The Suppression of the English monasteries
From any point of view the destruction of the English monasteries by Henry VIII must be regarded as one of the great events of the sixteenth century. The King sought to abolish the entire monastic system in order to add to the royal coffers and to break down opposition to royal supremacy. The Dissolution of the Monasteries (which term includes abbeys and convents), covers the four years between Apr 1536 and Apr 1540. In Apr 1536, there were over 800 monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries that were home to over 10,000 monks, nuns, friars and canons. By April 1540 there were none left. Much of the property was bought by or granted to landowners; monastery churches were sometimes converted to parish churches, while some buildings, such as Tintern Abbey, were left to ruin.
I. Monasteries: their origin and functions. The progressive decline.
Monastic life is bound by ascetical practices expressed typically in the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, called the evangelical counsels. Monasticism is traditionally of two kinds: the more usual form is known as the cenobitic, and is characterised by a completely communal style of life; the second kind, the eremitic, entails a hermit's life of almost unbroken solitude. The Reformation saw the sudden end of monasticism in the Protestant countries of Europe.
The Rule of Saint Benedict (c.480 - 547) became the foundation stone of monasteries around the world. It was Saint Augustine that introduced the Benedictine Rule to England when he arrived in Canterbury in 597.
By the 12th Century, many people felt the Benedictines no longer followed the Rule of Saint Benedict, becoming lax in their prayers and work and so the Cistercian order was founded. The Cistercian's favoured solitude and so built their monasteries in the middle of moors and mountain valleys. The Augustinian order was also founded at around this time, and they were dedicated to evangelism, teaching and working with the poor and sick, and so lived near towns and castles. In the 13th Century, orders of Friars were founded and they depended upon the charity of the people they ministered to.
Monasticism is a form of religious life, usually conducted in a community under a common rule.
Although individual monks took a vow of poverty, monasteries were usually very wealthy because rich barons gave them land and endowments. They used their resources to help the sick and the poor. Some monasteries had hospitals and all had sick bays for monks who fell ill. Monks often experimented with herbs and plants which they made into medicines.
The primary function and responsibility of religious orders was to maintain a daily cycle of prayer, praying together eight times a day between midnight and 7.00 p.m. The monks and nuns would live in spartan conditions in individual cells. They led humble lives, devoting themselves to the worship of God and to the care of the sick and poor. They would copy out books and manuscripts; often acted as teachers to boys from local families; baptised the local children; and occassionally farmed the land or tending sheep.
The rules and regulations of the monastery were set by the prior and chapter, the head of the monastery and his chosen council. Such matters were discussed at special meetings within the splendidly decorated Chapter House.
The monks were given job titles for their day to day activities: Scribes copied out maunscripts; Librarians cared for the books, the Sacrist looked after the monastery's church, the job of the Almoner was to feed and cloth his fellow monks and to look after the ill and poor who turned up at the gates, while the Hosteller cared for any guests that stayed within the monastery itself. With life in England during the Medieval and Tudor periods extremely hard for many, the numbers of poor and ill people in the towns and villages was large.
The life of a monk was mainly devoted to prayer. For each day the monks would stop whatever they were doing at certain hours, or 'offices', to attend church for prayers. There were 8 offices per day, with the first beginning very early in the morning. This first office was called Vigils and occured at 2am. The next was Matins at 5am, then Prime at dawn, Tierce at 8am, Sext at noon, None at 1pm, Vespers at 4pm, and finally Compline at 6pm.
In Medieval and Tudor England there were no hotels and very few inns, most of which were too expensive for travellers and the poor to stay in. The monastery offered these poor people a few nights stay for free within their rooms, while the monastery infirmary was used as a hospital for sick people from the towns as well as for poorly monks.
One other visitor to the monastery was the pilgrim. These pilgrims would travel around country visiting sites of religious relics, called shrines. There were many reasons for their journey; to honour God, as a good luck sign before a battle or enterprise, as a penance for bad deeds, or to cure themselves from illness. In order for the pilgrims to prove that they had in fact made the journey and visited the shrine, the monks gave out badges to be pinned on caps or jackets as proof.
The 14th Century was another period of monastic decline, with little new building and few people willing to become a religious. The Black Death compounded the problem and by the end of the Century most of the great monastic houses were half empty, although the cycle of prayer was maintained. In the County of Norfolk, out of 799 priests 527 died of the plague; and William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, applied for and obtained from Pope Clement VII, a bull allowing him to dispense with sixty clerks, who were only twenty-one years of age, 'though only shavelings', and to allow them to hold rectories, as one thousand livings had been rendered vacant by death, as otherwise service would cease altogether. Here we see the beginning of future troubles as unqualified people were given positions of responsibility.
By now many of the large houses had become very wealthy, thanks to the wool trade of the Middle Ages and many senior monks found themselves having to devote their time to earthly business matters instead of to God. As they became more wealthy and owned more land, they found themselves obliged to serve the Crown and thus oversaw issues of drainage, food stocks etc. Thirty of the most senior abbots took up seats in the House of Lords and lived the life of a lord, hunting and hawking and wining and dining lavishly in their own houses away from their monks.
