The dissolution of the monasteries was one of the key features of the reign of Henry VIII. The monasteries were seen as being a cornerstone of Papal authority in England and Wales. After various pieces of legislation were introduced into England that ended the Pope’s authority during the early 1530’s, the monasteries became the focal point of the king’s attack as it was assumed that they would remain loyal to the Pope. However, whether the attack on the monasteries – known as the dissolution of the monasteries – was for spiritual or financial reasons is open to debate.
Henry VIII had inherited a considerable amount of money from his father Henry VII. By the mid-1530’s Henry had spent a great deal of this inheritance. However, he would have known that the monasteries were the wealthiest institutions in England and Wales. His advisors, like Thomas Cromwell, had spun the story that a great deal of their annual wealth went to the Vatican. This was an effort to drum up support among the people for the king’s campaign against the Pope. However, it was known by the government that little of the monasteries wealth left England and Wales for the Vatican and that they were, in fact, very wealthy.
When Henry had become king in 1509 there were more than 850 religious houses in England and Wales. While what happened to them is termed the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’, this is, in fact, a misleading term as few of these establishments were known as monasteries. Those 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 houses. The most usual division between the two was that some were open while some were closed. Closed religious houses were essentially this – 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 – people who hoped to ‘buy’ their way into Heaven had bequeathed much of the land that the monasteries owned to them. For many the work of monks and nuns was an accepted and normal part of life – few knew any different.
In the same year, the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ was introduced. This was a full-scale undertaking to examine just how much property was owned by the Church in England and Wales. The findings proved to be of great importance to Cromwell even though questions have to be asked as to the accuracy of the reports that were fed back to Cromwell. Those who did the investigating were unpaid local gentry who would have been in a prime position to make out of any attack on religious houses in their locality.
The ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ combined with the visits ordered by Cromwell proved to be a difficult problem for the religious houses. The visits were orchestrated mainly carried out by Thomas Legh and Richard Layton – both trusted employees of Cromwell. Both men were ambitious and would have known about the final outcome desired by Cromwell. It is assumed that they suitably adjusted their reports to fit in with Cromwell’s game plan. Though the lack of evidence means that it cannot be proved, it is generally thought that both provided Cromwell with a list of each house’s shortcomings as opposed to any strong points that a house might have had. Their list of ‘comperta’ was certainly much greater than any positives each house had. Many houses complained about the bullying tactics of Legh and Layton but it seems that Cromwell ignored these complaints. Such was their reputation that the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 specifically called on the “evil councillors" to receive “special punishment".
In March 1536 Parliament passed an act that many in the monasteries had feared. The act stated that any monastery with an income of less than £200 a year (as assessed by the Valor Ecclesiasticus) was to be dissolved and their property passed to the Crown. The heads of the houses were to be offered a pension while those who lived in each religious house were given the choice of transferring to a larger one or going to live in society free of any vows of poverty and obedience but still having to respect their vow of chastity. Three hundred religious houses fell within this category of having an income of less than £200 a year. The majority were closed down but at least 67 were given royal permission to remain open as the act gave Henry the right to do this. However, those religious houses that were ‘saved’ had to pay for their survival. This was usually a year’s income. So this would have earned the king about £13,500 – though it is thought that another 10 religious houses fell into this category but their records have been lost. If this is so, the 77 houses involved would have meant that Henry received about £15,500 from them. What was required to gain the king’s exemption? It seems that it was nothing more than having government connections in the right places who could put in the right word to Henry. Those houses that did not have such contacts were effectively doomed. Either way, Henry’s income increased quite markedly.
Once the act was passed, government commissioners moved with speed to shut down the religious houses. They feared that any delay in their actions would allow the moveable treasure and wealth of these houses to ‘disappear’. These small monasteries were easy targets and could do little against the government. Their valuable metal – gold, silver, bronze and lead – was taken by the government to be melted down. The land was swiftly rented out while all other items not required by the government were auctioned off locally. What the government did not require was taken by the local population. Well-cut bricks, fences etc were all well received by the locals. Hence why so many monasteries became classic ruins very quickly – they were all but dismantled by either the government or by the locals (with the government’s support). The one area where this did not happen speedily was in the North, where the local population did not support what was going on. The attempted actions of the commissioners in the North were one of the causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace (October 1536).
Some religious houses were charged with helping the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Once order was restored, 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. Any monks left from these houses were forced out.
However, even after the Pilgrimage of Grace had ended, many powerful and rich monasteries remained – those that had an income of more than £200 and therefore did not come under the 1536 Act and were south of the area affected by the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Action against these houses was piecemeal as no equivalent of the 1536 act was passed. Cromwell sent out commissioners to each of the houses. Those that seemed prepared to fight were noted but Cromwell had told the commissioners to leave these houses once they had spread some degree of fear in them. The method used by the commissioners to persuade each head of a religious house was to make a threat couched in ‘if you love the king’. With the example of what had happened to abbots in the north for their ‘disloyal’ behaviour to the king during the Pilgrimage, many abbots succumbed to royal pressure. In 1539 an act was passed in Parliament that stated that any religious house that had surrendered its property voluntarily to the Crown was part of a legal act – as would be any future surrender of property. The act also included a rider that there could be no challenges to the validity of the king’s title of ownership once a monastery had voluntarily dissolved. If the king then transferred ownership of titles, these too could not be contested in a court.
By 1540, over 800 monasteries had been dissolved. The process had taken just about four years