The decline and fall of English monasticism


"Physician, heal thyself."
~ John Colet to the Canterbury Convocation

To be sure, the monastic houses of England had once stood for a great ideal - spiritual fulfillment for the laity, charitable donations to needy causes and a kinder attitude towards tenants than taken by temporal Lords. By the 16th century, rot had set into these ideals. In what was almost a microcosm of the Renaissance Popes' rapacity in their management of the Papal States, the Abbots had ceased to fulfill their temporal "duties" to the people and started to serve themselves. The monks gave very little of their wealth to charity (perhaps five per cent says Elton, ten per cent says Knowles) and their function as a place of refuge for travellers had come more to apply to entertaining nobles and gentry whose favour the Abbot coveted. Respect for the clergy had declined rapidly - the higher clergy were seen as greedy and lazy, and the lower as possessing little virtue and being uneducated. Thomas Cromwell, architect of the English Reformation and a brilliant manipulator of Parliament, managed to carry much of the Reformation's legislation through on a wave of anti-clericalism in Parliament.

The two main sticking points for the laity were connected, and these were the wealth of the Church and the courts of canon law. The latter served the former, and it was alleged that many a layperson had come into contact with a corrupt or greedy Church court. As well as this money which was extorted under the pretention of serving the spiritual welfare of the people, the Church owned somewhere between one fifth and one third of the land of the nation. In the Middle Ages, land equalled wealth, and the Church found itself in the untenable position of being a great land-owner which had lost the respect of the people. The English Reformation would prove that they needed the respect of the people to keep their possessions.

The laity had coveted the wealth of the Church for centuries, and they had made constrained attacks on the same. The English Reformation and the Royal Supremacy provided a convienient platform for further assaults on the Church. At first they didn't seem to realize it. There was very little resistance to the Royal Supremacy amonst the Churchmen and the majority of the clergy took the oath readily enough. Yet the government still feared a revival of Papism among the orders (indeed, most of the Jesuits were monks or friars). Whilst the main dissolution started in 1536, in 1534 the houses of the Observants were dissolved for their opposition to the Royal Supremacy.

Doctrinal justification and imperium

"This realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporality, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience."

~ Thomas Cromwell's preamble to the Act of Appeals

Essentially, the English attack on the authority of Rome lay with the argument that the King of England derived his authority as much from God as did the Pope, and so he was free to dispense of the latter. England was an imperium, which in Roman law was a sovereign territory which acknowledged no superior. The crime of praemunire, that is the introduction of foreign authority or acknowledgement thereof in England contrary to Royal perogative, had long been tried by the attorney-general. The penalty for praemunire was life imprisonment and loss of property to the Crown, and Henry VII had brought suit against those sitting in the courts of canon law which encroached on Royal juristiction.

One of the first men to write on the subject in a vein which Henry would find pleasing was William Tyndale, who published his Obedience of a Christian Man in 1528. Whilst Catholics believed grace (ie. entry into Heaven) was conferred by the Church1, Tyndale was the member of a growing movement which believed that the Church's sine qua non, Scripture, and faith based upon it, was what would confer God's grace to believers. And if Scripture was antecedent to the Church, the Church wasn't the overlord of the sovereign, and it was the duty of the King to reform the Church when it became unable to provide salvation. "God hath made the king in every realm judge over all, and over him there is no judge," - clearly this theory of Kingship appealed to Henry as he tried to break away from the Curia.

Meanwhile, William St German, the most renowned common lawyer of his day, wrote and lobbyed against the legal juristiction of the Church within England. In a similar vein to Tyndale, he held that the Church should have no right to try under pretense of heresy anything that was not directly traceable to Scripture, ie. that the unwritten traditional of the Catholic Church should have no legal representation. By using historical and legal precedent he aimed to hack away at the so-called "long-standing and established rights of the Church" - for instance, he knew that few heretics had been burnt in England prior to 14012.

In late 1530 Henry was studying a manuscript prepared for him by the Anne Boleyn faction at court (ie. the faction that sought divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Royal Supremacy), entitled Collectanea satis copiosa. It was a collection of documents from over the centuries which claimed to establish the King's sovereignity apart from the Papacy, which had allegedly even confirmed this itself. Henry was increasingly convinced that he had the basis with which to make the break, he just needed the balls to do it. In 1536 the Reformation Parliament was dissolved, its work done: Henry had broken with Rome. What, now, could save the monasteries?

