A document detailing the process by which Henry VIII dissolved one of England’s wealthiest monasteries has been rediscovered.
The Reformation-era blueprint, which discusses the suppression of Furness Abbey, was found recently by an English Heritage historian in the National Archives having been missing for over 500 years.
Furness Abbey was once the largest and wealthiest monastery in north-west England. Its roots can be traced back to 1124, when a community of monks settled at Tulketh, near Preston.
The abbey flourished during the Middle Ages, becoming the centre of religious, social, economic, and political life in the region. It was favoured by royals and local elites as a place of worship and burial.
But Furness was soon caught up in the tumult of the Reformation, instigated by Henry VIII following his break with the Catholic Church. The wealth of the Abbey was assessed, and its annual income of £805 made it the wealthiest monastery in the region and the second richest Cistercian abbey in England – as well as a target for state suppression.
The document, submitted by Robert Southwell, commissioner for the dissolution of the abbey and a key figure in Henry VIII’s court, contains detailed information about the nature of the suppression.
It records how the monks, rather than fleeing for their lives, held out for a better deal with the royal commission. Remarkably, they were allowed to remain at the abbey for months before work on its destruction began, eventually being given a generous cash handout to leave quietly.
Located in a region where Henry VIII’s reforms were widely unpopular, Furness Abbey was the first of England’s ‘greater’ monasteries to be destroyed.
The document also reveals how much money was to be made out of the suppression, with several speculators listed as descending on the monastery from the south, keen to sell off its valuables.
However, as the document states, assets were sold locally, with ‘men of Kendal’ purchasing the abbey’s bell for a then-enormous sum of £30. Other valuable items, such as the metal alter plate, appear to have been disposed of by the monks before speculators arrived.
In total, almost £800 was grossed from the abbey’s suppression, but only £367 remained after associated costs, such as the monks’ handout, were dispersed.
English Heritage Senior Properties Historian Dr Michael Carter, who made the find, said: ‘Packed full of information about the mechanics of the dissolution, the record is of real historic importance since the skills learned during the suppression of Furness Abbey, the largest and richest monastery in northwest England, were to prove invaluable at other monasteries.’
‘The dissolution gathered pace in the months following the end of Furness, and Richard Southwell went on to occupy key positions within Henry VIII’s court,’ Carter added.
An earlier attempt to locate the document was made 200 years ago by Thomas Alcock Beck, an antiquary whose research into the abbey remains an essential source for today’s scholars.
The document also details the physical destruction of the building. Southwell explained how the recently built bell tower was left ‘clearly dissolved’, its destruction achieved through the use of ‘ropes and other engynes’.
After further deterioration in the 20th century, the site is now maintained by English Heritage and continues to throw up finds of its own.
Recent excavations of the east end of the abbey revealed the skeleton of an abbot who was buried with a ring and crozier, two symbols of his office.