Henry VIII and the Monasteries



IN 1535 Henry, too busy with love and war to play pope in retail as well as gross, appointed the agnostic1 Cromwell “viceregent of the King in all his ecclesiastical jurisdiction.” Cromwell now guided foreign policy, domestic legislation, the higher judiciary, the Privy Council, the intelligence service, the Star Chamber, and the Church of England; Wolsey at apogee had never had so many long and grasping fingers in so many juicy pies. He kept an eye, too, on all printing and publication; he persuaded the King to forbid the printing, sale, or importation of books except after approval by agents of the Crown; and he had anti-papal literature published at the government’s expense. Cromwell’s innumerable spies kept him informed on all movements or expressions of opposition to Henry or himself. A remark of pity for Fisher or More, a jest about the King, could bring a secret trial and long imprisonment;2 and to predict the date of the King’s death was to incur one’s own.3 In special cases, to make conclusions certain, Cromwell acted as prosecutor, jury, and judge. Nearly everyone in England feared and hated him.

His chief difficulty was that Henry, though omnipotent, was bankrupt. The King was anxious to enlarge the navy, to increase or improve his harbors and ports; his court and personal expenses were extravagant; and Cromwell’s system of government required a broad stream of funds. How to raise money? Taxes were already high to the point where resistance made further collection more costly than lucrative; the bishops had drained their parishes to appease the King; and no gold poured in from America such as daily succored England’s enemy, the Emperor. Yet one institution in England was wealthy, suspect, decrepit, and defenseless: the monasteries. They were suspect because their ultimate allegiance was to the pope, and their subscription to the Act of Supremacy was considered insincere and incomplete; they were, in the eyes of the government, a foreign body in the nation, bound to support any Catholic movement against the King. They were decrepit because they had in many cases ceased to perform their traditional functions of education, hospitality, and charity. They were defenseless because the bishops resented their exemption from episcopal control; because the nobility, impoverished by civil war, coveted their wealth; because the business classes looked upon monks and friars as idling wasters of natural resources; and because a large section of the commonalty, including many good Catholics, no longer believed in the efficacy of the relics that the monks displayed, or in the Masses that the monks, if paid, offered for the dead. And there were excellent precedents for closing monasteries; Zwingli had done it in Zurich, the Lutheran princes in Germany, Wolsey in England. Parliament had already (1533) voted authority to the government to visit the monasteries and compel their reform.

In the summer of 1535 Cromwell sent out a trio of “visitors,” each with a numerous staff, to examine and report on the physical, moral, and financial condition of the monasteries and nunneries of England, and, for good measure, the universities and episcopal sees as well. These “visitors” were “young, impetuous men, likely to execute their work rather thoroughly than delicately”; 4 they were not immune to “presents”;5 “the object of their mission was to get up a case for the Crown, and they probably used every means in their power to induce the monks and the nuns to incriminate themselves.” 6 It was not difficult to find, among the 600 monasteries of England, an impressive number that showed sexual—sometimes homosexual—deviations,7 loose discipline, acquisitive exploitation of false relics, sale of sacred vessels or jewelry to add to monastic wealth and comforts,8 neglect of ritual, hospitality, or charity.9 But the reports usually failed to state the proportion of offending to meritorious monks, and to discriminate clearly between gossip and evidence.10

To the Parliament that met on February 4, 1536, Cromwell submitted a “Black Book,” now lost, revealing the faults of the monasteries, and recommending, with strategic moderation, that monasteries and convents having an income of £ 200 ($20,000?) or less per year should be closed. The Parliament, whose members had been largely chosen by Cromwell’s aides,11 consented. A Court of Augmentations was appointed by the King to receive for the royal treasury the property and revenues of these 376 “lesser monasteries.” Two thousand monks were released to other houses or to the world—in the latter case with a small sum or pension to tide them over till they found work. Of the 130 nunneries only eighteen had an income over £200, but only half were now closed.

The drama of dissolution was interrupted by a triple rebellion in the north. Just as Christianity had been born in the cities and had reached the villager? —pagani—last, so, in Switzerland, Germany, and England the Reformation rose in the towns and was long resisted in the countryside. Protestantism in England and Scotland decreased as distance from London or Edinburgh increased; it reached Wales and northern England tardily, and found scant welcome in Ireland. In the northern shires of England the spoliation of the lesser monasteries kindled a fire of resentment that had long been prepared by mounting taxation, the royal dictatorship over the clergy, and clandestine priestly exhortations. Dispossessed monks who found it hard to collect their pensions or to get work joined the already numerous and plaintive unemployed; dispossessed nuns, wandering from shelter to shelter, stirred public anger against the government; and the aides of Cromwell’s visitors fed the fury by decking themselves in the spoils of the monastic chapels, making copes into doublets, priestly tunics into saddlecloths, and relic cases into dagger sheaths.12