Valor Ecclesiasticus

"My prayer is, that God give me no longer life, than I shall be glad to use mine office in edification rather than destruction."
~ Thomas Cromwell shortly after the dissolution of the larger houses

Critics and those in praise of Cromwell unite in calling him a brilliant statesman. In 1536 he was faced with the same problem that Thomas Wolsey had made an ill-fated effort to resolve a little over a decade earlier: the poor financial situation of the Crown. Excommunication hung over the King's head, and what if the great powers of the Continent chose to come and depose him and restore England to the Orthodox faith? The King needed money to build a navy and coastal fortresses so that he could defend himself, and in an age of rising prices his money was going shorter distances all the time. Cromwell needed to increase the regular revenue of the Crown, and there could be few better ways to achieve this than the transfer of large amounts of land into Crown hands. Thus Cromwell could achieve the re-endowment of the monarchy which had become so necessary since the days of Henry VI and which Sir John Fortescue called for in his book The Governance of England. The land could also be used to bribe gentry and nobility into supporting the Crown and give them a vested interest in the continuation of the Reformation.

The Valor Ecclesiasticus was a sort-of latter day Domesday Book which catalogued all the possessions of the Crown so that Cromwell would know exactly how much there was to be had. It was completed speedily and well by the minister's agents, and he soon delivered the second set of commissioners to deal the real blow to the monasteries: an assessment of their moral state. He needed a pretext to persuade Parliament to dissolve the religious houses, and he certainly got one. His commissioners uncovered a fair share of scandals (clergymen with wives, clergymen with mistresses, clergymen all given to drink, etc) and this was all thrown at the Church in one big heap. In March 1536 Cromwell got his first bill, the dissolution of all houses worth under £200 a year, with their property to be transfered to the Crown and monks to receieve fixed pensions (the Abbots would lounge with the country gentry until the end of their days, the common monk faired not so well).

After the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was a general rising in the North against the new religious order (and of which more in its node), the path was clear to attack the larger houses. In 1539 Parliament passed an act which "legalized" the surrender of abbey lands to the Crown. After the Pilgrimage three abbots had been executed and their lands confiscated for their involvement, and under Cromwell's "bloody law" which declared a denial of the Royal Supremacy to be high treason, three more abbots were hung. Naturally, this speeded the "surrenders", and the last abbey capitulated in 1540. The friaries went with them.


"Alack! Alack!
For Church's sake
Poor commons wake,
And no marvel!
For clear it is
The decay of this
How the poor shall miss
No tongue can tell."
~ Ballad circulated by the Pilgrims of Grace

The dissolution was the largest redistribution of wealth since the Norman Conquest, and the Crown netted about £1.3 million. What it didn't gain was an awful lot of ongoing revenue, because - especially after Cromwell's fall - it alienated most of the capital it gained by selling it off to merchants, gentry and nobles. This served the short-term expedient of raising money for Henry's new phase of slightly crazy foreign policy in the 1540s, but in the long run it achieved little. What was amazing about the dissolution was the lack of dissent and dislocation, and that it actually went ahead. An institution was gone, the monks had vanished from the English landscape, and soon the people would have forgotten the truth and be propagating myths about the old kindliness of monks and how they were such kinder landlords than their new noble ones.

The dissolution did not seem to have a significant impact on the problem of vagrancy and the need for poor relief, as Robert Aske (leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace) would claim. Although the monks would have trouble subsisting on their £5 pension, they could often find employment in local manor houses. The Catholic view of monks wandering the roads of the countryside and dying in ditches has been disproved, as has the idea that the monasteries were indispensible in providing poor relief. Their function was perhaps greatest in the North, which was away from central government (and this is corroborated by the fact the Pilgrimage originated there), but even there it was not indispensible.

Of course, there was a great loss of architecture and art. It was little more than legalized vandalism, be it iconoclasm or melting down for profit, or new landlords allowing old gothic buildings to fall into decay.

Overall, it was a magnificent and monumental part of what Elton called "the Tudor Revolution" and one of Cromwell's most spectacular achievements. It enriched the gentry, destroyed one of the last vestiges of Papism and outside authority infringing on English soil, and was a magnificent political coup de force by Thomas Cromwell. Whether you see him as a Machiavellian schemer or enlightened reformer, there is little doubt that he was one of the great statesmen of his age.

1. "I would not have believed the Gospel had the Catholic Church not moved me to," wrote Saint Augustine in Confessions.

2. In 1401 the statute De Heretico Comburendeo had established the right of the Church authorities to burn heretics to death without reference to the Crown. This had happened as a political response to Lollardy, which was seen as an attack not just on the wealth of the clergy but on wealth in general, and had hence excited the disapproval of the landed classes.


Atkins, Sinclair. England and Wales under the Tudors: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975.

Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors: Methuen & Co, 1974.

Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford, 1988.

Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001.

Pound, John. Poverty and Vagrancy in Tudor England Second Edition: Longman, 1986.