The Reformation was a period of rapid change in Europe, and England was no exception. King Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547 CE) broke away from the Catholic church, and in doing so he left the church’s monasteries, priories, and other holdings in an awkward position. They had a great deal of wealth, but they no longer had government patronage or a clear role in society. Henry found a simple solution to that problem when he seized all of their assets for the English crown. This act came to be known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and it was more than enough to prove that it was the king, not the church, that held ultimate power in England.
When Did The Dissolution of the Monasteries Happen?
The Dissolution took place between 1536 and 1541, during the reign of Henry VIII. His authority to order the Dissolution was granted under the Act of Supremacy, which passed in 1534.
Why Did The Dissolution of the Monasteries Happen?
Henry VIII was a monarch with two great problems.
- First, he needed to get his marriage nullified, but the Pope refused to grant his request.
- Second, he needed money to fund his military ambitions and support his government.
The combination of these two problems eventually led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He dealt with his first problem by breaking away from the Catholic church and founding the Anglican church with himself as the head. Some branches of the Catholic church in England objected, but most submitted to his decree.
The major exceptions were found in the nation’s monastic communities, which helped to start the conflict between them and the crown.
Many of those communities were quite wealthy. One of the chief complaints among religious reformers and secular writers of the time was that monasteries were too wealthy, encouraged pilgrimages to view fraudulent relics, and that the monks maintained an inappropriate lifestyle. Many of them owned a significant amount of productive land, while other religious communities extracted significant revenues from the local population. The Catholic church also had a long history of taking tithes from the people. Given that Henry was already an enemy of the Catholic church, it should come as no surprise that he wanted to claim all of that money for himself.
What Happened during the Dissolution of the Monasteries?
Henry laid the foundation for the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534, two years before the process began in earnest. He sent his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to visit all of the monasteries, with the intention of encouraging them to submit to the king’s authority and abandon their inappropriate lifestyles. Cromwell picked several minions to help with the work, and he sent them to as many of the monasteries as possible. They did not have the time to perform thorough examinations, but they did interview individual monks and servants. Cromwell’s team encouraged them to confess their moral failings and inform on their peers, which led to a generally negative assessment of their behavior. Some of the reports may have been exaggerated, but the interviewers did not have to make up any claims to make the monasteries look bad.
The reports were clear. The monks were living lives of excessive luxury and frequently violated their vows. They also raised money by lending out false relics and charms that were said to bring good luck to their owners or to have healing powers. This led to the Suppression of Religious Houses Act in 1535, which gave the king the power to close down monasteries with an income of less than 200 pounds and seize their wealth. This formed the legal basis for the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The king then sent his followers out to visit all of the monasteries that he wanted to close, so that they could take an inventory of their wealth. Many of the targeted monasteries sent requests to the king to cancel their closure in return for paying fines or providing gifts, and some of them were accepted. Other monasteries remained open by request of the committee in charge of the visits. The remainder closed down, and the monks were given the choice of either returning to secular life with some money from the government or of joining a larger monastery. The small minority of monks that offered violent resistance were treated as traitors to the crown.
These closures were unpopular, and contributed to a popular rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Even so, the policy continued for several years, with the government encouraging monastic leaders to surrender their property voluntarily in return for better treatment. This led to a second major round of closures in 1538, and most of the monks who lived at the newly-closed monasteries received fairly generous payments in return for their cooperation. The closured continued on a smaller scale for several more years, until monasticism was largely extinct in England.
What Was The Impact?
It is impossible to remove a wealthy and powerful institution from a society without having a huge impact on it. In the case of the Dissolution of Monasteries, the impact can be seen in both the nation’s economy and its culture.
The monasteries had controlled a great deal of wealth and land in England, so their removal left an economic gap that needed to be filled. In general, the land and the income that it could provide passed to secular landowners. The rights to any income from other sources that the monasteries once held was often sold in the same way as the land. As such, there were many cases where the overall economic system could remain in one piece, with the wealth simply flowing to a secular landlord instead of the monks.
The monasteries had also been centers for healing and charity work. Unfortunately, the new landowners rarely felt the need to continue that tradition. The monasteries had only donated a small part of their income to the purpose, but it had made as significant difference to the poor. The loss of that charity led to the increasing number of beggars that would prove to be problematic for later rulers.
The monastic libraries deserve special attention. They had huge collections at a time when books were relatively rare, and many of those collections were lost. Some of the more valuable books were collected by specialists to be kept in private collections, but many were sold for scrap paper or so that valuable decorations could be salvaged.
On the whole, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was a mixed blessing. On one hand, the charges of corruption and moral laxness against the monks were often justified, and their monasteries controlled a huge portion of the nation’s wealth. On the other hand, closing the monasteries resulted in the loss of valuable services and some historical artifacts. It also caused a certain degree of political unrest. For better or for worse, it had a lasting impact on the nation.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Dissolution of the Monasteries" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/dissolution-of-the-monasteries/, February 10, 2017