The duties of the nuns in respect of prayers, hospitality and alms were the same as those of the monks. That the nunneries were just as, if not more, useful as inns for ladies on their travels goes without saying. Like the monks, too, they sometimes set up alehouses in the precincts to cater for travellers, as at Esholt, in Yorkshire. The alms were given in the same haphazard way as in the monasteries, and gave a considerable amount of relief, especially on anniversaries and the like. Such was the case with the Augustinian canonesses of Burnham, Buckinghamshire, where every day one poor person received half a bottle of beer and a loaf for the sake of the founder's soul. The nuns were sometimes accused of owning pet dogs and even of taking them into church, where their yappings and snarlings disturbed divine worship, but they did not keep, like so many of the monks, packs of hounds to devour the broken meats which were the perquisite of the poor. Probably the sphere in which the nunneries were most useful was that of education. It was not only great houses like Shaftesbury and Barking which had a great reputation in this respect. But we must be careful to avoid over-statement about the services which the nunneries performed in this matter. They had no idea of educating poor girls. Just as the monasteries took in hand sons of the nobility and gentry, so did the nunneries in respect of the daughters. In an age when there were so few opportunities for female education, they performed undoubtedly a most useful task. The young ladies were certainly in a far more respectable atmosphere than that which they would have found in the royal or noble households to which they would otherwise have been consigned. The abbesses seem to have taken great personal interest in them. 'I allowed your daughter, Bridget', wrote Abbess Shelley of Nunnaminster in Winchester to Lady Lisle, 'to go on a visit to Sir Andrew Windsor to sport her for a week. She hasn't come back. Please tell me the reason'. Now Bridget Plantagenet was a young lady of the first consequence. She was the daughter of Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, bastard son of Edward IV; her mother was a great landed proprietress in Devonshire. Among her twenty-six companions was Mary Pole, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Pole and granddaughter of Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury, while the rest of the young ladies were of equally high birth. It may be doubted, however, if the nuns themselves attempted any form of instruction. It is far more likely that the young ladies were taught by governesses, just as the young gentlemen in abbeys were instructed by schoolmasters. Indeed, the Dominican nuns of Dartford were authorized by the Minister General in 1481 to engage a preceptor for this purpose.
What has been said about lay interference in the monasteries applies equally to the nunneries. The founders were partly an advantage, partly a nuisance. Not many of them went so far as Lady Clinton, at Marstoke, who in the fourteenth century had got herself elected prioress. But they were constantly planting their relations or dependents on them. It was one way of getting rid of illegitimate daughters. The Ward family seem to have provided a prioress to Esholt, a Yorkshire house of their foundation, in this way. Queens sent them discarded ladies-in-waiting. It cost Elizabeth of York £6 13s. od. to make her attendant, little Anne Loveday, a nun at Elstow.
Although the conduct of the monastic orders had long been targets of criticism, earlier attempts at reform had been unsuccessful. During the first 20 years of Henry's reign some small houses were closed, with the nuns and monks being relocated to houses that had space for them. This was a process led by the Bishops themselves, indeed Bishop Alcock of Ely and Bishop Fisher of Rochester used the proceeds to endow some of the colleges at Cambridge.
When Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester proposed to build a college at Oxford for young monks of his cathedral priory, his friend Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter advised him to abandon the plan and in its place to fund a college for secular priests:
'Shall we build houses and provide livelihoods for a company of bussing monks, whose end and fall we may live to see? No, no; it is more meet a great deal that we should have to care and provide for such who by their learning shall do good in the Church and commonwealth'
Oldham's advice was not
ignored, for in 1516 Bishop Fox founded Corpus Christi college, Oxford.
Cardinal Wolsey did not think things were as bad as Bishop Oldham implied but he did recognize that some of the monasteries were not able to do their jobs. So, in 1524 he appealed to Pope Clement VII for authority to dissolve a number of 'certain exile (poor)' and small monasteries, and to appropriate their revenues and properties for founding Cardinal college at Oxford together with a preparatory or nursery college in his native place, Ipswich. Obviously, Pope Clement VII thought Wolsey's request legitimate for he allowed Wolsey to suppress twenty-eight houses in which the number of inmates had dwindled to single figures. In only five was there a community of eight or more, and the net income in all but six was less than £200 a year. The total revenue of all the doomed houses amounted to about £2,300. The man entrusted with all aspects of the legal business of these suppressions was Thomas Cromwell. Although the King received complaints about the conduct of Cromwell and the other agents assigned to the suppression, Wolsey assured him that the complaints were unjustified. It has been said by many that it was Wolsey who planted in the King's head the idea of increasing revenues by suppressing the monasteries. Cardinal Wolsey closed 29 religious houses and endowed a grammar school in Ipswich and Christ Church College. Oxford.
Many of the monasteries and abbeys had deviated greatly from their original purpose, and few of their original duties were being carried out in the manner their founders had intended.
One of the first practical results of the assumption of the highest spiritual powers by the King was the supervision by royal decree of the ordinary episcopal visitations, and the appointment of a layman, Thomas Cromwell, as the King's vicar-general in spirituals, "with authority to undertake, by himself or his agents, a general visitation of churches, monasteries, and clergy", and to bring them into line with the new order of things. This was in 1534; and, some time prior to the Dec of that year, arrangements were already being made for a systematic visitation. Monasteries were looked upon in England, at the time of Henry's breach with Rome, as one of the great bulwarks of the papal system; the monks had been called "the great standing army of Rome". A document, dated 21 Jan 1535, allows Cromwell to conduct the visit through "commissaries" rather than personally, as the minister is said to be at that time too busy with "the affairs of the whole kingdom". It is now practically admitted that, even prior to the issue of these commissions of visitation, the project of suppressing some, if indeed not all, of the monastic establishments in the country, had not only been broached, but had become part of Henry's practical politics.
