History explorer: the dissolution of the monasteries

Adam Morton and Nige Tassell visit Fountains Abbey, the most recognisable reminder of Henry VIII's campaign to eradicate Rome from English life...

The ruins of Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire. Henry’s motives when dismantling such monasteries “were much more complex than pure revenge or pure avarice alone”, says Adam Morton. (Photo by Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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There are few more awesome sights in the depths of winter than the ruins of Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire. Abandoned and ruined it may be, yet the abbey stands proud and majestic, its crumpled walls bearing the scars of Henry VIII’s campaign to dissolve the monasteries nearly 500 years ago.

We’re visiting in February half-term, so the shrieks of children fill the chilly air while a procession of dog-walkers take to the paths of the 273-hectare (674-acre) National Trust estate in which the abbey sits. The only sign of conflict is when a cocker spaniel strains at his lead in an attempt to disturb a brace of pheasants lurking in the undergrowth.

Things weren’t always so peaceful. During the early decades of the 16th century, Fountains was the country’s richest Cistercian monastery – before it became one of the biggest casualties of Henry’s attempt to wipe the influence of Rome from the English landscape. The sweeping programme of closures – orchestrated by the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell – left Fountains, and hundreds of other monasteries and abbeys, empty and at the mercy of the elements.

The decision to dissolve England’s monasteries was a consequence of Henry’s split from the Catholic church after Pope Clement VII refused to annul the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1527. Not that this was merely an act of revenge by an angry monarch, as the University of Newcastle’s Adam Morton explains as we stroll down the estate’s gentle slopes towards the ruins.

“There’s a danger of seeing Henry as a stage villain,” he says. “He’s often viewed in black-and-white terms – as someone who was motivated by lust or who was unstable. But above all else, the Dissolution was an exertion of power. Henry now had this new type of kingship – royal supremacy. It made him head of church and state – and there was no better demonstration of that than dissolving the monasteries.”

By the mid-1530s, a quarter of a century into his reign, Henry had spent much of his inheritance, while the monasteries were known for being cash-rich. Again, though, Morton warns that we shouldn’t interpret the king’s actions as mono-causal. Rather than being a simple cash grab, the financial aspect was part of a wider restructuring of society. “However, accusing the monasteries of avarice or of hypocrisy – preaching charity while being very, very rich – was certainly part of the polemical strategy to downgrade them in the eyes of the populace or parliament.

“We also have to consider how Henry saw himself. It’s very easy for us to think of him as greedy or avaricious, but he saw himself as an Old Testament monarch. Rightly or wrongly, he viewed his break from Rome as biblical – as the way in which a king should act. He often described himself as King David or King Hezekiah. These were iconoclasts. And what do iconoclasts do? They break superstition and deliver the word to their people. His own motivations were much more complex than pure revenge or pure avarice alone.”

Cromwell’s campaign

As we step inside the ruins, Morton explains the methods of Cromwell and his men.

The Valor Ecclesiasticus was a crucial tool: a survey to discover how rich each monastery was – and how immoral the behaviour of its residents. “The ability to commission a report of that size tells us of Henry’s will for royal supremacy,” says Morton. It was a huge undertaking. And for Cromwell “it was particularly opportunistic. When it came to persuading parliament and the populace that these places should be closed, he made the exceptional seem the norm.

He found the juiciest stories, the juiciest examples of corruption, and would say: ‘These people are all like this.’”

Indeed, a 1535 investigation by a pair of royal commissioners into the moral code being applied at Fountains ended with eight members of the community being charged with immoral acts including self-abuse, affairs with women both married and single, and sodomy with young boys – exactly the kind of juicy stories on which Henry’s loyal confidant could go to town.

While delivering this programme of political spin, Cromwell and his men also applied scare tactics to the monasteries themselves. “The abbot and the monks would have experienced a huge exertion of pressure,” explains Morton, “placing them under a psychological strain. Their obedience was being questioned. Do you accept the royal supremacy? If you don’t, does that mean you’re a traitor?

“Houses were visited by Cromwell’s men, who applied pressure for closure. They called people to interviews. They publicly demanded loyalty. In the early stages of closure, the crown was looking for those monasteries where the resistance wasn’t going to be the most acute. It was pushing a policy of voluntary surrender – getting the abbot to surrender the monastery to the crown.

“The more educated and confident could ask whether it was technically legal. Who actually owned the monasteries? Who owned the founders’ rights? And does the state have the right to run roughshod over them? This is why psychological pressure was really important. Cromwell was essentially trying to get around things by forcing people to give up the monasteries.”

Two years after the 1536 act of parliament that legitimised the first wave of closures, the campaign was stepped up with the appointment of Richard Ingworth. “He was – and I’m looking for a non-partisan word here – an effective administrator,” says Morton. “He closed a lot of the larger monasteries without the sanction of parliament, before the bill to do so was actually passed.”

Rebellion against reformation

The Dissolution was not welcomed. Not only was the Catholic church very popular, but the monasteries also performed numerous functions for communities, providing education, charity, medical facilities and hospitality for passing travellers. Their intended closures were opposed for more than just religious reasons. “Early-modern people generally didn’t like novelty, they didn’t like change. So something as destructive as this was very, very hard to sell to them.”

Here, in the north of England, there was open dissent – the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ – not just against the philosophical justification for the Dissolution but also against the physical dismantling of the monasteries.

“There is a case to be made that the Pilgrimage of Grace was the most significant rebellion in England faced by the Tudor monarchs,” declares Morton. “Estimates suggest that between 30,000 and 50,000 people were involved. In the first instance, Henry was forced to negotiate, to placate the rebels. There wasn’t a standing army in the 16th century. The state didn’t have the power to deal with that many people.

“The response was emotional, above anything else. It was a sense of loss. Rebellions in this period were fundamentally conservative. We think of popular revolt in a very 19th or 20th-century way, about pushing for change. But rebellion in this earlier period was almost always triggered by a breach of custom – by the state doing something unprecedented. These people rebelled against change. They wanted things to go back.” And once the king had successfully placated the rebels, many of the ringleaders were publicly executed. “It was a huge display of Henry’s displeasure and of his power,” says Morton. “This was royal supremacy.”

After just five years, 800 monasteries had been closed and the crown had grabbed their assets. Increasingly, though, to fund overseas wars Henry sold off the land to private individuals who, as a result, climbed the social ladder. In 1540, one year after its abbot and 30 monks were pensioned off, the Fountains estate was sold to the merchant Sir Richard Gresham, who promptly peddled some of the fabric of the abbey for building materials. The crown had already melted down the valuable lead from its roofs and pipes, while a subsequent owner used the abbey’s stonework to build Fountains Hall.

As we walk back up the hill, sidestepping an impromptu kids’ kickabout on the lawns, we glance back at the abbey – a victim of short-termism and plunder, but somehow defiant in the low February sun. It now stands as a memorial to a time when the fabric of English religious life changed forever.

The dissolution: five more places to explore

1) Bath Abbey (Somerset)

Where a king’s work was undone

Bath Priory was surrendered to the crown in 1539 during the Dissolution, after which it was stripped of its fabric and abandoned. In 1574, Elizabeth I sought to repair the damage caused by her father’s campaign, and ordered that funds be raised to restore the building to its former glory.

Visit bathabbey.org

2) Furness Abbey (Cumbria)

Where the ruins run red

This 12th-century abbey at the northern edge of Barrow-in-Furness was England’s second-richest Cistercian monastery after Fountains Abbey. Built from red sandstone in a shallow valley, it’s the subject of the William Wordsworth poem At Furness Abbey, where because of “rash undoing / Man left this Structure to become Time’s prey”.

Visit english-heritage.org.uk

3) Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset)

Where an abbot met a grisly end

Destroyed by fire in the 12th century but quickly rebuilt, Glastonbury became the richest abbey in England after Westminster. Its last abbot resisted the raid on its valuables during the Dissolution, and was hanged, drawn and quartered on nearby Glastonbury Tor, reputedly for treason.

Visit glastonburyabbey.com

4) Leicester Abbey (Leicester)

Where “unnatural vice” occurred

Officially known as the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis, Leicester Abbey was very much in decline by the time of the Dissolution thanks to mismanagement by successive abbots. The Valor Ecclesiasticus made reference to “adultery and unnatural vice” here, and not even the attempted bribery of Thomas Cromwell could halt its closure in 1538. The outlines of the foundations can be seen in Abbey Park.

Visit leicester.gov.uk

5) Walsingham Priory (Norfolk)

Where the pilgrims flocked

Home to a shrine of the Virgin Mary, for centuries Walsingham was a popular destination for pilgrims, among them six kings – including Henry VIII himself. However, the shrine was removed during the Dissolution, the priory largely dismantled and the site then sold by Henry for £90.

Visit walsinghamabbey.com

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Historical advisor: Dr Adam Morton, lecturer in the history of Britain at Newcastle University. Words: Nige Tassell.