Dissolution of the Monasteries 1535-40: Consequences Political

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  • Key Data

1. 1536-47 Crown earned over £1 million in rental income and sales. (Some of the land was gifted to courtiers and clients but very little after 1540.)

2. The first surge in sales occurred in 1542-44, years which coincided with wars against France and Scotland.
3. By 1547 half of the land had been sold, garnering £800,000. This was a substantial windfall, especially given the relative (i.e. in comparison with its European counterparts) poverty of the English crown.

  • The squander thesis does not really hold water.

1. Henry and Cromwell never intended to create an additional complex of Crown lands that would free the monarch from dependence on Parliament for taxation.

2. Henry never intended to keep all the land. Instead the plan was to gradually liquidate the newly acquired assets. Although sales peaked in 1542-44, there was no fire sale of monastic lands.
3. It was not so much that the land was wasted but that the revenue from sales was spent so badly. Much of it was wasted on wars which brought very limited gains (see notes on Henry’s foreign policy in the 1540s), though one could argue that some of the money was well spent, for example the shoring up of England’s coastal defences.
4. Even the money spent on wars against France and Scotland served its purpose in that it allowed Henry to do what great renaissance monarchs did, which was to wage war. Moreover, those wars were not entirely fruitless.
5. Nevertheless, Henry VIII did not save the money and leave his son a solvent Crown, which had been his legacy in 1509. Instead he bequeathed to Edward a Crown in debt.

  • Do not underestimate the role of the monasteries in the spiritual life of England. Thomas Audley wrote to Cromwell that while ordinary people were resentful of the wealth of the monasteries and abuses by their inhabitants, ‘they think there is great loss of their prayers.’

  • The dissolution yielded an educational dividend:

1. Henry VIII founded or re-founded six grammar schools (Bristol, Canterbury, Carlisle, Chester, Ely) with the money from the dissolution of t he monasteries.

2. Wolsey’s foundation Cardinal College, Oxford was re-endowed as Christ Church.
3. Trinity College, Cambridge was also founded
4. Five Regius (appointment was in the gift of the crown) Professorships were inaugurated at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

  • Apart from the spiritual services they provided, religious houses were an important part of the kingdom’s social fabric. They were providers of basic schooling and of alms and poor relief. David Knowles has estimated that monastic charity may have amounted to as much as £7,000 to £10,000 a year. The growing numbers of vagrants and poor may have been a direct effect of the closure of the monasteries.

  • Thomas Starkey and the Commonwealth group were hopeful of a broader programme of social reform. Income from the dissolution would pay for new schools and more poor relief. Starkey and his supporters embraced humanism as a movement of social and educational reform. Their hopes, however, were not fulfilled. Thirteen new bishoprics had been projected but only six were created under the Bishoprics Act (May 1539) and one of those, Westminster, did not survive beyond 1550. Instead the money was spent on reinforcing coastal defences 1538-39 and on wars against France and Scotland 1542-46.

  • It had been hoped that some of the larger houses would be converted into secular colleges where resident priests would educate the laity but such a programme was never implemented. Talk of reform helped Henry in that it served as a smokescreen for his basic motives for shutting down the monasteries, which were financial and political. The Bishoprics Act was a diversionary tactic, deliberately introduced at the same time a the bill for the dissolution of the larger houses in order to buy support and generate goodwill and suggest that dissolution was part of a broader policy of educational reform.

  • Who bought the land?

1. Members of the nobility, merchant and lawyers (these new entrants to the landowning class are sometimes unhelpfully called ‘new men’).

2. The nobility, however, were not the main buyers. Hence Norfolk’s observation in September 1536 that ‘the time of sowing is at hand and every other nobleman has already his portion’ is misleading.
3. Nor should the gains made by new men be overstated. Lawyers did buy land but they were often the sons of landed families.
4. The majority of buyers were existing members of the gentry (the landed classes one level below the landowning nobility in the social hierarchy). Often they were younger sons of the landowning classes, excluded from land ownwership under inheritance laws. Sometimes they had been stewards (estate managers) of the suppressed monasteries in their native counties and were well placed as buyers.
5. The net effect. therefore, of the land sales was to bolster the position of the higher echelons of the landed classes or gentry at the expense of the Crown and the Church.

Elton: ‘the largest share went to the established landed gentry.’

Elton: ‘the main result of the redistribution was to increase the size and number of middling estates.’

  • One by-product of the dissolution was to extend lay control over the church. Many monasteries had bee rectors to a parish. They received a tithe (literally a tenth, a tax paid in cash or kind) from that parish and appointed a priest to a salaried post in the parish. In addition the priest was given a house. The priest enjoyed a living or benefice. After dissolution, the right of appointment (and the right to collect the tithe) passed to lay landowners, affording them patronage and the opportunity for reform-minded gentry to appoint priests of a similar outlook.


  • The church lost power and influence. The transfer of nearly two million acres of land to the crown stripped the church of significant wealth.

Smith: ‘the loss of all its regular clergy and almost half of its wealth over a period of four years meant that the new national Church of England was a much less impressive material edifice than its medieval predecessor.’

Elton: ‘the great loser was the Church which ceased to be the largest landowner in England.’

  • What happened to the buildings? Some were converted into manor houses for the laity; the abbey at Malmesbury was converted into a clothing factory by William Stumpe; others fell into disrepair and ruin once they had been stripped of valuable raw materials such as the lead on their roofs. Think of Rievaulx Abbey in north Yorkshire, one of the glories of medieval English church architecture. It became a majestic ruin.

  • The wealth of the monasteries was plundered. Older history books refer to this process as the spoliation. The larger monasteries in particular were treasure-houses of books and valuable objects. Chalices and crosses were sold or melted down. Royal commissioners often sold off furnishings and moveable goods on site. Treasures were transferred to the Court of Augmentations and sold off or given away.

1. The five great abbeys of Bury St. Edmunds, Ely, Ramsey, Peterborough and Crowland alone produced two-thirds of a ton of silver.

2. The library of Worcester Priory was ransacked. Six hundred books were lost.
3. At the Augustinian friary in York 646 volumes were destroyed.

  • The impact on learning was appreciated at the time. With the moral support of Henry VIII, an antiquary, John Leland, attempted to save ancient manuscripts but with only limited success. Much of the literary heritage of Anglo-Saxon England was lost in the throes of dissolution.

  • At one level the closure of the monasteries was an attack on the doctrine of works-based salvation, i.e. the idea that entry to heaven had to be earned by good works such as pilgrimages. Some houses were the centres of saint cults. The shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was attached to a monastery, while the Benedictine Priory at Durham housed the remains of St. Cuthbert, the most visited shrine in the north of England.

  • The safety net offered by pensions was patchy. Ordinary monks had to be satisfied with less than £10 p.a. Nuns received less, friars nothing at all. Pensions were calculated according to the wealth of the house to which the monks had belonged and paid by the Court of Augmentations, even when title to property had passed from the Crown to a private owner. Thus, when crown finances collapsed in the reign of Edward VI, many pensions were unpaid. The average was probably around £5 per year. The minimum needed for subsistence.

  • About 1800 members of the regular clergy did not receive a pension. Spare a thought for nuns released from their vows. Their pension was inadequate. They did not have the option of becoming parish priests. The life of a single woman no linger protected by the seclusion of the cloister was an uncomfortable one in Henrician England.

  • Quite a few monks became chapel or chantry priests and the dissolution of the chantries in 1547 at the outset of Edward’s reign was a severe blow to them.

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