Dissolution of the Monasteries

The Dissolution of the Monasteries (referred to by Roman Catholic writers as the Suppression of the Monasteries) was the formal process, taking place between 1536 and 1540, by which King Henry VIII confiscated the property of the Roman Catholic monastic institutions in England and took them to himself, as the new head of the Church of England.

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Ruins of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

These processes should not necessarily be seen against the larger background of the Protestant Reformation taking place in continental Europe. This is because, despite the break from the jurisdiction of Rome under Henry VIII in religious appointments, the Anglicanism which resulted was,

  • first, only a form of "State Catholicism" (see Henry VIII's 1539 Six Articles as proof of this).
  • second, it was only under the influence of Thomas Cranmer (Henry VIII's Archbishop of Canterbury, who secretly married a niece of a Lutheran theologian of Nuremberg) and Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (serving as Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King's Person in the regency organization for Henry VIII's heir, Edward VI), that Henry VIII's Anglicanism was moved explicitly toward Protestantist forms of religious expression.

Under Henry VIII, acts reforming certain Church abusive practices were passed in November 1529. They set caps on fees for probating wills and mortuary expenses for burial on hallowed ground, tightened regulations covering rights of sanctuary for felons and murderers, and reduced to four the number of Church offices to be held by one man. These were less forms of "religious reformation" than they were ways of establishing royal jurisdiction in a "State Catholic" framework.

Regardless, resistance among the pro-Roman ecclesiastics was stiff. Opposition to Henry VIII occurred in the person of Reginald Pole, who escaped to the Continent and later was made Cardinal, against his will, by the Pope to be a potential "Pope's man" in England in an anticipated more pro-Roman future. Henry VIII originally offered Pole the archbishopric of York or the diocese of Winchester if he would support his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Pole withheld his support and went into self-imposed exile in France and Italy in 1532, continuing his studies in Padua and Paris. Pole was made cardinal under Pope Paul III in 1536 over Pole's own objections. In 1542 he was appointed as one of the three legates to preside over the Council of Trent, and after the death of Pope Paul III in 1549, Pole missed being elected pope by only one vote.

It has been suggested that getting the lands and treasuries of those religious houses was as much Henry's purpose in splitting with the Church of Rome as getting divorced from Catherine of Aragon; however, the evidence points away from this, since he spent five years pressuring the Pope for his annulment before finally giving up and splitting from Rome. Rather, having gained control over the church, he was unable to resist the temptation to use its wealth to clear the country's debts - especially as the church had an income three times greater than that of the state.

Additionally, it may have been a form of politics: that once the break with Rome had occurred, the Dissolution could be seen as a form of removing the organizations that were the mainspring of Henry VIII's political opposition, as well. The truth is likely a mixture of all these.

Henry had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England in February 1531. In April 1533 an Act in Restraint of Appeals, eliminated the right of clergy to appeal to "foreign tribunals" (Rome) over the King's head in any spiritual or financial matter.

In 1534 Henry had Parliament authorize Thomas Cromwell, a layman in the King's service since 1530, to "visit" all the monasteries (which term includes abbeys and convents), ostensibly to make sure their members were instructed in the new rules for their supervision by the King instead of the Pope, but actually to inventory their assets. A few months later, in January 1535 when the consternation at having a lay visitation instead of a bishop had settled down, Cromwell's visitation authority was delegated to a commission of laymen. This phase is termed the "Visitation of the Monasteries."

In the summer of that year, the visitors started their work, and "preachers" and "railers" were sent to deliver sermons from the pulpits of the churches on three themes:

  • The monks and nuns in the monasteries were sinful "hypocrites" and "sorcerers" who were living lives of luxury and engaging in every kind of sin.
  • Those monks and nuns were sponging off the working people and giving nothing back and, thus, were a serious drain on England's economy.
  • If the King received all the property of the monasteries, he would never again need taxes from the people.

Meanwhile, during the last half of 1535, the visiting commissioners were sending back written reports to Cromwell of all the scandalous doings they said they were discovering, sexual, as well as financial. The law Parliament enacted in early 1536, relying in large part on the reports of impropriety Cromwell had received, provided for the King to take all the monasteries with annual incomes of less than 200, and that was done: the smaller, less influential houses were emptied and their property confiscated. Monastic life had been in decline. By 1536, the thirteen Cistercian houses in Wales had only 85 monks among them. Their reputation for misbehaviour was likely overstated, however.

The moves did not raise as much capital as had been expected, even after the king re-chartered some of the confiscated monasteries and confiscated them again. In April 1539 a new Parliament passed a law giving the King the rest of the monasteries in England. Some of the abbots resisted, and that autumn the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury, and Reading were executed for treason.

The other abbots signed their abbeys over to the King. Some of the confiscated church buildings were destroyed by having the valuable lead removed from roofs and stone reused for secular buildings. Some of the smaller Benedictine houses were taken over as parish churches, and were even bought for the purpose by wealthy parishes. The tradition that there was widespread destruction and iconoclasm, that altars and windows were smashed, partly confuses the damage with the greater damage wrought by the Puritans in the next century. Relics were discarded and pilgrimages discouraged, however. Places like Glastonbury, Walsingham, Bury St Edmunds, Shaftesbury and Canterbury that had thrived on the pilgrim trade suffered setbacks.

Henry needed more cash so many of the abbeys were resold, at bargain rates, to the new Tudor gentry, aligning them as a class more firmly to the new Protestant settlement.



The abbeys of England, Wales and Ireland had been among the greatest land-owners and the largest institutions in the kingdom. Particularly in areas far from London, the abbeys were among the principal centres of hospitality, learning, charity and medical care. The removal of over eight hundred such institutions virtually overnight left many gaps.

The monasteries and convents provided many of the chief schools of the time, providing education for some girls as well as boys. Although many secular grammar schools for boys were re-established under King Henry and his son, Edward VI, many gaps remained for a long period. For girls, opportunities for education outside the home largely vanished.

The related destruction of the monastic libraries was one of the greatest cultural losses caused by the reformation. The abbey at Worcester had 600 books at the time of the dissolution. Only six of them survived intact. At the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York, a library of 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three surviving books. Some books were destroyed for their precious bindings, others were sold off by the cart-load, including irreplaceable early English works. It is believed that many of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were lost at this time.

"A great nombre of them whych purchased those supertycyous mansyons, resrved of those lybrarye bokes, some to serve theyr jakes, some to scoure candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and soapsellers..." John Bale 1549

Monastic hospitals were also lost, with serious consequences locally. Monasteries had also supplied charitable food and alms for the poor and destitute in hard times. The removal of this resource was one of the factors in the creation of the army of "sturdy beggars" that plagued late Tudor England, causing the social instability that necessitated the Edwardian and Elizabethan Poor Laws. In addition, monastic landlords were generally considered to be more lax and easy-going than the new aristocrats who replaced them, demanding higher rents and greater productivity from their tenants.

The destruction of the monastic institutions therefore became very unpopular in some areas. In the north of England, centring on Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the suppression of the monasteries led to a popular rising, the Pilgrimage of Grace, that threatened the crown for some weeks. The demand for the restoration of some monasteries resurfaced in the later, West Country, Prayer Book Rebellion.

Many of the dismantled monasteries and friaries were sold for nominal amounts (often to the local townspeople), and some of the lands the King gave to his supporters; there were also pensions to be paid to some of the dispossessed clerics. Many others continued to serve the parishes. Although the total value of the confiscated property has been calculated to have been 200,000 at the time, the actual amount of income King Henry received from it from 1536 through 1547 averaged only 37,000 per year, about one fifth of what the monks had derived from it.

The Dissolution was not popular throughout England. In 1536 there were major popular risings in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and, a further rising in Norfolk the following year. Rumors were spread that the King was going to strip the parish churches too, and even tax cattle and sheep. The rebels called for an end to the dissolution of the monasteries, for the removal of Cromwell, and for Henry's daughter, and eldest child, the Catholic Mary to be named as successor in place of his younger son Edward. Henry defused the movement with promises, then summarily executed some of the leaders.

See also

External links

  • Dissolution of the Monasteries (http://www.britainexpress.com/History/Dissolution_of_the_Monasteries.htm)
  • BBC Timeline: (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/britain/tud_dissolution.shtml) Dissolution of the Monasteries
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10455a.htm) Suppression of English Monasteries


  • D Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, vol III (1959)
  • J Youings, The Dissolution of the Monasteries (1971)
  • C Haigh, The Last Days of the Lancashire Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace (1969)
  • B Bradshaw, The Dissolution of the Religious Orders in Ireland under Henry VIII (1974)

simple:Dissolution of the monasteries it:Dissoluzione dei monasteri in Inghilterra


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