In 1531, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in one of British history’s most significant religious events. Not only did this kickstart the English Reformation, it also dragged England out of the world of medieval Catholicism and into a Protestant future wracked by religious conflict.
One of the most damaging repercussions of this was the often-brutal suppression of the monasteries. With 1-in-50 of England’s adult male population belonging to a religious order and monasteries owning around a quarter of all cultivated land in the country, the Dissolution of the Monasteries uprooted thousands of lives and changed the political and religious landscape of England forever.
So why did it happen?
Criticism of monastic houses had been growing
Long before Henry VIII‘s break with Rome the monastic houses of England had been under scrutiny, with stories of their lax religious conduct circulating the country’s elite spheres. Although there were vast monastic complexes in almost every town, most of them were only half-full, with those living there barely abiding by strict monastic rules.
The immense wealth of the monasteries also raised eyebrows in the secular world, who believed that their money may be better spent on England’s universities and parish churches, particularly as many spent exorbitantly inside the monasteries’ walls.
High up figures such as Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and Henry VIII himself sought to limit the powers of the monastic church, and as early as 1519 Wolsey had been investigating corruption in a number of religious houses. In Peterborough Abbey for example, Wolsey found that its abbot had been keeping a mistress and selling goods for a profit and duly had it shut down, instead using the money to found a new college at Oxford.
This idea of corruption would become key in the dissolution when in 1535 Cromwell set about collecting ‘evidence’ of untoward activity within the monasteries. Though some believe these tales to be exaggerated, they included cases of prostitution, drunken monks, and runaway nuns – hardly the behaviour expected from those dedicated to celibacy and virtue.
Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church
The push towards more drastic reform was deeply personal however. In the Spring of 1526, having grown restless with waiting for a son and heir from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII set his sights on marrying the enamouring Anne Boleyn.
Boleyn had recently returned from the French royal court and was now a sparkling courtier, well-versed in the courtly game of love. As such, she refused to become the king’s mistress and would settle only for marriage, lest she be cast aside as her elder sister had been.
Driven by love and an intense anxiety to provide an heir, Henry set about petitioning the Pope to grant him an annulment from his marriage to Catherine in what became known as the ‘King’s Great Matter’.
Setting Cardinal Wolsey on the task, a number of challenging factors delayed the proceedings. In 1527, Pope Clement VII was virtually imprisoned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during the Sack of Rome, and following this was heavily under his influence. As Charles happened to be Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, he was unwilling to budge on the topic of divorce as not to bring shame and embarrassment to his family.
Eventually Henry realised he was fighting a losing battle and in February 1531, he declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, meaning he now had jurisdiction on what exactly happened to its religious houses. In 1553, he passed a law forbidding clerics to appeal to ‘foreign tribunals’ in Rome, severing their ties with the Catholic Church on the continent. The first step to the demise of the monasteries was set in motion.
He sought to destroy Papal influence in England
Now in charge of England’s religious landscape, Henry VIII set about ridding it of the Pope’s influence. In 1535, Thomas Cromwell was made Vicar General (Henry’s second in command) and sent letters to all the vicars in England, calling for their support of Henry as the Head of the Church.
Under intense threat, almost all of England’s religious houses agreed to this, with those who initially refused suffering heavy consequences. The friars from the Greenwich house were imprisoned where many died of maltreatment for example, while a number of the Carthusian monks were executed for high treason. Simple obedience was not enough for Henry VIII however, as the monasteries also had something he was desperately in need of – vast wealth.
He needed the immense wealth of the monasteries
After years of lavish spending and costly wars, Henry VIII had frittered away much of his inheritance – an inheritance painstakingly amassed by his frugal father Henry VII.
In 1534, a valuation of the Church was commissioned by Thomas Cromwell known as the Valor Ecclesiasticus, which demanded all religious establishments give authorities an accurate inventory of their lands and revenues. When this was completed, the Crown had for the first time a real image of the Church’s wealth, allowing Henry to set in motion a plan to repurpose their funds for his own use.
In 1536, all small religious houses with an annual income of less than £200 were ordered to be closed under the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries. Their gold, silver, and valuable materials were confiscated by the Crown and their lands sold off. This initial round of dissolutions made up around 30% of England’s monasteries, yet more were soon to follow.
Catholic revolt pushed further dissolutions
Opposition to Henry’s reforms were widespread in England, particularly in the north where many staunchly Catholic communities persevered. In October 1536, a large uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace took place in Yorkshire, in which thousands marched into the city of York to demand a return to the ‘true religion’.
This was soon crushed, and though the king promised clemency for those involved, over 200 were executed for their roles in the unrest. Afterwards, Henry came to view monasticism as synonymous with treachery, as many of the religious houses he had spared in the north had participated in the uprising.
The following year, inducements to the larger abbeys began, with hundreds forfeiting their deeds to the king and signing a document of surrender. In 1539, the Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries was passed, forcing the remaining bodies to close – this was not without bloodshed however.
When the last abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, refused to relinquish his abbey, he was hung drawn and quartered and his head displayed over the gate of his now-deserted religious house.
In total around 800 religious institutions were closed in England, Wales, and Ireland, with many of their precious monastic libraries destroyed in the process. The final abbey, Waltham, closed its doors on 23 March 1540.
His allies were rewarded
With the monasteries suppressed, Henry now had vast amounts of wealth and masses of land. This he sold off to nobles and merchants loyal to his cause as a reward for their service, who in turn sold it off to others and became increasingly wealthy.
Not only did this strengthen their loyalties, but also built a wealthy circle of Protestant-leaning nobles around the Crown – something that would become vital in instilling England as a Protestant country. During the reigns of Henry VIII’s children and beyond however, these factions would grow into conflict as the successive monarch’s adapted their own faiths to that of their regime.
With the ruins of hundreds of abbeys still littering England’s landscape – Whitby, Rievaulx and Fountains to name a few – it is hard to escape the memory of the thriving communities that once occupied them. Now mostly atmospheric shells, they sit as a reminder of monastic Britain and the most blatant consequences of the Protestant Reformation.