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Suppression of Monasteries

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Monasteries , SUPPRESSION OF.—Under this title will be treated only the suppressions of religious houses (whether monastic in the strict sense or houses of the mendicant orders) since the Reformation. The somewhat more general subject of state encroachments on Church property will be found treated under such titles as Laicization; Commendatory Abbot; The Conflict of Investitures. The economic motives of state opposition to the tenure of lands by religious corporations (dating from the thirteenth century) are explained under Mortmain. The countries dealt with in the present article are: I. Germany, the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy; II. England. (For French suppressions, see France. especially sub-title, The Third Republic and the Church in France.)

I. GERMANY, SPAIN AND PORTUGAL, ITALY.—A. Germany (including all Austrian Dominions).—The confiscation of religious property following upon the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) had been for the benefit of Protestant princes only. More than a hundred monasteries and innumerable pious foundations disappeared at this time. Towards the middle of the eighteenth century a new movement tending to the destruction of monastic institutions swept over those portions of the German Empire which had remained attached to the Catholic Faith. “Josephinism”, as this political and religious movement was afterwards called, taking its name from its foster-father, the Emperor Joseph II, made the Church subservient to the State. The supernatural character of the religious life was ignored; abbeys and convents could be permitted to exist only on giving proof of their material utility. A plan was formed at this period for the general secularization of monastic and other ecclesiastical property for the profit of the Catholic Governments in Germany. This was part of a general plan for a redistribution of territory. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia had taken the initiative and had won over England and France to his idea. The opposition of Maria Theresa, of the Prince Bishop of Mainz, and of Pope Benedict XIV caused the project to fail. The Holy See kept the diplomacy of Prussia in check for some years. To counteract the action of Rome on public sentiment, the partisans of secularization encouraged in Germany the spread of those This decree applied to all monasteries, whether of philosophical errors—Materialism and Rationalism—women or of men, judged useless by the standards of which were then gaining ground in France (see Encyclopedists). With this view they succeeded in salaries of the secular priests or for pious establish-withdrawing the universities from Roman influence.

Meanwhile the princes approached the task directly. The Elector Maximilian (Joseph) III (1745-77) began in Bavaria a work of destruction which was carried on by his successors down to the Elector Maximilian Joseph IV, Napoleon’s ally, who became King Maximilian I of Bavaria in 1805 (d. 1825). Measures were taken first against the mendicant orders; the secular power began to meddle in the government of the monasteries, a commission being appointed by the civil authorities for that purpose. In the meantime (1773) the suppression of the Jesuits was decreed. About the year 1782 the Elector Charles Theodore (1778-99) obtained the assent of Pius VI to a project for the extinction of several religious foundations. The Elector Maximilian Joseph IV (King Maximilian I) of Bavaria completed the work of destruction, influenced by the policy of his ally, Napoleon I, and assisted by the Count de Montgelas, his chief minister. A rescript of September 9, 1800, deprived the religious orders in Bavaria of all property rights and prohibited them to receive novices. The convents of the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites) and the religious houses of women were the first to fall. Then came the turn of the Canons Regular and the Benedictines. The cathedral monasteries were not spared. Among the abbeys that disappeared in 1803 may be mentioned: St. Blasien of the Black Forest (the community, however, being admitted, in 1809, to the monastery of St. Paul), St. Emmeran of Ratisbon, Andechs, St. Ulrich of Augsburg, Michelsberg, Benedictbeurn, Ertal, Kempten, Metten, Oberaltaich, Ottobeurn, Scheyern, Tegernsee, Wessobrunn.

The monasteries in other parts of North Germany met with the common fate of all church property. On the left bank of the Rhine they were suppressed when that territory was annexed to France by the Peace of Luneville, February 9, 1801. Their property was disposed of by the Diet of Ratisbon (March 3, 1801—February 1803), the deplorable business having been negotiated in Paris with Bonaparte and Talley-rand. Besides her twenty-five ecclesiastical principalities and her eighteen universities, Catholic Germany lost all her abbeys and her religious houses for men: their property was given to Bavaria, Prussia, and Austria. As to the religious houses for women, the princes were to consult with the bishops before proceeding to expel their inmates. The future reception of novices was forbidden. In the Netherlands, the Principality of Liege, and the portions of Switzerland annexed by France, the religious houses disappeared completely.