In Apr 1535 "all supporters of the pope's jurisdiction" were now ordered to be arrested, and on 20 Apr the priors of the Charterhouse of London, Beauvale and Axholme, and Dr. Richard Reynolds of the Bridgettine monastery of Syon, were arrested. They were charged with "denying the King to be supreme head of the English Church" and were sentenced to death. This ended the important acts of the autumn session of Parliament and also ended the Reformation Parliament. On May 4 they were put to death as traitors at Tyburn, hanged in their religious dress, against all precedent for the execution of criminous clerks, priesthood and monachism being thereby punished and warned as well as priests and monks. On Jun 19 three more members of the London Charterhouse were similarly executed. Following these executions were the executions of Bishop Fisher on 22 Jun 1535 and Thomas More on 6 Jul 1535. They were both convicted of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy.
At this time Cromwell decided to use the King's new powers of visitation to compile the "Valor Ecclesiastious", a detailed assessment of all clerical incomes from those of bishoprics down to those of vicarages and chapels, in order to collect the newly reinstated annates tax, formerly paid to the Pope, now ordered to be paid to the King.
The monasteries were doomed prior to these visitations, and not in consequence of them, as we have been asked to believe according to the traditional story. Parliament was to meet early in the following year, 1536, and, with the twofold object of replenishing an exhausted exchequer and of anticipating opposition on the part of the religious to the proposed ecclesiastical changes, according to the royal design, the Commons were to be asked to grant Henry the possessions of at least the smaller monasteries. It must have been felt, however, by the astute Cromwell, who is credited with the first conception of the design, that to succeed, a project such as this must be sustained by strong yet simple reasons calculated to appeal to the popular mind. Some decent pretext had to be found for presenting the proposed measure of suppression and confiscation to the nation, and it can hardly now be doubted that the device of blackening the characters of the monks and nuns was deliberately resorted to.
II. The Visitations
The visitation opened apparently in the summer of 1535, although the visitatorial powers of the bishops were not suspended until the eighteenth of the following Sep. Preachers were moreover commissioned to go over the country in the early autumn, in order, by their invectives, to educate public opinion against the monks. These pulpit orators were of three sorts: "railers", who declaimed against the religious as "hypocrites, sorcerers, and idle drones, etc."; "preachers", who said the monks "made the land unprofitable"; and those who told the people that, "if the abbeys went down, the King would never want any taxes again".
This last was a favourite argument of Cranmer, in his sermons at St. Paul's Cross. The men employed by Cromwell were chiefly four, Richard Layton, Thomas Leigh, John ap Rice and John London. The first two were doctors of the university of Cambridge, London an Oxford doctor. The first three were, at this time, men in the middle thirties, Dr. London was somewhere about fifty; he was a priest, and so was Layton. Doctors Layton and Leigh were an infamous twosome renowned for their surprise tactics, their pompous manner and rigorous questioning. They carried with them two documents, a list of instructions, which was in fact a long questionnaire to be administered to each of the religious, and a set of injunctions to be issued at the end of the visitations. They were well-fitted for their work; and the charges brought against the good name of some at least of the monasteries, by these chosen emissaries of Cromwell are, it must be confessed, sufficiently dreadful, although even their reports certainly do not bear out the modern notion of wholesale corruption.
The visitation seems to have been conducted systematically, and to have passed through three clearly defined stages. During the summer the houses in the West of England were subjected to examination; and this portion of the work came to an end in Sep, when Layton and Leigh arrived at Oxford and Cambridge respectively. In Oct and Nov the visitors changed the field of their labours to the eastern and southeastern districts; and in Dec we find Layton advancing through the midland counties to Lichfield, where he met Leigh, who had finished his work in the religious houses of Huntingdon and Lincolnshire. Thence they proceeded together to the north, and the city of York was reached on 11 Jan 1536. But with all their haste, to which they were urged by Cromwell, they had not proceeded very far in the work of their northern inspection before the meeting of Parliament.
The commissioners probably arrived near the end of 1535 at Roche Abbey, in the wooded valley of the Maltby Beck, about 9 miles from Doncaster and 13 miles from Sheffield in South Yorkshire; and subjected the monks to a gruelling session of questioning, quizzing them about their food and clothing, the observance of the Rule of St Benedict, attendance at Divine Services, the administration of hospitality and charity, and if boys or women lay with them. The commissioners accused five monks of Roche of sodomy and one, John Robinson, of treason. John denied having spoken either in support of the pope or against the King, but was imprisoned at York 1535/6; he is likely to have been the monk from Roche whom Sir Francis Bigod saw in fetters at York Castle in 1536. John was eventually released and was present at the surrender of his abbey in Jun 1538. On their departure Layton and Legh would have left the monks a set of injunctions and updated their notes with details of the visit.
From time to time, whilst on their work of inspection, the visitors, and principally London and Leigh, sent brief reports to their employers.
One of the common complaints of the visitors seems to have been the number of relics and the image worship prevalent in the monasteries. Richard Layton wrote Cromwell from Monk Farleign, Wiltshire:
'I send you the Vincula of S. Petrus [fetters or girdle of S. Peter] which women put about them at the time of their delivery. Ye shall also receive a great comb called Mary Magdalen's comb, S. Dorothy's comb, S. Margarets's comb the least, they [the monks] cannot tell how they came by them, nor have anything to show in writing [that] they be relics'
Layton also wrote to Cromwell about the relics he found at Maiden Bradley priory, Wiltshire, and at Bruton abbey, Somerset.