On October 2,1536, a visitor who had just closed a convent in Legbourne was attacked by a crowd in neighboring Louth; his records and credentials were seized and burned, and, with a sword at his breast, he was compelled to swear loyalty to the commons. All in the crowd took an oath to be faithful to the King and the Roman Catholic Church. On the morrow a rebel army gathered at Caistor, a few miles away; priests and homeless monks exhorted them; the local gentry were forced-some were willing—to join. On the same day a larger muster of villagers took place at Horncastle, another town in Lincolnshire. The chancellor of the bishop of Lincoln was accused of being an agent of Cromwell; he was taken from his bed and beaten to death with staves. The rebels designed a banner picturing a plow, a chalice, a horn, and the five “last words” of Christ, and they drew up demands which were dispatched to the King: the monasteries should be restored, taxes should be remitted or eased, the clergy should no more pay tithes or annates to the Crown, “villein blood” (namely, Cromwell) should be removed from the Privy Council, and heretic bishops—chiefly Cranmer and Latimer—should be deposed and punished. Recruits for the rebellion came in from the northern and eastern counties. Some 60,000 men assembled at Lincoln, and awaited the answer of the King.

His answer was furious and uncompromising. He charged the rebels with ingratitude to a gracious ruler; insisted that the closing of the lesser monasteries was the will of the nation expressed through Parliament; and bade the insurgents surrender their leaders and disperse to their homes on pain of death and confiscation of goods. At the same time Henry ordered his military aides to collect their forces and march under the Earl of Suffolk to the assistance of Lord Shrewsbury, who had already organized his retainers to withstand attack; and he wrote privately to the few nobles who had joined the revolt. These, now perceiving that the King could not be awed, and that the poorly armed insurgents would soon be overwhelmed, persuaded so many of them to return to their villages that the rebel army, over the protests of the priests, rapidly melted away. Louth gave up fifteen leaders; a hundred more were captured, and a royal pardon was declared for the rest. The captives were taken to London and the Tower; thirty-three, including seven priests and fourteen monks, were hanged; the rest were leisurely freed.13

Meanwhile a still more serious uprising had developed in Yorkshire. A young barrister, Richard Aske, found himself caught, physically and emotionally, in the movement; another lawyer, William Stapleton, was frightened into the captaincy of a rebel division at Beverley; Lord Darcy of Templehurst, an ardent Catholic, lent the revolt his secret support; two Percys joined, and most of the northern nobility followed suit. On October 15, 1536, the main army of some 9,000 men, under Aske, laid siege to York. The citizens of the city compelled the mayor to open the gates. Aske kept his men from pillage, and in general maintained remarkable order in his untrained host. He proclaimed the reopening of the monasteries; the monks joyfully returned to them, and gladdened the hearts of the pious with the new ardor of their chants. Aske advanced and captured Pomfret, and Stapleton took Hull, without shedding blood. To the demands presented by the Lincolnshire men others were added and sent to the King: to suppress all heretics and their literature, to resume ecclesiastical ties with Rome, to legitimize Mary, to dismiss and punish Cromwell’s visitors, and to annul all enclosures of common lands since 1489.

This was the most critical point in Henry’s reign. Half the country was in arms against his policies; Ireland was in revolt; and Paul III and Cardinal Pole were urging Francis I and Charles V to invade England and depose the King. With a last burst of his declining energy, he sent out orders in all directions for the mustering of loyal troops, and meanwhile instructed the Duke of Norfolk to bemuse the rebellious leaders with negotiations. The Duke arranged a conference with Aske and several nobles, and won them over by a promise of pardon to all. Henry invited Aske to a personal conference, and gave him a safe-conduct. He came to the King, was charmed by the aura of royalty, and returned meek and unharmed to Yorkshire (January 1537); there, however, he was arrested, and was sent to London as a prisoner. Shorn of its captains, the insurgent host fell into angry divisions and wild disorder; defections multiplied; and as the united levies of the King approached, the rebel army disappeared like a vanishing mirage (February 1537).

When Henry was assured that the revolt and invasion had both collapsed, he repudiated Norfolk’s promise of a general pardon, ordered the arrest of such disaffected leaders as could be found, and had several of them, including Aske, put to death. To the Duke he wrote:

Our pleasure is that before you close up our banner again you shall cause such dreadful execution to be done upon a good number of the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet that have offended, as they may be a fearful spectacle to all others hereafter that would practice any like matter.... . Forasmuch as all these troubles have ensued by the solicitation and traitorous conspiracies of the monks and canons of these parts, we desire you, at such places as have conspired and kept their houses with force... you shall, without pity or circumstance, cause all the monks and canons that be in any wise faulty to be tied up without further delay or ceremony.14

