The Dissolution of the Monasteries: heritage in ruins

Apart from his red hair, beard, giant girth and his equally gargantuan appetite for wives, the one thing we all associate with Henry VIII is the event that the authors of 1066 and All That called, with an eye for a memorable spelling mistake, ‘the Disillusion of the Monasteries’.

Politicians who are fond of the idea of ‘Britishness’ no doubt think this was an event unique to these islands. In fact, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland had all embarked on national programmes of monastic closure before Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, realised that was a way to make his king rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Roche Abbey’s twin transept towers were spared: dating from the 1170s, they are early examples in England of Gothic structural principles, using pointed arches to create large windows filled with plain glass, symbolic of the simplicity and clarity fundamental to Cistercian life.

Indeed, earlier monarchs were in the habit of temporarily seizing the assets of Cistercian, Cluniac and Benedictine priories tied to French mother houses whenever England was at war with France, and Henry V finally ‘nationalised’ all these ‘alien priories’ by act of Parliament in 1414. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, not to mention Eton College, were great beneficiaries of the closure of monasteries whose wealth was diverted into education: Cardinal Wolsey created Christ Church, Oxford, by converting St Frideswide’s Priory into a college and grabbing the assets of 20 smaller monasteries.

But these were all partial and small-scale dissolutions compared with the one that Thomas Cromwell executed, and the thoroughness with which he managed the process makes today’s stealth-taxing politicians look like rank amateurs.

First, laws were passed in 1534 enabling Cromwell and his agents to visit every monastery, ostensibly to ensure that they were conforming to the new rules of the Anglican church, and to assess their value for the newly imposed income tax of 10 per cent on all revenues, to be paid to the Crown rather than the Pope. This Valor Ecclesiasticus, or church valuation, was later used as a loot list when the royal commissioners came calling, this time to demand much more than a tithe of church property.

But before that could happen, the people of England had to be softened up: one of Cromwell’s key preparatory tools was the deployment of preachers who were commissioned to travel the length and breadth of the country during the autumn of 1535 with prepared sermons: the double message they hammered home was that monasteries were hives of licentiousness and corruption and that ‘if the abbeys went down, the king would never want any taxes again.’

Cromwell then tested the water. Smaller insignificant monasteries were dissolved first. Monks and nuns who left voluntarily were given pensions or parishes; imprisonment or execution awaited those who resisted – a foretaste of what was to come in 1539, when a law was passed confiscating all the remaining monasteries in England: the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury and Reading were convicted of treason and hanged, drawn and quartered because they refused to co-operate.

The destruction that we associate with the Dissolution was neither universal nor instantaneous. In the Cotswolds, Cirencester Abbey, one of the richest in the land, was so effectively razed that not a sign of its existence now survives above ground. But at Gloucester, St Peter’s Abbey survives intact, simply converted by the stroke of a pen into a cathedral. At Pershore, Tewksbury and Evesham, magnificent monastic churches survive because they were purchased by wealthy townspeople to serve as parish churches. At Kingswood, the just-completed monastery near Wotton-under-Edge was sold in its entirety to Sir Nicholas Poyntz, who used the timber and stone to build his ‘New Work’ (now Newark Park) on the hillside above the town.

Scenes of mass plunder were relatively rare, but the iconoclasm we associate with the later Puritan Revolution began as early as the 1540s, sometimes deliberately fostered by those who wanted to ensure that the Dissolution was permanent, with no opportunity for the monks to reconvene.

How the mighty fall

From Roche Abbey, in South Yorkshire, we have a very rare account of the speed and completeness with which a proud monastery could be brought low. It was written by Michael Sherbrook, rector of Wickersley (some five miles west of Roche) from 1567 to c.1610. Sherbrook was only a child at the time of the Dissolution, but he recorded the memories of his father and uncle who witnessed the spoliation of Roche first-hand.

Below Roche Abbey gatehouse: a large part of English Heritage’s property portfolio consists of abbeys that were plundered during the Dissolution.
Roche Abbey gatehouse: a large part of English Heritage’s property portfolio consists of abbeys that were plundered during the Dissolution.

First the royal commissioners took their toll: the lead was stripped from the roof and smelted into transportable blocks in the nave: the site of the furnace is still visible. The yeomen and gentlemen of the county were then offered the better timber from the church. The monks were left with nothing: one of them approached Sherbrook’s uncle and tried to sell him the door of his cell for two pennies. He declined the offer – not out of moral scruple, but because he couldn’t think of a use for it. Others found uses for just about everything: from the window glass to the service books – taken and sold to hauliers, who used the parchment to patch the coverings on their wagons ; and from iron wall hooks to choir stalls, whose fate was to be used for firewood.

Sherbrook writes: ‘All things of value were spoiled, plucked away or utterly defaced … and it seemed that every person was intent upon filching and spoiling what he could. Even those who had been content to permit the monks’ worship and do great reverence at their matins, masses and services two days previously were no less happy to pilfer, which is strange, that they could one day think it to be the house of God and the next the house of the Devil’.

Some 30 years later, Sherbrook asked his father ‘why were you so ready to destroy and spoil the thing that you [had previously] thought so well of?’ His answer probably speaks for the thousands of others who also participated in that swift and brutal destruction of centuries of heritage: everyone else was doing it, he said, and surely he had as much right to a share in the profit as anyone else: ‘I saw that everything would disappear and therefore I did as the others did.’

The legacy of the Dissolution was not all negative. Capability Brown found the ruins of Roche Abbey so entrancing that he landscaped the ruins, making the two surviving towers a key feature in the wooded parkland he created for Lord Scarbrough in 1775. Without those ruins, we mught never have had the Romantic movement. And from those ruins archaeology and local history also emerged: for not long after Cromwell’s commissioners had done their worst, the first English antiquary appears in the form of John Leland, who styled himself ‘the King’s antiquary’. He travelled the length and breadth of England, tracking down and rescuing medieval books that had been ransacked from dissolved monastic houses, and, in the process, he recorded what he saw, creating an invaluable record of a fast disappearing monastic landscape.

Photos: Christopher Catling.