'I send you reliquaries; first, two flowers wrapped in white and black sarcenet that on Christmas eve, in the hour in which Christ was born, will spring and burgeon and bear blossoms, which may be seen, saith the prior of Maiden Bradley; ye shall also receive a bag of relics, where in ye shall see strange things, as shall appear by the scripture, as God's coat, Our Lady's smock, part of God's supper on the Lord's table, part of the stone [of the manger] in which was born Jesus in Bethlehem... I send you also Our Lady's girdle of Bruton [abbey], red silk, which is a solemn relic sent to women traveling which shall not miscarry enroute. I send you also Mary Magdalen's girdle...'
Other letters paint a sordid picture of the life style in some of the monasteries.
Cromwell's agent, John Bartelot "found the prior of the Crossed Friars in London at that time being in bed with his whore, both naked..." Richard Layton wrote from the Syon Abbey that he had learned many enormous things against the Bishop in the examination of the lay breathen; first that Bishop:
'... persuaded one of his lay breathen, a smith, to have made a key for the door, to have in the night-time received in wenches for him and his fellow and especially a wife of Uxbridge... he was desirous to have had her conveyed in to him. The said Bishop also persuaded a nun, to whom he was confessor, to submit her body to his pleasure, and thus he persuaded her in confession, making her believe that whensoever and as oft as they should meddle together, if she were immediately after confessed by him, and took of him absolution, she should be clear forgiven of God...'
One more example comes from Dr. Layton and Dr. Leigh. They wrote that the Abbot of Fountains
'... hath so greatly dilapidated his house, wasted their woods, notoriously keeping six whores, defamed here by all people... Six days before our access to his monastery he committed theft and sacrilege, confessing the same...'
In one letter to Cromwell from St. Mary de Pratis, Leicester, Dr. Layton wrote:
'... the abbey here is confederate, we suppose, and nothing will confess. The abbot is an honest man and doth very well, but he hath here the most obstinate and factious canons that ever I knew. This morning I will object against divers of them sodomy and adultery, and thus descend to particulars which I have learned of others, but not of any of them; what I shall find I cannot tell...'
But, contrary to what some historians imply, not all of these letters were anti-monastic. John Tregonwell, writing about the nunnery at Godstow, said that he found all things well and in good order as well in the monastery and the abbey there, as also in the convent of the same, except that one sister thirteen or fourteen years past, being then of another house brake her chastity, the which for correction and punishment afterwards was sent to Godstow by the Bishop of Lincoln, where now and ever since then she hath lived virtuous. From these examples it is apparent that the findings of the visitors were not categorically damning, but it is also true that some of the visitors, Dr. Layton in particular, were over-enthusiastic in their search for damning evidence.
Practically all the accusations made against the good name of the monks and nuns are contained in the letters sent in this way by the visitors, and in the document, or documents, known as the "Comperta Monastica", which were drawn up at the time by the same visitors and forwarded to their chief, Cromwell. No other evidence as to the state of the monasteries at this time is forthcoming. The results of visitations are generally supposed to have been laid in a book called the Black Book, afterwards destroyed (so the story goes) by Bishop Bonner, at command of Queen Mary. Some fragments which escaped bear the title of "Comperta".
III. Dissolution of the smaller houses
It is of course impossible to enter into the details of the visitation. We must, therefore, pass to the second step in the dissolution. Parliament met on 4 Feb 1536, and the chief business it was called upon to transact was the consideration and passing of the Act suppressing the smaller religious houses. The King's proposal to suppress the smaller religious houses gave rise to a long debate in the Lower House, and that Parliament passed the measure with great reluctance. In the preamble of the Act itself Parliament is careful to throw the entire responsibility for the measure upon the King, and to declare, if words mean anything at all, that they took the truth of the charges against the good name of the religious, solely upon the King's "declaration" that he knew the charges to be true. It must be remembered, too, that one simple fact proves that the actual accusations or "Comperta" -whether in the form of the visitors' notes, or of the mythical "Black-book"- could never have been placed before Parliament for its consideration in detail. The "Comperta" documents made no distinction between the greater and lesser houses. All are equally smirched by the filthy suggestions of Layton and Leigh, of London and Aprice. "The idea that the smaller monasteries rather than the larger were particular abodes of vice is not borne out by the 'Comperta'", writes Dr. Gairdner, the editor of the State papers of this period. Yet the preamble of the very Act, which suppressed the smaller monasteries because of their vicious living, declares positively that "in the great and solemn Monasteries of the realm" religion was well observed and God well served. We are consequently compelled by this fact to accept as history the account of the matter given in the preamble of the first Act of dissolution: namely that the measure was passed on the strength of the King's "declaration" that the charges against the smaller houses were true, and on that alone.
In its final shape the first measure of suppression merely enacted that all the religious houses not possessed of an income of more than £200 a year should be given to the Crown. The heads of such houses were to receive pensions, and the religious, despite the alleged depravity of some, were to be admitted to the larger and more observant monasteries, or to be licensed to act as secular priests. The measure of turpitude fixed by the Act was thus a pecuniary one.
This money limit at once rendered it necessary, as a first step in the direction of dissolution, to ascertain which houses came within the operation of the Act. As early as Apr 1536 (less than a month from the passing of the measure), we find mixed commissions of officials and country gentlemen appointed in consequence to make surveys of the religious houses, and instructions issued for their guidance. The returns made by these commissioners are of the highest importance in determining the moral state of the religious houses at the time of their dissolution. It is now beyond dispute that the accusations of Cromwell's visitors were made prior to, not after (as most writers have erroneously supposed), the constitution of these mixed commissions of gentry and officials. The main purpose for which the commissioners were nominated was of course to find out what houses possessed an income of less than £200 a year; and to take over such in the King's name, as now by the late Act legally belonging to His Majesty. The gentry and officials were however instructed to find out and report upon "the conversation of the lives" of the religious; or in other words they were specially directed to examine into the moral state of the houses visited. Cromwell reported 'Manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys'. The reports of Cromwell often differed with the reports of the relevant Bishops and he tended to brand all houses as corrupt. Unfortunately, comparatively few of the returns of these mixed commissions are now known to exist; although some have been discovered, which were unknown to Dr. Gairdner when he made his "Calendar" of the documents of 1536. Fortunately, however, the extant reports deal expressly with some of the very houses against which Layton and Leigh had made their pestilential suggestions. Now that the suppression was resolved upon and made legal, it did not matter to Henry or Cromwell that the inmates should be described as "evil livers"; and so the new commissioners returned the religious of the same houses as being really "of good virtuous conversation", and this, not in the case of one house or district only, but, as Gairdner says, "the characters of the inmates are almost uniformly good".
Parliament established the Court of Augmentation "to deal with all lands and moveables coming into the king's possession through the suppression or surrender of the religious houses", that is, to prepare for the reception of the expected spoils, and Sir Thomas Pope was made its first treasurer, 24 Apr 1536. On this same day instructions were issued for the guidance of the mixed commissions in the work of dissolving the monasteries. According to these directions, the commissioners, having interviewed the superior and shown him the Act of Dissolution, were to make all the officials of the house swear to answer truthfully any questions put to them. They were then to exmine into the moral and financial state of the establishment, and to report upon it, as well as upon the number of the religious and "the conversation of their lives". After that, an inventory of all the goods, chattels, and plate was to be taken, and an "indenture" or counterpart of the same was to be left with the superior, dating from 1 Mar 1536, because from that date all had passed into the possession of the King. Thenceforward the superior was to be held responsible for the safe custody of the King's property. At the same time the commissioners were to issue their commands to the heads of the houses not to receive any more rents in the name of the convent, nor to spend any money, except for necessary expenses, until the King's pleasure should be known. They were, however, to be strictly enjoined to continue their care over the lands, and "to sow and cultivate" as before, until such time as some King's farmer should be appointed and relieve them of this duty. As for the monks, the officer was told "to send those that will remain in religion to other houses with letters to the governors, and those that wish to go to the world to my lord of Canterbury and the lord chancellor for" their letters to receive some benefices or livings when such could be found for them.
Upon dissolution the religious were given the option of going to another house of the order or 'taking capacities', that is, accepting dispensations from their vows of poverty and obedience. The placing of the religious who elected to persevere was soon found to present a graver problem than had been envisaged. It would have meant transferring a thousand or more, including whole communities with their superior; which was a contingency Cromwell was not prepared for. This is a testimony to the true dedication of many of the religious and further proof that this whole operation was not a well-planned attempt to reform the church, but, rather, a hastily-conceived scheme for padding the royal treasury. No sooner had the King obtained possession of these houses under the money value of £200 a year, than he commenced to refound some "in perpetuity" under a new charter. In this way no fewer than fifty-two religious houses in various parts of England gained a temporary respite from extinction. Many of these monasteries were pardoned in order to house the influx of religious who chose the option of being transferred to another house. The cost, however, was considerable, not alone to the religious, but to their friends. The property was again confiscated and the religious were finally swept away, before they had been able to repay the sums borrowed in order to purchase this very slender favour at the hands of the royal legal possessor. In hard cash the treasurer of the Court of Augmentation acknowledges to have received, as merely "part payment of the various sums of money due to the King for fines or compositions for the toleration and continuance" of only thirty-one of these refounded monasteries, some £5948, 6s. 8d. or hardly less, probably, than £60,000 of 1910 money. Sir Thomas Pope, the treasurer of the Court of Augmentation, ingenuously added that he has not counted the arrears due to the office under this head, "since all and each of the said monasteries, before the close of the account, have come into the King's hands by surrender, or by the authority of Parliament have been added to the augmentation of the royal revenues" "For this reason", he adds, "the King has remitted all sums of money still due to him, as the residue of their fines for his royal toleration" The sums paid for the fresh foundations "in perpetuity", which in reality as the event showed meant only the respite of a couple of years or so, varied considerably. As a rule they represented about three times the annual revenue of the house; but sometimes, as in the case of St. Mary's, Winchester, which was fined £333 6s. 8d., for leave to continue, it was reestablished with the loss of some of its richest possessions.
It is somewhat difficult to estimate correctly the number of religious houses which passed into the King's possession in virtue of the Act of Parliament of 1536. Stowe's estimate is generally deemed sufficiently near the mark, and he says: "the number of the houses then suppressed was 376". In respect to the value of the property, Stowe's estimate would also appear to be substantially correct when he gives £30,000 (ABT £300,000 of 1910 money) as the yearly income derived from the confiscated lands. There can be no doubt, however, that subsequently the promises of large annual receipts from the old religious estates proved illusory, and that, in spite of the rack-renting of the Crown farmers, the monastic acres furnished less money for the royal purse than they had previously done under the thrifty management and personal supervision of their former owners.
