Suppression of English Monasteries under Henry VIII
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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 supervision 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 21 January, 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 not only been 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 meey 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:
- "railers", who declaimed against the religious as " hypocrites, sorcerers, and idle drones, etc.";
- "preachers", who said the monks "made the land unprofitable"; and
- those who told the people that, "if the abbeys went down, the king would never want any taxes again."
This last was a favourite 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 labours 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 11 January, 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 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 ultmately 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 as wholly unworthy of belief.
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 4 February, 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 "Black-book" -- 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 'Comperta'." 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 "Comperta", 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 the religious houses not possessed of an income of more than 200 pounds 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 pounds a year standard of "good living" were to be given to the king to be dealt with at his "pleasure, to the honour 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, 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 pounds 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 the same houses as being really "of good virtuous conversation", and this, not in the case of one house or district only, but, as Gairdner says, "the characters 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, 24 April, 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 exmine 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 1 March, 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 tme 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 pounds 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 favour 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-one of these refounded monasteries, some 5948 pounds, 6s. 8d. or hardly less, probably, than 60,000 pounds of 1910 money. Sir Thomas Pope, he treasurer of the Court of Augmentation, ingenuously added 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", 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 pounds 6s. 8d., for leave to continue, it was reestablished with the loss of some of its richest possessions.
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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 pounds, or some 300,000 pounds of 1910 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 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 sale 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 pounds, 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 numberless ways in which the monastic possessions could be plundered in the process of transference to their new possessor, it may not be much beyond the mark to put these "Robin Hood's pennyworths", as Stowe calls them, at about 1,000,000 pounds of 1910 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 account, sent into the Augmentation Office by the commissioners, show that it was frequently a matter of six to seven weks 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 day 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 was 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, shold 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 Lincolnshire, 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, came into Henry's hands as 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 pounds. What happened in the three years that followed the passing of the At 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 favour, 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 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 wilful 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 rumours, 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 rumour 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 divers 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 winter 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 pounds. Other valuations have placed it at a higher figure, so that a modern calculation of the annual value at 200,000 pounds, or some 2,000,000 pounds of 1910 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 1910 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 pounds, or 370,000 pounds of 1910 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 1910 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 pounds was spent upon the royal palaces, and nearly half a million on the household of the Prince of Wales. More than five millions sterling are accounted for under the head of war expenses, and nearly 700,000 pounds were spent on coast defence. Pensions to religious persons account for 330,000 pounds; and one curious item of 6000 pounds is entered as spent "to secure the surrender of the Abbey of Abingdon ."
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