How Henry VIII’s Divorce Led to Reformation and the Church of England

How Henry VIII’s Divorce Led to Reformation and the Church of England

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

When Martin Luther issued grievances about the Catholic Church in 1517, King Henry VIII took it upon himself to personally repudiate the arguments of the Protestant Reformation leader. The pope rewarded Henry with the lofty title of Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith.

Barely a decade later, the very same Henry VIII would break decisively with the Catholic Church, accept the role of Supreme Head of the Church of England and dissolve the nation’s monasteries, absorbing and redistributing their massive property as he saw fit.

So what changed? How did the former “Defender of the Faith” end up ushering in the English Reformation?

King Henry VIII wanted out from his first marriage.

Though early signs of anticlericalism had surfaced in England by the 1520s, Catholicism still enjoyed widespread popular support. As for Henry VIII, he “had no wish and no need to break with the church,” says Andrew Pettegree, professor of history at the University of St. Andrews (U.K.). “No need because he already enjoyed substantial power over the English church and its income...And he had no wish also, because he was personally rather pious.”

But by 1527, Henry had a big problem: His first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, had failed to produce a son and male heir to the throne. Henry had also become infatuated with one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, whose sister Mary had previously been his lover. Anne encouraged the king’s attentions, but shrewdly refused to become his mistress, setting her sights on a higher goal.

So Henry asked Pope Clement VII to grant him a divorce from Catherine. He argued that the marriage was against God’s will, due to the fact that she had briefly been married to Henry’s late brother, Arthur.

Henry faced unfavorable papal politics.

Under other circumstances, it wouldn’t have been too difficult for England’s king to get a papal dispensation to set aside his first wife and marry another in order to produce a male heir. “There was a clear understanding among the princely houses of Europe that the continuation of the dynasty was the ruler's number one priority,” says Andrew Pettegree, professor of history at the University of St. Andrews (U.K.).

But timing was not on Henry’s side. That same year—1527—the imperial troops of the Holy Roman Empire had attacked and destroyed Rome itself, forcing Pope Clement VII to flee the Vatican through a secret tunnel and take shelter in the Castel Sant’Angelo. At the time, the title of Holy Roman Emperor belonged to King Charles V of Spain—Catherine of Aragon’s beloved nephew.

With the papacy almost entirely under imperial sway, Clement VII was not inclined to grant Henry a divorce from the emperor’s aunt. But he didn’t want to completely deny Henry either, so he stretched out negotiations with the king’s minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, over several years, even as Henry grew increasingly frustrated.

Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell find a Protestant solution.

It was the clergyman Thomas Cranmer and the king’s influential adviser Thomas Cromwell—both Protestants—who built a convincing case that England’s king should not be subject to the pope’s jurisdiction. Eager to marry Anne, Henry appointed Cranmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury, after which Cranmer quickly granted Henry’s divorce from Catherine. In June 1533, the heavily pregnant Anne Boleyn was crowned queen of England in a lavish ceremony.

Parliament’s passage of the Act of Supremacy in 1534 solidified the break from the Catholic Church and made the king the Supreme Head of the Church of England. With Cranmer and Cromwell in positions of power, and a Protestant queen by Henry’s side, England began adopting “some of the lessons of the continental Reformation,” Pettegree says, including a translation of the Bible into English.

The Crown also moved to dissolve England’s monasteries and take control of the Church’s vast property holdings from 1536-40, in what Pettegree calls “the greatest redistribution of property in England since the Norman Conquest in 1066.” All of the property reverted to the Crown, and Henry used the windfall to reward his counselors, both Protestant and conservative, for their loyalty. “Even Catholics are extremely tempted by the opportunity to increase their landholdings with this former monastic property,” Pettegree says.

Anne Boleyn’s daughter completed Reformation.

Anne Boleyn, of course, would fail to produce the desired son (although she gave birth to a daughter who would become Elizabeth I), and by 1536, Henry had fallen for another lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. That May, after her former ally Cromwell helped engineer her conviction of adultery, incest and conspiracy against the king, Anne was executed.

In October 1537, Jane Seymour gave birth to Henry’s first male heir, the future King Edward VI, before dying of complications from childbirth two weeks later. For the rest of Henry’s life, evangelical and conservative factions wrestled for influence—often with murderous results—but after Henry’s death in 1547, his son’s brief reign would be dominated by evangelical Protestant counselors, who were able to introduce a much more radical Reformation into England.

But Edward died young in 1553, and his Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary I, would reverse many of these changes during her reign. It would be left to Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Anne Boleyn and ruler of England for nearly 50 years, to complete the Reformation her father had begun.

As for Henry VIII, he had remained a conservative Catholic, with a personal hatred of Martin Luther, for the rest of his life, despite the revolutionary changes effected on his behalf.

“The divorce is absolutely at the heart of the matter,” Pettegree concludes. “Had there been no marital problems, I'm fairly certain there would have been no English Reformation, at least in Henry's lifetime.”

How Henry VIII’s Divorce Led to Reformation and the Church of England - HISTORY

Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England, was succeeded by his son Henry VIII in 1509 AD.

Henry VIII was to become a towering figure in English history.

(Above) Henry VIII, famous for his six wives, for the break with the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England.

A rebellion against the Catholic Church had broken out on the European Continent, called the Reformation, led by the enigmatic Martin Luther, which saw Christianity split into two separate camps, Catholic and Protestant.

At first Henry VIII fervently tried to suppress the Reformation that had spread to England.

He even authored a book strongly criticising Martin Luther.

However, Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, bore him only a single child, Mary.

As the War of the Roses had basically been a prolonged dynastic conflict, Henry feared that the lack of a male heir would endanger the Tudor dynasty and destabilise the country.

Henry, yearning for a male heir, requesting a divorce from the Pope in Rome, who refused.

(Above) During her five-year reign, Mary had over 280 Protestants burned at the stake, which led to her denunciation as 'Bloody Mary' by her Protestant opponents. The victims of the persecutions became lauded as martyrs.

After this refusal, Henry decided to dismantle the power of the Catholic Church and set up the Church of England.

Henry made himself, as monarch, the spiritual head of the Church of England, a situation which has persisted until the present day.

The dismantling of the Catholic Church and the founding of the Church of England is known to posterity as the English Reformation.

Henry then proceeded to marry a series of brides, these becoming famous as the six wives of Henry VIII.

His second wife, Anne Boleyn, whom he married in 1533 AD, bore him another daughter, Elizabeth.

Henry had Anne Boleyn beheaded for alleged adultery and then married Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to Edward, his only son.

His last three wives, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, bore him no children.

Henry VIII died in 1547 AD, and was succeeded by his young son Edward VI, who was 9 years old at coronation, but unfortunately died at the premature age of 16.

Due to the rules of succession, Henry VIII’s first child with Catherine of Aragon, Mary, then took the throne.

(Above) Mary I was a fervent Catholic and temporarily reversed the English Reformation, ordering a harsh and bloody revenge on England's Protestants, earning her the title of Bloody Mary.

Mary then married her cousin, Phillip II of Spain, and this triggered war with France, which saw the last English stronghold on the Continent, Calais, overrun and lost.

The name Great Britain dates from this period, when the English held Calais territory was referred to as ‘Little Britain’ and the British mainland as ‘Great Britain’.

When Mary died in 1558 AD, there were signs of relief in England.

She was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and his second marriage.

Henry VIII's divorce

Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509. In 1504, he had married Catherine of Aragon (born in 1485), the widow of his elder brother. Pope Jules II had officially sanctioned the marriage. Catherine gave birth to several children of whom only Mary, born in 1527, survived. The king, who was 36 in 1527, had no male heir. Obsessed by the need for a male heir to ensure the throne&rsquos stability, he decided to ask for a divorce from his ageing wife to marry Anne Boleyn, a young woman he was in love with.

Henry VIII doubted that the Church would approve of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Indeed, as is written in Leviticus 20.21: &ldquoThou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother&rsquos wife: it is thy brother&rsquos nakedness.&rdquo

Pope Jules should not have sanctioned that marriage, which had to be annulled. But Catherine&rsquos close relatives referred to a verse in Deuteronomy (Dt. 25.5): &ldquoIf brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband&rsquos brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband&rsquos brother unto her.&rdquo

With no clear solution in the content, the debate turned to the procedure: was the pope competent to give a dispensation or not? English kings during the Middle-Ages had already restricted the rights of the Holy See over their country&rsquos Church, and claimed that the royal courts of justice had precedence over papal courts. But only pope Clement VII could annul Henry VIII&rsquos first marriage.

The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (Book Review)

The Protestant Reformation that swept across Western Europe in the 1500s was less than monolithic in nature. Reformers in Germany, France, Switzerland and elsewhere, while adhering to many common essentials of faith, each overlaid the reform movement with distinctive nuances that typically led to squabbles among the many resulting reform factions. Nowhere, though, was the reform movement more distinctive than in England, and nowhere was there a reformer as controversial and enigmatic as King Henry VIII.

This new book, which bills itself as “a major reassessment of England’s break with Rome,” explores Henry’s motives, methods and policies during the most dramatic religious transformation in the British Isles since the Dark Age mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Bernard shows, convincingly, that Henry’s reformation was the result of a well-formulated, proactive policy, not an inadvertent and shortsighted reaction to his desire to have annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had unexpectedly failed to bear him a son. Nor was Henry cleverly manipulated by counselors such as Cromwell, Wolsey and Cranmer, Bernard argues, but instead he played the role of the mastermind who was willing to let his subordinates take the fall when pawns needed to be sacrificed.

The author makes the case for Henry’s disagreement with Rome being sincerely based on religious scruples, not merely a cynical excuse by which he could pave the way for a marital union with Anne Boleyn. “Henry saw himself as God’s lieutenant,” Bernard believes, “whose divinely ordained mission was to purify the church.”
Through an overwhelming mass of documentation, Bernard demonstrates that the king was firmly in control of just such a reform throughout the marriage controversy and its aftermath, and that few of his bishops and courtiers challenged him forcefully, and none effectively.

While Henry responded to this belief in the need for a break with Rome, he stopped well short of taking up the banner of Luther or Zwingli instead he aimed at a more measured and moderate reform based on his own royal supremacy and his distaste for the “superstition” permeating the Roman church.

According to this view, the dissolution of the monasteries was prompted not by the king’s desire to confiscate the wealth of the church, as so often postulated, but rather to dismantle the infrastructure of the cult of relics and shrines that had flourished at the start of Henry’s reign.

Less controversial, perhaps, is Bernard’s conclusion: “The king’s reformation, for all its radicalism over monasteries and pilgrimage shrines, was not a road towards protestantism. Henry would have no truck with Lutheran notions of justification by faith or Zwinglian doctrines of the eucharist: It is not convincing to present Henry as a protestant, an evangelical or even a half-protestant. But that did not…make him a conservative exponent of traditional religion: ‘catholicism without the pope.'” Indeed, Henry was Henry, a reformer unique unto himself.

Henry VIII was brought up a devout Catholic. Before he became king, he had in his possession a prayer scroll containing illuminations of the Trinity, the crucified Christ, the Instruments of the Passion and several martyred saints. Latin prayers were placed on each side of the images, together with English rubrics (instructions) that explained how the prayers could offer protection from earthly dangers or the remission of time in Purgatory. Sacred texts of this kind were common as part of the devotional practices of late-medieval England. Owners of the scrolls recited the prayers, contemplated the images and touched the material object so as to become closer to the divine and earn heavenly reward in the afterlife. Henry&rsquos inscription on the prayer scroll suggests that he used it for these holy purposes and accepted the theological teachings that lay behind them.

Henry VIII's prayer roll

Henry VIII&rsquos prayer scroll. Measuring over three metres in length, this roll contains prayers in Latin and English and fourteen illuminated images, which include martyred saints, St George slaying the dragon, and Christ&rsquos Passion.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Henry&rsquos Catholic worship was typical of the era. Along with the prayer scroll, he also held fast to the belief that purchasing papal indulgences could pardon sin and shorten time in Purgatory a popular practice at the time. In 1521 he and Katherine of Aragon received a &lsquoplenary indulgence&rsquo from Pope Clement VII, which was tied to them carrying out an annual pilgrimage to a major shrine. When Martin Luther&rsquos protest against the sale of indulgences sparked off the German Reformation, Henry defended the practice in his rebuttal, &lsquoDefence of the Seven Sacraments&rsquo.

The British Library also holds another text that shines a light on Henry&rsquos piety a Book of Hours that has secret messages exchanged between Henry and Anne Boleyn written in the margins. Books of Hours were common sacred texts for laypeople&rsquos use. As compendia of prayers and devotional texts, the books had at their core the &lsquoOffice of the Virgin Mary&rsquo, set prayers addressed to the Mother of Christ and recited daily at eight fixed hours. Mary, it was hoped, would act as an intercessor between the owner and God. The pages were often beautifully illustrated by the best artists of the day. Those for the nobility were richly illuminated with precious gold leaf and lapis lazuli. But, at some time around 1528, Anne and Henry employed his book for less spiritual purposes. At the foot of the folio showing the Man of Sorrows, Henry inscribed a lover&rsquos message for Anne in French: &lsquoIf you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R. forever.&rsquo Anne chose to pen her response on a page which showed the Annunciation, so suggesting her wish and power to give the king a son. She wrote in English: &lsquoBe daly prove you shalle me fynde to be to you bothe lovynge and kynde&rsquo.

Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours

Book of Hours once belonged to Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII&rsquos second wife. With unique historical importance, this manuscript is a rare example of lovers using a religious book to exchange flirtatious messages.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

When was the break from the Roman Catholic Church?

The prayers in these late-medieval sacred books and scrolls were often in Latin to signify that all Western Christians were part of the Roman Catholic Church. However, Henry formally broke with the Pope and the Roman Church after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne. His appeal for an annulment was on the grounds that their union contravened the scriptures, citing Leviticus 20. 21, which prohibits a man from marrying his brother&rsquos widow.

In 1533 the English Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which denied papal jurisdiction in England and ended appeals of court cases to Rome. The 1534 Act of Supremacy then recognised the king as the Supreme Head of the Church in England with &lsquofull power and authority&rsquo to &lsquoreform&rsquo the institution and &lsquoamend&rsquo all errors and heresies. Henry and his newly-appointed &lsquoVice Gerent in Spiritual Affairs&rsquo, Thomas Cromwell, immediately embarked upon a programme of reform. Cromwell&rsquos Injunctions of 1536, and 1538 attacked idolatry, pilgrimages and other &lsquosuperstitions&rsquo. The lesser monasteries were closed in 1536 and the remaining monasteries were dissolved over the next few years. Those men and women who resisted the closures were imprisoned or hanged.

Although Henry rejected Martin Luther&rsquos theology of justification by faith alone, he did accept the German reformer&rsquos insistence upon the supremacy of Scripture. After all, the &lsquoWord of God&rsquo (Leviticus 20.21) had justified the annulment of his first marriage. Consequently, encouraged by Cromwell and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, Henry authorised an English Bible that could be read by the laity as well as the clergy. At this time the best printed translation of the New Testament in English was by William Tyndale, who was a Lutheran burned in Antwerp in 1536. However, the king and his more conservative bishops refused to entertain the thought of publishing any work of the convicted heretic. Instead, two other Bibles received a royal licence.

Coverdale Bible

A 1535 copy of Miles Coverdale&rsquos translation of the Bible, a large lectern size Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments as well as the Apocrypha.

The first was a translation of the complete Bible by Miles Coverdale &ndash the first of its kind &ndash which had originally been printed abroad in 1535. In the 1538 edition (the one authorised by the king), Hans Holbein&rsquos title page shows Henry, flanked by King David and St Paul, handing the Bible to a bishop. The second translation was also printed abroad. The man responsible was supposedly one &lsquoThomas Matthew&rsquo, and so the text became known as the &lsquoMatthew Bible&rsquo. In fact, &lsquoThomas Matthew&rsquo was a pseudonym taken from the names of two of Jesus&rsquos disciples. This Bible was actually produced by one of Tyndale&rsquos associates, John Rogers. After his friend&rsquos death, Rogers had compiled a new text based on Tyndale&rsquos printed New Testament and manuscripts of the Old Testament Coverdale&rsquos translation was used to fill the gaps.

Matthew’s Bible

A 1537 copy of &lsquoMatthew&rsquos Bible&rsquo, printed in Antwerp.

Neither Bible was thought entirely satisfactory. So in 1538 Cranmer and Cromwell commissioned Coverdale to revise the &lsquoMatthew Bible&rsquo and produce a better translation. The new work was intended to be the realm&rsquos single authoritative Bible. In accordance with Cromwell&rsquos 1538 Injunctions, it was ordered to be chained to lecterns in every cathedral and parish church for communal and public reading by clergy and parishioners alike. Because of its large size, the book became known as the &lsquoGreat Bible&rsquo. Its woodcut title page visually communicated the royal supremacy. Receiving the Word directly from God, the enthroned king at the top of the page passes the sacred text of the Bible to his spiritual lords on his right and lay lords on his left. From there, the verbum dei ('Word of God') descends to be read to the local parish congregation and even to reach prisoners in jail.

The Great Bible, probably Henry VIII's own copy

Henry VIII&rsquos &lsquoGreat Bible&rsquo, based on an earlier version begun illegally by William Tyndale and adapted by Miles Coverdale in 1535.

New Bible, old doctrines

The Great Bible was printed in 1539. That same year Henry clarified the beliefs of his Church in &lsquoAn Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions&rsquo, better known as &lsquoThe Act of Six Articles&rsquo. This statute laid down Henry&rsquos position on some of the key issues dividing conservatives and evangelicals in England. Although he tried to find a path between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism by following what he saw as a policy of balance, the king took up a conservative position on virtually all of the controversial points. On the Mass, the Act affirmed transubstantiation, elucidating that &lsquoafter the consecration, there remaineth no substance of bread or wine, nor any other substance, but the substance of Christ, God and man&rsquo. Other clauses denied that communion in both kinds was necessary, upheld clerical celibacy, permitted private Masses (those celebrated by a priest alone) and deemed auricular confession necessary. A few years later Henry shifted his position somewhat. The 1543 &lsquoNecessary Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man&rsquo, known as the &lsquoKing&rsquos Book&rsquo (another formulary of faith), instructed his subjects &lsquoto abstain from the name of Purgatory&rsquo and questioned the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Nonetheless, the book unambiguously rejected justification by faith alone and reaffirmed transubstantiation, two positions which contradicted Luther's teachings. When the king died in January 1547 England was therefore doctrinally Catholic despite the rejection of papal supremacy. As for Henry&rsquos personal convictions, he remained conventionally pious. He continued his private devotions in Latin in fact one of the last books he commissioned was a beautiful Latin psalter, written and illuminated by the French émigré Jean Mallard. Four illuminations depict Henry one of them showed him reading the book in his bedchamber while another showed him as David playing the harp (as in I Samuel 16.14-23). Evidently, he identified with the Old Testament theocratic king. As was his wont, Henry scribbled notes in the book. Some of them explored themes such as the contrast between the blessed and the wicked, divine judgement, kingship and the vanity of worldly goods.

Henry VIII’s Psalter

Commissioned by King Henry VIII, this Psalter (Book of Psalms) gives an insight into the king&rsquos self-assurance as divine ruler of England.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

English devotional manuscripts

While Henry continued, it seems, to prefer Latin for his sacred texts, some of his subjects were turning to works in English for their devotions. In 1539 an English edition of Wolfgang Capito&rsquos Precationes Christianæ ad Imitationem Psalmorum was printed in London. The translator was Richard Taverner, who was working for Cromwell during the 1530s and translating works of both Erasmus and Lutherans. A manuscript containing a selection of psalms and prayers from the translated Precationes was owned by Anne, Countess of Hertford, who was the second wife of Henry&rsquos brother-in-law Edward Seymour (to be created 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector on Henry&rsquos death). Known as &lsquoTaverner&rsquos prayer book&rsquo, the small book is richly decorated on each page with a full-page border in colours and gold, while small illuminated initials mark the start of each prayer and psalm. Extracts from Taverner&rsquos translation were also put together in a manuscript prayer-book owned by Henry&rsquos great niece, Lady Jane Grey, who became noted for her Protestant piety during the next reign. The prayers, however, do not assert any particular confessional position. Some traditionalist prayers are included, but in none of them is there any reference to Purgatory.

Taverner Prayer Book

This tiny, richly decorated book of Psalms and prayers in English was most likely made for the noblewoman and literary patron Anne Seymour (née Stanhope), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset (c. 1510&ndash1587).

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Lady Jane Grey's prayer book

This tiny Book of Prayers, written in English, is probably that used by Lady Jane Grey on the scaffold at her execution in 1554.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Henry&rsquos last wife, Katherine Parr, shared the reformist tendencies of her friend, the Countess of Hertford. She almost certainly had a spiritual influence on both the king&rsquos younger daughter Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey when they each spent time in her household. Katherine wrote several devotional works while queen. Her reworking of Thomas à Kempis&rsquo De Imitatione Christi (from an English edition) was printed in 1545 under her own name (the first book printed under the name of a woman in English). To compliment her stepmother, the twelve-year-old Elizabeth gave the king her own trilingual translation (Latin, French and Italian) of the work as a New Year&rsquos Day gift for 1546.

Prayerbook of Princess Elizabeth

In December 1545, King Henry VIII was presented with this carefully embroidered volume as a New Year&rsquos gift. The prayer-book had been assembled by his twelve-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who would herself ascend to the throne in 1558.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Paving the way for Protestantism

Henry VIII&rsquos Reformation had begun an attack on sacred objects, such as saints' relics and shrines. Some sacred texts were also defaced or destroyed, especially those which venerated popes or St Thomas Becket, who had stood up to King Henry II. Many manuscripts and books in monastic libraries were trashed or dispersed during the dissolutions, although the antiquarian John Leland managed to collect and conserve a large number for the king. Despite this, sacred texts remained an important part of English religious culture. Indeed more of them began to appear in English, and of course several English Bibles came into circulation. However, for those who were evangelical or Protestants, the works contained no mention of purgatory and were not be handled as holy objects in themselves. The ground was being laid for the full-blown Protestantism introduced on Henry&rsquos death by Archbishop Cranmer and Lord Protector Somerset.

Susan Doran FRHS is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and St Benet's Hall, Oxford. She specialises in the high politics, religion and culture of the 16th and early-17th centuries. She edited the catalogue of the British Library exhibition Henry VIII: Man and Monarch in 2009, and her book Elizabeth I and her Circle first appeared in 2015. Since then she has been working on the early years of James I's reign.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

Why Did Henry VIII Create the Church of England?

King Henry VIII created the Church of England in 1536 as a result of a dispute with the pope, who would not permit Henry to get a divorce from his wife and marry his long-time mistress. Henry's marital history started under a cloud of suspicion, as his marriage to Catherine of Aragon meant he was forming a union with his brother's widow. Whether his series of divorces was actually the result of his failure to produce a male heir or some other form of instability is a matter of some dispute, but the reason for forming the Anglican Church was to give Henry the right to act as the head of his own church and marry as he pleased.

When Henry VIII started the Church of England, Roman Catholicism was already roiling under the effects of Reformation, which started in 1517 as the German Lutheran church began a separation of its own. Henry irritated the Catholic establishment even further, not just by separating from Catholicism but also by funding the first translation of the Bible into English.

Henry's decision to establish the Church of England was far from the last word in British religion. The country was governed by Catholic and Anglican monarchs -- and even a Puritan protectorate under Oliver Cromwell -- until William of Orange took over the throne and left the Church of England's role intact in 1688.


