Catholics justifiably cherish the memory of the great English martyrs who died for the faith during the English Reformation. The heroism and sacrifice—even unto death—of women and men in the English Isles has been documented in these pages in the moving article “Hanged, Drawn and Quartered: The English Martyrs,” by Bess Twiston-Davies (July-August 2006). It is must-reading for Catholic apologists who deal with questions about the persecution of the Church under King Henry VIII and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
One of the darkest episodes in the bleak history of the English Reformation was the brutal liquidation of the monastic institutions of England under King Henry VIII. The dissolution of the monasteries, which took place from 1536 to 1540, was a horrendous blow to the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual life of the kingdom. Although there are those who claim that the monasteries were places of vile corruption—financial misdeeds and sexual scandal, for example—and that what happened to them was deserved and not as harsh as Catholics claim, the facts regarding the suppression tell a different story.
The monasteries of England had been targets of complaint in the later Middle Ages for their laxity and corruption, but by the era of the Tudors only a few houses were infamous for abuses and were suppressed. No action on a grand scale was contemplated during the reign of Henry VII or in the early period of Henry VIII. The vast majority of monasteries were—as they had been for centuries—centers of learning and repositories of the vast artistic and cultural patrimony of the British Isles.
This situation changed, though, for two reasons: Henry’s desire to advance his claims of supremacy over the Church in England after his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon, and his dire need of money to bolster his depleted treasury. The monasteries were a tempting target. King Henry craved the wealth, property, and artistic goods housed in them as well as the reduction of papal support in England.
Desecration and Plunder
The process of dissolution was given into the hands of Henry’s ruthless servant, Thomas Cromwell, who held various positions, including that of the king’s vicar-general in spiritual affairs. In preparation for his campaign against the Church, Henry had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England in February 1531. Two years later, in April 1533, an Act in Restraint of Appeals was issued that eliminated the right of clergy to appeal to “foreign tribunals” (meaning Rome) against the king in spiritual and financial matters. The next year, Parliament authorized Cromwell to begin “visits” to all monasteries in the kingdom, including abbeys, priories, and convents. The chief reason given for the visits was the instruction of the monasteries in the new laws of royal, rather than papal, supervision. In reality, they were intended to make thorough inventories of the assets and possessions of each house.
In January 1535, Cromwell appointed agents to perform the visitations. At the same time, he hired orators to stir up hatred against the monks. They appeared as “preachers” and “railers” and delivered fiery sermons from the pulpits of the churches throughout England. Monks and nuns were accused of corruption and immorality, of living off the hard work of the common folk, and of being a burden to the English economy. The preachers added that such was the wealth of the monks that no taxes would be needed once the monasteries were seized by the Crown.
To support the claims of the preachers and the king’s agents, the visiting royal commissioners sent back reports to Cromwell that contained ludicrous claims of scandal. The reports painted the monks and nuns as sexual monsters and corrupt servants of the pope. The accusations were collected in the Comperta Monastica, which was given to Cromwell to use in the next stage of the scheme. No formal hearings were held. Parliament acted against the monasteries solely on the royal assurance that the vile calumnies asserted against the men and women religious were true because King Henry declared them to be so.
In 1536, Parliament approved the Act of Dissolution, by which religious houses with an income of less than £200 a year would be handed to the Crown, to be held or distributed by the king. The smaller monasteries were thereby declared havens of corruption, although the Act lauded the great houses—for the moment.
The royal agents were so eager for the arrival of the booty seized from the monasteries that the Crown established the Augmentation Office in April of that same year to sort out the goods and wealth. The affected houses numbered at least over 300. Everything was taken from them, including countless pieces of art, manuscripts, bells, furniture, and doors. Houses that had existed for centuries—places of prayer, learning, and care for the surrounding communities—were torn down and ruined. The monks were to be sent out to other larger monasteries or retired with some kind of pension.
In a cruel and cunning royal gambit, Henry permitted over fifty of the suppressed monasteries to be reestablished under a new charter. In these cases, though, the Church and supporters of the monasteries were forced to pay large amounts to the royal treasury to secure royal permission. But once the money was paid, the property was again seized by the crown.
In some areas, such as Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and the northern counties, the popular uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace was caused at least in part by the dissolutions. The king understood the people’s love of the monks, so he singled out abbots and other religious when he suppressed the Pilgrimage. Twelve abbots and many other monks were executed, and a charge of treason or complicity in the Pilgrimage was sufficient cause to seize a monastery. The actions of the king forecast his annihilation of the remaining houses.
Unhappy with the meager financial gains from the first monasteries seized, Henry set about taking the remaining houses. By royal command, in April 1539 a new Parliament passed a law that gave the rest of the monasteries of England into the king’s hands. Abbots and monks who resisted were arrested on charges of treason. The abbots of Glastonbury, Reading, and Colchester were brutally executed. By the end of 1540, English monasticism had been destroyed.
The “legal” process for the dissolution of each monastery followed a grim pattern. The rapacious royal commissioners arrived with soldiers and demanded that the monks or nuns gather together and announced that the king had decreed the death of the house. The commissioners then defaced the convent or monastery seal, thereby destroying the ability of the house to engage in any official business. The holdings of the monastery were assessed, including the plate and vestments, furniture, art, and every item with any value, even the lead content of the roofs. The churches and chapels were maliciously desecrated, and workmen were dispatched to literally tear the buildings apart. The goods were hauled away and auctioned off with all of the king’s agents, from the lowest soldier to the highest officials, sharing in the plunder.
Spiritual, Artistic, and Social Loss
Only when the dissolution of the monasteries was accomplished was the sheer scale of the spiritual, artistic, and social loss realized by the English people.
It had caused the dislocation of a large body of clergy. Most of the priests were pensioned off or compelled to enter the Church of England. Nuns spent years in disrepute and received pitiful pensions. The monks, who had been the focus of Henry’s program, were the most harshly treated. The total number of religious expelled from the monastic centers was in the many thousands.
There was also the catastrophic loss of the great libraries of the monasteries, including vast holdings of early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, which were demolished as the books were torn apart for their supposedly precious bindings.
The practical effects of the devastation were as bad. The monasteries had run hospitals and provided food and alms for the poor and desperate in Tudor England. With the religious houses exterminated, England became filled with beggars and the hungry, leading to the social problems that were so much a part of Elizabethan times.
While often neglected in favor of the murders of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, the dissolution resulted in the spiritual impoverishment of the kingdom, the continued perversion of the rights of the Church and the rule of law, and the expansion of corruption in the royal government.