Robert Hobbes was born in about 1480. Nothing is known about his early life and does not enter the historical record until he became the Abbot of Woburn Abbey in 1524. On 27th January 1530, he obtained a royal licence for the Cistercian abbey to hold two annual fairs in the town. On 5th April 1532 he was one of those commissioned by the king to hold a visitation of the whole Cistercian order. (1)
In March 1534 Pope Clement VII announced that the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry VIII reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". (2) A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (3)
Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (4)
Robert Hobbes disagreed with More and Fisher and acknowledged the royal supremacy and persuaded the more reluctant members of his abbey to agree with him. (5) However, he was greatly disturbed by the actions that Henry took against those who refused to accept the royal supremacy. On 15th June, 1534, it was reported to Cromwell that the Observant Friars of Richmond refused to take the oath. Two days later two carts full of friars were hanged, drawn and quartered. A few days later a group of Carthusian monks were executed for the same offence. "They were chained upright to stakes and left to die, without food or water, wallowing in their own filth - a slow, ghastly death that left Londoners appalled". (6)
The persecution of monks continued the following year. In April 1535 the priors of the Carthusian houses, in Charterhouse Priory in London, Axholme Priory in North Lincolnshire and Beauvale Priory in Nottinghamshire, refused to acknowledge the King to be the Head of the Church of England. They were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 4th May. (7)
Thomas Cromwell was appointed as Vicar-General. This made him the King's deputy as Supreme Head of the Church. In September he suspended the authority of every bishop in the country so that the six canon lawyers he had appointed as his agents could complete their surveys of the monasteries. (8)
Cromwell provided his agents with eighty-six questions. This included: "Whether the divine service was kept up, day and night, in the right hours?"; "Whether they (monks) kept company with women, within or without the monastery?"; "Whether they had any boys lying by them?; "Whether any of the brethren were incorrigible?" "Whether you do wear your religious habit continually, and never leave it off but when you go to bed?"
A Parliament was called in February 1536 to discuss these reports. Cromwell's agents found nothing wrong at Glastonbury Abbey but some of the reports were very damaging. It was claimed that William Thirsk, the abbott of Fountains Abbey was guilty of "theft and sacrilege, stealing and selling the valuables of the abbey and wasting the wood, cattle, etc of the estates". He was also claimed that he kept "six whores". The canons of Leicester Abbey were accused of homosexuality. The prior of Crutched Friars was found in bed with a woman at eleven o'clock on a Friday morning. The abbot of West Langdon Abbey was described as the "drunkenest knave living." (9)
When the issue was discussed in the House of Lords, the supporters of religious reform, led by Hugh Latimer, recently appointed as the Bishop of Worcester, supported the measure to close the smaller monasteries. Latimer later recalled that when "when their enormities were first read in the parliament house, they were so great and abominable that there was nothing but down with them". The Act for the Dissolution of Monasteries was passed and received royal assent on 14th April. This stated that all religious houses with an annual income of less than £200 were to be "suppressed". (10)
Woburn Abbey was not closed down but Robert Hobbes was believed to have grown increasingly hostile to the policies of Henry VIII. In the winter of 1537 Thomas Cromwell sent out his commissioners to discover the loyalty of the people who were running the remaining monasteries. The commissioners relied heavily on information from local people. William Sherburne, a former friar, accused Robert Hobbes,of being a supporter of the rebels. Hobbes was interviewed and he refused to recant: "Hobbes held firm, although in some places it is difficult to establish an exact meaning from the long and rambling depositions of a man physically ill from strangury, and to disentangle apologies for bluntness of speech from repentance on points of principle. It is certain, however, that to the very end he remained opposed to the suppression of the monasteries, the distribution of ‘wretched heretic books’ by Cromwell, and the royal divorce, all sufficient to make his conviction a formality. Indeed, he confessed his offences and offered no defence."
Robert Hobbes was hanged, drawn, and quartered outside the abbey and its land and property was given to the Crown. (11) Richard Whiting, the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey and the heads of two other large houses at Colchester Abbey and Reading Abbey were also executed. (12)
In 1534 Hobbes acknowledged the royal supremacy and persuaded the more reluctant members of his abbey to do likewise. Soon, however, influenced by the martyrdom of the London Carthusians and by the suppression of the lesser monasteries in 1536, Hobbes significantly altered his position. He may also have been encouraged by the appointment of James Prestwich, a staunch conservative in religion, to be schoolmaster to the small group of royal wards then boarding in the abbey. Although several monks sympathized with Hobbes's stance, notably the sub-prior, Ralph Barnes, and the sexton, Laurence Blunham, others were opposed to his views, and in the spring of 1538 he was reported to Cromwell by William Sherburne, curate of the parish chapel and a former friar with whom Hobbes had had various disagreements. Cromwell acted quickly, dispatching William Petre and John Williams in May to take depositions, and on 14 June Hobbes, the sub-prior, and the sexton were tried at Woburn. Barnes and Blunham recanted but it appears that Hobbes held firm, although in some places it is difficult to establish an exact meaning from the long and rambling depositions of a man physically ill from strangury, and to disentangle apologies for bluntness of speech from repentance on points of principle. It is certain, however, that to the very end he remained opposed to the suppression of the monasteries, the distribution of ‘wretched heretic books’ by Cromwell, and the royal divorce, all sufficient to make his conviction a formality. Indeed, he confessed his offences and offered no defence. Along with his two colleagues Hobbes was shortly afterwards hanged, drawn, and quartered and the abbey confiscated by attainder. According to local tradition an oak tree in the abbey grounds served as the gallows.
(1) Nicholas Doggett, Robert Hobbes : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(2) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 65
(3) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 43-44
(4) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 82
(5) Nicholas Doggett, Robert Hobbes : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(6) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 281
(7) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 277
(8) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(9) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) pages 88-89
(10) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) pages 135
(11) Nicholas Doggett, Robert Hobbes : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(12) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 61