Access to History by Keith Randall Dissolution of the Monasteries The What were monasteries in early sixteenth-century England? What was the popular attitude towards them?
How were the Visitations carried out and the Valor Ecclesiasticus compiled? What was their importance?
What is meant by 'the dissolution of the smaller monasteries'?
What methods were used to dissolve the larger monasteries?
Why were the Monasteries dissolved? What were the Catholic and Protestant interpretations which were popular until about 1950? What is now the generally accepted interpretation?
How far was the Dissolution of the Monasteries pre-planned? What arguments can be put forward to support the claims that Henry and Cromwell i) planned the dissolution of the monasteries from the outset, and, ii) merely took advantage of opportunities as they arose? On balance of probability' where does the truth lie?
Why was there so little Resistance to the Dissolution? What advantages did Henry VIII possess? What use did he make of his advantages?
What were the Effects of the Dissolution? What is the traditional view about the short-term effects of the dissolution? How has this view been modified in recent times? What suggestions have been made about the probable long-term effects of the dissolution? How convincing are these suggestions?
When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 there were more than 850 religious houses in England and Wales. They are nowadays almost always referred to as monasteries, although the word was not common at the time. Many contemporary names were in use, often employed loosely and interchangeably, so that no hard and fast rules on terminology can be established. However, there was a tendency for the larger, mainly rural institutions to be called abbeys, for many of the medium-sized houses to be labelled priories or nunneries, and for the words friary and cell to be used to describe the smaller units.
The houses fell into one of two broad categories. There were those that were 'closed', in which the occupants - in theory at least - spent nearly all their time within the confines of the buildings and their adjacent fields and gardens, and devoted most of their energies to attending private religious services within their own chapel. The 'open' houses were the friaries, whose occupants were meant to work in the community at large, bringing spiritual comfort to the needy, be they the poor, the sick or merely those who were denied the services of an effective parish priest. The two categories were also distinguished by other differences. Whereas the friaries were confined to the towns or their environs, were almost always small, and were universally poor (it was against the rule of each of the four orders of friar to own property other than for their own immediate use), the 'closed' houses - now thought of as the typical monasteries - were more often situated in the countryside than in the towns, were frequently large (in their buildings if not in their number of occupants), and were generally rich.
In fact, the wealth of the 'typical' monasteries as a group was enormous. They possessed most of the Church's riches, normally estimated as including about one third of the country's landed property. For example, the 30 or so richest monasteries each received an income approximating to that of one of the country's most powerful nobles. This money was derived mainly from 'temporal' sources, but one 'spiritual' source was significant. The 'temporal' element was overwhelmingly made up of rents from the agricultural land that they owned, while the 'spiritual' mainly took the form of profits from the parish priesthoods (benefices) that they held. These arose because very often the monastery would employ a vicar or curate to do the parish work, while retaining the lion's share of the value of the benefice for its own use. A monastery had often acquired this wealth over several centuries, normally through dozens (in some cases even hundreds) of bequests made in the wills of property owners, large and small, in the hope that their generosity would lessen the time their souls would spend in purgatory.
Most monasteries had been in existence for many generations and were accepted as an integral part of the community by almost the entire population which, mostly disliking change and having grown up with the religious houses, unquestioningly assumed that they were a normal part of life. Although a significant minority of the population lived and died without ever having seen a monastery, most people lived close enough to one, or to one of its outlying estates, to be aware of its activities. And although there were probably no more than a few hundred itinerant preaching friars active at any one time, it is unlikely that many adults would have escaped contact with them at some point during their lives. What evidence there is suggests that in the first half of Henry VIII's reign the popular expectation was that monasteries would always continue to exist.
However, during the 1520s Cardinal Wolsey was responsible for dissolving 29 small religious houses and for taking over their property with the stated intention of using it to pay for the foundation of a grammar school in his home town of Ipswich and a new college at his old university of Oxford. But there was nothing very remarkable or ominous in this. This was despite the fact that the scale of his activities was much greater than had been that of the bishops who had occasionally taken action to suppress individual religious houses during the past generation. All of the houses dissolved by Wolsey were 'decayed', in that they had ceased to be viable in the terms envisaged by their founders because of a decline in the number of monks or nuns they contained. Their endowments were to be used for alternative charitable purposes and the dissolutions were carried out totally legally and with explicit papal permission. The fact that the paperwork was not properly tied up by the time of Wolsey's fall in 1529, so that the property was transferred to the king along with all the other possessions of the Cardinal, was little known and certainly caused no public consternation. Nor, at that stage, could any significance be read into the fact that most of the detailed work on the dissolutions had been carried out by Wolsey's chief legal adviser, Thomas Cromwell.
Two overlapping processes, which were historically significant in their own right as well as yielding historians a mass of detailed information about the state of the monasteries at the time, took place in 1535. Cromwell was the king's vicegerent responsible for the day-to-day control of the Church. He planned for most religious houses to be visited by his representatives. Such visitations had long been accepted as a normal, if infrequent, way of ensuring that monasteries were conducting their affairs properly. Traditionally such visitations had been conducted under the authority of the bishop in whose diocese the house lay. In the case of the many houses that had been exempted from such control by a papal dispensation, the visitations had been carried out under the authority of the head of the Order to which the house belonged.
Although Cromwell's programme of visitations was only partial in that it did not include a large number of the smaller monasteries, it was not completed by the end of May as originally intended, and was barely finished by the end of the year. This was because it was interrupted by a second and even more ambitious undertaking, the Valor Ecclesiasticus. This was nothing less than an attempt to make a record of all the property owned by the Church in England and Wales, including the monasteries - a colossal undertaking given the lack of civil servants and the primitive state of much estate management at the time. The work was carried out by unpaid groups of commissioners, mainly local gentry, who, as far as the monasteries were concerned, visited all the religious houses in their county and, by asking questions and examining account books, built up a picture of the property owned by the monks, nuns or friars. Historians have been lavish in their praise of the completeness and accuracy of the Commissioners' work and the Valor Ecclesiastics has been compared to the Domesday Book as an administrative achievement. Certainly, it has proved to be a bedrock for those researching either the dissolution of the monasteries or the subsequent history of the lands that were taken over by the Crown in the process.
However, it was the series of visitations that took place in 1535 that was of the greater significance at the time. Much of the work was carried out by two of Cromwell's trusted 'servants' (a word that would be better translated as 'employees' nowadays), Thomas Legh and Richard Layton. They shared many of the attributes of their master. They were very able (so that the wool could rarely be pulled over their eyes), were prodigious workers (as the speed at which they travelled around the country showed), were highly ambitious (realising that the only way to succeed was to give their superiors exactly what they wanted), and were completely unscrupulous when they needed to be (although they could be humane, and even generous, where their vital interests were not affected).
From the letters they regularly sent to Cromwell describing their activities it is possible both to piece together their itinerary and to assess the way in which they worked. Before they left London they were provided with lists of questions to ask at each house and sets of instructions (injunctions) to issue the monks and nuns they 'visited' - both as appropriate. Although there is no direct evidence for this, it seems that they were also told to make as full a record as possible of all the shortcomings in the lives of the members of the religious houses. Certainly, the detailed comperta (lists of transgressions admitted by monks and nuns) that they compiled suggest that this was so. The short amount of time (often only hours) spent at many houses, the huge quantities of information collected and the many complaints about their bullying tactics, suggests that they were anything but gentle in their work. In the process they acquired a widespread reputation as typifying all that was bad in the government's new ways of conducting much of its business. They were even included in a list of the king's 'evil counsellors' thought to be deserving of special punishment, drawn up during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.
Ever since the visitation of 1535 and the commissions to compile the Valor Ecclesiasticus had begun, rumours had been rife that the government's intention was to disband the monasteries and to seize their wealth. These fears were born out in part by an act which was passed by parliament in March 1536. The act stipulated that all religious houses with an annual income of less than £200 (as assessed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus) should be dissolved and that their property should pass to the Crown. It provided for the heads of the houses to be granted a pension and for other members to be offered the option of transferring to a larger house or ceasing to be 'religious' by going out into the world without being bound by the vows of poverty and obedience that they had taken, although they were expected to continue to honour their vow of chastity and therefore would be unable to marry.
Just over 300 houses fell within the category specified by the act, but by no means were all of them immediately dissolved. The act had given the king power to grant exemptions to individual 'smaller' houses as he saw fit. Evidence has been found that he did so in 67 cases, and it is estimated that there were probably a further ten or more monasteries that escaped closure but whose records have been lost. What is known for certain is that those monasteries whose application for exemption was successful were forced to pay heavily - often in excess of a year's income - for the privilege. The official position was that the houses granted exemption were those worthy of continuation because of the high quality of their performance, but it seems in reality that the escapees were a mixture of those with friends in high places and those with a high percentage of members who wished to remain as monks or nuns. Apparently, the prospect of finding new 'homes' for hundreds of displaced religious was somewhat daunting to Cromwell and his leading assistants.
As soon as the legislation had received the royal assent commissions, whose task it was to implement the closure of the monasteries affected, were appointed to each county. The urgency was necessary to ensure that as little as possible of the monasteries' movable wealth disappeared before it could be seized for the Crown. In most districts the groups of commissioners acted speedily and efficiently. The monasteries to be dissolved were visited, any inmates who remained were expelled, valuable metal - especially gold, silver, lead from roofs and bronze from bells - was carted off, normally to the Tower of London, any saleable items (even down to hinges from doors) were auctioned locally, and any property that had not previously been let out was offered to rent to a selection of the many people who rapidly came forward with requests for such favours. A large number of the monastic buildings were in such a poor state of repair that by the time locals had helped themselves to whatever the commissioners had not put up for sale, in many cases there was soon little to show that a monastery had previously existed on the site.
However, the 'vultures' did not descend equally speedily in all areas. Particularly in the counties of the north, widespread disapproval of what was happening was more in evidence than individual greed. As a result, commissioners generally acted less energetically and were often willingly prevented from taking action by groups of local people who made it clear that they would offer physical violence to anybody who tried to implement the act. The groups of commissioners who ignored such warnings are thought to have been partly responsible for stirring up the Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace in October 1536. Certainly, once the rebellions were under way no further action could be taken to dissolve monasteries in the areas affected, and some of the houses which had already been closed were even re-opened (see Henry VIII and the Government of England in this series).
Although most monasteries were careful to remain aloof from the Pilgrimage of Grace, a number were pressured into providing active support. These houses, large and small, were high on Henry VIII’s vengeance list once order was restored. The technique used to punish them was thought at the time to be of dubious legality. The head of each house involved was declared a traitor in an act of attainder passed by parliament (there was no trial) and was sentenced to be publicly executed, normally at his own monastery. The possessions of the house were treated as if they had belonged to the abbot personally, and were transferred to the king as was the case with all traitors. Any remaining monks not being punished for taking part in the rebellion were forced to leave their homes and commissioners disposed of the house's assets in the way that had been normal in 1536.
Of course, this action left hundreds of surviving houses, mainly to the south and west of the river Trent. These included most of the richest and most famous monasteries in the land. However, by early 1540 none remained in existence. The process by which this massive change took place was piecemeal - there was no equivalent for the larger monasteries of the act of 1536. Once, in 1538, the dust from the Pilgrimage of Grace had fully settled, Cromwell sent out pairs of his most trusted servants with commissions to receive the property of the remaining religious houses as free gifts to the king. Each commission was for a specified part of the country, except that for the friaries which applied nationally. In their early 'sweeps' the commissioners were instructed to spend little time on those heads of houses and their communities who seemed prepared to resist strongly. They were merely to report such situations, having created as much fear and discord as possible, and to devote their energies to the vast majority of abbots and abbesses who were prepared to please the king. Many of the heads of houses who initially resisted the 'invitation' of the commissioners were willing to resign their positions when instructed to do so in their monarch's name. They were then speedily replaced by men and women who were known to be more amenable, with the obvious end result.
Part way through the sequence of sweeps there occurred an event of only technical significance. In 1539 an act of parliament was passed stipulating that any voluntary surrendering of monastic property which had so far taken place, or which were to take place in the future, were completely legal and that no challenges to the validity of the king's title to the possessions - or of those to whom he subsequently transferred them - were to be allowed by the courts. This virtual afterthought had been enacted because some of Henry's legal advisers were fearful that without it the way would be open to potentially embarrassing legal disputes in the future. But, of course, the passage of the act neither speeded up nor slowed down the pace at which the dissolutions took place.
Despite the overwhelming success of the commissioners, there was a handful of individual heads of houses that, with the support of their communities, were not prepared to be cajoled or frightened into compliance. They were the stuff of which martyrs are made, and Henry did not disappoint their expectations. They were tried on spurious charges of treachery - normally for crimes such as secreting items of value so that they would not eventually fall into the king's hands - and were sentenced to death, with the possessions of their houses being forfeited to the Crown. The most famous to suffer in this way were the Abbots of Colchester, Reading and Glastonbury. The latter was the head of one of the richest monasteries in the country. His execution at his abbey, along with the subsequent destruction of one of the finest buildings in England, was for generations to be one of the best remembered 'crimes' of Henry VIII.
The dissolution of over 800 monasteries in less than five years is a remarkably well-documented episode, thanks mainly to the survival of the letters received by Cromwell from the men responsible for carrying out the work. As a result, historians have long been in very general agreement about what happened and when. In recent decades the researches of local historians have usefully filled out many of the details, but they have done little to amend the overall picture. However, the same degree of unanimity has never existed in providing answers to the 'why?' and 'with what effects?' questions. These have for long been part of the battleground of the 'What sort of king was Henry VIII?', 'What was the role of Thomas Cromwell?' and 'Why was there a Reformation in England?' controversies.
a) The Early Sectarian Controversy
For about 300 years after the death of Henry VIII this was a hotly disputed question between writers with Catholic or Protestant sympathies. The Catholics argued that the dissolution had nothing to do with religion. Their contention was that a greedy and wicked king was persuaded by his unscrupulous minister that a major piece of legalised theft would make him wealthy almost beyond his wildest dreams. They made much of a remark in a report of the Emperor's ambassador, Eustace Chapuys that Cromwell had risen to favour by promising Henry that he would make him the richest king in Christendom. They also attempted to prove that the monasteries were generally functioning well and were respected by the population as a whole at the time of their destruction. They made much of the active support for the monasteries that was forthcoming in the north, especially during the Pilgrimage of Grace, and highlighted the bravery of those who chose to die rather than to comply with the sacrilegious orders of their king.
The Protestants argued that by the 1530s the monasteries were generally corrupt places where sinners and charlatans lived in degenerate luxury, paid for by the charitable bequests of earlier generations. In addition, they contended that the very raison d'etre of the monastic way of life was based on one of the major lies that the Papacy had long ago promulgated in order to strengthen its own position. This was that merit in the eyes of God (and therefore salvation) was to be gained by good works rather than by faith, and that the highest form of good works was the living of a life devoted to worship, and especially the celebration of the Mass. To this ancient falsehood, they argued, had been added the fictional doctrine of purgatory, by which it was taught that the souls of the dead suffered agonies for a finite number of years before being admitted to heaven, and that the time spent in purgatory could be shortened by giving money to monks and nuns so that they would pray on your behalf. Therefore, their argument was that the monasteries deserved to be dissolved both because the money to support them had been acquired under false pretences and because they no longer carried out the functions that their founders had intended.
Protestant writers were also particularly keen to establish that the dissolution of the monasteries was an integral part of the Reformation in England. This they saw as a coherent process by which a debased form of Christianity emanating from Rome was replaced by a cleansed and revitalised version - the Church of England - thanks to the actions of Henry VIII, two of his children, and their ever more numerous Protestant supporters. In this the destruction of monastic ways of life was seen as important in that it rid the country of the major centres of support for the perverted belief that salvation could be gained by good works alone and, in particular, through a life devoted to worship and the avoidance of the world's temptations by shutting oneself away from them. Thus monasticism was viewed as an open challenge to the central Protestant belief that salvation was freely available to all those who were prepared to accept it by believing in God and his only son Jesus Christ. In these circumstances it was readily assumed that the monasteries must have been dissolved for 'religious' reasons, as part of the cleansing operation of the Reformation.
b) The Later Sectarian Controversy
As might be imagined, up to the middle of the nineteenth century this controversy generated much more heat than light, with most of those who took part in it being much more interested in defending a pre-determined position than in establishing any objective truth. The change during the next hundred years was that, although most writers still maintained an identifiably Catholic or Protestant position, a genuine attempt was made to substantiate their claims with facts. But because so many 'facts' existed that could be used to support either position, the dispute based on religious affiliation continued for much longer than might otherwise have been expected. Catholic writers were able to point to the extensive evidence of thriving spirituality within the English monastic system at the time of the dissolution. In particular they could catalogue the heroic struggle of so many members of the London Charterhouse and the complimentary reports about the virtue of much of what they found that were written by several of the groups of commissioners whose task it was to implement the closure of the smaller houses in 1536. They were also able to present further evidence that both Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were primarily motivated by greed in their decision to destroy the monasteries. In particular, they took pleasure in drawing attention to the fact that Cromwell made a conscious effort to enrich himself at the monasteries' expense. Not only did he accept 'gifts' from many smaller monasteries in return for supporting their appeals to be exempt from the terms of the 1536 act, but he also persuaded at least 30 religious houses to grant him an annual payment. The advantage of these retainers was that he could continue to claim them for the rest of his life, even after the monasteries involved were dissolved.
However, Protestant authors were able to call upon much more extensive evidence to support their contention that the monasteries deserved to be closed. The Valor Ecclesiasticus and the comperta resulting from the visitations of 1535 provided a massive amount of ammunition. The Valor Ecclesiasticus, which itemised expenditure as well as income, could be used to show a major misapplication of monastic funds. It was calculated that, on average, about one quarter of each monastery's income was paid directly to the head of the house. This person, normally with the title of abbot or abbess, was in most cases an absentee leader, living the life of a country gentleman in a comfortable house on one of the monastery's manors, while leaving the day-to-day exercise of his or her duties to a deputy (normally called the prior or prioress) who was resident in the monastery. It was a simple matter to contrast this profligacy with the 3 per cent of income that the same document showed as being spent on charitable works. Even more damning, and certainly more sensational, was the story of widespread immorality and sexual perversion that could be extracted from the comperta. There were contemporary reports that it was the reading out of such evidence by ministers during the debate in the Commons on the legislation to dissolve the smaller monasteries which provoked angry support for the government's policy. That hundreds of monks had admitted to taking part in homosexual practices, often with young boys, while many others told of their strings of mistresses - accounts mirrored by the confessions of nuns to bearing children, sometimes several times - seemed to suggest that the isolated anecdotes of sexual laxity or worse that had been in circulation for decades were part of a general picture of moral depravity among the religious.
Writers approaching the issue from a Protestant standpoint have also been eager to establish that the monasteries were unpopular at the time of their dissolution. They have been able to point to general trends such as the decline in the number of men and women wishing to become monks or nuns in the final decades of the monasteries' existence, the hostility shown by MPs to the religious houses and their shortcomings, and the alacrity with which people from all walks of life attempted to acquire the monasteries' possessions once it seemed likely that they would become available. In addition, it has been possible to argue convincingly that by the 1530s the elite of leading English intellectuals, who might have been expected to feature among the monasteries' principal defenders, had reached the conclusion that the monastic way of life had little to commend it. Erasmus's scathing attacks on the lives lived by the religious had done much to bring about this negative perception of monasticism among the country's intellectual leaders, which seemingly had already percolated down to many of the less-educated members of the ruling elite.
c) Modern Interpretations
Most historians writing about the issue since the Second World War have had neither a Catholic nor a Protestant axe to grind and, although there have been clear differences of emphasis between them, a surprising degree of consensus has emerged.
The most significant point of agreement has been that the monasteries were dissolved almost entirely because Henry VIII wished to lay his hands on their wealth. Other contributory factors have been identified (and often disagreed about), but the vital factor - in that without it the dissolution would not have taken place - has generally, and most probably finally, been agreed to be the king's desire to acquire the monasteries' riches. In this the 'top-down' school, led by Elton and Scarisbrick, has been as one with the 'bottom-up' revisionists, including Dickens who was their original inspiration.
The 'top-down' historians reached this conclusion after finding that Henry was solidly behind each of the moves forward in the story of the dissolution, while at the same time accepting none of the doctrinaire reasons subsequently advanced by Protestants to justify his actions. Even more persuasive evidence that Henry's motives were not in the least 'religious' has been provided by the fact that he seems to have believed quite strongly in the traditional values of monasticism. Not only did he insist, against the wishes of his advisers, that the monks and nuns who chose to abandon their vocation when their houses were dissolved must be forced to maintain their vows of chastity, but he even went to the lengths of re-founding two monasteries after the initial batch of dissolutions with the specific purpose of ensuring that frequent prayers were said for him, his wife and the souls of his ancestors. At the same time, any possibility of the contention being successfully advanced that he supported the dissolution programme for general political reasons has been destroyed. It is clear that by mid-1535 any threat to the acceptance of either the royal supremacy or the new order of succession that the monasteries might have posed had effectively been eliminated. And Henry was clearly not impressed by the argument that, despite the monks and nuns having taken the oaths required of them, the monasteries would constitute a latent source of opposition as long as they were allowed to continue in existence.
The 'bottom-up' writers have reached the same position by establishing that there was very little popular opposition to the continued existence of the religious houses, and that their shortcomings were such that a modest reform programme could have eliminated most of them. In this, by chance, they have found themselves in agreement with some of the arguments previously advanced by Catholic historians. They have been able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the public attitude towards the religious houses was just on the supportive side of neutral - that in any opinion poll (had such things existed at the time) the 'do not really mind one way or the other' would have been in a majority and that those strongly supportive or violently opposed to the continuation of the monasteries would have formed small minorities, with the latter probably being the smallest of all. This lack of strength of feeling against the monasteries is perhaps best exemplified by contrasting what happened in England and Wales with events in Germany.