As to the value of the spoils which came from the wrecked and dismantled houses, where the waste was everywhere so great, it is naturally difficult to appraise the value of the money plate, and jewels which were sent in kind into the King's treasury, and the proceeds from the sale of the lead, bells, stock, furniture, and even the conventual buildings. It is, however, reasonably certain that Lord Herbert, following Stowe, has placed the amount actually received at too high a figure. Not, of course, that these goods were not worth vastly more than the round £100,000, at which he estimates them; but nothing like that sum was actually received or acknowledged by Sir Thomas Pope, as treasurer of the Court of Augmentation. Corruption, without a doubt, existed everywhere, from the lowest attendant of the visiting commissioner to the highest court official. But allowing for the numberless ways in which the monastic possessions could be plundered in the process of transference to their new possessor, it may not be much beyond the mark to put these "Robin Hood's pennyworths", as Stowe calls them, at about £1,000,000 of 1910 money.
The rolls of account, sent into the Augmentation Office by the commissioners, show that it was frequently a matter of six to seven weeks before any house was finally dismantled and its inmates had all been turned out of doors. The chief commissioners paid two official visits to the scene of operations during the progress of the work. On the first day they assembled the superior and his subjects in the Chapter House, announced to the community and its dependents their impending doom; called for and defaced the convent seal, the symbol of corporate existence, without which no business could be transacted; desecrated the church; took possession of the best plate and vestments "unto the King's use"; measured the lead upon the roof and calculated its value when melted; counted the bells; and appraised the goods and chattels of the community. Then they passed on to the scene of their next operations, leaving behind them certain subordinate officers and workmen to carry out the designed destruction by stripping the roofs and pulling down the gutters and rain pipes; melting the lead into pigs and fodders, throwing down the bells, breaking them with sledge-hammers and packing the metal into barrels ready for the visit of the speculator and his bid for the spoils. This was followed by the work of collecting the furniture and selling it, together with the window frames, shutters, and doors by public auction or private tender. When all this had been done, the commissioners returned to audit the accounts and to satisfy themselves generally that the work of devastation had been accomplished to the King's contentment.
Because of the uneven geographical distribution of these suppressed houses some areas were harder hit than others. Along the eastern side of England, East Anglia, Lincolnshire, and the eastern half of Yorkshire, about two-thirds of the existing monastic institutions had, then disappeared - 87 houses out of 130; thirty-five 'greater' remained and eight allowed to continue by license under the Act.
The dissolution, and other government intervention in ecclesiastical affairs, met with opposition in a series of uprisings in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and other northern counties between Oct 1536 and Feb 1537. The Pilgrimage of Grace took its name from the most serious uprising, in Yorkshire, which the participants called "this pilgrimage of grace for the commonwealth" At Henry's orders, over 200 people were hanged in connection with the uprisings.
The failure of the insurrection of the Pilgrimage of Grace was celebrated by the execution of twelve abbots, and, to use Henry's own words, by a wholesale "tying-up" of monks. By a new and ingenious process, appropriately called "Dissolution by Attainder", an abbey was considered by the royal advisers to fall into the King's hands by the treason of its superior. In this way several of the larger abbeys, with all their revenues and possessions, came into Henry's hands as a consequence of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
In the three years that followed the passing of the At was briefly this: the King was ill satisfied with the actual results of what he had thought would prove a veritable gold mine. Personally, perhaps, he had not gained as much as he had hoped for from the dissolutions which had taken place. The property of the monks somehow seemed cursed by its origin; it passed from his control by a thousand-and-one channels, and he was soon thirsting for a greater prize, which, as the event showed, he was equally unable to guard for his own uses. By his instructions, visitors were once more set in motion against the larger abbeys, in which, according to the Act of 1536, religion was "right well kept and observed" Not having received any mandate from Parliament to authorize the extension of their proceedings, the royal agents, eager to win a place in his favour, were busy up and down the country, cajoling, coercing, commanding, and threatening the members of the religious houses in order to force them to give up their monasteries unto the King's Majesty. As Dr. Gairdner puts it: "by various arts and means the heads of these establishments were induced to surrender, and occasionally when an abbot was found, as in the case of Woburn, to have committed treason in the sense of the recent statutes, the house (by a stretch of the tyrannical laws) was forfeited to the King by his attainder. But attainders were certainly the exception, surrenders being the general rule".
The autumn of 1537 saw the beginning of the fall of the friaries in England. For some reason, possibly because of their poverty, they had not been brought under the Act of 1536. For a year after the Pilgrimage of Grace few dissolutions of houses, other than those which came to the King by the attainder of their superiors, are recorded. With the feast of St. Michael, 1537, however, besides the convents of friars the work of securing, by some means or other, the surrender of the greater houses went on rapidly. The instructions given to the royal agents are clear. They were, by all methods known to them, to get the religious "willingly to consent and agree" to their own extinction. It was only when they found "any of the said heads and convents, so appointed to be dissolved, so wilful and obstinate that they would in no wise" agree to sign and seal their own death-warrant, that the commissioners were authorized by Henry's instructions to "take possession of the house" and property by force. And whilst thus engaged, the royal agents were ordered to declare that the King had no design whatsoever upon the monastic property or system as such, or any desire to secure the total suppression of the religious houses. They were instructed at all costs to put a stop to such rumours, which were naturally rife all over the country at this time. This they did; and the unscrupulous Dr. Layton declared that he had told the people everywhere that "in this they utterly slandered the King their natural lord" He bade them not to believe such reports; and he "commanded the abbots and priors to set in the stocks" such as related such untrue things. It was, however, as may be imagined, hard enough to suppress the rumour whilst the actual thing was going on. In 1538 and 1539 some 150 monasteries of men appear to have signed away their corporate existence and their property, and by a formal deed handed over all rights to the King.
Ironically, the Pilgrimage of Grace which had been intended to preserve the monastic institutions of England hastened their destruction. It had cost Henry anywhere from £100,000 to £200,0001 to suppress the uprising. As a result Cromwell turned immediately to arrange the confiscation of the rest of the monastic properties to pay for it.
V. Dissolution of the greater houses
Early in 1538 the Vicar-General launched a frontal attack on the greater houses. New visitations were undertaken, and to hasten matters abbots were presented with ready-made deeds of surrender, which in many cases were signed with little coercion. The first monasteries to be attacked were those in the north which could be linked to the Pilgrimage. Although most of the monks in the north had to be forced to join the uprising, Henry convicted many of them of treason and confiscated their lands.
The main visitors were again Layton, London and Leigh. In 1538 and 1539 these visitors traveled from monastery to monastery obtaining "surrenders". The method of obtaining these surrenders is interesting. If the residences of a house agreed to surrender they were given pensions for life as well as sums of money for the change of their apparel and likewise such portions of the household stuff, as the visitors thought proper. If they would not surrender they were to "take possession of the house and lands, the jewels, plate, cattle, stuff and all other things belonging to them", turn them out and give them no pensions. Naturally, most of the houses 'voluntarily' surrendered. Included in these forced surrenders were the houses which had purchased exemption in 1536.
When the work had progressed sufficiently Cromwell decided to clear up any legal questions that might exist. The legality of a head of a house surrendering property he did not own was questionable to say the least. The new Parliament, which met in Apr 1539, after observing that divers abbots and others had yielded up their houses to the King, "without constraint, coercion, or compulsion", confirmed these surrenders and vested all monastic property thus obtained in the Crown, by a new Act of Dissolution. Finally in the autumn of that year, Henry's triumph over the monastic orders was completed by the horrible deaths for constructive treason of the three great abbots Richard Whyting of Glastonbury, Thomas Marshall of Colchester and Hugh Cook Faringdon of Reading. And so, as one writer has said, "before the winter of 1540 had set in, the last of the abbeys had been added to the ruins with which the land was strewn from one end to the other".
While these visitations and resultant surrenders were going on, groups of Cromwell's underlings were sent on tour to rifle some of the wealthiest shrines, with the purpose of clear the religion of idolatry and the quest for treasure. The culmination of these plunderings came in Sep, when the 'disgarnishing' of St. Thomas's shrine supplied the King with several wagon-loads of precious metal and jewels.
Finally, in 1538 the friars came under the avariousess eyes of Cromwell. The friars had been exempted from the suppressions of 1536 because they had been the first to be taken in hand and sworn in to support the new regime in 1534. Although the friars had little property and no treasure it was decided they could be a nuisance and therefore, in Feb 1538 Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover was appointed to carry out their suppressions. Richard Ingworth carried out his suppressions by first, defacing all monuments and confiscating any relics he found. He then took the convent seals of the houses so the friars could not dispose of any of the buildings. He would then impose injunctions on them that were impossible to keep and then tell them that he "had no authority to suppress them, but if they continued they must observe their... injunctions". These confined the friars to their monastic precincts but the friars were so poor that they could not survive unless allowed to leave their lands. Therefore, the "friars, seeing nothing but starvation before them, preferred to take their 'capacities' forty shillings and a secular habit, seeking chantries or employment from the unsympathetic clergy".
It is difficult to estimate the exact number of religious and religious houses suppressed at this time in England. Putting all sources of information together, it seems that the monks and regular canons expelled from the greater monasteries were about 3200 in number; the friars, 1800; and the nuns, 1560. If to these should be added the number of those affected by the first Act of Parliament, it is probably not far from the truth to say that the number of religious men and women expelled from their homes by the suppression were, in round numbers, about 8000. Besides these, of course, there were probably more than ten times that number of people turned adrift who were their dependents, or otherwise obtained a living in their service.
The monks and nuns were treated quite well as a rule. Only a few who resisted were summarily executed. The others, including 5000 monks, 1600 friars, and 2000 nuns, were given pensions. The pensions, for the most part, were reasonable, and at any rate, better than nothing. The average pension of an ordinary monk or regular canon stood at the figure of five or six pounds per annum, and in the case of heads of houses it was even larger. Many of the monks and friars went into regular church office. In many cases they soon rose to bishoprics, deaneries and substantial livings, so they could not be said to have suffered. Those who did suffer were the thousands of servants attached to the monasteries. They numbered more than the monks, but there was no pension for them, no golden handshake.
What happened to the nuns after the suppression? It is obvious that their lot was far harsher than that of the monks. 'You have not been cumbered with the world, and know not the travail, pain and study you ought and must have in the governance of a house...', wrote one of Cromwell's servants to his aunt, a former nun of Syon. And Fuller, in his Church History, wisely remarks that fathers and elder brothers were the chief sufferers by the suppression of the nunneries. He means, of course, that the former nuns had to be dowered at the expense of the family, instead of at that of the church. Many did, in fact, return to their homes. Others had most sad destiny. Dame Isabel Whitehead had been a nun at the convent of Arthington, in Yorkshire, until it was suppressed. A contemporary account describes her end: 'She lived with Lady Midleton, at Stuborn or Stokell (Stockeld) until she died; and then wandering up and down doing charitable work till she stayed with a Mrs Ardington. She became ill, and whilst in that state the house was searched at Michelmas 1587 for Catholics. The officers took Mrs Ardington and her daughter and also entered the place where Dame Isabel Whitehead, a nun, lay sick in her bed. They did stand over her with their naked swords and rapiers and did threaten to kill her unless she would tell them where David Ingleby and Mr Winsour were. She was carried away to York Castle and died in the following Mar, and was buried under the castle walls'.
