Harry Mount

Holy lands

The church has always been hard-nosed about the land it owns

Holy smoke! The sleepy old Church of England is a greedy, money-grubbing property tycoon. This month, it emerged that since 2010 the church has laid claim to minerals under 585,000 acres of land, including territory it doesn’t actually own. Its current holdings amount to only 105,000 acres, but it retains the underground mineral rights to vast areas that used to belong to the church.

And it’s making damn sure it retains those rights. The church has sent letters to thousands of people, telling them they don’t own the gilt-edged minerals below its land. In its defence, the church says it’s just doing its statutory duty in registering the rights. But all the same, it’s the latest in 1,400 years of buccaneering property ventures for the English church, going back to 597 ad, when St Augustine built Canterbury Cathedral on a prime piece of Kent real estate. St Paul’s Cathedral, founded in 604 ad, followed soon afterwards. Over the next 900 years, the church built almshouses, nunneries, monasteries, abbeys, bishops’ palaces, schools, hospitals, and thousands of churches and cathedrals, scooping up millions of acres. Just before the Reformation, the church owned a third of the land in England.

You can still see the ghost of the great Catholic pre-Reformation landholdings across the country today: 99 per cent of surviving pre-Reformation buildings are churches, cathedrals or monasteries. Parish churches, usually built before the Reformation, often remain the largest buildings in an English village and their spires tend to be the tallest structures.

That massive property portfolio was ransacked by Henry VIII in the biggest single property transfer in British history. He smashed up the monasteries and handed over chunks of land to his noble pals. Many aristocratic estates today were owned by the church before the Reformation. Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Bedford’s seat, was a Cistercian abbey given by Henry VIII to the duke’s ancestor, the first Earl of Bedford, in 1547.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in