In Henry VIII’s realm there were no examples of violence being offered to existing religious houses and their inmates, while in Germany the sacking of monasteries by hostile mobs intent on ending what they regarded as anti-Christian practices commonly accompanied the spread of the Reformation into new districts. It even seems that in England and Wales those who complained about specific abuses which adversely affected them were content merely to grumble and were generally in favour of the monastic system as a whole. They, in common with most of the population, appear to have accepted as a fact of life the way in which the abbots and abbesses took such a high percentage of their houses' income. There is no indication of widespread indignation and it is likely that if the man in the street had been asked for his opinion about the situation he would have said 'Lucky old them'.
The 'bottom-up' historians have also shown that the state of the monasteries in the 1530s was not nearly as bad as Protestant writers have generally maintained. Their conclusion has been that, although less than 10 per cent of houses were centres of spiritual fervour, the vast majority were adequately following the way of life prescribed by the Order to which they belonged. In particular, they have established that the comperta resulting from the visitations of 1535 must be treated with extreme caution. It is clear that the visitors carried out their orders to 'dig up as much dirt as possible' with efficiency and enthusiasm, but with no regard for fairness or presenting a balanced picture. Although it is not suggested that they went as far as fabricating evidence, there is no doubt that they were prepared to mislead quite outrageously. This can be shown both from internal evidence in their reports and from external evidence that has been unearthed relating to a few of the confessions included in the comperta. It was the reporting of a total of 181 cases of 'sodomy' that gave rise to claims of widespread homosexual practices in monasteries. But a careful reading of the reports shows that the visitors' definition of sodomy was most unusual, in that all but 12 of the cases are described as being instances of 'solitary vice', presumably masturbation. Thus, in fact, there was one confession of homosexuality for roughly every 30 monasteries visited. There were 38 confessions by nuns that they had had children. But it is now known that one of the pregnancies took place at the beginning of the century, and probably before the nun in question took her vow of chastity. This opens the possibility that many of the other confessions related to similarly ancient falls from grace. It is therefore clear that the religious houses were in no sense the dens of vice that they have sometimes been painted as being.
Thus the currently agreed explanation of the causes of the dissolution of the monasteries is well-rounded and convincing in its essentials. It is clear that there was no popular demand for the destruction of the religious houses, that they were not in a terminal state of collapse through decadence and moral laxity, and that they posed no political or religious threat to the king or his policies. However, they did possess enormous wealth, and it was the desire to gain control of this that motivated Henry to allow or to insist that Cromwell and his assistants destroyed the monasteries and transferred their possessions to the Crown.
For nearly 400 years after the event it was the received wisdom among writers on the subject who were hostile to Henry VIII that Cromwell had risen to power by promising the king to acquire the wealth of the monasteries for him, and that he spent the next seven or eight years putting his plan into operation. Thus, the belief was that the end result was in mind from the outset. It was argued that the proposal's successful outcome was assured once the king had given it his blessing. Such a simplistic view can no longer be supported.
The central, three-stage thread of the interpretation - that Cromwell offered, that Henry VIII accepted and that Cromwell delivered - is very much open to question. In particular, few people would now support the suggestion that Cromwell ever made an explicit offer to Henry VIII about the monasteries. The evidence that he did so is highly unreliable, being based on hostile gossip some time after the event, and, in any case, the story portrays Cromwell in a role that was foreign to him. He did not do deals with Henry - the relationship was much too unequal for that - and any planting of ideas that he did was by subtle insinuation, probably in casual conversation, over a period of time, for it was essential that Henry believed any new idea to be his own. Nor is it likely that Cromwell would have needed to introduce the possibility of dissolution to Henry, who was well-informed as well as greedy, and would probably have heard about the seizures of monastic land in Lutheran Germany, Zwinglian Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden before he ever met Cromwell. It is likely that his imagination would have been set racing by such news. Of course, the truth of what happened will never be known - the evidence does not exist - but a well-informed guess would be that the king and his minister discovered in conversation together that they shared a common perception that there was money to be made from a well-timed dissolution of some monasteries. It is likely that this happened later rather than sooner, probably about the middle of 1535. Certainly, there seems to have been no intention to implement a programme of dissolutions on the part of either man at the beginning of the year when Cromwell initiated the visitation of the monasteries and Henry ordered the collection of the information that was to become the Valor Ecclesiasticus. Cromwell probably had a wide range of motives for deciding to exercise his rights of visitation as vicegerent. Among these might have been a desire to have his powers understood throughout the country (often a slow process in the days before the mass media), a genuine wish to reform the monasteries in an evangelical direction (the fact that he ordered all monks and nuns regularly to listen both to the Bible read in English and to sermons based on it suggests this), and a plan to enrich himself at the monasteries' expense by ordering them to obey impossibly restrictive regulations and then granting them exemptions in return for cash 'gifts'.
Certainly, it is most probable that the instruction to the visitors to gather as much evidence as possible of the monasteries' shortcomings was issued later in the year, suggesting that it was only then that the king had decided that a partial dissolution was soon to take place. And, although the Valor Ecclesiasticus was to be a vital tool in implementing the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, it was certainly not designed with this in mind. Its purpose was to provide the information necessary to calculate how much each institution would have to pay as the 10 per cent of clerical income that parliament had already granted Henry (see page 40). Had seizure of property been in mind questions would have been asked about the liquid assets (in cash and kind) held by each monastery
The fact that Cromwell had not had time to draw together all the evidence against the smaller monasteries by the time parliament came to debate the legislation dissolving them suggests that the minister was not working according to a carefully laid plan. It is much more likely that he was having to react to a sequence of his master's hastily made decisions - even though they were decisions of which he heartily approved and which he had probably done much to encourage.