The pensions of abbesses and prioresses were large. Cecily Bodenham, Abbess of Wilton's £100 pension would amount nowadays to nearly £3000; in addition she had a country house at Fovant. Dorothy Barley, Abbess of Barking had an even larger pension, while Elizabeth Zouche, Abbess of Shaftesbury with her £133 pension enjoyed fue equivalent of some £4000 a year. These great ladies lived on in their country houses in great state, with chaplains and large staffs of servants. Catherine Bulkeley, Abbess of Godstow was the daughter of Rowland Bulkeley of Beaumaris (b.1461 - d. 1537) and Alice Beconsall, and aunt to the great North Wales magnate, Sir Richard Bulkeley of Beaumaris. She leased the parsonage of Cheadle church, Cheshire, from her brother John (the absentee rector from 1525-1545), lived, apparently, in the rectory, spent large sums on the repair of the church, and was buried in it 13 Feb 1560, in the reign of Elizabeth. Her will suggests that she, along with the rest of her family, had accepted the 'new learning', or at any rate acquiesced in it. Agnes Lawson, Prioress of St. Bartholomew's, Newcastle, was buried in the parish church of that town in 1566. Her will shows, not only that she could afford to keep a chaplain, but that she had a large house at Gateshead, besides flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. She must, indeed, have been an early example of a lady farmer. Margaret Russell, Abbess of Tarrant, Dorset, who was buried in Bere Regis Church in 1568, left a great deal of money, plate and jewels, some to her cousin, Francis Russell, Earl of Bedford; while to various ladies of her acquaintance she bequeathed her costumes, 'my best gown of silk chamlet, my kirtle of satin, my scarlet petticoat, my best bonnet of velvet'. What would the visitors of the Cistercian order have thought of these garments?
Pensions to religious persons account for £330,000; and one curious item of £6000 is entered as spent "to secure the surrender of the Abbey of Abingdon".
Abbot Jerby of Holm Cultram was hanged for his part in Bigod`s insurrection; his successor Abbot Gawen Borrowdale, surrendered the abbey to the King on the 5th or 6th of Mar 1538, the commissioner to receive the surrender being Dr. Leigh. Borrowdale was appointed the first rector, his brethren were pensioned off, and the fabric of the church was permitted to stand as "a grete ayde socor and defence" for the parishioners against the Scots, to become the melancholy victim of storm, fire, neglect, and churchwardens that it now is.
Thomas Layton reported from St Oswald at Nostell in Yorkshire, that he found Prior Alvaredus very sick, bedridden and powerless to stir hand and foot. When the Prior died not long afterwards, Robert Ferrar was appointed Prior of the Monastery. It seems likely he was given the post because he was unlikely to oppose the monastery's surrender when the time came. It was finally dissolved in Nov 1539.
The priory of Wetheral was surrendered to the King on 20 Oct 1539, and the priory of St. Mary's, Carlisle, on 9 Jan 1540. Dr. Layton was the commissioner who received the surrender of Carlisle. Out of the dissolved priory of Carlisle, and on the site thereof, by charter bearing date, 8 May 1541, the King founded the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Carlisle, and created a dean and four prebendaries one body corporate under the name of the Dean and Chapter of the said cathedral church. Launcelot Salkeld, the last prior, a man defamed in the worthless "Comperta", was appointed the first dean. By another charter, bearing date 6 May of the same year, the King endowed the Dean and Chapter with most of the revenues of the dissolved priory of Carlisle, as well as with all the revenues of the dissolved priory, or cell of Wetheral, which had heretofore been attached to St. Mary's Abbey at York.
The Cistercian abbey of Furness in Cumbria had been sympathetic to the rebel's cause, but Cromwell could find nothing with which to indict the Abbot. The Abbot voluntarily transferred the abbey and lands to the Crown, the first of many monastic surrenders. In Lincolnshire the monasteries were systematically razed to the ground, others were left to a more gentle ruin, with the stones being used for other buildings in the local area. Some such as Lacock and Beaulieu became homes, others such as Tewkesbury were bought by local townspeople and some survived to become Cathedrals such as Durham.
On 10 Apr 1540, the last house, Waltham Abbey, a foundation of King Harold II, was surrendered.
The dissolution of the monasteries almost completely obliterated monasticism in England. Several Benedictine cathedral priories built during the Norman period were converted to cathedrals with a dean and a chapter of canons in the English Reformation. These include Gloucester Cathedral, built in the late fourteenth century; Ely Cathedral, begun in 1090; Chester Cathedral, from the late thirteenth century; Durham Cathedral, begun in 1093 to house the relics of St. Cuthbert; Norwich Cathedral, begun in 1096; St. Albans Cathedral, begun in 1077; Perterborough Cathedral, begun in 1117 and which houses the tomb of Catalina of Aragon; and Winchester Cathedral, which houses the relics of Cnut.
Francis A. Gasquet: Henry VIII and the English monasteries.
- Guy Fairweather:
- Guy Fairweather:Essay Submitted to the Department of History of the University of Notre Dame
- James Gairdner: The English Church in the Sixteenth Century from the Accession of Henry VIII to the Death of Mary.
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