The dissolution of the monasteries: mindless violence or planned precision?

The dissolution of the monasteries has long been cast as an orgy of mindless violence unleashed by a hot-headed Henry VIII. Yet this was a precision-planned operation, writes Hugh Willmott, and wanton destruction wasn’t its primary aim

The ruins of the once magnificent Roche Abbey

The dissolution of the monasteries was the greatest single act of vandalism in English, and perhaps European history,” undertaken by “a grasping and tyrannical king, and effected through… ruthless, cynical and philistine men.” So wrote the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin in an essay on the topic in 1999.

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This view of the Dissolution as a callous “smash and grab” – one that resulted in the wanton destruction of the nation’s medieval heritage – has permeated both the academic literature and popular imagination since the event itself, despite Hilary Mantel’s heroic attempt to humanise Thomas Cromwell. But is that all there is to the story of what is indisputably one of the most significant events of the 16th century?

Carried out between 1536 and 1541, the dissolution of the monasteries saw agents of King Henry VIII and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, shutting down more than 800 of England’s religious houses and confiscating their possessions. Given that it was enacted in the wake of Henry’s break with the Catholic church of Rome – and his prosecution of a series of costly wars – the king’s targeting of the monasteries has widely been characterised as a bold and brutal bid to cement his religious supremacy, and to divert the church’s vast wealth into his coffers.

Our view of these events is inevitably influenced by surviving contemporary, or near-contemporary, accounts. And no account was more influential than Michael Sherbrook’s Falle of the Religiouse Howses. While the beneficiaries of the closure of the monasteries remained largely silent, those, like Sherbrook, who felt aggrieved were most certainly not – and they wasted little time in describing the Dissolution as an act of mindless vandalism.

The destruction of Roche Abbey in Yorkshire “would have pitied any heart to see”, observed Sherbrook, “for it would have made an heart of flint to have melted and weeped to have seen the breaking up of the house… and the sudden spoil that fell the same day.” When the events of the 1530s are described as an ugly stain on English history, Sherbrook’s book is at least partly responsible. Yet take a closer look at the man and his writings, and all is not what it seems.

Henry VIII
The dissolution of the monasteries saw agents of King Henry VIII and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, shutting down more than 800 of England’s religious houses. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

Despite being described by many as “an eyewitness account”, the Falle is nothing of the sort; in June 1538, when Roche was suppressed, Sherbrook was no more than four years of age. Instead, we must look to the motivation behind Sherbrook’s words, written three decades after the event. Although he was an Anglican priest in adulthood, Sherbrook retained a devotion towards the old (Catholic) religion and the monastic way of life. In particular, he was a fierce critic of John Foxe, whose famous work of Protestant history and martyrology, Actes and Monuments, was published in English for the first time in 1563, shortly before Sherbrook started to compile the Falle. Sherbrook’s account must therefore be seen not as a measured piece of reportage but as a critique of the growing Puritan movement.

The Falle is far from entirely fictitious – it drew upon the testimonials of witnesses, which according to Sherbrook included his own uncle and father. However, read it in a more nuanced way, and a picture of meticulous planning, rather than random destruction, emerges. What can be seen is a highly organised pattern of dismantling, sale and dispersal – one that followed Cromwell’s exacting instructions and was replicated at monasteries across the country. The monks were allowed to take their cells’ contents with them, servants were paid off, and timbers from the church were purchased (not stolen) by the local gentry and yeomen.

At one point in the Falle, Sherbrook laments that pewter vessels had been “conveyed away” and hidden in cliffs around the abbey “so that it seemeth every person bent himself to filch and spoil”. Yet, in all probability, these pewters were deliberately concealed by the residents of the abbey rather than the victims of looting.

In fact, it seems likely that most of the house’s possessions were carefully looked after in anticipation of a future sale. Four years after the closure of Roche, Ecclesfield church purchased some of the former abbey’s vestments, which had clearly been well maintained in the intervening period. And Sherbrook’s own assertion that “bells I did see hang in there myself [the abbey steeple], more than a year after the suppression” suggests that these had been left untouched, despite being one of the more valuable portable assets.

Genuine historical accounts of looting are rare and largely confined to opportunistic petty theft, particularly when the monastic house was located in an urban centre. Letters from Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners mention such incidents at Reading Greyfriars and Bridlington Priory (in Yorkshire’s East Riding). We know that a tinker was hanged after being caught stealing lead from Pipewell Abbey in Northamptonshire. But, in the majority of cases, precautions were apparently successful in preventing such criminal acts.

Genuine accounts of the looting of monasteries are rare and largely confined to petty theft

Perhaps the best documented example of widespread theft took place at Hailes Abbey in the Cotswolds, where the entire population – from the gentry to yeoman farmers – were implicated in the building’s looting. Yet, as the American historian Ethan Shagan has pointed out, there was a particular reason for this outbreak of lawbreaking: the debunking of Hailes’ most venerated relic, the Blood of Christ. When the community discovered that the relic was nothing more than beeswax coloured with saffron, they vented their anger on the monastery that had deceived them.