In the territories immediately subject to the House of Hapsburg, the secularization of monastic houses had begun more than thirty years before this. In pursuance of the policy with which his name has been especially associated, the Emperor Joseph II (d. 1790) forbade the teaching of theology in monasteries, even to the young religious, and also the reception of novices. Intercourse with the Holy See was placed under imperial control. It was forbidden to receive foreign religious. The civil authorities interfered in the regular discipline of communities. Commendatory abbots were appointed. Monasteries were deprived of the parishes belonging to them. Superiors had to account to the emperor’s representatives for the disposition of their incomes. Theological works printed outside the Empire could not be used.—Such were the principal lines of action of this administration, of which Kaunitz was the minister. All this, however, was but the prelude to a decree of suppression which was issued on March 17, 1783.

This decree applied to all monasteries, whether of women or of men, judged useless by the standards of Josephinism; their revenues were taken to increase the salaries of the secular priests or for pious establishments useful to religion and humanity. The dioceses of the Low Countries (then subject to the House of Hapsburg) lost one hundred and sixty-eight convents, abbeys, or priories. In all, 738 religious houses were suppressed in the Empire during the reign of Joseph II.

In anticipation of this disaster, Pius VI had conferred on the bishops extensive privileges. They had power to dispense expelled religious, both men and women, from wearing their habit, and, in case of necessity, to dispense them from the simple vows. They were to secure for them a pension—but, as this was generally insufficient, many were reduced to poverty. The Government transformed the monasteries into hospitals, colleges, or barracks. The victims of the persecution remained faithful to their religious obligations. Their ordinaries took great care of them, Cardinal de Frankenberg, Archbishop of Mechlin, affording a particularly bright example in this respect. The Abbey of Melk (q.v.) was spared; some of the suppressed houses were even affiliated to it; but on the death of Abbot Urban I (1783), the emperor placed over the monks a religious of the Pious Schools as commendatory abbot. The monasteries of Styria were soon closed, though some houses—e.g., Kremsmunster, Lambach, Admont—escaped the devastation. All those in Carinthia and the Tyrol were sacrificed. The religious in Bohemia had not yet recovered from the ravages caused by the wars of Frederick II and Maria Theresa, when they had to encounter this fresh tempest. Breunau, Emmaus of Prague, and Raigern, with a few monasteries of Cistercians and Premonstratensians, escaped complete ruin. The emperor showed no consideration towards the venerable Abbey of St. Martin of Pannonia and its dependencies. In Hungary the Benedictines were entirely wiped out.

The death of Joseph II put an end to this violence, without, however, stopping the spread of those opinions which had incited it. His brother, Leopold II (d. 1792) allowed things to remain as he found them, but Francis II (Francis I of Austria, son of Leopold II) undertook to repair some of the ruin, permitting religious to pronounce solemn vows at the age of twenty-one. The Hungarian Abbey of St. Martin of Pannonia was the first to profit by this benevolence, but its monks had to open the gymnasia in it and its dependencies. The monasteries of the Tyrol and Salzburg had escaped the ruin. These countries were attached to Austria by the Congress of Vienna (September, 1814—June, 1815). The monks were allowed to reenter. The celebrated Abbey of Reichenau alone did not arise from its ruins. The princely Abbey of St. Gall, too, had been dissolved during the Wars of the Revolution and the Empire, and there was a proposal, at the Congress of Vienna, to reestablish it, but with-out giving it back its lands: the abbot would not accept the conditions thus imposed, and the matter went no further. The Swiss monasteries were exposed to pillage and ruin during the wars of the Revolution. The government of the Helvetian Republic was hostile to them, they recovered a little liberty after the Act of Mediation, in 1803. But the situation changed after 1832. The Federal Constitution, revised at that time, suppressed the guarantees granted to convents and religious foundations. During the long period of persecution and confiscation in Switzerland, from 1838 to 1848 (for which see Lu-CERNE), the monks of Mariastein sought refuge in Germany, and then in France and Austria; those of Mury were sheltered at Griess (Tyrol), others, like Disentis, fell into utter ruin. The Swiss Benedictines then went to the United States, where they founded the Swiss-American congregation.

B. The Iberian Peninsula.—The constitution of 1812 given to the Kingdom of Spain by the Government which Napoleon imposed on it suppressed all religious congregations and confiscated their property, in accordance with the conqueror’s general policy. They were reestablished in 1814 by King Ferdinand, whom the War of Independence had restored to the Throne. Their existence was again threatened by the Revolution of 1820, when the Cortes decreed the suppression of the religious orders, leaving only a few houses to shelter the aged and infirm. It must be said that, in this case, the effect of the generally anti-religious principles actuating the revolutionists was reinforced by the impoverishment of the nation by the Napoleonic wars, by the revolt of its American colonies, and by changed economic conditions. Ferdinand III, who was restored to the throne by the French Army, hastened to annul the decrees of the Cortes (1823). The monasteries and their property were given back to the religious, who were enabled once more to live in community. But in October, 1835, a decree of the Government, inspired by Juan de Mendizabal, minister of finance, again suppressed all the monasteries in Spain and its possessions. The Cortes, which had not been consulted, approved of this measure next year, and promulgated a law abolishing vows of religion. All the movable and immovable property was confiscated and the income assigned to the sinking fund. Objects of art and books were, in general, reserved for the museums and public libraries, though many of them were left untouched, and many others dispersed. Large quantities of furniture and other objects were sold, the lands and rights of each house alienated, while speculators realized large fortunes. Certain monasteries were transformed into barracks or devoted to public purposes. Others were sold or abandoned to pillage.

In 1859 the Government gave to the bishops those religious houses which had not already been disposed of. Numerous conventual churches were turned over for parish use. The religious were promised a pension not to exceed one franc a day, but it was never paid. No mercy was shown even to the aged and the infirm, who were not allowed to wait for death in their cells. Almost all hoped for an approaching political change that would restore them their religious liberty, as had happened twice before, but the event proved otherwise. The destruction was irrevocable, some religious sought a refuge in Italy and in France. The greater number either petitioned the bishops to incorporate them in their dioceses or went to live with their families. The people of the Northern provinces, who are very devoted to Catholicism, did not associate themselves directly with the measures taken against the religious; so much cannot be said for those of the South and of the large towns, where the expulsion of religious sometimes took the appearance of a popular insurrection: convents were pillaged and burned, religious were massacred. Monasteries of women were treated less inhumanly: here the authorities contented themselves with confiscating property and suppressing privileges; but the nuns continued to live in community. With time the passion and hatred of the persecutors diminished somewhat. The monks of the Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia were able to come together again. The religious orders which supplied the clergy for the Spanish colonies, such as the Dominicans, Augustinians, and Franciscans, were authorized to retain some houses.

The monasteries in Portugal met the same fate as those in Spain, and at about the same time (1833). Only the Franciscans charged with religious duties in the Portuguese colonies were spared.

C. Italy.—During the eighteenth century, while Josephinism was rampant in Catholic Germany, Leopold, afterwards the Emperor Leopold II, tried to emulate in some degree the emperor’s anti-monastic policy. But the general persecution of religious orders in Italy did not begin until the wars of the Revolution and the Empire had effected a complete transformation in that country. France inspired with her anti-religious tendencies the new governments established by Napoleon, Church property was confiscated; monasteries and convents were suppressed, though congregations devoted to the care of the sick and to the instruction of poor children were tolerated here and there as, for instance, in the Kingdom of Italy, founded in 1805. The repressive measures could not be enforced in all localities with equal severity. Napoleon extended them to the city of Rome in 1810. The authorities then closed the religious houses of both sexes. At Naples the authorities proceeded to suppress all the orders and confiscate their property (1806-13). When the Congress of Vienna restored these states to their exiled rulers, the latter hastened to make the Church free once more. In Tuscany the duke made a grant to the monasteries, in exchange for the lands that they had lost. In the Pontifical States things reverted to the ancient order: 1824 houses for men and 612 for women were reestablished. In Naples the religious had diminished by at least one-half.

