TT: Revolts, Plays, Picnics, and Novels, Too!

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one to where I answer a bunch of questions about how I self-edit.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we look at the reaction Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries – and what that has to do with bicycle clubs.

JANE: Last time we dealt with Henry’s motivations and mechanics for dissolving the monasteries.  However, you’ve promised that this was far from the end of that matter.  I can hardly wait!

What Does This Have to Do With Anything?

What Does This Have to Do With Anything?

ALAN: Not surprisingly the dissolution of the monasteries did not go down well, and there were several revolts over the next couple of years. These are known collectively as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Many religious houses were charged with helping the rebels. The heads of these houses were declared traitors and summarily executed. The monks and nuns were forced out into the community and left to fend for themselves (it’s unclear whether or not they were required to remain chaste) and, of course, all the assets of the houses were confiscated.

JANE: Did any monastic houses survive?

ALAN: Yes, some of the richer ones who could prove they were not involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace and whose annual income exceeded £200 continued to exist – largely because they were rich and could afford to pay the king what I can only describe as protection money.

The King’s Commissioners paid regular visits to these monasteries and much informal pressure was applied to persuade the abbots to increase the stipend they paid to the crown. Resistance was largely futile – the Abbot of Glastonbury showed a distinct disinclination to part with any of his assets. He was executed and his monastery (probably the wealthiest in England) was destroyed. A cynic might say this happened because Glastonbury was one of the wealthiest monasteries in England…

The whole process took about four years and more than 800 monasteries were dissolved.

JANE: This all sounds dramatic enough to turn into a novel or two.

ALAN: And someone has done exactly that. There’s a wonderful series of historical mystery stories by C. J. Sansom that are set during these turbulent times. The first book is called Dissolution and the events in it take place in 1537. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and a long-time supporter of Reform (though he is starting to have his doubts about its implementation). He is sent by Thomas Cromwell to investigate a horrific murder at the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast. The monastery itself will soon become a casualty of Henry’s policies and is in the process of winding down. The combination of murder mystery with the social, political and theological intrigues of the time makes for utterly enthralling reading. Sansom brings the times marvellously alive and I recommend his books unreservedly.

JANE: They do sound good.  I’ll need to look for them.

ALAN: Henry’s policies have left a legacy that is still visible today. All over England, monastic ruins stand as mute witnesses to Henry’s excesses. The remains of Fountains Abbey are a prominent landmark which is close to Halifax in Yorkshire where I was born. I remember picnics there with my parents, and a school trip where the class was told the story of the dissolution of the monasteries while we stood in the shadows cast by the tumbled walls of the Abbey itself. That was a very effective way of bringing history to life!

JANE: That does sound like a wonderful field trip.  I’m always awed about the sort of historical trips you could take where you grew up.  I lived in Washington, D.C., so I went to some wonderful places, not only in D.C., but in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, but written United States history goes back only a few centuries…  Even here in New Mexico, where, because of Spanish settlement the writing historical record goes back much further than on the East Coast, our history is only a few centuries old.  Ah, but I tangent.

ALAN: You live in the New World, but these days I live in an even Newer World than you do. Here anything more than about 100 years old is considered truly ancient. That’s quite a contrast to the area where I was born and brought up in England, where we can trace our history back for more than a thousand years…

But to get back on track – the playwright Alan Bennett, he of The Madness of King George fame, wrote a delightful play for the BBC. It was called A Day Out and it concerns a bicycle club who have a day out cycling from Halifax to Fountains Abbey. The Abbey itself has quite prominent part to play!

JANE: Does the abbey serve only as location or is this a time travel story?

ALAN: No, there’s no time travel involved. Much of the play takes place among the ruins of the Abbey and it makes an elegant backdrop to the action.

JANE: Darn… I had visions of monks on bicycles riding off to the future where they could either be poor, chaste, and obedient or disobedient, wealthy, and unchaste – but not be held to a double standard.   Maybe I can write that story someday.

ALAN: Let me know when you do. I want to read it!

JANE: More seriously, the reality those monks and nuns faced seems very grim nor, do I imagine, would their situation have gotten much better after Henry VIII shuffled off this mortal coil.  Religious wars did not end with his death – in fact, they intensified.  They’re nearly as confusing to an American as Henry VIII’s string of Anns and Catherines.  Perhaps we can wend our way into that maze another time.

Next week, though, I have a question or two about some more mysterious English terms.

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3 Responses to “TT: Revolts, Plays, Picnics, and Novels, Too!”

  1. janelindskold Says:

    Louis! Louis!

    We await enlightenment… Can you tell us why… “And, perhaps, why in later years ‘Abbess’ was not a term of endearment.”

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    And so to Abbesses: it’s intriguing how this episode had a lasting influence on English slang. I think the source of ‘rich enough to buy an abbey’ is clear enough – more than a few of the Stately Homes of England [and Scotland and Wales, for that matter] were built on the foundations of monastic establishments purchased from the King’s commissioners by local gentry. IIRC, many of them at well below market value, so Hank didn’t do nearly as well out of it as he perhaps could have.

    You may recall my suggestion last week to meditate on Hamlet’s injunction to Ophelia? For those who haven’t remembered it, it’s “get thee to a nunnery!” He most emphatically wasn’t suggesting that he thought she was a nice girl, if a little confused and with a dubious taste in relatives. “Nunnery” was Elizabethan slang for a brothel, a usage that continued long enough that 18th-century audiences, and probably 19th as well, knew quite well what he was saying. Since convents were run by abbesses, that word also acquired a connection with the oldest profession. In this case, with the ladies who operated, er… nunneries – what an American would call a Madam. This is a usage I first learned from Heyer, so it was still current in the Regency period, 3 centuries later.

    How fair the aspersion was, I can’t really say, but I should point out that it was a common perception in many parts of Europe. There were good reasons that monasteries and convents were a major target not just of the Reformation, but of the Counter-Reformation. Not only were many religious houses overly wealthy and underpopulated, but many had become quite corrupt – an inevitable consequence of the practice among Europe’s middle and upper classes of parking unwanted children, particularly daughters, in them. Fill a place with people with healthy appetites and no real religious vocation to inspire an attempt to control them, and the results are rather inevitable. Add a priesthood filled, at upper levels at least, with men who met the same description and it’s understandable why certain convents gained a reputation as recreational facilities. It might even have been justified; the Counter-Reformers were concerned about it, at any rate. The issue didn’t go away – I’ve seen similar claims popping up again around the dismantling of the Church during the French Revolution – nor, come to think, of it was it particularly new in 1500. Bernard of Clairvaux was noted as a reformer. As were the Cluniacs 2 centuries before him. And so on back to Anthony, at least.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Good job!

      Even in Chaucer’s time Monks came in for suspicion, and that’s a whole lot earlier.

      Of course, any small, enclosed society that speaks a different language than the general populace and is exclusive in some fashion will come in for suspicion — deserved or not.

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