pensions were extinguished when their holders accepted a royal appointment of higher value, then surplus property became available each year for further disposal. The last surviving monks continued to draw their pensions into the reign of James I.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries impinged relatively little on English parish church activity. Most parish churches had been endowed with chantries, each maintaining a stipended priest to say mass for the souls of their donors. In addition there remained after the dissolution of the monasteries, over a hundred collegiate churches in England, whose endowments maintained regular choral worship though a corporate 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.


Quin Abbey, a Franciscan Friary built in the 15th century and suppressed in 1541

The dissolutions in Ireland followed a very different course from those in England and Wales. There were around 400 religious houses in Ireland in 1530 — many more, relative to population and material wealth than in England and Wales. In marked distinction to the situation in England, in Ireland the houses of friars had flourished in the 15th century, attracting popular support and financial endowments, undertaking many ambitious building schemes, and maintaining a regular conventual and spiritual life. They constituted around half of the total number of religious houses. Irish monasteries, by contrast, had experienced a catastrophic decline in numbers, such that by the 16th century, it appears that only a minority maintained the daily religious observance of the Divine Office. Henry's direct authority, as Lord of Ireland, and from 1541 as King of Ireland, only extended to the area of the Pale immediately around Dublin. Outside this area, he could only proceed by tactical agreement with clan chiefs and local lords.

Ballintubber Abbey, An Augustinian priory founded in the 13th century, suppressed in 1603 and burned in 1653; but continuallly re-occupied and used for Catholic services, and re-roofed in the 20th century

Nevertheless, Henry was determined to carry through a policy of dissolution in Ireland — and in 1537 introduced legislation into the Irish Parliament to legalise the closure of monasteries. The process faced considerable opposition, and only sixteen houses were suppressed. Henry remained resolute however, and from 1541 as part of the Tudor conquest of Ireland, he continued to press for the area of successful dissolution to be extended. For the most part, this involved making deals with local lords, under which monastic property was granted away in exchange for oaths of allegiance to the new Irish Crown; and consequently Henry acquired little if any of the wealth of the Irish houses. By the time of Henry's death (1547) around half of the Irish houses had been suppressed; but many continued to resist dissolution until well into the reign of Elizabeth I, and some houses in the West of Ireland remained occupied until the early 17th century. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell led a Parliamentary army, seeking to subjugate Ireland to English control, and as part of the campaign systematically sought out and destroyed former monastic houses. Subsequently however, sympathetic Irish Catholic (or nominally Protestant) local landowners housed monks or friars close to several ruined religious houses allowing them a continued covert existence during the 17th and 18th centuries, subject to the dangers of discovery and legal ejection or imprisonment.


The abbeys of England, Wales and Ireland had been among the greatest landowners and the largest institutions in the kingdoms; although, by the early 16th century, religious donors increasingly tended to favour parish churches, collegiate churches, university colleges and grammar schools, and these were now the predominant centres for learning and the arts. Nevertheless, and particularly in areas far from London, the abbeys, convents and priories were centres of hospitality and learning, and everywhere they remained a main source of charity for the old and infirm. The removal of over eight hundred such institutions, virtually overnight, rent great gaps in the social fabric.

In addition, about a quarter of net monastic wealth on average consisted of "spiritual" income arising from the appropriation of parish tithes where the religious house held the advowson of a benefice with the legal obligation to maintain the cure of souls in the parish, either by endowing a vicar or by appointing a stipendiary priest. On the dissolution these spiritual income streams were sold off on the same basis as landed endowments, creating a new class of lay impropriators, who thereby became entitled to the income from tithes and glebe lands, albeit that they also as lay rectors became liable to maintain the fabric of the parish chancel. Where the monastery had not endowed a vicar, the lay rector was additionally obliged to establish a stipend for a perpetual curate.

It is unlikely that the monastic system could have been broken simply by royal action had there not been the overwhelming bait of personal enrichment for gentry large and small, and the convictions of the small but determined Protestant faction. Anti-clericalism was a familiar feature of late medieval Europe, producing its own strain of satiric literature that was aimed at a literate middle class.[6]

Along with the destruction of the monasteries, some of them many hundreds of years old, the related destruction of the monastic libraries was perhaps the greatest cultural loss caused by the English Reformation. Worcester Priory (now Worcester Cathedral) had 600 books at the time of the dissolution. Only six of them are known to have survived intact to the present day. At the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York, a library of 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three known survivors. Some books were destroyed for their precious bindings, others were sold off by the cartload. The antiquarian John Leland was commissioned by the King to rescue items of particular interest (especially manuscript sources of Old English history), and other collections were made by private individuals; notably Matthew Parker. Nevertheless much was lost, especially manuscript books of English church music, none of which had then been printed.

A great nombre of them whych purchased those supertycyous mansyons, resrved of those lybrarye bokes, some to serve theyr jakes, some to scoure candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and soapsellers.