The period of peace, however, was not destined to endure: the establishment of Italian unity was fatal to the religious orders. The persecution was resumed in the constitutional Kingdom of Sardinia, which was about to become the agent and the type of united Italy. Cavor imposed this anti-religious policy on King Victor Emmanuel. He proposed first to secularize the monastic property: the money thus obtained was to serve as a church fund to equalize the payment of the diocesan clergy. The king finally gave his sanction to a law which suppressed, in his own states alone, 334 convents and monasteries, containing 4280 religious men and 1200 nuns. This ruin and depredation proceeded uniformly with the cause of Italian unity, since the Piedmontese constitution and legislation were imposed on the whole peninsula. The religious orders and benefices not charged with cures of souls were declared useless, and suppressed; the buildings and lands were confiscated and sold (1866). The Government paid allowances to the surviving religious. In some abbeys—as at Monte Cassino—the members of the community were allowed to remain as caretakers. The Papal States were subjected to the same policy after 1870. The Italian authorities contented themselves with depriving the religious of their legal existence and all they possessed, without raising any obstacles to a possible reconstruction of regular communities. A certain number of monasteries have thus been able to exist and carry on their work, owing solely to the guarantee of individual liberty; their existence is precarious, and an arbitrary measure of the Government might at any time suppress them. After the general dissolution, some Italian religious—for instance, the Olivetans and the Canons Regular of St. John Lateran—crossed the Alps and established houses of their respective orders in France.


SUPPRESSION OF MONASTERIES IN ENGLAND UNDER HENRY VIII.—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. They 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“. One of the first practical results of the assumption of the highest spiritual powers by the king was the super-vision 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 special authority to visit the monastic houses, and to bring them into line with the new order of things. This was in 1534; and, some time prior to the December of that year, arrangements were already being made for a systematic visitation. A document, dated January 21, 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 been not only broached, but had become part of Henry’s practical politics. It is well to remember this, as it throws an interesting and somewhat unexpected light upon the first dissolutions: 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.

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 September. 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, (I) “railers”, who declaimed against the religious as “hypocrites, sorcerers, and idle drones, etc.”; (2) “preachers”, who said the monks “made the land unprofitable”; and (3) those who told the people that, “if the abbeys went down, the king would never want any taxes again”. This last was a favorite argument of Cranmer, in his sermons at St. Paul’s Cross. The men employed by Cromwell—the agents entrusted with the task of getting up the required evidence—were chiefly four, Layton, Leigh, Aprice, and London. 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 September, when Layton and Leigh arrived at Oxford and Cambridge respectively. In October and November the visitors changed the field of their labors to the eastern and southeastern districts; and in December 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 January 11, 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.

From time to time, whilst on their work of inspection, the visitors, and principally London and Leigh, sent brief written reports to their employers. 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, and the inquirer into the truth of these accusations is driven back ultimately upon the worth of these visitors’ words. It is easy, of course, to dismiss inconvenient witnesses as being unworthy of credit, but in this case a mere study of these letters and documents is quite sufficient to cast considerable doubt upon their testimony, whilst an examination into the subsequent careers of these royal inquisitors will more than justify the rejection of their testimony as wholly unworthy of belief. (Gasquet, “Henry VIII and the English Monasteries”, I, xi.)

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 February 4, 1536, and the chief business it was called upon to transact was the consideration and passing of the act suppressing the smaller religious houses. It may be well to state exactly what is known about this matter. We know for certain that 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. It is more than remarkable, moreover, that 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 “Blackbook”—could never have been placed before Parliament for its consideration in detail, still less for its critical examination and judgment. We have the “Comperta” documents—the findings of the visitors, whatever they may be worth, whilst on their rounds, among the State papers—and it may be easily seen that no distinction whatever is made in them between the greater and lesser houses. All are, to use a common expression, “tarred with the same brush”; all, that is, 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”, writes Dr. Gairdner, the editor of the State papers of this period, “is not borne out by the ‚ÄòComperta”‘ 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. Can it be imagined for a moment that this assertion could have found its way into the Act of Parliament, had the reports, or “Cornperta”, of the visitors been laid upon the table of the House of Commons for the inspection of the members? 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 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. All monastic establishments which fell below the £200 a year standard of “good living” were to be given to the king to be dealt with at his “pleasure, to the honor of God and the wealth of the realm”.

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 April 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 the passing of the Act of Suppression of 1536, and therefore 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. 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 these same houses as being really “of good and virtuous conversation”, and this, not in the case of one house or district only, but, as Gairdner says, “the characters given of the inmates are almost uniformly good”.

To prepare for the reception of the expected spoils, what was known as the Augmentation Office was established, and Sir Thomas Pope was made its first treasurer, April 24, 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 examine 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 March 1, 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.