A change of scene

So if the Dissolution wasn’t merely a chaotic “scramble for spoils” led by a tyrannical king – as is so often portrayed in traditional accounts – what was it? While it undeniably had a devastating impact upon those in religious orders, and enriched many others, it was a far more complex series of events, which developed out of a rapidly changing political and religious scene. The historian George Bernard has argued that the events of the 1530s should be seen in the broader context of Henry VIII’s genuine desire for wider ecclesiastical reform as well as his efforts to tighten control over the church. At this point, at least, it was never intended that all the monasteries be closed.

The origins of the Dissolution lay in Henry VIII’s split with Rome and the passing of the First Fruits and Tenths Act in 1534, when a 10 per cent tax on all church assets that had formerly gone to the pope passed to the king. The act led to the compilation of the Valor Ecclesiasticus the following year, which assessed all religious institutions’ wealth, including the monasteries. It was only at this point that the decision was made to close some of the less wealthy monasteries, followed by a second round of visitations to report on how well each house was run.

Whether this was an exercise in smearing the monasteries’ reputation and justifying their closure has been hotly debated. Crown commissioners often painted a bleak picture, but they did also report that many houses were well run. And it’s worth noting that these visitations weren’t uniquely scathing: those undertaken by diocesan bishops in earlier decades could also be damning in their criticism.

The first parliamentary act resulting from these visitations was passed in February 1536, and it allowed for the forced suppression of houses with incomes of less than £200. Despite 419 institutions falling below this threshold, only 243 were closed at this point, and the act made provision for all those who wished to remain in orders to be transferred to an alternative house. This provision perhaps most clearly demonstrates that a master plan to close all the monasteries was not yet in place.

What transformed the situation was a series of popular revolts in late 1536 and early 1537 – the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace in Yorkshire and the Lincolnshire Rising – which were triggered, in part, by opposition to the initial monastic suppressions. Once these revolts had been put down, there seems to have been a rapid change in government policy. First, houses that had participated in the risings were suppressed. However, these were quickly followed by those that had no involvement in the unrest.

A second act was finally passed in 1539, making it legal for abbots from the larger monasteries to surrender their houses. Though it did not compel them to do so, most monasteries had already been coerced into surrender before the act had even passed into law. Waltham Abbey was the last to be suppressed, on 23 March 1540.

Contrary to Michael Sherbrook’s description of a chaotic free-for-all, what followed the closure of a monastery was a highly controlled and regulated process. The monks were released from their vows, and if the monastery had not resisted surrender, the crown gave them pensions for life dependent on the house’s wealth and their former religious status.

On the monks’ eviction, the monastery reverted to the crown, and some of its contents were removed immediately. Any precious metals and money recovered was sent to the Tower: Sir John Williams, the master of the jewels, recorded that between 1538 and 1540 the equivalent of 412kg of gold, 7,800kg of silver and £79,081 16s 4½d in coin entered the king’s purse.

Local sales were often then organised to disperse the lesser goods and chattels of the house. These were usually purchased by private individuals, local churches, and even the former inhabitants of the monasteries themselves. At Monk Bretton Priory, a former inmate acquired a significant proportion of the house’s monastic books, while John Leland, acting on behalf of the king, scoured many of the monastic libraries for items to add to the royal collection. Despite John Bale’s fanciful suggestion in 1549 that local people used monastic texts “to serve theyr jakes” (“use as bog roll”), however uncomfortable such a repurposing might have been, any goods that held commercial value would likely have been sold to maximise profit.

TIMELINE: The fall of the monasteries

1524–29

Cardinal Wolsey suppresses 29 small monasteries with papal blessing in order to use their revenues to found two colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. This so-called “Little Dissolution” sets an unintended precedent for the later Dissolution.

1534 

The First Fruits and Tenths Act diverts the 10 per cent annual tax on clerical incomes from the papacy to the crown.

November 1534

The Act of Supremacy sees Henry VIII declared as the supreme head of the Church of England.

January–May 1535

Valor Ecclesiasticus, a valuation of all church and monastic revenues, is compiled and reveals the full scale of the wealth of the monasteries.

January 1535

Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners begin to examine and report upon the state of the monasteries in England and Wales.

February 1536

The Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries makes legal the enforced closure of any religious house with an income of less than £200 per annum. The first suppressions start immediately afterwards.

October 1536–37

Two popular uprisings – the Lincolnshire Rising and Pilgrimage of Grace – apparently inspire the final decision to suppress all the remaining monastic houses.

1537–38

Increasing pressure is put on the remaining monasteries to surrender to the king irrespective of their income. Increasing numbers comply.

April 1539

The Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries retrospectively makes legal all past and future “voluntary” surrenders of monastic houses.