A strong case can be made to support the contention that the dissolution of the smaller monasteries in 1536 was envisaged by Henry and Cromwell as a one-off 'smash and grab' operation. In it as much wealth as possible would be secured for the Crown from those religious houses which could be argued to be too small to be truly viable, as proved by the lack of discipline uncovered by the previous year's visitations. They probably judged that this move would be acceptable to the propertied classes, whose support they needed to retain, because it was merely a small extension of the long-held clerical belief that a religious house of less than a head and 12 members was too small to be effective. It was true that the head-count approach was being replaced by a criterion based on income (houses with an income of less than £200 pa were to be dissolved), but it could be maintained (not very honestly) that the result would be essentially the same.
Certainly, the wording of the 1536 act would lead one to think that a total dissolution of the monasteries was not envisaged, even as a long-term aim. The entire document revolved around the claim that by weeding out the smaller religious houses, in which the monastic life was not and could not be effectively pursued, and by transferring dedicated monks and nuns to the larger houses which were in a good state of spiritual health, any necessary reform of the system would be achieved:
However, this seemingly clear evidence is not to be trusted. Much of the legislation instigated by the government during the 1530s was couched in terms that were mere propaganda, in that the arguments used were those that it was thought would be acceptable. In fact they were often the complete opposite of the government's motivation or of what was intended for the future. This means that the wording of the 1536 act is essentially worthless as evidence of either Henry or Cromwell's motives for dissolving the smaller monasteries or their plans regarding the larger ones.
Nor should the fact that no further action was taken until 1538 be thought to have any bearing on the question of whether or not there was any long-term plan to dissolve all the monasteries. The inaction is totally explicable in terms of Henry's decision to slow down the pace of change and Cromwell's wish to lie as low as possible following the widespread discontent with government policies that had been revealed by the Pilgrimage of Grace in late 1536. But this is not to argue that there was a plan. In fact, both the sequence of events that followed the dissolution of the smaller monasteries and what is known of Henry and Cromwell's methods of working lead to the same conclusion: that, on balance of probability (the evidence will support no stronger claim than this, the government was merely taking advantage of possibilities as they somewhat unexpectedly arose.
The key to the situation appears to have been the news received by Cromwell that many of the larger monasteries were expecting to be dissolved in the near future and were dispersing their assets among friends and well-wishers so that they would not fall into the king's hands. This seems to have caused Cromwell to amend his judgement that the richer religious houses would be too powerful to destroy without risking widespread political unrest. The 'sweep' of late 1538 and early 1539 was probably a move to test the resolve of the remaining monasteries. When it was found that most were willing to surrender without a struggle, it was an obvious encouragement to press on with the process. It would have been typical of Henry, now made aware that huge riches were his for the taking, to instruct his minister to complete the dissolution, even if it meant taking violent action against the resisters. He would have found no difficulty in justifying to himself the virtually overnight change from wishing to found new monasteries to pray on his behalf to insisting on the destruction of all religious houses, whatever their spiritual merits. Equally it would have been very typical of Cromwell, the highly skilled, pragmatic politician, both to have seized on a half-opportunity and to have converted it into a huge success, and to have learned from the events of 1536 that it was safer to pick off his intended victims one by one rather than by launching a full-frontal attack.
Of course, it could never be proved that Henry and Cromwell had not planned the destruction of all the monasteries from the outset, but it seems unlikely that they did. Henry's actions, in particular, fit the pattern of the bold adventurer who intended to steal half the apples and then found that the rest virtually fell into his lap. It is more possible that Cromwell dreamt of a complete dissolution from the early 1530s onwards, (he had that sort of mind), but he certainly possessed no blueprint for turning such an aspiration into reality. His achievement - if it can be regarded as such - was in taking initiatives whenever the slightest opportunity arose, and following them through with outstanding administrative skill. No one else of his generation could have done it so well.
When the Protestant interpretation of rotten and unpopular monasteries collapsing with the slightest of nudges from Henry VIII held sway, there was no need to explain the fact that the religious houses disappeared without there being widespread civil unrest. But since the accepted orthodoxy is now that the dissolution was an act of state carried out against reasonably healthy institutions which enjoyed general support, the issue has become much more relevant. It has become necessary to provide an explanation for the ease with which Henry and Cromwell got their way.
In fact, it has not proved difficult to identify the reasons once the nature of English society at the time has been properly appreciated.
By the 1530s the general respect ('awe' or even 'fear' would be equally appropriate words) for the power of the monarch, which had been growing since the accession of Henry VII 45 years earlier, had reached such proportions that a determined English king could do virtually whatever he wanted. This deference was even apparent in rebels, such as the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, and was possibly the major cause of their undoing (see Henry VIII and the Government of England in this series for a discussion of this issue). This gave Henry a tremendous advantage in his dealings with all of his subjects, the heads of religious houses included. When there is added to this the fact that the king was known to be willing to use the power of the law - in effect, judicial murder - against all who opposed his will, it took very brave and committed people to fail to comply with their sovereign's wishes. And, of course, Henry had the law on his side in another way during his dealings with the monasteries. Parliament had recognised his position as Supreme Head of the Church in his territories and thus his authority over the religious houses and their possessions. He was therefore within his rights in dealing with them as he saw fit, a position that the monks and nuns had sworn an oath to accept in 1535.