One curious fact about the dissolution of the smaller monasteries deserves special notice. 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. 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 favor 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-three of these refounded monasteries, some £5948 6s. 8d. or hardly less, probably, than £60,000 of present-day money. Sir Thomas Pope, the treasurer of the Court of Augmentation, ingenuously adds 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, therefore,” 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, or some £300,000 of present-day 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 far 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 sales 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 number-less ways in which the monastic possessions could be plundered n the process of transference to their new possessor, it may be not much beyond the mark to put these “Robin Hood‘s pennyworths”, as Stowe calls them, at about £1,000,000 of present-day money.

Something must necessarily be said of the actual process which was followed by the Crown agents in dissolving these lesser monasteries. It was much the same in every case, and it was a somewhat long process, since the work was not all done in a day. The rolls of accounts, sent into the Augmentation Office by the commissioners, show that it was frequently a matter of six to ten 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 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—that the nest had been destroyed and the birds scattered—that what had been a monument of architectural beauty in the past was now a “bare roofless choir, where late the sweet birds sang”.

No sooner had the process of destruction begun simultaneously all over the country than the people began at last to realize that the benefits likely to accrue to them out of the plunder were most illusory. When this was understood, it was first proposed to present a petition to the king from the Lords and Commons, pointing out the evident damage which must be done to the country at large if the measure were carried out fully; and asking that the process of suppression should be at once stopped, and that the lesser houses, which had not yet been dissolved under the authority of the Act of 1536, should be allowed to stand. Nothing, of course, came of this attempt. Henry’s appetite was but whetted by what had come to him, and he only hungered for more of the spoils of the Church and the poor. The action of the Parliament in 1536 in permitting the first measure to become law made it in reality much more difficult for Henry to draw back; and in more senses than one it paved the way for the general dissolution. Here and there in the country active resistance to the work of destruction was organized, and in the case of Lincoln-shire, Yorkshire, and the North generally, the popular rising of the “Pilgrimage of Grace” was caused in the main, or at least in great measure, by the desire of the people at large to save the religious houses from ruthless destruction. 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’ supposed or constructive treason of its superior. In this way several of the larger abbeys, with all their revenues and possessions, same into Henry’s hands a consequence of the “Pilgrimage of Grace“.

The Parliament of 1536, it will be remembered, had granted Henry the possession only of the houses the annual value of which was less than £200. What happened in the three years that followed the passing of the Act 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 favor, 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 willful 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 rumors, 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 rumor 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.

When the work had progressed sufficiently the new Parliament, which met in April, 1539, after observing that diverse 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. 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 of Glastonbury, Colchester, and Reading. And so, as one writer has said, “before the win-ter 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”.

It is difficult, of course, 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.

If it is difficult to determine, with any certainty, the number of the religious in monastic England at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, it is still more so to give any accurate estimate of the property involved. Speed calculated the annual value of the entire property, which passed into Henry’s hands at some £171,312 4s. 3-3/4 d. Other valuations have placed it at a higher figure, so that a modern calculation of the annual value at £200,000, or some £2,000,000 of present-day money, is probably not excessive. Hence, as a rough calculation, it may be taken that at the fall of the monasteries an income of about two million pounds sterling a year, of the present money value, was taken from the Church and the poor and transferred to the royal purse.

It may, however, be at once stated that Henry evidently never derived anything like such a sum from the transaction. The capital value was so diminished by gratuitous grants, sales of lands at nominal values, and in numerous other ways, that in fact, for the eleven years from 1536 to 1547, the Augmentation Office accounts show that the king only drew an average yearly income of £37,000, or £370,000 of present-day money, from property which, in the hands of the monks, had probably produced five times the amount. As far as can be gathered from the accounts still extant, the total receipts of the king from the monastic confiscations from April, 1536, to Michaelmas, 1547, was about thirteen million and a half of present-day money, to which must be added about a million sterling, the melting value of the monastic plate. Of this sum, leaving out of calculation the plate and jewels, not quite three millions were spent by the king personally; £600,000 was spent upon the royal palaces, and nearly half a million on the house-hold of the Prince of Wales. More than five millions sterling are accounted for under the head of war expenses, and nearly £700,000 were spent on coast defense. 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.”



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