Dissolution of the Monasteries:
The dissolution of the monasteries was one of the key features of the reign of Henry VIII; as the government saw it, the monasteries were a cornerstone of Papal authority in England and Wales, so in order to change this, during the early 1530’s, the government introduced several pieces of legislation, after which the Pope’s authority in England was ended.
The monasteries then became the focal point of the king’s attack, as it was assumed, so the government reported, that they would remain loyal to the Pope; however, whether the main reason for the attack on the monasteries was for spiritual or financial reasons is still disputed; though money was probably the true reason.
When Henry had become king in 1509 there were more than 850 religious houses in England and Wales and while what happened to them is termed the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’, this is in fact, a misleading term as few of the establishments were actually known as monasteries.
The larger rural religious houses, such as at Tintern in Gloucester, were referred to as Abbeys; medium sized religious houses were usually called Priories, or Nunneries, and a Friary was usually used to describe the smallest of religious houses; the most usual division between the two was that some were open while some were closed; closed religious houses were essentially closed to all those outside of those who lived in that religious house; open houses meant that the occupants worked with the local sick and provided, for example, teachers for boys in the local community.
It was common for open religious houses to be poor as what money they raised was spent on the local community; however, closed orders could be, and many were, very wealthy; though they kept themselves away from the common man, many of these religious houses relied on the local population to work for them for free; in this way, some religious orders grew spectacularly rich; it was these institutions that are frequently referred to as monasteries and they owned, it is thought about one third of all the land in England and Wales.
The thirty richest monasteries were as rich or richer than the wealthiest nobles in the land; this wealth had been acquired over the centuries, many people who had hoped to buy their way into Heaven had bequeathed much of their land and wealth to the monastries, which the monasteries now owned; for many the work of monks and nuns was an accepted and normal part of life, few people knew any different.
Henry VIII Needs Money:
Henry VIII had inherited a considerable amount of money from his father Henry VII, but by the mid 1530’s he had spent a great deal of this inheritance; he knew however, that the monasteries were the wealthiest institutions in England and Wales and advisors like Thomas Cromwell, made up stories to feed to the people, that a great deal of the monastries annual wealth went to the Vatican; this was done in order to drum up support amongst the people for the king’s campaign against the Pope; however, as stated earlier; it was known by the government that little of the monasteries wealth ever left England and Wales and that the monastries were, in fact, very wealthy.
The closing down of monasteries was not
new; Cardinal Wolsey had shut down a number of religious houses years
before the attack by Cromwell and Henry; he had done this with the full
blessing of the Pope as some of the religious houses in England had
‘decayed’, the lack of people in them had stopped them being
effective; when he closed them, Wolsey used the money raised from them
for charitable purposes, including the building of a new grammar school
in Ipswich; the man who did the legal work for this was Thomas Cromwell
and the records indicate that what was done did not concern anyone of
importance at the time.
Their list of ‘comperta’ was
certainly much greater than any positives each house had; many houses
subsequently complained about the bullying tactics of Legh and Layton
but it seems that Cromwell ignored these complaints; such was their
reputation that the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 specifically called
on the “evil councillors” to receive “special punishment”.
Three hundred religious houses fell within this category of having an income of less than £200 a year; the majority were closed down but at least 67 were given royal permission to remain open as the act gave Henry the right to do this; however, those religious houses that were ‘saved’ had to pay for their survival; this was usually around a year’s income, which would have earned the king roundabout £13,500, though it is thought that another 10 religious houses fell into this category but their records have been lost; if so, the 77 houses involved would have meant that Henry received roundabout £15,500 from them.
It appears that to gain the king’s
exemption, a house only had to have government
connections in the right places, so someone was there who could put
in a right word to Henry; those houses that did not have such contacts
were effectively doomed; either way, Henry’s income increased
Other items not required by the government were auctioned off locally; what the government did not require was taken by the local population, such as well cut bricks and fences etc were all well received by the locals; this explains why so many monasteries became classic ruins so quickly, they were all but dismantled by either the government or by the locals, with the government’s support.
The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536:
The one area where this did not happen speedily was in the North, where the local population did not support what was going on and the attempted actions of the commissioners in the North were one of the causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace in October 1536 and some religious houses were charged with helping the rebels .
Once order was restored though, Henry showed
no mercy; the head of each religious house thought to be involved was
declared a traitor in an act of attainder and executed; in an act of
dubious legality, it was declared that the houses of the executed religious
leaders were their property; therefore, after their execution all this
‘private’ property transferred to the Crown, as was required
by an act of attainder.
In 1539 an act was passed in Parliament
that stated that any religious house that had surrendered its property
voluntarily to the Crown was part of a legal act, as would be any future
surrender of property; the act also included a rider that there could
be no challenges to the validity of the king’s title of ownership
once a monastery had voluntarily dissolved; if the king then transferred
ownership of titles, these too could not be contested in a court.
The Abbot of Glastonbury led what was a
very wealthy monastery, one of the wealthiest in England; he was charged
with secretly hoarding gold and “other parcels of plate, which
the abbot had secretly hid from all commissioners”; he was executed
and the buildings in the monastery were all but destroyed and the land
passed to the king; by 1540, over 800 monasteries had been dissolved;
the process had taken just about four years.