But it was not only the king's exalted position and the might of the law that potential opponents within the monastic system had to confront. After 1536 they also had to overcome the lure of a large element of self-interest. This was because Cromwell was careful to make it financially worth the while of heads of houses to surrender their monasteries into the Crown's hands. It was left to the commissioners negotiating the surrender to agree on the exact terms, but the principle to be followed was that the abbots and abbesses should not be significantly worse off after the dissolution than they had been before. This, of course, was expensive to implement in the early years but as all grants were only for life there was the prospect of the allowances being recovered within a relatively short time. When the larger monasteries were being dissolved steps were also taken to discourage rank-and-file resistance. If the income of the house could finance it - and in all cases except the friaries it could - the ordinary monks and nuns were to be awarded a pension for life, which in practice was roughly equivalent to the wages of a manual worker. An added advantage of this arrangement was that heads of houses were freed from any feeling that they were sentencing the members of their communities to extreme hardship if they chose to sign the surrender papers when they were invited to do so.
It used to be commonplace to assert that the lay supporters of the monasteries, especially within the court circle, were bought off by the hint that they would be allowed to share in the spoils from the dissolution. While it is clear that such expectations were raised, it is very unlikely that they played a significant part in defusing potential political opposition. Henry ensured that few laymen would seriously contemplate even speaking out about the dissolution of the monasteries by making it clear that the penalty for doing so was likely to be death. In addition, once the opportunity of stopping the dissolutions had been missed in parliament in 1536. Cromwell made certain that by his policy of piecemeal surrenders he denied his opponents an obvious time at which to make a stand. In these circumstances, the hope of financial gain for themselves was merely a sweetener to those who wished the monasteries to remain.
For centuries Catholic writers criticised the dissolution for its religious, humanitarian and cultural effects. The word 'vandalism' was much used - 'religious' vandalism because institutions with a proud spiritual tradition going back many centuries were eliminated at a time when they were far from moribund and when there were even signs of a significant upsurge of piety, and 'cultural' vandalism because many of the realm's most impressive pieces of medieval architecture were wilfully destroyed and most of its finest examples of medieval art, (the illustrated manuscripts in monastery libraries), were carelessly allowed to be lost because their contents were temporarily out of fashion. Much was also made of the hardships suffered by the occupants of the dissolved monasteries. It was claimed that their ordered way of life was suddenly ended when they were cast out into a turbulent and fast-changing world. It was also said that the many poor people who had depended on the charity disbursed by the religious houses suffered considerable hardship as a result of the dissolution.
Modern historians recognise a large element of special pleading in this argument. In particular, the cries of religious vandalism are seen to be largely subjective, being dependent on the writer's value system, and as such worthy of little consideration by professional researchers of history, in which objectivity is expected to prevail. After all, committed Protestant writers have advanced an exactly opposite point of view. It is, of course, very difficult to make an objective assessment of the religious effect of the dissolution. What criteria does one apply, and what relevant evidence exists? These are issues that have not greatly interested recent historians of the English Reformation, who have generally satisfied themselves with the judgement that the dissolution of the monasteries was probably the part of the Reformation that had the least effect on either the quality or the quantity of religion in England and Wales.
The claim of cultural vandalism has generally been treated more sympathetically, although probably with more subjectivity than objectivity. There is a strong streak of 'if it is old it must be worth retaining' sentimentality running throughout the Western world, and the sight of the majestic ruins of some of the larger rural abbeys, such as Fountains in Yorkshire and Tintern in Gwent, still elicits criticism of the action that resulted in such a loss of architectural heritage. Of course, it should be remembered that not all was lost. In particular, abbey churches survived to become cathedrals in the new dioceses such as Bristol, Gloucester, Chester and Westminster, while several others were purchased by their local communities to serve as parish churches. It may or may not be a relevant fact that few of the hundreds of monastic buildings that disappeared, leaving no trace above ground that they ever existed, are thought to have possessed any distinctive (let alone unique) architectural merit.
The claim that considerable humanitarian harm was done by the dissolution has excited considerable interest among modern historians and has been the subject of a large amount of painstaking research. Much of this has taken the form of tracking down what happened to named individuals who were turned out into the world by the dissolution. In their totality, the findings of the researchers have been surprisingly clear-cut, even allowing for their incompleteness and the possibility of a high margin of error. The conclusion reached has been that all but about 1500 of the 8000 monks and friars who were dispossessed by the dissolution managed to find alternative paid employment within the Church with which to supplement their pensions, thus allowing them to live comfortably if not luxuriously. It has been estimated that the majority of the 2000 nuns affected by the dissolution did less well, as they were neither allowed to marry nor were eligible for the priestly posts that were the refuge of many of their male counterparts. It is not known how many of them were able to return to their original families, but those who could not were probably forced to live at a very basic subsistence level, although there was no need for them to starve. No quantitative evidence is available about either the lay servants of the monasteries or the poor who had benefited from monastic charity on either a regular or a casual basis. However, it is thought likely that the majority of servants would have been able to find employment with the new lessees or owners of the monasteries' property, while the disappearance of monastic alms is considered to have added to an already serious problem rather than to have caused a new one. The plight of the poor was already dire on a national scale and it is likely that the ending of the monasteries' charitable activities was merely one of many reasons why the problem was becoming high on the government's list of major worries. Tudor Economy and Society in this series contains a fuller discussion of this and the following points.