At the time of their suppression, a small number of English and Welsh religious houses could trace their origins to Anglo-Saxon or Celtic foundations before the Norman Conquest, but the overwhelming majority of the 625 monastic communities dissolved by Henry VIII had developed in the wave of monastic enthusiasm that had swept western Christendom in the 11th and 12th centuries. Few English houses had been founded later than the end of the 13th century the most recent foundation of those suppressed was the Bridgettine nunnery of Syon Abbey founded in 1415. (Syon was also the only suppressed community to maintain an unbroken continuity in exile its nuns returned to England in 1861.) [ citation needed ]

Typically, 11th- and 12th-century founders had endowed monastic houses with both 'temporal' income in the form of revenues from landed estates, and 'spiritual' income in the form of tithes appropriated from parish churches under the founder's patronage. In consequence of this, religious houses in the 16th century controlled appointment to about two-fifths of all parish benefices in England, [2] disposed of about half of all ecclesiastical income, [3] and owned around a quarter of the nation's landed wealth. An English medieval proverb said that if the abbot of Glastonbury married the abbess of Shaftesbury, their heir would have more land than the king of England. [4]

The 200 houses of friars in England and Wales constituted a second distinct wave of foundations, almost all occurring in the 13th century. Friaries, for the most part, were concentrated in urban areas. Unlike monasteries, friaries had eschewed income-bearing endowments the friars, as mendicants, expected to be supported financially by offerings and donations from the faithful, while ideally being self-sufficient in producing their own basic foods from extensive urban kitchen gardens. [ citation needed ]

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England and Ireland took place in the political context of other attacks on the ecclesiastical institutions of Western Roman Catholicism, which had been under way for some time. Many of these were related to the Protestant Reformation in Continental Europe. By the end of the 16th century, monasticism had almost entirely disappeared from those European states whose rulers had adopted Lutheran or Reformed confessions of faith (Ireland being the only major exception). They continued in those states that remained Catholic, and new community orders such as the Jesuits and Capuchins emerged alongside the older orders. [5]

But, the religious and political changes in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI were of a different nature from those taking place in Germany, Bohemia, France, Scotland and Geneva. Across much of continental Europe, the seizure of monastic property was associated with mass discontent among the common people and the lower level of clergy and civil society against powerful and wealthy ecclesiastical institutions. Such popular hostility against the church was rare in England before 1558 the Reformation in England and Ireland was directed from the king and highest levels of society. These changes were initially met with widespread popular suspicion on some occasions and in particular localities, there was active resistance to the royal program.

Complaints Edit

Dissatisfaction with the general state of regular religious life, and with the gross extent of monastic wealth, was near to universal amongst late medieval secular and ecclesiastical rulers in the Latin West. Bernard says there was:

widespread concern in the later 15th and early 16th centuries about the condition of the monasteries. A leading figure here is the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus who satirized monasteries as lax, as comfortably worldly, as wasteful of scarce resources, and as superstitious he also thought it would be better if monks were brought more directly under the authority of bishops. At that time, quite a few bishops across Europe had come to believe that resources expensively deployed on an unceasing round of services by men and women in theory set apart from the world [would] be better spent on endowing grammar schools and university colleges to train men who would then serve the laity as parish priests, and on reforming the antiquated structures of over-large dioceses such as that of Lincoln. Pastoral care was seen as much more important and vital than the monastic focus on contemplation, prayer and performance of the daily office. [6]

Erasmus had made a threefold criticism of the monks and nuns of his day, saying that:

  • in withdrawing from the world into their own communal life, they elevated man-made monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience above the God-given vows of sacramental baptism and elevated man-made monastic rules for religious life above the God-given teachings of the Gospels [7]
  • notwithstanding exceptional communities of genuine austere life and exemplary charity, the overwhelming majority of abbeys and priories were havens for idle drones concerned only for their own existence, reserving for themselves an excessive share of the commonwealth's religious assets, and contributing little or nothing to the spiritual needs of ordinary people [8] and
  • the monasteries, almost without exception, were deeply involved in promoting and profiting from the veneration of relics, in the form of pilgrimages and purported miraculous tokens. The cult of relics was by no means specific to monasteries, but Erasmus was scandalised by the extent to which well-educated and highly regarded monks and nuns would participate in the perpetration of what he considered to be frauds against gullible and credulous lay believers. [9]

Summarising the state of monastic life across Western Europe, David Knowles said, [ citation needed ]

The verdict of unprejudiced historians at the present day would probably be—abstracting from all ideological considerations for or against monasticism—that there were far too many religious houses in existence in view of the widespread decline of the fervent monastic vocation, and that in every country the monks possessed too much of wealth and of the sources of production both for their own well-being and for the material good of the economy.

Reforms Edit

Pilgrimages to monastic shrines continued to be widely popular, until forcibly suppressed in England in 1538 by order of Henry VIII. But the dissolution resulted in few modifications to the practice of religion in England's parish churches in general the English religious reforms of the 1530s corresponded in few respects to the precepts of Protestant Reformers, and encountered much popular hostility when they did. In 1536, Convocation adopted and Parliament enacted the Ten Articles of which the first half used terminology and ideas drawn from Luther and Melanchthon but any momentum towards Protestantism stalled when Henry VIII expressed his desire for continued orthodoxy with the Six Articles of 1539, which remained in effect until after his death. [ citation needed ]

Cardinal Wolsey had obtained a Papal Bull authorising some limited reforms in the English Church as early as 1518, but reformers (both conservative and radical) had become increasingly frustrated at their lack of progress. Henry wanted to change this, and in November 1529 Parliament passed Acts reforming apparent abuses in the English Church. They set a cap on fees, both for the probate of wills and mortuary expenses for burial in hallowed ground tightened regulations covering rights of sanctuary for criminals and reduced to two the number of church benefices that could in the future be held by one man. These Acts sought to demonstrate that establishing royal jurisdiction over the Church would ensure progress in "religious reformation" where papal authority had been insufficient. [ citation needed ]

The monasteries were next in line. J.J. Scarisbrick remarked in his biography of Henry VIII:

Suffice it to say that English monasticism was a huge and urgent problem that radical action, though of precisely what kind was another matter, was both necessary and inevitable, and that a purge of the religious orders was probably regarded as the most obvious task of the new regime—as the first function of a Supreme Head empowered by statute "to visit, extirp and redress". [10]

The stories of monastic impropriety, vice, and excess that were to be collected by Thomas Cromwell's visitors to the monasteries may have been biased and exaggerated. But the religious houses of England and Wales—with the notable exceptions of those of the Carthusians, the Observant Franciscans, and the Bridgettine nuns and monks—had long ceased to play a leading role in the spiritual life of the country. Other than in these three orders, observance of strict monastic rules was partial at best. [11] The exceptional spiritual discipline of the Carthusian, Observant Franciscan and Bridgettine orders had, over the previous century, resulted in their being singled out for royal favour, in particular with houses benefitting from endowments confiscated by the Crown from the suppressed alien priories. [ citation needed ]

Otherwise in this later period, donations and legacies had tended to go instead towards parish churches, university colleges, grammar schools and collegiate churches, which suggests greater public approbation of such purposes. Levels of monastic debt were increasing, and average numbers of professed religious were falling, [12] although the monasteries continued to attract recruits right up to the end. Only a few monks and nuns lived in conspicuous luxury, but most were very comfortably fed and housed by the standards of the time, and few any longer set standards of ascetic piety or religious observance. [13] Only a minority of houses could now support the twelve or thirteen professed religious usually regarded as the minimum necessary to maintain the full canonical hours of the Divine Office. Even in houses with adequate numbers, the regular obligations of communal eating and shared living had not been fully enforced for centuries, as communities tended to sub-divide into a number of distinct familiae. In most larger houses, the full observance of the Canonical Hours had become the task of a sub-group of 'Cloister Monks', such that the majority of the professed members of the house were freed to conduct their business and live much of their lives in the secular world. Extensive monastic complexes dominated English towns of any size, but most were less than half full. [ citation needed ]

From 1534 onwards, Cromwell and King Henry were constantly seeking ways to redirect ecclesiastical income to the benefit of the Crown—efforts they justified by contending that much ecclesiastical revenue had been improperly diverted from royal resources in the first place. Renaissance princes throughout Europe were facing severe financial difficulties due to sharply rising expenditures, especially to pay for armies, fighting ships and fortifications. Most tended, sooner or later, to resort to plundering monastic wealth, and to increasing taxation on the clergy. Protestant princes would justify this by claiming divine authority Catholic princes would obtain the agreement and connivance of the papacy. Monastic wealth, regarded everywhere as excessive and idle, offered a standing temptation for cash-strapped secular and ecclesiastical authorities. [ citation needed ]

In consequence, almost all official action in respect of the Dissolution in England and Wales was directed at the monasteries and monastic property. The closing of the monasteries aroused popular opposition, but recalcitrant monasteries and abbots became the targets of royal hostility. The surrender of the friaries, from an official perspective, arose almost as an afterthought, as an exercise in administrative tidiness once it had been determined that all religious houses would have to go. In terms of popular esteem, however, the balance tilted the other way. Almost all monasteries supported themselves from their endowments in late medieval terms 'they lived off their own'. Unless they were notably bad landlords or scandalously neglected those parish churches in their charge, they tended to enjoy widespread local support particularly as they commonly appointed local notables to fee-bearing offices. The friars, not being self-supporting, were by contrast much more likely to have been the objects of local hostility, especially since their practice of soliciting income through legacies appears often to have been perceived as diminishing anticipated family inheritances. [ citation needed ]

By the time Henry VIII turned his mind to the business of monastery reform, royal action to suppress religious houses had a history of more than 200 years. The first case was that of the so-called 'Alien Priories'. As a result of the Norman Conquest, some French religious orders held substantial property through their daughter monasteries in England.

Some of these were merely granges, agricultural estates with a single foreign monk in residence to supervise things others were rich foundations in their own right. (e.g., Lewes Priory was a daughter of Cluny of Paris and answered to the abbot of that great French house).

Owing to the fairly constant state of war between England and France in the Late Middle Ages, successive English governments had objected to money going overseas to France from these Alien Priories, as the hostile French king might get hold of it. They also objected to foreign prelates having jurisdiction over English monasteries. [ citation needed ]

Furthermore, after 1378, French monasteries (and hence alien priories dependent on them) maintained allegiance to the continuing Avignon Papacy. Their suppression was supported by the rival Roman Popes, conditional on all confiscated monastic property eventually being redirected into other religious uses. The king's officers first sequestrated the assets of the Alien Priories in 1295–1303 under Edward I, and the same thing happened repeatedly for long periods over the course of the 14th century, most particularly in the reign of Edward III. [ citation needed ]

Those Alien Priories that had functioning communities were forced to pay large sums to the king, while those that were mere estates were confiscated and run by royal officers, the proceeds going to the king's pocket. Such estates were a valuable source of income for the Crown in its French wars. Most of the larger Alien Priories were allowed to become naturalised (for instance Castle Acre Priory), on payment of heavy fines and bribes, but for around ninety smaller houses and granges, their fates were sealed when Henry V dissolved them by act of Parliament in 1414. [ citation needed ]

The properties were taken over by the Crown some were kept, some were subsequently given or sold to Henry's supporters, others were assigned to his new monasteries of Syon Abbey and the Carthusians at Sheen Priory others were used for educational purposes. All these suppressions enjoyed Papal approval. But successive 15th-century popes continued to press for assurances that, now that the Avignon Papacy had been defeated, the confiscated monastic income would revert to religious and educational uses. [ citation needed ]

The medieval understanding of religious houses as institutions associated monasteries and nunneries with their property that is to say, their endowments of land and spiritual income, and not with their current personnel of monks and nuns. If the property with which a house had been endowed by its founder were to be confiscated or surrendered, then the house ceased to exist, whether its members continued in the religious life or not. Consequently, the founder, and their heirs, had a continuing (and legally enforceable) interest in certain aspects of the house's functioning their nomination was required at the election of an abbot or prior, they could claim hospitality within the house when needed, and they could be buried within the house when they died. In addition, though this scarcely ever happened, the endowments of the house would revert to the founder's heirs if the community failed or dissolved. The status of 'founder' was considered in civil law to be real property and could consequently be bought and sold, in which case the purchaser would be termed the patron. Furthermore, like any other real property, in intestacy and some other circumstances the status of 'founder' would revert to the Crown a procedure that many houses actively sought, as it might be advantageous in their legal dealings in the King's courts. [ citation needed ]

The founders of the Alien Priories had been foreign monasteries refusing allegiance to the English Crown. These property rights were therefore automatically forfeited to the Crown when their English dependencies were dissolved by Act of Parliament. But the example created by these events prompted questions as to what action might be taken should houses of English foundation cease for any reason to exist. Much would depend on who, at the time the house ended, held the status of founder or patron and, as with other such disputes in real property, the standard procedure was to empanel a jury to decide between disputing claimants. In practice, the Crown claimed the status of 'founder' in all such cases that occurred. Consequently, when a monastic community failed (e.g. through the death of most of its members, or through insolvency), the bishop would seek to obtain Papal approval for alternative use of the house's endowments in canon law. This, with royal agreement claiming 'foundership', would be presented to an 'empanelled jury' for consent to disposal of the property of the house in civil law. [ citation needed ]

The royal transfer of alien monastic estates to educational foundations inspired bishops and, as the 15th century waned, they advocated more such actions, which became common. The subjects of these dissolutions were usually small, poor, and indebted Benedictine or Augustinian communities (especially those of women) with few powerful friends the great abbeys and orders exempt from diocesan supervision such as the Cistercians were unaffected. [ citation needed ]

The consequent new foundations were most often Oxford University and Cambridge University colleges: instances of this include John Alcock, Bishop of Ely dissolving the Benedictine St Radegund's Priory, Cambridge to found Jesus College, Cambridge (1496), and William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester acquiring Selborne Priory in Hampshire in 1484 for Magdalen College, Oxford.

In the following century, Lady Margaret Beaufort obtained the property of Creake Abbey (whose religious had all died of Black Death in 1506) to fund her works at Oxford and Cambridge. She was advised in this action by the staunch traditionalist John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. [ citation needed ]

In 1522, Fisher himself dissolved the women's monasteries of Bromhall and Higham to aid St John's College, Cambridge. That same year Cardinal Wolsey dissolved St Frideswide's Priory (now Oxford Cathedral) to form the basis of his Christ Church, Oxford in 1524, he secured a papal bull to dissolve some twenty other monasteries to provide an endowment for his new college. In all these suppressions, the remaining friars, monks and nuns were absorbed into other houses of their respective orders. Juries found the property of the house to have reverted to the Crown as founder. [ citation needed ]

The conventional wisdom of the time was that the proper daily observance of the Divine Office of prayer required a minimum of twelve professed religious, but by the 1530s only a minority of religious houses in England could provide this. Most observers were agreed that a systematic reform of the English church must necessarily involve the drastic concentration of monks and nuns into fewer, larger houses, potentially making much monastic income available for more productive religious, educational and social purposes. [ citation needed ]

But this apparent consensus often faced strong resistance in practice. Members of religious houses proposed for dissolution might resist relocation the houses invited to receive them might refuse to co-operate and local notables might resist the disruption in their networks of influence. Moreover, reforming bishops found they faced intractable opposition when urging the heads of religious houses to enforce rigorous observation of their monastic rules especially in respect of requiring monks and nuns to remain within their cloisters. Monks and nuns in almost all late medieval English religious communities, although theoretically living in religious poverty, were nevertheless paid an annual cash wage (peculium) and were in receipt of other regular cash rewards and pittances which accorded considerable effective freedom from claustral rules for those disinclined to be restricted by them. Religious superiors met their bishops' pressure with the response that the austere and cloistered ideal was no longer acceptable to more than a tiny minority of regular clergy, and that any attempt on their part to enforce their order's stricter rules could be overturned in counter-actions in the secular courts, were aggrieved monks and nuns to obtain a writ of praemunire. [ citation needed ]

The King actively supported Wolsey, Fisher and Richard Foxe in their programmes of monastic reform but even so, progress was painfully slow, especially where religious orders had been exempted from episcopal oversight by Papal authority. Moreover, it was by no means certain that juries would always find in favour of the Crown in disposing of the property of dissolved houses any action that impinged on monasteries with substantial assets might be expected to be contested by a range of influential claimants. In 1532, the priory of Christchurch Aldgate, facing financial and legal difficulties, petitioned the King as founder for assistance, only to find themselves dissolved willy-nilly. Rather than risk empanelling a jury, and with Papal participation at this juncture no longer being welcome, the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Audley recommended that dissolution should be legalised retrospectively through a special act of Parliament. [ citation needed ]

While these transactions were going on in England, elsewhere in Europe events were taking place which presaged a storm. In 1521, Martin Luther had published De votis monasticis (On the monastic vows), [14] a treatise which declared that the monastic life had no scriptural basis, was pointless and also actively immoral in that it was not compatible with the true spirit of Christianity. Luther also declared that monastic vows were meaningless and that no one should feel bound by them. Luther, a one-time Augustinian friar, found some comfort when these views had a dramatic effect: a special meeting of the German province of his order held the same year accepted them and voted that henceforth every member of the regular clergy should be free to renounce their vows, resign their offices and marry. At Luther's home monastery in Wittenberg all the friars, save one, did so.

News of these events did not take long to spread among Protestant-minded rulers across Europe, and some, particularly in Scandinavia, moved very quickly. In the Riksdag of Västerås in 1527, initiating the Reformation in Sweden, King Gustavus Vasa secured an edict of the Diet allowing him to confiscate any monastic lands he deemed necessary to increase royal revenues, and to allow the return of donated properties to the descendants of those who had donated them, should they wish to retract them. By the following Reduction of Gustav I of Sweden, Gustav gained large estates, as well as loyal supporters among the nobility who chose to use the permission to retract donations done by their families to the convents. The Swedish monasteries and convents were simultaneously deprived of their livelihoods. They were banned from accepting new novices, as well as forbidden to prevent their existing members from leaving if they wished to do so. However, the former monks and nuns were allowed to reside in the convent buildings for life on state allowance, and many of them consequently survived the Reformation for decades. The last of them was Vreta Abbey, where the last nuns died in 1582, and Vadstena Abbey, from which the last nuns emigrated in 1595, about half a century after the introduction of reformation. [15]

In Denmark-Norway, King Frederick I made a similar act in 1528, confiscating 15 of the houses of the wealthiest monasteries and convents. Further laws under his successor over the course of the 1530s banned the friars, and forced monks and nuns to transfer title to their houses to the Crown, which passed them out to supportive nobles who soon acquired former monastic lands. Danish and Norwegian monastic life was to vanish in a way identical to that of Sweden. [ citation needed ]

In Switzerland, too, monasteries were under threat. In 1523, the government of the city-state of Zurich pressured nuns to leave their monasteries and marry, and followed up the next year by dissolving all monasteries in its territory, under the pretext of using their revenues to fund education and help the poor. The city of Basel followed suit in 1529, and Geneva adopted the same policy in 1530. An attempt was also made in 1530 to dissolve the famous Abbey of St. Gall, which was a state of the Holy Roman Empire in its own right, but this failed, and St. Gall has survived. [ citation needed ]

In France and Scotland, by contrast, royal action to seize monastic income proceeded along entirely different lines. In both countries, the practice of nominating abbacies in commendam had become widespread. Since the 12th century, it had become universal in Western Europe for the household expenses of abbots and conventual priors to be separated from those of the rest of the monastery, typically appropriating more than half the house's income. With papal approval, these funds might be diverted on a vacancy to support a non-monastic ecclesiastic, commonly a bishop or member of the Papal Curia and although such arrangements were nominally temporary, commendatory abbacies often continued long-term. Then, by the Concordat of Bologna in 1516, Pope Leo X granted to Francis I effective authority to nominate almost all abbots and conventual priors in France. Ultimately around 80 per cent of French abbacies came to be held in commendam, the commendators often being lay courtiers or royal servants and by this means around half the income of French monasteries was diverted into the hands of the Crown, or of royal supporters all entirely with the Popes' blessing. Where the French kings led, the Scots kings followed. In Scotland, where the proportion of parish tiends appropriated by higher ecclesiastical institutions exceeded 85 per cent, in 1532 the young James V obtained from the Pope approval to appoint his illegitimate infant sons (of which he eventually acquired nine) as commendators to abbacies in Scotland. Other Scots aristocratic families were able to strike similar deals, and consequently over £40,000 (Scots) per annum was diverted from monasteries into the royal coffers. [ citation needed ]

It is inconceivable that these moves went unnoticed by the English government and particularly by Thomas Cromwell, who had been employed by Wolsey in his monastic suppressions, and who was shortly to become Henry VIII's King’s Secretary. However, Henry himself appears to have been much more influenced by the opinions on monasticism of the humanists Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More, especially as found in Erasmus's work In Praise of Folly (1511) and More's Utopia (1516). Erasmus and More promoted ecclesiastical reform while remaining faithful to the Church of Rome, and had ridiculed such monastic practices as repetitive formal religion, [ citation needed ] superstitious pilgrimages for the veneration of relics, and the accumulation of monastic wealth. Henry appears from the first to have shared these views, never having endowed a religious house and only once [ citation needed ] having undertaken a religious pilgrimage, to Walsingham in 1511. From 1518, Thomas More was increasingly influential as a royal servant and counsellor, in the course of which his correspondence included a series of strong condemnations of the idleness and vice in much monastic life, alongside his equally vituperative attacks on Luther. Henry himself corresponded continually with Erasmus, prompting him to be more explicit in his public rejection of the key tenets of Lutheranism and offering him church preferment should he wish to return to England. [ citation needed ]

Declaration as Head of the Church Edit

On famously failing to receive from the Pope a declaration of nullity regarding his marriage, Henry had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England in February 1531, and instigated a programme of legislation to establish this Royal Supremacy in law and enforce its acceptance throughout his realm. 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. All ecclesiastical charges and levies that had previously been payable to Rome, would now go to the King. By the Submission of the Clergy, the English clergy and religious orders subscribed to the proposition that the King was, and had always been, the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Consequently, in Henry's view, any act of monastic resistance to royal authority would not only be treasonable, but also a breach of the monastic vow of obedience. Under heavy threats, almost all religious houses joined the rest of the Church in acceding to the Royal Supremacy and in swearing to uphold the validity of the King's divorce and remarriage. Opposition was concentrated in the houses of Carthusian monks, Observant Franciscan friars and Bridgettine monks and nuns, which were to the Government's embarrassment, exactly those orders where the religious life was acknowledged as being fully observed. Great efforts were made to cajole, bribe, trick and threaten these houses into formal compliance, with those religious who continued in their resistance being liable to imprisonment until they submitted or if they persisted, to execution for treason. All the houses of the Observant Friars were handed over to the mainstream Franciscan order the friars from the Greenwich house were imprisoned, where many died from ill-treatment. The Carthusians eventually submitted, other than the monks of the London house which was suppressed some of the monks were executed for high treason in 1535, and others starved to death in prison. Also opposing the Supremacy and consequently imprisoned were leading Bridgettine monks from Syon Abbey, although the Syon nuns, being strictly enclosed, escaped sanction at this stage, the personal compliance of the abbess being taken as sufficient for the government's purposes. [ citation needed ]

G.W.O. Woodward concluded that:

All but a very few took it without demur. They were, after all, Englishmen, and shared the common prejudice of their contemporaries against the pretensions of foreign Italian prelates. [16]

Visitation of the monasteries Edit

In 1534, Cromwell undertook, on behalf of the King, an inventory of the endowments, liabilities and income of the entire ecclesiastical estate of England and Wales, including the monasteries (see Valor Ecclesiasticus), for the purpose of assessing the Church's taxable value, through local commissioners who reported in May 1535. At the same time, Henry had Parliament authorise Cromwell to "visit" all the monasteries, including those like the Cistercians previously exempted from episcopal oversight by papal dispensation, to purify them in their religious life, and to instruct them in their duty to obey the King and reject Papal authority. Cromwell delegated his visitation authority to hand-picked commissioners, chiefly Richard Layton, Thomas Legh, John ap Rice and John Tregonwell for the purposes of ascertaining the quality of religious life being maintained in religious houses, of assessing the prevalence of 'superstitious' religious observances such as the veneration of relics, and for inquiring into evidence of moral laxity (especially sexual). The chosen commissioners were mostly secular clergy, and appear to have been Erasmian in their views, doubtful of the value of monastic life and universally dismissive of relics and miraculous tokens. An objective assessment of the quality of monastic observance in England in the 1530s would almost certainly have been largely negative. By comparison with the valuation commissions, the timetable for these monastic visitations was very tight, with some houses missed altogether, and inquiries appear to have concentrated on gross faults and laxity consequently where the reports of misbehaviour returned by the visitors can be checked against other sources, they commonly appear to have been both rushed and greatly exaggerated, often recalling events and scandals from years before. The visitors interviewed individually each member of the house and selected servants, prompting each one both to make individual confessions of wrongdoing and also to inform on one another. From their correspondence with Cromwell it can be seen that the visitors knew that findings of impropriety were both expected and desired however it is also clear that, where no faults were revealed, none were reported. The visitors put the worst construction they could on whatever they were told, but they do not appear to have fabricated allegations of wrongdoing outright. [ citation needed ]

Reports and further visitations Edit

In the autumn of 1535, the visiting commissioners were sending back to Cromwell written reports of all the lurid doings they claimed to have discovered, enclosing with them bundles of purported miraculous wimples, girdles and mantles that monks and nuns had been lending out for cash to the sick, or to mothers in labour. The commissioners appear consistently to have instructed houses to reintroduce the strict practice of common dining and cloistered living, urging that those unable to comply should be encouraged to leave and considerable numbers appear to have taken up the opportunity offered to be released from their monastic vows, so as to make a life elsewhere. The visitors reported the number of professed religious persons continuing in each house. In the case of seven houses, impropriety or irreligion had been so great, or the numbers remaining so few, that the commissioners had felt compelled to suppress it on the spot in others, the abbot, prior or noble patron was reported to be petitioning the King for a house to be dissolved. Such authority had formerly rested with the Pope, but now the King would need to establish a legal basis for dissolution in statutory law. Moreover, it was by no means clear that the property of a surrendered house would automatically be at the disposal of the Crown a good case could be made for this property to revert to the heirs and descendants of the founder or other patron. Accordingly, Parliament enacted the Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1535 ("Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act") in early 1535, relying in large part on the reports of "impropriety" Cromwell had received, establishing the power of the King to dissolve religious houses that were failing to maintain a religious life, consequently providing for the King to compulsorily dissolve monasteries with annual incomes declared in the Valor Ecclesiasticus of less than £200 (of which there were potentially 419) but also giving the King the discretion to exempt any of these houses from dissolution at his pleasure. All property of the dissolved house would revert to the Crown. Accordingly, many monasteries falling below the threshold forwarded a case for continuation, offering to pay substantial fines in recompense. Many such cases were accepted, so that only around 330 were referred to suppression commissions, and only 243 houses were actually dissolved at this time. The choice of a £200 threshold as the criterion for general dissolution under the legislation has been queried, as this does not appear to correspond to any clear distinction in the quality of religious life reported in the visitation reports, and the preamble to the legislation refers to numbers rather than income. Adopting a financial criterion was most likely determined pragmatically the Valor Ecclesiasticus returns being both more reliable and more complete than those of Cromwell's visitors. [ citation needed ]

The smaller houses identified for suppression were then visited during 1536 by a further set of local commissions, one for each county, charged with creating an inventory of assets and valuables, and empowered to obtain prompt co-operation from monastic superiors by the allocation to them of pensions and cash gratuities. It was envisaged that some houses might offer immediate surrender, but in practice few did consequently a two-stage procedure was applied, the commissions reporting back to Cromwell for a decision as to whether to proceed with dissolution. In a number of instances these commissioners supported the continuation of a house where they found no serious current cause for concern arguments that Cromwell, as vicegerent, appears often to have accepted. Around 80 houses were exempted, mostly offering a substantial fine. Where dissolution was determined on, a second visit would effect the arrangements for closure of the house, disposal of its assets and endowments and provisions for the future of the members of the house otherwise the second visit would collect the agreed fine. In general, the suppression commissioners were less inclined to report serious faults in monastic observance within the smaller houses than the visiting commissioners had been, although this may have been coloured by an awareness that monks and nuns with a bad reputation would be more difficult to place elsewhere. The 1536 Act established that, whatever the claims of founders or patrons, the property of the dissolved smaller houses reverted to the Crown and Cromwell established a new government agency, the Court of Augmentations, to manage it. However, although the property rights of lay founders and patrons were legally extinguished, the incomes of lay holders of monastic offices, pensions and annuities were generally preserved, as were the rights of tenants of monastic lands. Ordinary monks and nuns were given the choice of secularisation (with a cash gratuity but no pension), or of transfer to a continuing larger house of the same order. The majority of those then remaining chose to continue in the religious life in some areas, the premises of a suppressed religious house was recycled into a new foundation to accommodate them, and in general, rehousing those seeking a transfer proved much more difficult and time-consuming than appears to have been anticipated. Two houses, Norton Priory in Cheshire and Hexham Abbey in Northumberland, attempted to resist the commissioners by force, actions which Henry interpreted as treason, resulting in his writing personally to demand the summary brutal punishment of those responsible. The prior and canons of Norton were imprisoned for several months, and were fortunate to escape with their lives the canons of Hexham, who made the further mistake of becoming involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, were executed.

Initial round of suppressions Edit

The first round of suppressions initially aroused considerable popular discontent, especially in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire where they contributed to the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, an event which led to Henry increasingly associating monasticism with betrayal, as some of the spared religious houses in the north of England (more or less willingly) sided with the rebels, while former monks resumed religious life in several of the suppressed houses. Clauses within the Treasons Act 1534 provided that the property of those convicted of treason would automatically revert to the Crown, clauses that Cromwell had presciently drafted with the intention of effecting the dissolution of religious houses whose heads were so convicted, arguing that the superior of the house (abbot, abbess, prior or prioress) was the legal "owner" of all its monastic property. The wording of the First Suppression Act had been clear that reform, not outright abolition of monastic life, was being presented to the public as the objective of the legislative policy and there has been continuing academic debate as to whether a universal dissolution was nevertheless being covertly prepared for at this point.

The predominant academic opinion is that the extensive care taken to provide for monks and nuns from the suppressed houses to transfer to continuing houses if they wished, demonstrates that monastic reform was still, at least in the mind of the King, the guiding principle but that further large-scale action against substandard richer monasteries was always envisaged. By definition, the selection of poorer houses for dissolution in the First Act minimised the potential release of funds to other purposes and once pensions had been committed to former superiors, cash rewards paid to those wishing to leave the religious life, and appropriate funding allocated for refounded houses receiving transferred monks and nuns, it is unlikely that there was much if any profit at this stage other than from the fines levied on exempted houses. Nevertheless, there was during most of 1537 (possibly conditioned by concern not to re-ignite rebellious impulses) a distinct standstill in official action towards any further round of dissolutions. Episcopal visitations were renewed, monasteries adapted their internal discipline in accordance with Cromwell's injunctions, and many houses undertook overdue programmes of repair and reconstruction. [ citation needed ]

The remaining monasteries required funds, especially those facing a new need to pay fines for exemption. During 1537 and 1538, there was a large increase in monastic lands and endowments being leased out and in lay notables being offered fee-paying offices and annuities in return for cash and favours. By establishing additional long-term liabilities, these actions diminished the eventual net return to the Crown from each house's endowments, but they were not officially discouraged indeed Cromwell obtained and solicited many such fees in his own personal favour. Crucially, having created the precedent that tenants and lay recipients of monastic incomes might expect to have their interests recognised by the Court of Augmentations following dissolution, the government's apparent acquiescence to the granting of additional such rights and fees helped establish a predisposition towards dissolution amongst local notables and landed interests. At the same time however, and especially once the loss of income from shrines and pilgrimages was taken into account, the long-term financial sustainability of many of the remaining houses was increasingly in question. [ citation needed ]

Although Henry continued in public to maintain that his sole objective was monastic reform, it became increasingly clear, from around the end of 1537, that official policy was now envisaging the general extinction of monasticism in England and Wales but that this extinction was now expected to be achieved through individual applications from superiors for voluntary surrender rather than through a systematic statutory dissolution. One major Abbey whose monks had been implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace was that of Furness in Lancashire the abbot, fearful of a treason charge, petitioned to be allowed to make a voluntary surrender of his house, which Cromwell happily approved. From then on, all dissolutions that were not a consequence of convictions for treason were legally "voluntary" — a principle that was taken a stage further with the voluntary surrender of Lewes priory in November 1537 when, as at Furness, the monks and were not accorded the option of transfer to another house, but with the additional motivating consideration that this time (and on all future occasions) ordinary monks were offered life pensions if they co-operated. This created a pairing of positive and negative incentives in favour of further dissolution: Abbots and priors came under pressure from their communities to petition for voluntary surrender if they could obtain favourable terms for pensions they also knew that if they refused to surrender they might suffer the penalty for treason and their religious house would be dissolved anyway. Where the King had been able to establish himself as founder, he exploited his position to place compliant monks and nuns as the head of the house while non-royal patrons and founders also tended to press superiors for an early surrender, hoping thereby to get preferential treatment in the disposal of monastic rights and properties. From the beginning of 1538, Cromwell targeted the houses that he knew to be wavering in their resolve to continue, cajoling and bullying their superiors to apply for surrender. Nevertheless, the public stance of the government was that the better-run houses could still expect to survive, and Cromwell dispatched a circular letter in March 1538 condemning false rumours of a general policy of dissolution while also warning superiors against asset-stripping or concealment of valuables, which could be construed as treasonable action.

Second round of dissolutions Edit

As 1538 proceeded, applications for surrender flooded in. Cromwell appointed a local commissioner in each case to ensure rapid compliance with the King's wishes, to supervise the orderly sale of monastic goods and buildings, to dispose of monastic endowments, and to ensure that the former monks and nuns were provided with pensions, cash gratuities and clothing. The second time round, the process proved to be much quicker and easier. Existing tenants would have their tenancies continued, and lay office holders would continue to receive their incomes and fees (even though they now had no duties or obligations). Monks or nuns who were aged, handicapped or infirm were marked out for more generous pensions, and care was taken throughout that there should be nobody cast out of their place unprovided for (who might otherwise have increased the burden of charity for local parishes). In a few instances, even monastic servants were provided with a year's wages on discharge. [ citation needed ]

The endowments of the monasteries, landed property and appropriated parish tithes and glebe were transferred to the Court of Augmentations, who would thereon pay out life pensions and fees at the agreed rate subject to the court's fee of 4d in the pound, plus in most years the clerical 'Tenth', a 10% tax deduction on clergy incomes. Pensions averaged around £5 per annum before tax for monks, with those for superiors typically assessed at 10% of the net annual income of the house, and were not reduced if the pensioner obtained other employment. If, however, the pensioner accepted a royal appointment or benefice of greater annual value than their pension, the pension would be extinguished. In 1538, £5 compared with the annual wages of a skilled worker and although the real value of such a fixed income would suffer through inflation, it remained a significant sum all the more welcome as prompt payment could largely be relied upon. [ citation needed ]

Pensions granted to nuns were notably less generous, averaging around £3 per annum. During Henry's reign, former nuns, like monks, continued to be forbidden to marry, therefore it is more possible that genuine hardship resulted, especially as former nuns had little access to opportunities for gainful employment. Where nuns came from well-born families, as many did, they seem commonly to have returned to live with their relatives. Otherwise, there were a number of instances where former nuns of a house clubbed together in a shared household. Moreover, there were no retrospective pensions for those monks or nuns who had already sought secularisation following the 1535 visitation, nor for those members of the smaller houses dissolved in 1536 and 1537 who had not then remained in the religious life, nor for those houses dissolved before 1538 due to the conviction for treason of their superior, and no friars were pensioned. [ citation needed ]

Once it had become clear that dissolution was now to be the general expectation, the future of the ten monastic cathedrals came into question. For two of these, Bath and Coventry, there was a second secular cathedral church in the same diocese, and both surrendered in 1539 but the other eight would necessarily need to continue in some form. The question being, what that form might be? A possible model was presented by the collegiate church of Stoke-by-Clare, Suffolk, where, in 1535 the evangelically-minded Dean, Matthew Parker, had recast the college statutes away from the saying of chantry masses and towards preaching, observance of the office, and children's education. [17]

In May 1538, the monastic cathedral community of Norwich surrendered, adopting new collegiate statutes as secular priests along similar lines. The new foundation in Norwich provided for around half the number of clergy as had been monks in the former monastery with a dean, five prebendaries and sixteen minor canons. This change corresponded with ideas of a reformed future for monastic communities that had been a subject of debate and speculation amongst some leading Benedictine abbots for several decades and sympathetic voices were being heard from a number of quarters in the late summer of 1538. [ citation needed ]

The Lord Chancellor, Thomas Audley proposed Colchester and St Osyth's Priory as a possible future college. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Lord Treasurer proposed Thetford Priory, making extensive preparations to adopt statutes similar to those from Stoke-by-Clare, and expending substantial sums into moving shrines, relics and architectural fittings from the dissolved Castle Acre Priory into Thetford priory church. Cromwell himself proposed Little Walsingham (once purged of its "superstitious" shrine), and Hugh Latimer, the evangelical bishop of Worcester, wrote to Cromwell in 1538 to plead for the continuation of Great Malvern Priory, and of "two or three in every shire of such remedy". [18] By early 1539, the continuation of a selected group of great monasteries as collegiate refoundations had become an established expectation and when the Second Suppression Act was presented to Parliament in May 1539, it was accompanied by an Act giving the King authority to establish new bishoprics and collegiate cathedral foundations from existing monastic houses. But while the principle had been established, the numbers of successor colleges and cathedrals remained unspecified. [ citation needed ]

King Henry's enthusiasm for creating new bishoprics was second to his passion for building fortifications. When an apparent alliance of France and the Empire against England was agreed at Toledo in January 1539, this precipitated a major invasion scare. Even though, by midsummer, the immediate danger had passed Henry still demanded from Cromwell unprecedented sums for the coastal defence works from St Michael's Mount to Lowestoft and the scale of the proposed new foundations was drastically cut back. [19] In the end, six abbeys were raised to be cathedrals of new dioceses and only a further two major abbeys, Burton-on-Trent and Thornton, were re-founded as non-cathedral colleges. To the intense displeasure of Thomas Howard, Thetford was not spared and was amongst the last houses to be dissolved in February 1540, while the Duke was out of the country on a hastily-arranged embassy to France. [20]

Even late in 1538, Cromwell himself appears to have envisaged that a select group of nunneries might be allowed to continue in the religious life where they were able to demonstrate both a high quality of regular observance and a commitment to the principles of religious reform. One such was Godstow Abbey near Oxford, whose abbess, Lady Katherine Bulkeley, was one of three whom Cromwell had, in 1535, personally promoted to be elected to the headship of richer nunneries. Godstow was invaded by Dr John London, Cromwell's commissioner, in October 1538, demanding the surrender of the abbey but following a direct appeal to Cromwell himself, the house was assured that it could continue. In response, Lady Katherine assured Cromwell that "there is neither pope nor purgatory, image nor pilgrimage nor praying to dead saints used or regarded amongst us". [21] Godstow Abbey was providing highly regarded boarding and schooling for girls of notable families and this was the case for several other nunneries amongst the houses still standing a factor which may have accounted for their surviving so long. Diarmaid MacCulloch further suggests that "customary male cowardice" was also a factor in the reluctance of the government to confront the heads of female religious houses. [22] But the stay of execution for Godstow Abbey lasted only just over a year: the abbey was suppressed in November 1539 along with all other nunnery survivors as Henry was determined that none should continue. [23]

Later dissolutions Edit

None of this process of legislation and visitation had applied to the houses of the friars. At the beginning of the 14th century there had been around 5,000 friars in England, occupying extensive complexes in all towns of any size. There were still around 200 friaries in England at the dissolution. But, except for the Observant Franciscans, by the 16th century the friars' income from donations had collapsed, their numbers had shrunk to less than 1,000 and their conventual buildings were often ruinous or leased out commercially, as too were their enclosed vegetable gardens. No longer self-sufficient in food and with their cloistered spaces invaded by secular tenants, almost all friars, in contravention of their rules, were now living in rented lodgings outside their friaries, and meeting for divine service in the friary church. Many friars now supported themselves through paid employment and held personal property. [ citation needed ]

By early 1538, suppression of the friaries was widely being anticipated in some houses all friars save the prior had already left, and realisable assets (standing timber, chalices, vestments) were being sold off. Cromwell deputed Richard Yngworth, suffragan Bishop of Dover and former Provincial of the Dominicans, to obtain the friars' surrender which he achieved rapidly by drafting new injunctions that enforced each order's rules and required friars to resume a strict conventual life within their walls. In effect, failure to accede to the king's wish for voluntary surrender would result, for most, in enforced homelessness and starvation. Once surrender had been accepted, and formally witnessed, Yngworth reported briefly to Cromwell on his actions noting for each friary, who was the current tenant of the gardens, what was the general state of the friary buildings, and whether the friary church had valuable lead on roofs and gutters. Mostly he had found poverty, derelict buildings and leased-out gardens as the only income-bearing asset. [24]

Yngworth had no authority to dispose of lands and property and could not negotiate pensions so the friars appear simply to have been released from their vows and dismissed with a gratuity of around 40 shillings each, which Yngworth took from whatever cash resources were in hand. He listed by name the friars remaining in each house at surrender so that Cromwell could provide them with capacities, legal permission to pursue a career as a secular priest. Furthermore, Yngworth had no discretion to maintain use of the friary churches, even though many had continued to attract congregations for preaching and worship and these mostly were disposed of rapidly by the Court of Augmentations. Of all the friary churches in England and Wales, only St. Andrew's Hall, Norwich, Atherstone Priory (Warwickshire), the Chichester Guildhall, and Greyfriars Church, Reading remain standing (although the London church of the Austin Friars continued in use by the Dutch Church until destroyed in the London Blitz). Almost all other friaries have disappeared with few visible traces. [24]

In April 1539, Parliament passed a new law retrospectively legalising acts of voluntary surrender and assuring tenants of their continued rights, but by then the vast majority of monasteries in England, and Wales had already been dissolved or marked out for a future as a collegiate foundation. Some still resisted, and that autumn the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury, and Reading were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, their houses being dissolved and their monks, on these occasions, receiving a basic pension of £4-year. [ citation needed ]

St Benet's Abbey in Norfolk was the only abbey in England which escaped formal dissolution. As the last abbot had been appointed to the see of Norwich, the abbey endowments were transferred alongside him directly into those of the bishops. The last two abbeys to be dissolved were Shap Abbey, in January 1540, and Waltham Abbey, on 23 March 1540, and several priories also survived into 1540, including Bolton Priory in Yorkshire (dissolved 29 January 1540) and Thetford Priory in Norfolk (dissolved 16 February 1540). It was not until April 1540, that the cathedral priories of Canterbury and Rochester were transformed into secular cathedral chapters. [ citation needed ]

Effects on public life Edit

The surrender of monastic endowments was recognised automatically as terminating all regular religious observance by its members, except in the case of a few communities, such as Syon, who went into exile. There are several recorded instances where groups of former members of a house set up residence together, but no cases where an entire community did so and there is no indication that any such groups continued to pray the Divine Office. The dissolution Acts were concerned solely with the disposal of endowed property, at no point do they explicitly forbid the continuance of a regular life. However, given Henry's attitude to those religious who resumed their houses during the Pilgrimage of Grace, it would have been most unwise of any former community of monks or nuns within his dominions to have maintained covert monastic observance. [ citation needed ]

The local commissioners were instructed to ensure that, where portions of abbey churches were also used by local parishes or congregations, this use should continue. Accordingly, parts of 117 former monasteries survived (and mostly still remain) in use for parochial worship, in addition to the fourteen former monastic churches that survived in their entirety as cathedrals. In around a dozen instances, wealthy benefactors or parishes purchased a complete former monastic church from the commissioners, and presented it to their local community as a new parish church building. Many other parishes bought and installed former monastic woodwork, choir stalls and stained glass windows. As it was commonly the case, by the late medieval period, that the abbot's lodging had been expanded to form a substantial independent residence, these properties were frequently converted into country houses by lay purchasers. In other cases, such as Lacock Abbey and Forde Abbey, the conventual buildings themselves were converted to form the core of a Tudor great mansion. Otherwise the most marketable fabric in monastic buildings was likely to be the lead on roofs, gutters and plumbing, and buildings were burned down as the easiest way to extract this. Building stone and slate roofs were sold off to the highest bidder. Many monastic outbuildings were turned into granaries, barns and stables. Cromwell had already instigated a campaign against "superstitions": pilgrimages and veneration of saints, in the course of which, ancient and precious valuables were grabbed and melted down the tombs of saints and kings ransacked for whatever profit could be got from them, and their relics destroyed or dispersed. Even the crypt of King Alfred the Great was not spared the looting frenzy. Great abbeys and priories like Glastonbury, Walsingham, Bury St Edmunds, and Shaftesbury which had flourished as pilgrimage sites for many centuries, were soon reduced to ruins. However, the tradition that there was widespread mob action resulting in destruction and iconoclasm, that altars and windows were smashed, partly confuses the looting spree of the 1530s with the vandalism wrought by the Puritans in the next century against the Anglican privileges. Woodward concludes:

There was no general policy of destruction, except in Lincolnshire where the local government agent was so determined that the monasteries should never be restored that he razed as many as he could to the ground. More often, the buildings have simply suffered from unroofing and neglect, or by quarrying. [25]

Once the new and re-founded cathedrals and other endowments had been provided for, the Crown became richer to the extent of around £150,000 (equivalent to £97,356,000 in 2019), [26] per year, although around £50,000 (equivalent to £32,452,000 in 2019) [26] of this was initially committed to fund monastic pensions. Cromwell had intended that the bulk of this wealth should serve as regular income of government. However, after Cromwell's fall in 1540, Henry needed money quickly to fund his military ambitions in France and Scotland and so monastic property was sold off, representing by 1547 an annual value of £90,000 (equivalent to £52,838,000 in 2019). [26] Lands and endowments were not offered for sale, let alone auctioned instead the government responded to applications for purchase, of which had indeed been a continual flood ever since the process of dissolution got under way. Many applicants had been founders or patrons of the relevant houses, and could expect to be successful subject to paying the standard market rate of twenty years' income. Purchasers were predominantly leading nobles, local magnates and gentry with no discernible tendency in terms of conservative or reformed religion, other than a determination to maintain and extend their family's position and local status. The landed property of the former monasteries included large numbers of manorial estates, each carrying the right and duty to hold a court for tenants and others. Acquiring such feudal rights was regarded as essential to establish a family in the status and dignity of the late medieval gentry but for a long period freehold manorial estates had been very rare in the market and families of all kinds seized on the opportunity now offered to entrench their position in the social scale. Nothing would subsequently induce them to surrender their new acquisitions. The Court of Augmentations retained lands and spiritual income sufficient to meet its continuing obligations to pay annual pensions but as pensioners died off, or as pensions were extinguished when their holders accepted a royal appointment of higher value, then surplus property became available each year for further disposal. The last surviving monks continued to draw their pensions into the reign of James I (1603–1625), more than 60 years after the dissolution's end. [ citation needed ]

