Dissolution of the Monasteries

At the beginning of the 16th century monasteries owned well over a quarter of all the cultivated land in England. Farmers who rented land from the monks often criticized them for being greedy and uncaring landlords. It was also claimed that the monks had been corrupted by the wealth obtained from renting their land.

In August 1535, Thomas Cromwell sent a team of officials to find out what was going on in the monasteries. After reading their reports Henry VIII decided to close down 376 monasteries. Monastery land was seized and sold off cheaply to nobles and merchants. They in turn sold some of the lands to smaller farmers. This process meant that a large number of people had good reason to support the monasteries being closed.

However, many people disagreed with the way Henry had stolen the property of the monks and nuns. This was especially true of people who lived in the north of England. A large army was formed in Yorkshire, and their attempt to win back monastic property was called the Pilgrimage of Grace.

After a meeting with the Duke of Norfolk, the leader of Henry's army, the rebels agreed to go back home in exchange for a meeting of Parliament to discuss their complaints. Henry had no intention of keeping his side of the bargain. He gave orders that "a good number" from every village and town that had taken part in the pilgrimage should be publicly hung drawn and quartered.

In 1538 Thomas Cromwell turned his attention to religious shrines in England. For hundreds of years pilgrims had visited shrines that contained important religious relics. Wealthy pilgrims often gave expensive jewels and ornaments to the monks that looked after these shrines. Henry VIII decided that the shrines should be closed down and the wealth that they had created given to the crown.

The Pope and the Catholic church in Rome were horrified when they heard the news that Henry had destroyed St. Thomas Becket's Shrine. On 17 December 1538, the Pope announced to the Christian world that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic church.

Henry now had nothing to lose and he closed down the rest of the monasteries and nunneries in England, Wales and Ireland. All told. Henry closed down over 850 monastic houses between 1536 and 1540. Those monks and nuns who did not oppose Henry's policies were granted pensions. However, these pensions did not allow for the rapid inflation that was taking place in England at that time and within a few years most monks and nuns were in a state of extreme poverty.

Primary Sources

(1) Extracts from the Henry VIII's report on Monastic Houses (1535)

Lampley: "Mariana Wryte had given birth three times, and Johanna Snaden, six"

Lichfield: "two of the nuns were with child"

Whitby "Abbot Hexham took his cut at the proceeds from piracy"

Bradley: "prior hath six children"

Abbotsbury: "abbot wrongfully selling timber"

Pershore: "monks drunk at mass"

(2) Report on a Monastery in Lincoln (1518)

The prior is frequently drunk... The brothers of the monastery, especially the older ones, play dice and other games for money.

(3) Report on a Monastery in Peterborough (1518)

The lord abbot does not choose studious brothers but looks for lazy ones.. He sells wood and has kept the money for himself... He had in his chamber a certain maiden named Joan Turner... The monastery has no beds and other things for receiving guests.

(4) H. Amold-Forster, A History of England (1898)

Some of the monks lived good lives and did good work in teaching and helping the poor... there were others who lived bad lives, and spent their money upon themselves... When Henry made up his mind to destroy the monasteries and nunneries, it was not hard for him to find out many bad things which could truly be said of the monks and nuns, and which he could use as an excuse for taking away their property.

(5) G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942)

Henry VII's... foolish wars in France had emptied his treasury... If Henry had not been bankrupt, he might never have dissolved the monasteries at all.