Thus the recent tendency among historians has been to play down the traditional arguments of the Catholic writers about the effects of the dissolution. The same is true of some of the other traditionally asserted negative effects. It used to be claimed that the transfer of the monastic estates to a new breed of capitalist, 'make high profits at any cost' farmers resulted in thousands of their tenants being squeezed to pay higher rents which they could only do by accepting a significantly lower standard of living for themselves, and that by enclosing large amounts of land in order to make it more profitable to farm they were responsible for causing large-scale depopulation and homelessness. Modern local and regional studies aimed at examining these contentions have shown them to be largely unfounded. It has been discovered that not only were the rents charged by the new possessors of monastic estates generally similar to those imposed by the former owners, but also that nearly all the enclosure of monastic land took place before the dissolution rather than after it. Similarly, the old contention that the destruction of the monasteries led to the urban decay that was a feature of mid-Tudor England has been shown to be inaccurate. Although it is true that some towns did possess a large number of religious houses, - there were 23 in London alone - in every case that has been studied the disappearance of the expenditure generated by the monks, nuns and friars has been assessed as having a minimal impact on the prosperity of the community as a whole. If towns were experiencing problems it was not because the monasteries had ceased to exist. Thus it would seem that recent historians have gone a long way towards discrediting traditional beliefs about the short-term effects of the dissolution.
When considering the possible long-term consequences of the dissolution, historians have traditionally focused attention on the effect of the disappearance of the monasteries on the relative wealth of the Crown. This is because the seizures made between 1536 and 1540 had the potential of virtually doubling the king's normal income and of freeing him from any dependence on parliamentary grants, except in very exceptional circumstances. The political significance of this possibility was not lost on those writing after the seventeenth century, when the emergence of a parliamentary monarchy rather than the development of a European-style royal despotism were thought to have largely been the result of the Crown's relative poverty. The orthodoxy became that Henry VIII squandered an opportunity to ensure the Crown's long-term financial independence, where a wiser monarch (such as his father) would not have done. There are several flaws in this 'old' view. The most obvious of these is that the writers who have advanced it have been guilty of exercising that most dangerous of tools - hindsight. There is no doubt that Henry was deeply concerned about the future of the monarchy, and of his dynasty in particular. Otherwise his actions over potential rival claimants to his throne (see chapter 5 of Henry VIII and the Government of England for details) and the lengths he went to in an attempt to ensure that he left an adult male heir to succeed him would make no sense. But he had no reason to imagine that the future of the monarchy might depend on financial independence from parliament. After all, he regarded the institution as a useful and pliant adjunct to his power. His experience was that it always did what he wanted it to, as long as his demands were tactfully presented, and he had no reason to think that the situation would ever change. Certainly, he can not be blamed for failing to realise that the Commons would ever be a threat to the monarchy.
The other major flaw in the traditional 'squandering' argument is the contention that Henry gave away a significant proportion of the monastic wealth that should have come to him. Detailed research into what happened to the estates of the dissolved monasteries has proved that this was just not so. The picture that has emerged is of a miserly monarch, encouraged by Cromwell, who gave away virtually nothing. It is true that by the time of Henry's death about one half of the monastic lands had left royal possession permanently, but nearly all of it - even that acquired by his friends - had been sold at a full market price. It seems that the only favour the king was prepared to grant to those who 'had his ear' was to permit them or their friends to purchase the estates they wanted rather than allowing rival bidders to be successful. At one time it was thought that the existence of buyers who rapidly sold on the estates they purchased proved that the Crown disposed of the land too cheaply - otherwise there would have been no profit for the 'middle man' to make - but even this argument has been shown to be fallacious. It seems that the 'middle men' were merely acting as agents for the real purchasers and were earning no more than a modest fee from their activities.
The real argument that remains is whether Henry was wise in his spending of the half of the monastic wealth he disposed of, given that he and his ministers had already ensured that they maximised the value of the assets they sold. Here there is unlikely ever to be agreement. Most of the money realised from the sale of monastic land was spent on the wars against France and Scotland that were fought in the last years of Henry's reign. We now know that the wars achieved nothing of substance for Henry or his subjects and could have been avoided had the king wished to do so. In the light of these facts, most commentators will choose to accuse Henry of wasteful folly or worse. However, there is an alternative defensible point of view. This involves making a judgement as if from Henry's point of view at the time. Applying such criteria, would it have been justifiable for Henry not to spend the money as he did, when he believed that a monarch's first duty was to be victorious in battle and when he could see the possibility of adding one or even two kingdoms to the lands he already possessed? And, after all, when he died he did leave behind him about a half of the additional wealth he had acquired.
However, there is one area in which it is now generally agreed that the dissolution had very significant long-term consequences. This is in the social sphere. Because so much of the monastic land was sold by Henry VIII and during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I (virtually none remained in royal possession in 1603), the number of estates available to be bought was much greater than at any time for centuries. Although many of the manors were purchased by those who already owned considerable estates, many were bought by those who would otherwise have remained 'landless' and therefore inferior to the existing country gentlemen. Some of these were merchants who had made their money from trade but more were the younger sons of landowning families who, because of the system of primogeniture by which the eldest son inherited all the land owned by his father, were otherwise doomed to drop out of the social elite into which they had been born. The effect of this was to increase the number of those enjoying the social rank of country gentleman by several thousand before the end of the century. Some would argue that it was this enlargement of the land-owning class which resulted in England becoming a parliamentary monarchy, freer from violent revolution than its European neighbours and with the tradition of slow and peaceful change that is such an important part of our heritage.
Thus it seems that the effects of the dissolution of the monasteries might have been very significant indeed in the long term, but not in the short term and not for the course of the Reformation in England. It has even been suggested that the Reformation could have taken place very well without the dissolution or the dissolution without there being a Reformation. That this view is widely supported suggests that the 'top-down' historians are very much in the ascendancy in this aspect of Reformation studies.