The Dissolution of the Monasteries impinged relatively little on English parish church activity. Parishes that had formerly paid their tithes to support a religious house, now paid them to a lay impropriator, but rectors, vicars and other incumbents remained in place, their incomes unaffected and their duties unchanged. Congregations that had shared monastic churches for worship continued to do so the former monastic parts now walled off and derelict. Most parish churches had been endowed with chantries, each maintaining a stipended priest to say Mass for the souls of their donors, and these continued for the moment unaffected. In addition there remained after the dissolution of the monasteries, over a hundred collegiate churches in England, whose endowments maintained regular choral worship through a corporate body of canons, prebends or priests. All these survived the reign of Henry VIII largely intact, only to be dissolved under the Chantries Act 1547, by Henry's son Edward VI, their property being absorbed into the Court of Augmentations and their members being added to the pensions list. Since many former monks had found employment as chantry priests, the consequence for these clerics was a double experience of dissolution, perhaps mitigated by being economically in receipt thereafter of a double pension. [ citation needed ]

The dissolutions in Ireland followed a very different course from those in England and Wales. There were around 400 religious houses in Ireland in 1530—many more, relative to population and material wealth, than in England and Wales. In marked distinction to the situation in England, in Ireland the houses of friars had flourished in the 15th century, attracting popular support and financial endowments, undertaking many ambitious building schemes, and maintaining a regular conventual and spiritual life. Friaries constituted around half of the total number of religious houses. Irish monasteries, by contrast, had experienced a catastrophic decline in numbers of professed religious, such that by the 16th century only a minority maintained the daily observance of the Divine Office. Henry's direct authority, as Lord of Ireland and, from 1541, as King of Ireland, only extended to the area of the Pale immediately around Dublin. Outside this area, he could only proceed by tactical agreement with clan chiefs and local lords.

Nevertheless, Henry was determined to carry through a policy of dissolution in Ireland — and in 1537 introduced legislation into the Irish Parliament to legalise the closure of monasteries. The process faced considerable opposition, and only sixteen houses were suppressed. Henry remained resolute however, and from 1541 as part of the Tudor conquest of Ireland he continued to press for the area of successful dissolution to be extended. For the most part, this involved making deals with local lords, under which monastic property was granted away in exchange for allegiance to the new Irish Crown and consequently Henry acquired little if any of the wealth of the Irish houses.

By the time of Henry's death (1547) around half of the Irish houses had been suppressed but many continued to resist dissolution until well into the reign of Elizabeth I, and some houses in the West of Ireland remained active until the early 17th century. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell led a Parliamentary army to conquer Ireland, and systematically sought out and destroyed former monastic houses. Subsequently, however, sympathetic landowners housed monks or friars close to several ruined religious houses, allowing them a continued covert existence during the 17th and 18th centuries, subject to the dangers of discovery and legal ejection or imprisonment.

Social and economic Edit

The abbeys of England, Wales and Ireland had been among the greatest landowners and the largest institutions in the kingdoms, although by the early 16th century, religious donors increasingly tended to favour parish churches, collegiate churches, university colleges and grammar schools, and these were now the predominant centres for learning and the arts. Nevertheless, and particularly in areas far from London, the abbeys, convents and priories were centres of hospitality and learning, and everywhere they remained a main source of charity for the old and infirm. The removal of over eight hundred such institutions, virtually overnight, left great gaps in the social fabric. [ citation needed ]

In addition, about a quarter of net monastic wealth on average consisted of "spiritual" income arising where the religious house held the advowson of a benefice with the legal obligation to maintain the cure of souls in the parish, originally by nominating the rector and taking an annual rental payment. Over the medieval period, monasteries and priories continually sought papal exemptions, so as to appropriate the glebe and tithe income of rectoral benefices in their possession to their own use. However, from the 13th century onwards, English diocesan bishops successfully established the principle that only the glebe and 'greater tithes' of grain, hay and wood could be appropriated by monastic patrons in this manner the 'lesser tithes' had to remain within the parochial benefice the incumbent of which thenceforward carried the title of 'vicar'. [27] By 1535, of 8,838 rectories, 3,307 had thus been appropriated with vicarages [28] but at this late date, a small sub-set of vicarages in monastic ownership were not being served by beneficed clergy at all. In almost all such instances, these were parish churches in the ownership of houses of Augustinian or Premonstratensian canons, orders whose rules required them to provide parochial worship within their conventual churches, for the most part as chapels of ease of a more distant parish church. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards the canons had been able to exploit their hybrid status to justify petitions for papal privileges of appropriation, allowing them to fill vicarages in their possession either from among their own number, or from secular stipendiary priests removable at will these arrangements corresponded to those for their chapels of ease. [29]

On the dissolution these spiritual income streams were sold off on the same basis as landed endowments, creating a new class of lay impropriators, who thereby became entitled to the patronage of the living together with the income from tithes and glebe lands albeit that they also as lay rectors became liable to maintain the fabric of the parish chancel. The existing incumbent rectors and vicars serving parish churches formerly the property of the monasteries continued in post, their incomes unaffected. However, in those of the canons' parish churches and chapels of ease which had become unbeneficed, the lay rector as patron was additionally obliged to establish a stipend for a perpetual curate. [ citation needed ]

It is unlikely that the monastic system could have been broken simply by royal action had there not been the overwhelming bait of enhanced status for gentry large and small, and the convictions of the small but determined Protestant faction. Anti-clericalism was a familiar feature of late medieval Europe, producing its own strain of satiric literature that was aimed at a literate middle class. [30]

Arts and culture Edit

Along with the destruction of the monasteries, some of them many hundreds of years old, the related destruction of the monastic libraries was perhaps the greatest cultural loss caused by the English Reformation. Worcester Priory (now Worcester Cathedral) had 600 books at the time of the dissolution. Only six of them are known to have survived intact to the present day. [31] At the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York, a library of 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three known survivors. Some books were destroyed for their precious bindings, others were sold off by the cartload. The antiquarian John Leland was commissioned by the King to rescue items of particular interest (especially manuscript sources of Old English history), [32] and other collections were made by private individuals, notably Matthew Parker. Nevertheless, much was lost, especially manuscript books of English church music, none of which had then been printed. [ citation needed ]

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.

Health and education Edit

The Act of 1539 also provided for the suppression of religious hospitals, which had constituted in England a distinct class of institution, endowed for the purpose of caring for older people. A very few of these, such as Saint Bartholomew's Hospital in London (which still exists, though under a different name between 1546 and 1948), were exempted by special royal dispensation but most closed, their residents being discharged with small pensions. [ citation needed ]

Monasteries had also supplied free food and alms for the poor and destitute, and it has been argued that the removal of this and other charitable resources, amounting to about 5 per cent of net monastic income, was one of the factors in the creation of the army of "sturdy beggars" that plagued late Tudor England, causing the social instability that led to the Edwardian and Elizabethan Poor Laws. This argument has been disputed, for example, by G.W.O. Woodward, who summarises:

No great host of beggars was suddenly thrown on the roads for monastic charity had had only marginal significance and, even had the abbeys been allowed to remain, could scarcely have coped with the problems of unemployment and poverty created by the population and inflationary pressures of the middle and latter parts of the sixteenth century. [33]

Monasteries had necessarily undertaken schooling for their novice members, which in the later medieval period had tended to extend to cover choristers and sometimes other younger scholars all this educational resource was lost with their dissolution. By contrast, where monasteries had provided grammar schools for older scholars, these were commonly refounded with enhanced endowments some by royal command in connection with the newly re-established cathedral churches, others by private initiative. Monastic orders had maintained, for the education of their members, six colleges at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, of which five survived as refoundations. Hospitals too were frequently to be re-endowed by private benefactors and many new almshouses and charities were to be founded by the Elizabethan gentry and professional classes (London Charterhouse/Charterhouse School being an example which still survives). Nevertheless, it has been estimated that only in 1580 did overall levels of charitable giving in England return to those before the dissolution. On the eve of the overthrow, the various monasteries owned approximately 2,000,000 acres (just under 8 100 km²), over 16 percent of England, with tens of thousands of tenant farmers working those lands, some of whom had family ties to a particular monastery going back many generations. [ citation needed ]

Religion Edit

It has been argued [ by whom? ] that the suppression of the English monasteries and nunneries contributed as well to the spreading decline of that contemplative spirituality which once thrived in Europe, with the occasional exception found only in groups such as the Society of Friends ("Quakers"). This may be set against the continuation in the retained and newly established cathedrals of the daily singing of the Divine Office by choristers and vicars choral, now undertaken as public worship, which had not been the case before the dissolution. The deans and prebends of the six new cathedrals were overwhelmingly former heads of religious houses. The secularised former monks and friars commonly looked for re-employment as parish clergy and consequently numbers of new ordinations dropped drastically in the ten years after the dissolution, and ceased almost entirely in the reign of Edward VI. It was only in 1549, after Edward came to the throne, that former monks and nuns were permitted to marry but within a year of permission being granted around a quarter had done so, only to find themselves forcibly separated (and denied their pensions) in the reign of Mary. On the succession of Elizabeth, these former monks and friars (happily reunited both with their wives and their pensions) formed a major part of the backbone of the new Anglican church, and may properly claim much credit for maintaining the religious life of the country until a new generation of ordinands became available in the 1560s and 1570s. [ citation needed ]

In the medieval church, there had been no seminaries or other institutions dedicated to training men as parish clergy. An aspiring candidate for ordination, having acquired a grammar school education and appropriate experience, would have been presented to the bishop's commissary for examination typically sponsored in this by an ecclesiastical corporation which provided him with a 'title', a notional patrimony assuring the bishop of his financial security. By the 16th century the sponsors were overwhelmingly religious houses, although monasteries provided no formal parochial training, and the financial 'title' was a legal fiction. With the rapid expansion of grammar school provision in the late medieval period, the numbers of men being presented each year for ordination greatly exceeded the number of benefices falling vacant through the death of the incumbent priest, and consequently most newly ordained parish clergy could commonly expect to succeed to a benefice, if at all, only after many years as a Mass priest of low social standing. [ citation needed ]

In the knowledge that alternative arrangements for sponsorship and title would now need to be made, the dissolution legislation provided that the lay and ecclesiastical successors of the monks in former monastic endowments could in the future provide valid title for ordinands. However, these new arrangements appear to have taken a considerable period to gain general acceptance, and the circumstances of the church in the late 1530s may not have encouraged candidates to come forward. Consequently, and for 20 years afterwards until the succession of Elizabeth I, the number of ordinands in every diocese in England and Wales fell drastically below the numbers required to replace the mortality of existing incumbents. At the same time, the restrictions on 'pluralism' introduced through legislation in 1529 prevented the accumulation of multiple benefices by individual clergy, and accordingly by 1559 some 10 per cent of benefices were vacant and the former reserve army of Mass priests had largely been absorbed into the ranks of beneficed clergy. Monastic successors tended thereafter to prefer to sponsor university graduates as candidates for the priesthood and, although the government signally failed to respond to the consequent need for expanded educational provision, individual benefactors stepped into the breach, with the refoundation as university colleges of five out of the six former monastic colleges of Oxford and Cambridge while Jesus College, Oxford and Emmanuel College, Cambridge were newly founded with the express purpose of educating a Protestant parish clergy. Consequently, one unintended long-term consequence of the dissolution was the transformation of the parish clergy in England and Wales into an educated professional class of secure beneficed incumbents of distinctly higher social standing one that furthermore, through intermarriage of one another's children, became substantially self-perpetuating. [ citation needed ]