With the opposition so sternly terrified, Cromwell proceeded to close the remaining religious houses in England. All the monasteries and nunneries that had joined the revolt were dissolved forthwith, and their property was confiscated to the state. Visitations were extended, and yielded reports of indiscipline, immorality, treason, and decay. Many monks, anticipating closure, sold relics and valuables from their houses to the highest bidder; a finger of St. Andrew fetched £40.15 The monks at Walsingham were convicted of faking miracles, and their lucrative image of the Virgin was cast into the fire. The historic tomb of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury was demolished; Henry VIII proclaimed the victor over Henry II to have been no real saint; the relics that had offended Colet and amused Erasmus were burned; the precious objects donated by the piety of pilgrims during 250 years were carted away to the royal treasury (1538); and thereafter Henry wore on his thumb a great ruby taken from the shrine. Some monasteries sought to fool fate by sending Cromwell money or gifts; Cromwell accepted everything and closed all. By 1540 all monasteries, and all monastic property except cathedral abbey churches, had passed to the King.

All in all 578 monasteries were closed, some 130 convents; 6,521 monks or friars were dispersed, 1,560 nuns. Among these some fifty monks and two nuns willingly abandoned the religious habit; but many more pleaded to be allowed to continue somewhere their conventual life.16 Some 12,000 persons formerly employed by, or dependent upon, the religious houses lost their places or alms. The confiscated lands and buildings had enjoyed an annual revenue of some £200,000 ($20,000,000?), but quick sales reduced the annual income of the properties after nationalization to some £37,000. To this should be added £85,000 in confiscated precious metal, so that the total spoils in goods and income accruing to Henry during his life may have been some £1,423,500.17

The King was generous with these spoils. Some of the properties he gave—most of them he sold at bargain prices—to minor nobles or major burgesses—merchants or lawyers—who had supported or administered his policies. Cromwell received or bought six abbeys, with an annual revenue of £2,293; his nephew Sir Richard Cromwell received seven, with an income of £2,552 ;18 this was the origin of the fortune that made Richard’s great-grandson Oliver a man of substance and influence in the next century. Some of the spoils went to build ships, forts, and ports; some helped to finance war; some went into the royal palaces at Westminster, Chelsea, and Hampton Court; some the King lost at dice.19 Six monasteries were returned to the Anglican Church as episcopal sees; and a small sum was assigned to continue the most urgent of the charities formerly provided by the monks and nuns. The new aristocracy created by Henry’s gifts and sales became a powerful support to the Tudor throne, and a bulwark of economic interest against any Catholic restoration. The old feudal aristocracy had decimated itself; the new one, rooted in commerce and industry, changed the nature of the English nobility from static conservatism to dynamic enterprise, and poured fresh blood and energy into the upper classes of England. This—and the spoilsmay have been one source of the Elizabethan exuberance.

The effects of the dissolution were complex and interminable. The liberated monks may have shared modestly or not in the increase of England’s population from about 2,500,000 in 1485 to some 4,000,000 in 1547.20 A temporary increase in the unemployed helped to depress the earnings of the lower classes for a generation, and the new landlords proved more grasping than the old.21 Politically the effect was to augment still further the power of the monarchy; the Church lost the last stronghold of resistance. Morally the results were a growth of crime, pauperism, and beggary, and a diminished provision of charity.22 Over a hundred monastic hospitals were closed; a few were rehabilitated by municipal authorities. The sums that fearful or reverent souls had bequeathed to priests as insurance against infernal or purgatorial fire were confiscated in expectation that no harm would come to the dead; 2,374 chantries, with their endowments for Masses, were appropriated by the King.23 The severest effects were in education. The convents had provided schools for girls, the monasteries and the chantry priests had maintained schools and ninety colleges for boys; all these institutions were dissolved.

Having stated the facts as impartially as unconscious prejudice allowed, the historian may be permitted to add a confessedly hypothetical comment. Henry’s greed and Cromwell’s ruthlessness merely advanced by a generation an inevitable lessening in the number and influence of English monasteries. These had once done admirable work in education, charity, and hospital care, but the secularization of such functions was proceeding throughout Western Europe, even where Catholicism prevailed. The decline in religious fervor and other-worldliness was rapidly narrowing the flow of novices into conventual establishments; and many of these were reduced to so small a number as seemed out of proportion to the splendor of their buildings and the income of their lands. It is a pity that the situation was met by the brusque haste of Cromwell rather than by Wolsey’s humane and sounder plan of transforming more and more monasteries into colleges. Henry’s procedure here, as in his quest for a son, was worse than his aim. It was good that an end should be put, in some measure, to the exploitation of simple piety by pious fraud. Our chief regrets go to the nuns who for the most part labored dutifully in prayer, schooling, and benevolence; and even one who cannot share their trustful faith must be grateful that their like again minister, with lifelong devotion, to the needs of the sick and the poor.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!