Sean Mcglynn

Henry VIII’s windfall from the monasteries was shockingly short-term

James Clark reveals that the treasure seized from the monks was soon squandered on useless fortifications

Henry VIII monk- hunting by John Leech, 1850. [Alamy]

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.

Much of the windfall from the monasteries was spent on defensive forts which were easily circumvented

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.

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