Although it had been promised that the King's enhanced wealth would enable the founding or enhanced endowment of religious, charitable and educational institutions, in practice only about 15 per cent of the total monastic wealth was reused for these purposes. This comprised: the refoundation of eight out of ten former monastic cathedrals (Coventry and Bath being the exceptions), together with six wholly new bishoprics (Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough, Westminster) with their associated cathedrals, chapters, choirs and grammar schools the refoundation as secular colleges of monastic houses in Brecon, Thornton and Burton on Trent, the endowment of five Regius Professorships in each of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the endowment of the colleges of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford and the maritime charity of Trinity House. Thomas Cranmer objected to the provision of the new cathedrals with complete chapters of prebendaries at high stipends, but in the face of pressure to ensure that well-paid posts would continue, his protests had no effect. On the other hand, Cranmer was able to ensure that the new grammar schools attached both to 'New Foundation' and 'Old Foundation' cathedrals should be well funded, and accessible to boys from all walks of life. About a third of total monastic income was required to maintain pension payments to former monks and nuns, and hence remained with the Court of Augmentations. This left just over half to be available to be sold at market rates (very little property was given away by Henry to favoured servants, and any that was tended to revert to the Crown once their recipients fell out of favour, and were indicted for treason). By comparison with the forcible closure of monasteries elsewhere in Protestant Europe, the English and Welsh dissolutions resulted in a relatively modest volume of new educational endowments but the treatment of former monks and nuns was more generous, and there was no counterpart elsewhere to the efficient mechanisms established in England to maintain pension payments over successive decades. [ citation needed ]

Politics Edit

The dissolution and destruction of the monasteries and shrines was very unpopular in many 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. In 1536 there were major, popular uprisings in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and a further rising in Norfolk the following year. Rumours 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 and for the removal of Cromwell. Henry defused the movement with solemn promises, all of which went unkept, and then summarily executed the leaders. [ citation needed ]

When Henry VIII's Catholic daughter, Mary I, succeeded to the throne in 1553, her hopes for a revival of English religious life proved a failure. Westminster Abbey, which had been retained as a cathedral, reverted to being a monastery while the communities of the Bridgettine nuns and of the Observant Franciscans, which had gone into exile in the reign of Henry VIII, were able to return to their former houses at Syon and Greenwich respectively. A small group of fifteen surviving Carthusians was re-established in their old house at Sheen, as also were eight Dominican canonesses in Dartford. A house of Dominican friars was established at Smithfield, but this was only possible through importing professed religious from Holland and Spain, and Mary's hopes of further refoundations foundered, as she found it very difficult to persuade former monks and nuns to resume the religious life consequently schemes for restoring the abbeys at Glastonbury and St Albans failed for lack of volunteers. All the refounded houses were in properties that had remained in Crown possession but, in spite of much prompting, none of Mary's lay supporters would co-operate in returning their holdings of monastic lands to religious use while the lay lords in Parliament proved unremittingly hostile, as a revival of the "mitred" abbeys would have returned the House of Lords to having an ecclesiastical majority. Moreover, there remained a widespread suspicion that the return of religious communities to their former premises might call into question the legal title of lay purchasers of monastic land, and accordingly all Mary's foundations were technically new communities in law. In 1554 Cardinal Pole, the papal legate, negotiated a papal dispensation allowing the new owners to retain the former monastic lands, and in return Parliament enacted the heresy laws in January 1555. [34] When Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I, five of the six revived communities left again to exile in continental Europe. An Act of Elizabeth's first parliament dissolved the refounded houses. But although Elizabeth offered to allow the monks in Westminster to remain in place with restored pensions if they took the Oath of Supremacy and conformed to the new Book of Common Prayer, all refused and dispersed unpensioned. In less than 20 years, the monastic impulse had effectively been extinguished in England and was only revived, even amongst Catholics, in the very different form of the new and reformed counter-reformation orders, such as the Jesuits. [ citation needed ]

English Autonomy

In 1530, Henry VIII enlisted the support of an intelligent clergyman, Thomas Cranmer, who compiled documents arguing that, historically, the King of England had imperial power similar to that of the Holy Roman Emperors and was therefore not subject to the Pope&rsquos jurisdiction.

Henry had to wait until the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532 before he could get the English clergy&rsquos support for his judicial autonomy.

Henry manoeuvred successfully to make Cranmer the new Archbishop of Canterbury, obtained his required divorce and, in 1534, the Act of Supremacy was issued. It formalised the break with Rome, making Henry the Supreme Head of the now independent Church of England.

Henry VIII and the English Reformation

Routledge & CRC Press eBooks are available through VitalSource. The free VitalSource Bookshelf® application allows you to access to your eBooks whenever and wherever you choose.

  • Mobile/eReaders &ndash Download the Bookshelf mobile app at or from the iTunes or Android store to access your eBooks from your mobile device or eReader.
  • Offline Computer &ndash Download Bookshelf software to your desktop so you can view your eBooks with or without Internet access. » » »

Most VitalSource eBooks are available in a reflowable EPUB format which allows you to resize text to suit you and enables other accessibility features. Where the content of the eBook requires a specific layout, or contains maths or other special characters, the eBook will be available in PDF (PBK) format, which cannot be reflowed. For both formats the functionality available will depend on how you access the ebook (via Bookshelf Online in your browser or via the Bookshelf app on your PC or mobile device).

How Henry VIII’s Divorce Led to Reformation and the Church of England - HISTORY

In the 16th century, there was a big change in the way some Christians worshipped God. Up until the 16th century most people were Roman Catholic and the Pope in Rome was the head of church.

In 1517, a German monk called Martin Luther led a breakaway from the Roman Catholic church.

The new Christians called themselves ‘Protestants’ because they were protesting against the Roman ‘Catholic’ (meaning ‘universal’) Church, its teachings and its customs.

Their demand for reform led to this period of history being called the Reformation.

It all began when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and German theologian at the university of Wittenberg, Saxony called in 1517 for a reopening of the debate on the sale of indulgences by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church, in Wittenberg.

Luther’s dissent marked a sudden outbreak of a new and irresistible force of discontent which had been pushed underground but not resolved. Parallel to events in Germany, a movement began in Switzerland under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli. Some followers of Zwingli believed that the Reformation was too conservative, and moved independently toward more radical positions. Other Protestant movements grew up along lines of mysticism or humanism (cf. Erasmus), sometimes breaking from Rome or from the Protestants, or forming outside of the churches.

Following the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various groups in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere.

The quick spread of discontent occurred to a large degree because of the printing press and the resulting swift movement of both ideas and documents, including the 95 Theses. Information was also widely disseminated in manuscript form, as well as by cheap prints and woodcuts amongst the poorer sections of society.

The Protestant Reformation of the 1520s to 1540s triggered conflicts called by historians as the “European wars of religion“.

Protestant Reformation - timeline

Tudors’ Britain: The Break from Rome

People in Tudor times were very religious and were prepared to die for their beliefs. It must have been very hard for them during the 118 years the Tudor kings and Queens ruled because they were often forced to change their religion depending on the religion of the reigning monarch.

There were major changes in the church during the reign of the Tudor king and queens. England started as a Catholic country and ended up being a Protestant one under the Tudors.

Why did Religion change a lot during the Tudor Times?

Religion in England changed depending on the views of the monarch and people often felt confused. They were told to change what they believed, how they worshipped God and how they decorated churches.

Many laws were passed about religion. These were passed by Kings and queens who wanted to make people follow the same religion that they did.

When the first Tudor Kings came to the throne, England was a Roman Catholic country and the head of the church was the Pope in Rome, Clement VII.

England is a Catholic country

England was a Catholic nation under the rule of Henry VII (1485-1509) and during much of Henry VIII‘s (1509-1547) reign.

Church services were held in Latin.

When Henry VIII came to the throne, he was a devout Catholic and defended the Church against Protestants. Henry VIII did not agree with their views.

In 1521, Pope Leo X honoured Henry VIII with the title “Defender of Faith’, because of his support for the Roman Church.

The English Church is split from Rome

When the Pope refused to grant Henry VIII a divorce* from Catherine of Aragon, Henry split off the English Church from the Roman church. Rather than the pope, the king would be the spiritual head of the English church. (Reformation)

*The Roman Catholic faith believed in marriage for life. It did not recognise, let alone support, divorce.

King Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of a new Church of England. This marked the start of centuries or religious conflict in Britain and Ireland.

Despite being cut off from Rome, England, retained much of the doctrine and the practices of Catholicism.

Why did Henry VIII break with Rome?Henry VIII broke with Rome because the pope in Rome would not grant him a divorce with his wife, Catherine of Aragon, because divorce was against church policy.

Until Henry’s death in 1547, although split off from Rome, the English Church remained Catholic country. It wasn’t until Henry’s son, Edward VI, and his advisors, that England became a Protestant country.

England becomes a Protestant Country

Henry’s son Edward was given Protestant teachers and brought up as a strict protestant.

Under King Edward VI (1547-1553), England became a Protestant nation. King Edward VI was a devout Protestant and introduced a new prayer book.

All church services were held in English and Catholics were treated very badly.

England returns to being a Catholic country

Under Queen Mary I (1553-1558), the eldest daughter of Henry VIII and only surviving child of Catherine of Aragon, England was again a Catholic nation. Mary was a devout Catholic. The pope became the head of the church again and Church services changed back to Latin.

During the last three years of her reign, 300 leading Protestants who would not accepted Catholic beliefs were burned to death at the stake. This earned her the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’.

Protestant again

Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth was raised as a Protestant and under her reign (1558-1603), England was again a Protestant nation. It was under Elizabeth I that the Anglican church (Church of England) became firmly established and dominant.

Although Elizabeth insisted on protestant beliefs, she still allowed many things from the Catholic religion such as bishops, ordained priests, church decorations and priests’ vestments. Church services were changed back to English but she allowed a Latin a prayer book to be printed.

Conflict in Ireland

In 1586 she started a major confiscation of native Irish lands (Munster Plantations) for Protestant English colonization which triggered the Nine Years War (1594 – 1603) between the forces of Gaelic Irish against the English rule in Ireland. It ended in defeat for the Irish which led to their exile and to the Plantation of Ulster in 1608 when Britain’s King James I sent thousands of Protestant English-speaking farmers to Ireland to take over land owned by Catholic farmers and colonize Ulster.

At war with Catholic powers: Spain

After the death of Mary I of England, Henry II of France caused his eldest son and his daughter-in-law Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Catholic) to be proclaimed king and queen of England. From this time on, Mary always insisted on bearing the royal arms of England, and her claim to the English throne was a perennial sticking point between Elizabeth I and her. Mary had also made it clear that if she became queen of England, Philip II (Spain) should inherit the throne after her death.

In 1587, Mary Stuart was executed in England on the orders of Elizabeth. This was followed with frontal conflict with Spain – (Armada 1588)

Religious changes in the English national church proceeded more conservatively than elsewhere in Europe. Reformers in the Church of England alternated, for centuries, between sympathies for Catholic traditions and Protestantism, progressively forging a stable compromise between adherence to ancient tradition and Protestantism, which is now sometimes called the via media.

Watch the video: Τι τρώνε οι μοναχοί του Αγίου Όρους και φτάνουν τα 100 χρόνια;Τα οφέλη της μοναστηριακής διατροφής (July 2022).


  1. Dilkis

    You are absolutely right. There is something in it also to me it seems a good thought. I agree with you.

  2. Nasir Al Din

    This rather valuable message

  3. Akinora

    Will not come out!

Write a message