23 March 1540

Waltham Abbey in Essex is closed. It is the last of 800 religious houses to be suppressed in just over four years.

Stripped on site

Certain building materials of value, most notably the lead from the roofs and pipework, were reserved for the king, stripped on site and melted down into ingots before being removed. This process was thoroughly documented and could generate significant sums. At Jervaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, agents of the king removed 399½ fothers of lead (roughly the equivalent of 400 tonnes) and valued them at £1,000. Remains of lead ingots have been recovered during excavations on several sites, most notably Rievaulx (North York Moors) but also the monasteries at Kenilworth, Ixworth (Suffolk) and Haverfordwest. Furnaces constructed to melt these vast quantities of lead have also been found in the cloister ranges at several monasteries, most notably in the church at Langley Abbey in Norfolk, where it was located at the site of the high altar itself.

Pipework and lead from the roof were reserved for the king, stripped on site and melted down

Once these materials had been removed, most monasteries remained, at least initially, unmolested. But the stripping of lead roofs would have rendered most principal buildings unusable in the short term, and the buildings still represented a tangible asset for the crown. This value was articulated in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, written in 1538 by a king’s agent called Dr London, describing the recent closure of Reading Friary. Dr London had “defaced the church, the windows being full of friars, and left the roof and walls whole to the king’s use”.

Under Cromwell’s oversight, it appears that, at first, it was the government’s intention that the crown would retain the vast majority of monastic land and lease it to provide a perpetual income for the king. Indeed, few outright grants of land were made before 1540, and it wasn’t until the last five years of Henry’s reign that sales increased rapidly (by the king’s death in early 1547, around half had already been sold).

What is now clear is that there was no great “giveaway” of this newfound wealth by the king to his cronies. Statements from early historians such as Gustave Constant, who mused that monastic land was squandered “as stakes in a game of dice”, can be shown to be wholly untrue. Several decades of detailed regional surveys examining what happened to monastic land around the country have consistently shown that property and holdings were usually sold at a fixed regulated rate of 20 times their annual income, although this was significantly lower in urban areas.

The time that elapsed between the closure of a monastery and its eventual resale could be quite considerable, and in the meantime they appear to have remained intact, if derelict. Excavations at several sites, such as Chelmsford Priory and the Dominican friary in Oxford, showed that considerable depths of debris built up within the now-vacant buildings, and even young saplings were able to take hold. At Coventry, the priory church remained abandoned for some years, only used as a waste dump by a nearby slaughterhouse. For a time, its only residents were a pack of unfortunate feral dogs who were crushed to death when a section of the decayed nave vault fell suddenly upon them.

New leases of life

Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the Dissolution is what happened to the churches, cloisters and precincts once they had entered into new ownership. Despite popular misconceptions, few disappeared entirely in the 16th century; they often evolved into new roles and functions.

Examples of the complete destruction of monastic complexes at this time are rare, although one exception was Lewes Priory in East Sussex, a site that Cromwell himself acquired. The king’s chief minister had to employ a military engineer called Giovanni Portinari and a considerable quantity of gunpowder to raze the priory – a level of resource that few others would have had at their disposal. Indeed, less professional attempts to destroy monastic buildings resulted in disaster. Excavations at both Stanley and Rievaulx abbeys revealed the skeletal remains of workers crushed by masonry falls during unsuccessful attempts to undermine the monastery walls. In both these cases, the demolition operations seem to have been abandoned shortly after.

In the following decades, monasteries were converted into schools, hospitals, guild halls and even prisons

Instead, new owners often sought to adapt, and thus unwittingly preserve, the medieval buildings. We’ve long known about the conversion of monastic cloisters and even churches into high-status mansions – Sir William Paulet’s transformation of Netley Abbey near Southampton into a residence resulted in the near-complete survival of the entire Cistercian plan, which remains an impressive ruin today. But what is becoming more apparent are the large numbers of smaller-scale domestic conversions that utilised a single element of the former cloister complex, providing opportunities for those of more modest means to create cost-effective dwellings. Many urban houses were acquired and put to more general civic use. In the decades following the Dissolution, buildings were converted into schools, hospitals, guild halls and even prisons.

Perhaps what is less appreciated today is the extent to which religious life continued in the suppressed monasteries. Six former abbey complexes were retained to serve the new dioceses created for the reordered English church. What’s more, up to 250 parishes had long-established rights to worship within their local monastic churches – and they continued to be respected even after the Dissolution. Portions of monastic churches, and sometimes the whole building, were given over to parochial use, and many are still retained for this purpose today.

The Dissolution was an undeniably destructive act, but 480 years later, the monastic world’s legacy still surrounds us and was never completely extinguished.

Hugh Willmott is senior lecturer in European Historical Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. His books include The Dissolution of the Monasteries (Equinox Publishing, 2020)

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the dissolution of the monasteries on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time

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This article was first published in the February 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine