Apart from the Black Death plague pandemic of the 1340s, no event in the years between the Norman Conquest and the Civil War brought more of a sudden or far-reaching change to England’s social and religious life than the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. At the start of that decade England was one of the most monkish nations in Europe. All the German principalities combined could muster only a tally of some 3,000 monks, nuns, and friars. In mainland England alone their number was around 12,000, distributed between roughly 850 religious houses. Their presence impinged on “social and economic life in every region, urban and rural”.
Yet in only four years, from 1536 to 1540, this “vowed life” was utterly extinguished. All England’s monastic communities were dispersed. Belfries that for centuries had announced the hours of prayer suddenly fell silent. Conventual churches and cloisters became quarries for the local building trade.
In retrospect, the dissolution has come to be viewed as yet another phase in the Protestant Reformation, with Thomas Cromwell – the driving force behind the policy – as either hero or villain of the piece, according to taste. Building on foundations laid by Cromwell’s biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch, James G Clark’s new book – a profoundly scholarly and compellingly readable exploration of the sudden vanishing of this monastic world – reveals a process and a series of motives behind it that is far more complex than this confessional narrative supposes.
For there was nothing particularly Protestant, or uniquely English, about wanting to close down monasteries. Previous centuries provided numerous precedents for large-scale monastic closures under pious Catholic kings – some 50 under Edward III (r. 1327-77) alone. Moreover, by the 1530s, the humanism of the Renaissance, with its classically inspired esteem for civic engagement, was calling into question the very worth of the cloistered life, and for reasons that had little to do with religious reform.
From this perspective, Cardinal Wolsey’s closure of 29 monasteries in the 1520s, providing resources that could then be redeployed elsewhere in the service of the Church, appeared a forward-looking model for action. Thus, as Cromwell – a veteran of Wolsey’s service – began the suppression of a series of smaller monasteries from 1536, the policy appeared to many senior churchmen “to promise a beginning, not an end”: the inauguration of a smaller-but-stronger and revivified monastic constituency within the Church.
As late as the autumn of 1537, Clark suggests, there were expectations “that the compact between the Crown and the monastic Church could be renewed”. Few tableaux exemplify this optimism more clearly than the sight of all the orders of “monastic London” assembled in St Paul’s in October 1537 – “in rich copes, and [with] the abbot of Westminster mitred” – to celebrate the birth of Prince Edward, the future Edward VI.
What went wrong? Resistance to the policy provides part of Clark’s explanation. At first, this resistance took such politically innocuous forms as collusion between abbots and their gentry neighbours in hiding or selling monastic treasures to keep them out of the hands of the king’s commissioners.
By the second half of 1537, however, there was a “steadily rising opposition” intent not only on obstructing the closures but on rejecting the very basis on which they were being advanced: the king’s claim to be the “supreme head” of the English Church – and under the 1534 Treasons Act, that was a capital crime. Yet, even as the closure policy was extended to almost all England’s monasteries between 1537 and 1539, only a tiny minority of the 850 heads of house made explicit their rejection of the royal supremacy. Those few that did – most prominently, the abbots of Reading, Colchester, and Glastonbury, executed in the autumn of 1539 – met the usual traitor’s death: partial asphyxiation, disembowelment alive, beheading and hacking into quarters.
“Catholic martyrologists”, argues Clark, later “dramatised their deaths as the height of Henry Reign of Terror”: wanton acts of cruelty performed upon men whose only “treason” was their loyalty to the pope.
In fact, Clark contends, the regime had other motives for the abbots’ exemplary punishment: associating these monastic resisters with recently exposed aristocratic conspiracies against the Crown, and coming to view the few remaining monasteries as breeding-grounds for resistance to the royal supremacy more widely.
The “provocative theatre” of the abbot of Glastonbury’s execution in November 1539 atop the nearby Tor – at some 500 feet above sea-level, “the tallest landmark in the West” – “was also proof,” Clark contends, “that it was the threat of a continuing challenge to the royal supremacy” that finally decided government policy. “The legacy of these three abbots was the dissolution of the monasteries.”
Elsewhere in this book, however, Clark offers a no less compelling motive for the government’s assault on the religious houses: “the potential of the monasteries and friaries for plunder,” he writes, was “arguably the only well-developed aspect of Crown policy.”
And with reason. By the beginning of the 1540s, the sale of the monastic estates briefly made Henry VIII the most cash-rich monarch in Europe – a windfall quickly squandered during the 1540s on the favourite indulgences of every Renaissance prince: palace-building and war.
The most impressive quality of Clark’s book, however, is its seamless integration of politics and policy with the vivid portrayal of what these changes meant in human terms: for the plunderers and profiteers, and not least for the approximately 10,000 to 12,000 religious who were dispossessed as a result of the dissolution: some (no more than 10 percent) taking jobs as parish priests, or in newly reorganised cathedral chapters; a few living on as squatters in their despoiled monastic buildings, never having moved out at their closure.
Most studies with “a new history” in their title have their obsolescence built in. Newness is a quality rarely long retained. Clark’s book is something different: the product of that most impressive of conjunctions – fine historical writing, high analytical intelligence, and Stakhanovite labours in the archives – it takes its subject to a new level. It looks set to be the authoritative account of the dissolution of the monasteries for decades to come.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund