The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History by James G. Clark
Yale University Press, 2021
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. At nearly 700 pages, it can legitimately claim to be the authoritative account of the single most significant shift in the relationship between Church and State in this country. Clark clearly has a wealth of knowledge on the subject, and his attention to detail, when explaining the reasons behind the dissolution of the monasteries, is impressive. He also writes with an engaging style, and makes what could easily be a dry subject genuinely interesting and even, at times, truly fascinating.
The bare facts of the dissolution are relatively easy to describe, but the background is tantalisingly complex. Henry had made himself Head of the Church of England through the Act of Supremacy of 1534, provoked by the Pope’s refusal to accept his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent remarriage to Anne Boleyn. In May 1536 Anne was executed for high treason on Tower Hill while, at the same time, the first monasteries and religious houses were being taken into royal custody. Within four years every one had been seized by the Crown and several prominent religious figures had been either executed or imprisoned.
The numbers alone tell their own story. Somewhere between 9,000 and 12,000 monks and nuns were released from their life of prayer and devotion to God, although there is strong evidence to suggest that many were not terribly observant. More than 900 properties and estates were confiscated, ranging from some with just a few members to the great houses of Glastonbury and Canterbury. The libraries and archives of the largest establishments were sold or burnt, with the resulting loss of many priceless manuscripts from the mediaeval period. Great swathes of farmland passed into the ownership of local elites, with the result that the establishment of Tudor country estates accelerated. An action which began with Henry’s need to legitimise his marriage to Anne ended with the destruction of every religious house in England, with all the subsequent consequences that it entailed.
As with any major historical event that takes place over a long period of time, it is easy to overlook the individual human experiences that constitute it. By contrast, this is one of the book’s strongest elements: with meticulous detail in each chapter, a bright light is shone on the single abbeys that fought for their existence; the small communities who tried to protect them; and the foundations that voluntarily relinquished their status and then dispersed into their communities. It is difficult to comprehend the impact that the removal of these institutions had on their local environments, but it must have been fraught with conflicting emotions. Many had been a feature within the rural landscape for centuries, providing care for the sick, while others had acquired vast tracts of land, dominated local economies, and siphoned off wealth to the Church.
Clark is quite clear that the process of the dissolution can be split into two distinct parts. Between 1536 and 1538 the smaller houses were targeted, while the focus concerning the larger establishments seemed to be on reform. From 1538 to 1540, however, the entire system was threatened and ultimately destroyed. The evidence that Clark presents shows that at no point in the long process does there seem to have been a co-ordinated and agreed-upon plan between Henry and Cromwell. It appears that, after the initial visits from commissioners beginning in 1535, the attitude of those formulating and guiding policy changed in response to the commissioners’ experiences.
All aspects of this complex subject are covered fastidiously, with the inevitable result that many commonly-held preconceptions are challenged. It would be possible to provide several examples, but a brief examination of one must serve to represent them all. It is often claimed that the majority of religious establishments gave themselves up willingly to the commissioners, or at least with a minimum of resistance, the few well-known examples of rebellion —like Glastonbury and Reading— leading to the execution of abbots and monks. However, within his procession of specific cases, Clark shows the other forces and tensions at play that made the seizing of many properties problematic.
Chapter 7 begins with a fascinating account of how the commissioners arrived at Ingham, Norfolk, in August 1536 to serve their papers on the local monastery. They found the establishment empty: all the residents, animals, and traces of their occupation were absent. It was only later, when they continued on to Coxford Priory more than forty miles away, that they discovered that Ingham priory had been voluntarily sold to the local MP William Woodhouse on the basis that, since it belonged to the European order of the Holy Trinity, it was outside the commissioners' purview. Clark asserts that this is evidence of Henry and Cromwell’s disorganised approach. While they agreed on the principle of seizing church property, in practice the execution was haphazard and often depended on the commissioners’ inclination to enforce their authority in the face of local opposition.
It is perhaps indicative of the uncertainty of the times that, contrary to early accounts of Henry’s reign, it now appears that the dissolution began without any clear religious objectives in mind save the acquisition of property. Thomas More had been executed just a few months before for refusing to swear to the Act of Supremacy, and while most other senior churchmen had submitted, it was clear that the battle for the hearts and minds of the faithful was far from over. The new Protestant church still had many features and practices of the Catholic one, but the central issue —allegiance to King or Pope— was far from resolved.
Further evidence for this uncertainty is provided by Clark when he demonstrates that within the religious houses themselves, there was considerable unrest and division. In some the authority of the abbot was challenged, with one writing at the time, “Some who is not my best frendes wold be very glad to see and make busyness between other and me.” The smaller houses were particularly at risk, with many abandoned either before the commissioners arrived or shortly after their visits. This was in line with the statute that came before Parliament later that year, which called for the total suppression of all houses with an annual value of less than £200. The smaller houses were now expected to submit without resistance, but as a result official attention turned towards the very largest, and this proved to be their undoing.
From the spring of 1537 the pace and practice of dissolution significantly shifted. The focus now was not on reform but upon suppression and seizure. Houses that voluntarily submitted could be granted pensions and other rights, but those that resisted were not entitled to any such benefits. The impact of the Pilgrimage of Grace has often been cited as the cause of the change of emphasis, but Clark demonstrates that the situation was far more nuanced. It is almost as if each monastic house was treated according to their own specific circumstances, with voluntary submission to the Crown being the preferred outcome. Where this was not forthcoming, serious charges could be brought against the senior figures, and the subsequent executions set an example for the next target to understand.
Within two more dramatic years the very finest and wealthiest houses had all been brought down. The story of Glastonbury is perhaps the best known, but it is still worth recalling, for at the time it was probably the richest of all the monasteries. It had, with the help of useful propaganda regarding the supposed discovery of King Arthur’s tomb there, risen to become one of the most beautiful and powerful abbeys in the country. As such, what happened there would send a powerful message to the rest of the country. Its abbott, Richard Whiting, had initially sworn allegiance to the Act of Supremacy, but was adamant that Glastonbury could not be suppressed under the terms of the 1536 Act. In January 1539 commissioners arrived expecting to find gold and silver plate, but discovered little of value. On closer investigation valuable items were found in concealed vaults, and Whiting was arrested on charges of stealing Church property. After imprisonment in the Tower of London he was returned to Somerset, tried at a closed court in Wells, found guilty with two of his closest associates, and taken back to Glastonbury where the three were drawn on hurdles through the streets before being hung, drawn, and quartered at the Tor, their body parts displayed in towns around the West Country. (Whiting’s head was placed on the gatehouse of his own abbey.) There could be no clearer demonstration that the King now held both temporal and spiritual power in his hands.
In amongst all the intricate detail which Clark so carefully and eloquently marshals, this is the abiding conclusion: something that began as a financial land grab, with the potential for religious reform, concluded with the destruction of the Catholic infrastructure that had supported the Church establishment in this country for centuries. By wiping out the religious houses, Henry was able to assert his own royal authority over what was left, while also filling the Exchequer with new funds. Within a generation, most of the land seized had been sold, predominantly to local gentry, and the development of large country estates had begun.
Clark has undertaken the mammoth task of unravelling the minutiae of one of England’s defining moments. The social, political, and economic implications would be felt for centuries, and continue to reverberate even in our own times. It is hard to see how Clark’s account could be improved upon: it is to be admired not only for its scholarship and attention to detail, but also for the understanding that it generates. It emphasises the fact that major historical events —especially those that involve religious and political leadership— are never simple but have several layers which must be unpacked before a clear understanding of causes and effects can emerge. Clark has achieved much in this extensive study and it will, in time, become the leading examination of this complex subject.--Paul Flux