TT: Dissolving Monasteries

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and read about a really cool amateur art contest for which I’m both sponsoring a prize and writing a story.  Then join me and Alan for a stroll through the ruins of the English monasteries.

JANE: You promised to tell me about the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII.  I know it occurred, but that’s about it.  What happened?

King Henry's Solvent

King Henry’s Solvent

ALAN: It’s not widely known, but Henry VIII was a student of alchemy. As a result of his studies, he developed a universal solvent that would dissolve anything at all. Since he obviously couldn’t find a container to keep it in (it was a universal solvent after all), and not wishing to have it go to waste, he used it to dissolve all the monasteries in England. It turned out that his universal solvent was also an aspect of the philosopher’s stone, that mysterious entity that transmutes base elements into gold. Thus the dissolved monasteries made Henry, and therefore England, very rich indeed!

JANE: You’re being silly again aren’t you?

ALAN: Yes and no. The story that I just made up about universal solvents and philosopher’s stones is obvious nonsense, but it is nevertheless allegorically true. Henry found himself head of a Protestant church in what was now (at least nominally) a Protestant country. The Catholics were more and more being seen as enemies of the state. Indeed, Henry specifically formulated laws that allowed him to declare Catholics who opposed his policies as traitors, and have them executed. That’s the mechanism he used to dispose of Thomas More, if you recall. Henry’s exchequer was also emptying rapidly, and the monasteries and nunneries were often very rich establishments. Put those two elements together and you can see that Henry had very good reasons for getting rid of the monasteries. Nests of traitors could be dispersed and money would pour into the country’s coffers! What could possibly go wrong?

JANE: Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” mysteries give a very good sense of how, even as far back as the civil war between Stephen and Maud, the monasteries wielded temporal as well as religious authority.  I can see why Henry would have wanted to eliminate a considerable power block.

Those books also give a strong sense of how the monasteries had gone from being self-supporting enclaves to generating wealth from their various businesses – farms, smithies, and the like.  Then, too, people who had lived wild lives would often donate property or sums of money to monasteries in return for prayers.  Well-managed – and since monks were often far better educated than the bulk of the population, all of this was likely to be done – this could grow into a considerable fortune.

ALAN: Quite true. Also the monasteries had a spiritual income obtained from tithes or taxes deriving from the local parish churches. After several hundred years of raking in all this income, some of them were sitting on quite substantial nest eggs.

All over Europe, cash-strapped kings, both Catholic and Protestant, were casting more and more covetous eyes on such a ready source of income to support their armies and fortifications and internal squabbles. Henry was by no means alone in his confiscation of these resources, but perhaps, in his own eyes at least, he had more justification than most.

JANE: Why would he have more justification than the European monarchs?

ALAN: Because he saw the Catholic monasteries as hotbeds of insurrection opposing his Protestant reforms. This point of view was less true of the largely Catholic European kingdoms

JANE: How were the dissolutions actually handled?  Surely the monks didn’t just say “Oh, right.  If you don’t want us, we’ll leave now.”

ALAN: It started in 1535, when the King’s Commissioners visited all the monasteries and nunneries and surveyed their status and income. The commissioners, well aware of the king’s ultimate goal, made very sure to bias their reports and were not very diplomatic in their approach. Many complaints were made about their bullying tactics, but these were all ignored.

JANE: Because, of course, those complaints would have been made to officers of the king.  Go on!

ALAN: Once the information had been gathered, an act was passed declaring that all institutions with an income of less than £200 a year would immediately be dissolved. The abbots and abbesses were offered a pension and the monks and nuns were given the choice of transferring to one of the few remaining houses or going out into the world freed from their vows of poverty and obedience (so that at least they would be able to earn a living). However they were not freed from their vow of chastity! They must have found that quite frustrating…

JANE: I don’t follow this.  Why would Henry have started by closing down the lower income monasteries?  Those would seem to be the ones that were actually following their vows of poverty. And probably those of chastity and obedience, too!

ALAN: The monks might have been obeying their vows far too well. I think Henry saw them as being too poor to provide him with a decent long term income. Therefore, being a pragmatic man, he just liquidated them immediately, leaving him free to concentrate on squeezing regular payments out of the richer ones.

JANE: Fascinating!

ALAN: Some 300 or so religious houses were closed down under the terms of the act. Their assets were forfeit to the crown – the land was sold and the gold and silver were melted down. The fabric of the buildings was given to the local villagers who immediately began pilfering the structures to build fences for their fields and houses for themselves. The few remaining monasteries had to pay an annual fee to the crown to ensure their continued survival.

JANE: I suspect this is what Louis meant in the Comments back on December 12, when he wrote: “Ah! Now we get to the meat of the matter: why later generations of Englishmen could boast that they were ‘rich enough to buy an Abbey.’”

However, I admit, I’m rather confused the rest of his statement: “And, perhaps, why in later years ‘Abbess’ was not a term of endearment.”

Maybe we can appeal to Louis and the rest of our readers to answer this question.

ALAN: That sounds like a good idea. But we haven’t finished with the topic yet.  The dissolution of the monasteries has had a profound effect on the English psyche and it has provided inspiration for any number of fascinating things – revolts and novels, plays and picnics. Let me tell you about them next time.


7 Responses to “TT: Dissolving Monasteries”

  1. Paul Says:

    I kinda like Alan’s first version of what happened. 🙂

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    I’ll wait to see if Alan touches on the issue of abbesses next time. He may answer the question, at least indirectly.

    Meanwhile, meditate on Hamlet’s injunction to Ophelia.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    PS: I thought it might be amusing to check up on Downton Abbey.

    The Abbey is fictitious, of course, but the building certainly isn’t, and the Herberts were the sort of people who did buy abbeys. Highclere Castle isn’t specifically mentioned as having a monastic past, but it does have ecclesiastic roots: it seems that the original Tudor house was built on the foundations of a palace of the Bishop of Winchester. Who may have held it since the 8th century, a period when episcopal palaces generally had some sort of monastic establishment attached. So, it may indeed once have been an abbey.

    The one thing it’s never been is a castle.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the added information about abbeys…

  5. Says:

    Fascinating entry. I didn’t know Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Thanks for sharing all this history.

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