Dissolution of the monasteries

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Tintern Abbey © MartinBiely

Tintern Abbey © MartinBiely

The dissolution of the monasteries, occasionally referred to as the suppression of the monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries in England, Wales, and Ireland, expropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided for their former personnel and functions. Although the policy was originally envisaged as increasing the regular income of the Crown, much former monastic property was sold off to fund Henry’s military campaigns in the 1540s. He was given the authority to do this in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from papal authority, and by the First Suppression Act (1535) and the Second Suppression Act (1539). While Thomas Cromwell, Vicar-general and Vice-regent of England, is often considered the leader of the Dissolutions, he merely oversaw the project, one he had hoped to use for reform of monasteries, not closure or seizure. The Dissolution project was created by England’s Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley, and Court of Augmentations head Richard Rich. Professor George W. Bernard argues that:

The dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s was one of the most revolutionary events in English history. There were nearly 900 religious houses in England, around 260 for monks, 300 for regular canons, 142 nunneries and 183 friaries; some 12,000 people in total, 4,000 monks, 3,000 canons, 3,000 friars and 2,000 nuns. If the adult male population was 500,000, that meant that one adult man in fifty was in religious orders.

The abbeys of England, Wales and Ireland had been among the greatest landowners and the largest institutions in the kingdoms, although by the early 16th century, religious donors increasingly tended to favour parish churches, collegiate churches, university colleges and grammar schools, and these were now the predominant centres for learning and the arts. Nevertheless, and particularly in areas far from London, the abbeys, convents and priories were centres of hospitality and learning, and everywhere they remained a main source of charity for the old and infirm. The removal of over eight hundred such institutions, virtually overnight, left great gaps in the social fabric. In addition, about a quarter of net monastic wealth on average consisted of “spiritual” income arising where the religious house held the advowson of a benefice with the legal obligation to maintain the cure of souls in the parish, originally by nominating the rector and taking an annual rental payment. Over the medieval period, monasteries and priories continually sought papal exemptions, so as to appropriate the glebe and tithe income of rectoral benefices in their possession to their own use. However, from the 13th century onwards, English diocesan bishops successfully established the principle that only the glebe and ‘greater tithes’ of grain, hay and wood could be appropriated by monastic patrons in this manner; the ‘lesser tithes’ had to remain within the parochial benefice; the incumbent of which thenceforward carried the title of ‘vicar’. By 1535, of 8,838 rectories, 3,307 had thus been appropriated with vicarages; but at this late date, a small sub-set of vicarages in monastic ownership were not being served by beneficed clergy at all. In almost all such instances, these were parish churches in the ownership of houses of Augustinian or Premonstratensian canons, orders whose rules required them to provide parochial worship within their conventual churches, for the most part as chapels of ease of a more distant parish church. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards the canons had been able to exploit their hybrid status to justify petitions for papal privileges of appropriation, allowing them to fill vicarages in their possession either from among their own number, or from secular stipendiary priests removable at will; these arrangements corresponded to those for their chapels of ease. On the dissolution these spiritual income streams were sold off on the same basis as landed endowments, creating a new class of lay impropriators, who thereby became entitled to the patronage of the living together with the income from tithes and glebe lands; albeit that they also as lay rectors became liable to maintain the fabric of the parish chancel. The existing incumbent rectors and vicars serving parish churches formerly the property of the monasteries continued in post, their incomes unaffected. However, in those of the canons’ parish churches and chapels of ease which had become unbeneficed, the lay rector as patron was additionally obliged to establish a stipend for a perpetual curate. It is unlikely that the monastic system could have been broken simply by royal action had there not been the overwhelming bait of enhanced status for gentry large and small, and the convictions of the small but determined Protestant faction. Anti-clericalism was a familiar feature of late medieval Europe, producing its own strain of satiric literature that was aimed at a literate middle class.

Along with the destruction of the monasteries, some of them many hundreds of years old, the related destruction of the monastic libraries was perhaps the greatest cultural loss caused by the English Reformation. Worcester Priory (now Worcester Cathedral) had 600 books at the time of the dissolution. Only six of them are known to have survived intact to the present day. At the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York, a library of 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three known survivors. Some books were destroyed for their precious bindings, others were sold off by the cartload. The antiquarian John Leland was commissioned by the King to rescue items of particular interest (especially manuscript sources of Old English history), and other collections were made by private individuals, notably Matthew Parker. Nevertheless, much was lost, especially manuscript books of English church music, none of which had then been printed.

A great nombre of them whych purchased those supertycyous mansyons, resrved of those lybrarye bokes, some to serve theyr jakes, some to scoure candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and soapsellers.
— John Bale, 1549

The Act of 1539 also provided for the suppression of religious hospitals, which had constituted in England a distinct class of institution, endowed for the purpose of caring for older people. A very few of these, such as Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital in London (which still exists, though under a different name between 1546 and 1948), were exempted by special royal dispensation but most closed, their residents being discharged with small pensions. Monasteries had also supplied free food and alms for the poor and destitute, and it has been argued that the removal of this and other charitable resources, amounting to about 5 per cent of net monastic income, was one of the factors in the creation of the army of “sturdy beggars” that plagued late Tudor England, causing the social instability that led to the Edwardian and Elizabethan Poor Laws. This argument has been disputed, for example, by G. W. O. Woodward, who summarises:

No great host of beggars was suddenly thrown on the roads for monastic charity had had only marginal significance and, even had the abbeys been allowed to remain, could scarcely have coped with the problems of unemployment and poverty created by the population and inflationary pressures of the middle and latter parts of the sixteenth century.

Monasteries had necessarily undertaken schooling for their novice members, which in the later medieval period had tended to extend to cover choristers and sometimes other younger scholars; all this educational resource was lost with their dissolution. By contrast, where monasteries had provided grammar schools for older scholars, these were commonly refounded with enhanced endowments; some by royal command in connection with the newly re-established cathedral churches, others by private initiative. Monastic orders had maintained, for the education of their members, six colleges at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, of which five survived as refoundations. Hospitals too were frequently to be re-endowed by private benefactors; and many new almshouses and charities were to be founded by the Elizabethan gentry and professional classes (London Charterhouse/Charterhouse School being an example which still survives). Nevertheless, it has been estimated that only in 1580 did overall levels of charitable giving in England return to those before the dissolution. On the eve of the overthrow, the various monasteries owned approximately 2,000,000 acres (8,100 km²), over 16 percent of England, with tens of thousands of tenant farmers working those lands, some of whom had family ties to a particular monastery going back many generations.

St Mary's Abbey in York, founded in 1155 and destroyed circa 1539 © Peter K Burian/cc-by-sa-4.0 Stogursey Priory in Summerset, dissolved in 1414 and granted to Eton College © JohnArmagh Tintern Abbey © MartinBiely Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire © Johnteslade Furness Abbey in Cumbria © JohnArmagh Glastonbury Abbey © Littleblackpistol
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St Mary's Abbey in York, founded in 1155 and destroyed circa 1539 © Peter K Burian/cc-by-sa-4.0
It has been argued that the suppression of the English monasteries and nunneries contributed as well to the spreading decline of that contemplative spirituality which once thrived in Europe, with the occasional exception found only in groups such as the Society of Friends (“Quakers”). This may be set against the continuation in the retained and newly established cathedrals of the daily singing of the Divine Office by choristers and vicars choral, now undertaken as public worship, which had not been the case before the dissolution. The deans and prebends of the six new cathedrals were overwhelmingly former heads of religious houses. The secularised former monks and friars commonly looked for re-employment as parish clergy; and consequently numbers of new ordinations dropped drastically in the ten years after the dissolution, and ceased almost entirely in the reign of Edward VI. It was only in 1549, after Edward came to the throne, that former monks and nuns were permitted to marry; but within a year of permission being granted around a quarter had done so, only to find themselves forcibly separated (and denied their pensions) in the reign of Mary. On the succession of Elizabeth, these former monks and friars (happily reunited both with their wives and their pensions) formed a major part of the backbone of the new Anglican church, and may properly claim much credit for maintaining the religious life of the country until a new generation of ordinands became available in the 1560s and 1570s. In the medieval church, there had been no seminaries or other institutions dedicated to training men as parish clergy. An aspiring candidate for ordination, having acquired a grammar school education and appropriate experience, would have been presented to the bishop’s commissary for examination; typically sponsored in this by an ecclesiastical corporation which provided him with a ‘title’, a notional patrimony assuring the bishop of his financial security. By the 16th century the sponsors were overwhelmingly religious houses, although monasteries provided no formal parochial training, and the financial ‘title’ was a legal fiction. With the rapid expansion of grammar school provision in the late medieval period, the numbers of men being presented each year for ordination greatly exceeded the number of benefices falling vacant through the death of the incumbent priest, and consequently most newly ordained parish clergy could commonly expect to succeed to a benefice, if at all, only after many years as a Mass priest of low social standing. In the knowledge that alternative arrangements for sponsorship and title would now need to be made, the dissolution legislation provided that the lay and ecclesiastical successors of the monks in former monastic endowments could in the future provide valid title for ordinands. However, these new arrangements appear to have taken a considerable period to gain general acceptance, and the circumstances of the church in the late 1530s may not have encouraged candidates to come forward. Consequently, and for 20 years afterwards until the succession of Elizabeth I, the number of ordinands in every diocese in England and Wales fell drastically below the numbers required to replace the mortality of existing incumbents. At the same time, the restrictions on ‘pluralism’ introduced through legislation in 1529 prevented the accumulation of multiple benefices by individual clergy, and accordingly by 1559 some 10 per cent of benefices were vacant and the former reserve army of Mass priests had largely been absorbed into the ranks of beneficed clergy. Monastic successors tended thereafter to prefer to sponsor university graduates as candidates for the priesthood; and, although the government signally failed to respond to the consequent need for expanded educational provision, individual benefactors stepped into the breach, with the refoundation as university colleges of five out of the six former monastic colleges of Oxford and Cambridge; while Jesus College, Oxford and Emmanuel College, Cambridge were newly founded with the express purpose of educating a Protestant parish clergy. Consequently, one unintended long-term consequence of the dissolution was the transformation of the parish clergy in England and Wales into an educated professional class of secure beneficed incumbents of distinctly higher social standing; one that furthermore, through intermarriage of one another’s children, became substantially self-perpetuating. Although it had been promised that the King’s enhanced wealth would enable the founding or enhanced endowment of religious, charitable and educational institutions, in practice only about 15 per cent of the total monastic wealth was reused for these purposes. This comprised: the refoundation of eight out of ten former monastic cathedrals (Coventry and Bath being the exceptions), together with six wholly new bishoprics (Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough, Westminster) with their associated cathedrals, chapters, choirs and grammar schools; the re-foundation as secular colleges of monastic houses in Brecon, Thornton and Burton upon Trent; the endowment of five Regius Professorships in each of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and the endowment of the colleges of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford and the maritime charity of Trinity House. Thomas Cranmer objected to the provision of the new cathedrals with complete chapters of prebendaries at high stipends, but in the face of pressure to ensure that well-paid posts would continue, his protests had no effect. On the other hand, Cranmer was able to ensure that the new grammar schools attached both to ‘New Foundation’ and ‘Old Foundation’ cathedrals should be well funded, and accessible to boys from all walks of life. About a third of total monastic income was required to maintain pension payments to former monks and nuns, and hence remained with the Court of Augmentations. This left just over half to be available to be sold at market rates (very little property was given away by Henry to favoured servants, and any that was tended to revert to the Crown once their recipients fell out of favour, and were indicted for treason). By comparison with the forcible closure of monasteries elsewhere in Protestant Europe, the English and Welsh dissolutions resulted in a relatively modest volume of new educational endowments; but the treatment of former monks and nuns was more generous, and there was no counterpart elsewhere to the efficient mechanisms established in England to maintain pension payments over successive decades.

The dissolution and destruction of the monasteries and shrines was very unpopular in many areas. In the north of England, centring on Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the suppression of the monasteries led to a popular rising, the Pilgrimage of Grace, that threatened the Crown for some weeks. In 1536 there were major, popular uprisings in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and a further rising in Norfolk the following year. James Clark claims in The Dissolution of the Monasteries:

The Lincolnshire rising lasted less than a week but before its end their cause was carried across the county’s northern border. Now, there were copycat musterings passing up through Yorkshire as far as Northumberland, and to the west as far as the gateway into Wales.

Rumours were spread that the King was going to strip the parish churches too, and even tax cattle and sheep. The rebels called for an end to the dissolution of the monasteries and for the removal of Cromwell. Henry defused the movement with solemn promises, all of which went unkept, and then summarily executed the leaders. When Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, Mary I, succeeded to the throne in 1553, her hopes for a revival of English religious life proved a failure. Westminster Abbey, which had been retained as a cathedral, reverted to being a monastery; while the communities of the Bridgettine nuns and of the Observant Franciscans, which had gone into exile in the reign of Henry VIII, were able to return to their former houses at Syon and Greenwich respectively. A small group of fifteen surviving Carthusians was re-established in their old house at Sheen, as also were eight Dominican canonesses in Dartford. A house of Dominican friars was established at Smithfield, but this was only possible through importing professed religious from Holland and Spain, and Mary’s hopes of further refoundations foundered, as she found it very difficult to persuade former monks and nuns to resume the religious life; consequently schemes for restoring the abbeys at Glastonbury and St Albans failed for lack of volunteers. All the refounded houses were in properties that had remained in Crown possession; but, in spite of much prompting, none of Mary’s lay supporters would co-operate in returning their holdings of monastic lands to religious use; while the lay lords in Parliament proved unremittingly hostile, as a revival of the “mitred” abbeys would have returned the House of Lords to having an ecclesiastical majority. Moreover, there remained a widespread suspicion that the return of religious communities to their former premises might call into question the legal title of lay purchasers of monastic land, and accordingly all Mary’s foundations were technically new communities in law. In 1554 Cardinal Pole, the papal legate, negotiated a papal dispensation allowing the new owners to retain the former monastic lands, and in return Parliament enacted the heresy laws in January 1555. When Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I, five of the six revived communities left again to exile in continental Europe. An Act of Elizabeth’s first parliament dissolved the refounded houses. But although Elizabeth offered to allow the monks in Westminster to remain in place with restored pensions if they took the Oath of Supremacy and conformed to the new Book of Common Prayer, all refused and dispersed unpensioned. In less than 20 years, the monastic impulse had effectively been extinguished in England; and was only revived, even amongst Catholics, in the very different form of the new and reformed counter-reformation orders, such as the Jesuits.

Read more on Wikipedia Dissolution of the monasteries (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Johns Hopkins University & Medicine - Coronavirus Resource Center - Global Passport Power Rank - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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