In 1536 there were 850 monastic houses in England and Wales; just four years later they were all gone. The romantic remains of many of them still grace our landscape, Shakespeare’s ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ receiving more visitors today than the living communities did half a millennium ago. Now these visitors are primarily tourists and heritage lovers; then they were pilgrims, travellers, businessmen and, of course, those who toiled spiritually as servants of the Church, some more conscientiously than others. Monasteries were huge physically, commercially and spiritually; ‘they were never only scenery,’ declares James Clark in his new book: ‘Their profile defined not only a locality but sometimes a whole region.’ And they were ubiquitous. Diarmaid MacCulloch claims that no one in England was more than 30 minutes’ walk from a monastic institution. Their disappearance constitutes one of the greatest revolutions in English history.
Yet there are surprisingly few books devoted to the drama. This is where Clark’s epic work fills the gap for a modern readership: he provides a massive account, the first dedicated one in half a century, which, unfortunately for many historians, will mean that an additional such book will hardly be needed again for another 50 years.
Henry VIII is once more, rightly, marked as the man behind the dissolution. ‘His will commanded’ his arch enforcer Thomas Cromwell, ‘who just happened to prove an able, faithful and, above all, tireless officer of the Crown.’ They might have been English revolutionaries, but when it came to dissolving monasteries they were copycats, emulating events in reformist Europe. Indeed, there was nothing at all new about dissolving monasteries: it was a regular action of Catholic kings, pruning the spiritual garden to keep it in shape. What is spectacular about what happened in England between 1536 and 1540 is that it was so complete, more akin to concreting over the whole garden and being done with it. Clark takes a less absolutist view, arguing that while the monasteries themselves had gone, their spirit, like their former inhabitants, lingered on for some time. As he observes: ‘The Henrician regime succeeded in emptying the religious houses but not effacing them.’ That came over time.
Henry VIII, a wannabe Henry V, needed cash for war. For this reason more than any other he cast his eye over monastic riches. As Clark makes clear, that is not to say that there were not real religious motivations too for the wholesale reform of the monastic system. While people starved, some abbots and senior monks scraped by on 4,000 calories a day; they were meant to be a bit more charitable than that.
Government agents were sent out to assess the wealth of the monasteries and to highlight the moral shortcomings of their undeserving communities. There were plenty of financial irregularities exposed, but it was the sex scandals — both real and pruriently imagined — that made for the juiciest gossip, inspectors declaring themselves outraged at the shenanigans of monks and nuns, and the young novices and lay women whom they ensnared in their vices.
Clark shows how one of the most notorious government ‘visitors’, Richard Leighton, wrote ‘ecstatically’ in his report on Bath Priory that the ‘monks are worse than I have any fownde yet both in bugerie and adulterie sum of them haveyng x women and sum viii’. Clark records that ‘nearly 60 per cent’ of monastic men in one report were identified as guilty of ‘voluntary pollution’, a term that indicated masturbation, but was broadened to encompass sodomy for increased shock value. It is remarkable that for all the opprobrium poured on lazy, immoral and cupidinous monks as an excuse to get rid of them, monasticism was never actually made illegal in England. Medievally-minded Victorians could thus reintroduce an Anglican version in the 1850s.
The integrity of the accusations against the monasteries is drawn into doubt by the fact that the first round of dissolutions in 1536 was carried out under a simplistic and disingenuous mantra of ‘small monasteries bad; big monasteries good’. (Ironically, Clark shows that during Henry’s early reign the monasteries were actually reversing the declines of previous years with rising recruitment.) When the government overcame the crisis of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 — a popular response to the destruction of the smaller monastic houses and the largest rebellion in Tudor England — it felt empowered to go further and then cash in on the largest institutions as well. Henry and Cromwell could not believe their luck: they were as surprised as anyone that a tentative dissolution of lesser monasteries would lead to such a clean sweep. As Clark writes: ‘The timing of the final closures could not have been predicted even six months before.’ By the time the parliamentary act for the dissolution of the larger abbeys was passed in 1539, the deed had already been done.
The operation was carried out with surprising efficiency, not least because so many abbots and priors were ready to succumb and to either retire or accept fresh opportunities under a new system. As early as 1529 Henry had ‘cultivated monastic allies of his own choosing’. Those who resisted suffered his ugly ruthlessness. The fate of Abbot Richard Whiting of Glastonbury and two faithful monks serves as an appalling example: condemned in a show trial, they were hanged high on Glastonbury Tor, Whiting’s head being cut off and stuck on the abbey’s gateway, with his body quartered for display in the surrounding area.
Henry had little to show for his windfall. Much of the money went on defensive forts that were easily circumvented, and pensions for the demobbed monks. Nuns were treated less generously: ‘Only those recently professed under the 1535 age limit (21) were free to wed’, making it even harder for them to find financial support outside their convents. Compared with European dissolutions, relatively little was reinvested in education. The appalling destruction of art and treasure is hard to bear even today. But at least some new cathedrals were established. It was a sorry outcome for a squalid act. Short-termism is not just the preserve of modern governments.