—John Bale, 1549

The Act of 1539 also provided for the suppression of religious hospitals; which had constituted in England a distinct class of institution, endowed for the purpose of caring for older people. A very few of these, such as Saint Bartholomew's Hospital in London, were excepted by special royal dispensation, but most closed, their residents being discharged with small pensions. Monasteries had also supplied free food and alms for the poor and destitute, and it has been argued that the removal of this and other charitable resources, amounting to about 5% of net monastic income, was one of the factors in the creation of the army of "sturdy beggars" that plagued late Tudor England, causing the social instability that led to the Edwardian and Elizabethan Poor Laws. Monasteries had necessarily undertaken schooling for their novice members, which in the later medieval period had tended to extend to cover choristers and sometimes other younger scholars; and all this educational resource was lost with their dissolution. By contrast, where monasteries had provided grammar schools for older scholars, these were commonly refounded with enhanced endowments; some by royal command in connection to the newly re-established cathedral churches, others by private initiative. Monastic orders had maintained, for the education of their members, six colleges at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge; of which five survived as refoundations. Hospitals too were frequently to be re-endowed by private benefactors; and many new almshouses and charities were to be founded by the Elizabethan gentry and professional classes. Nevertheless, it has been estimated that only in 1580 did overall levels of charitable giving in England return to those before the dissolution. On the eve of the overthrow, the various monasteries owned approximately 2,000,000 acres (just under 8 100 km²), over 16 percent of England, with tens of thousands of tenant farmers working those lands; some of whom had family ties to a particular monastery going back many generations.

It has been argued that the suppression of the English monasteries and nunneries contributed as well to the spreading decline of that contemplative spirituality which once thrived in Europe, with the occasional exception found only in groups such as the Society of Friends ("Quakers"). This may be set against the continuation in the retained and newly established cathedrals of the daily singing of the Divine Office by choristers and vicars choral, now undertaken as public worship, which had not been the case before the dissolution. 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 reunited 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 until a new generation of ordinands became available in the 1560s and 1570s.

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 reused for these purposes. This comprised: the refoundation 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 refoundation as secular colleges of monastic houses in Brecon, Thornton and Burton on Trent, the endowment of five Regius Professorships in each of 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, and any that was tended to revert to the Crown once their recipients fell out of favour, and were indicted for treason). By comparison with the forcible closure of monasteries elsewhere in Protestant Europe, the English and Welsh dissolutions resulted in a relatively modest volume of new educational endowments; but the treatment of former monks and nuns was more generous, and there was no counterpart elsewhere to the efficient mechanisms established in England to maintain pension payments over successive decades.

The dissolution and destruction of the monasteries and shrines was very unpopular in many areas. In the north of England, centring on Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the suppression of the monasteries led to a popular rising, the Pilgrimage of Grace, that threatened the Crown for some weeks. In 1536 there were major, popular uprisings in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and a further rising in Norfolk the following year. Rumours were spread that the King was going to strip the parish churches too, and even tax cattle and sheep. The rebels called for an end to the dissolution of the monasteries, for the removal of Cromwell, and for Henry's daughter, and eldest child, the Catholic Mary to be named as successor in place of his younger son, Edward. Henry defused the movement with solemn promises, all of which went unkept, and then summarily executed the leaders.

However, when Mary succeeded to the throne in 1553, her hopes for a revival of English religious life proved a failure. Westminster Abbey, which had been retained as a cathedral, reverted to being a monastery; while the communities of the Bridgettine nuns and of the Observant Franciscans, which had gone into exile in the reign of Henry VIII, were able to return to their former houses. But Mary's hopes of further refoundations foundered, as she found it very difficult to persuade any other former monks and nuns to resume the religious life. Two houses of friars were refounded, but this was only possible through importing professed religious from Holland and Spain. In spite of much prompting, none of Mary's lay supporters would co-operate in returning their holdings of monastic lands to religious use; while the lay lords in Parliament proved unremittingly hostile, as a revival of the "mitred" abbeys would have returned the House of Lords to having an ecclesiastical majority. In 1554 Cardinal Pole, the Papal Legate, negotiated a papal dispensation allowing the new owners to retain the former monastic lands, and in return Parliament enacted the heresy laws in January 1555.[7] In less than 20 years, the monastic impulse had effectively been extinguished in England; and was only revived, even amongst Catholics, in the very different form of the new and reformed Counter-reformation orders, such as the Jesuits.

See also


  1. ^ Scarisbrick, p. 337.
  2. ^ Dickens, p. 79.
  3. ^ Dickens, p. 74.
  4. ^ Dickens, p. 77.
  5. ^ a b c UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Lawrence H. Officer (2010) "What Were the UK Earnings and Prices Then?" MeasuringWorth.
  6. ^ For background on Chaucer's Pardoner and other Chaucerian anticlerical satire, see John Peter, Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature. (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1956.
  7. ^ Bucholz, RO and Key, N.: "Early modern England 1485-1714: a narrative history" Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 110-111. ISBN 978-1405162753


  • Baskerville, Geoffrey (1937). English Monks and the Suppression of the Monasteries. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. 
  • Bradshaw, Brendan (1974). The Dissolution of the Religious Orders in Ireland under Henry VIII. London: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Colvin, Howard (1963). The History of the King's Works. London: HMSO. 
  • Cornwall, J.C.K. (1988). Wealth and Society in Early Sixteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Dickens, A. G. (1989). The English Reformation (2nd ed.). London: B. T. Batsford. 
  • Duffy, Eamon (1992). The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-06076-9. 
  • Gasquet, F. A. (1925). Henry VIII and the English Monasteries (8th ed.). London. 
  • Haigh, Christopher (1969). The Last Days of the Lancashire Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Manchester: Manchester University Press for Chetham Society. 
  • —— (1975). Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Hoskins, William George (1976). The Age of Plunder: King Herny's England 1500-1547. London, New York: Longman. 
  • Knowles, David (1959). The Religious Orders in England. III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Prescott, H. F. M. (1952). The Man on a Donkey. New York: Macmillan. 
  • Savine, Alexander (1909). English Monasteries on the Eve of the Dissolution. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 
  • Scarisbrick, J. J. (1968). Henry VIII. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. 
  • Youings, J. (1971). The Dissolution of the Monasteries. London: Allen and Unwin. 

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