The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s was one of the most-important religious, political, and social events ever to unfold in England and Wales. This act, and the associated (but separate) Reformation of the Church, brought about fundamental change across the country, in ways which cannot have failed to have an impact on all parts of society. The effects are still visible today, not least in ruins cared for by English Heritage, the National Trust, and many private owners. Yet in many ways it is still a misunderstood event – one might almost say that it is a rare example where history was written by the losers rather than the winners, because so many aspects of the changes have been decried down the centuries as little more than vandalism wrought for personal gain by Henry VIII and his courtiers. That was always a simplistic view, politically charged in many ways, although of course it held an element of truth within it.
Hugh Willmott’s important new book seeks to redress the balance by providing a more-rounded and -nuanced explanation of the processes involved in the Dissolution (which were unquestionably complex and far-reaching), as well as the reasons for it. He does not hide away from any aspect of the events or people involved, and provides copious examples across a wide variety of themes centred on them.
His is a firmly archaeological approach, using examples from across the country (including his own work at Thornton Abbey, Monk Bretton Priory, and elsewhere) to show how survey and excavation can elucidate not only monastic buildings but also their grounds and landscapes, as well as national trends. Some chapters are necessarily much more based in historical data and research, but elsewhere the physical evidence and study of it through archaeological techniques provides the bulk of the text, which is copiously illustrated throughout.
I particularly enjoyed the short opening chapter, which outlines the tensions inherent in past studies of the Dissolution, and the attitudes behind them. These were often quite deliberately and expressly biased in favour of the monasteries (and indeed the Roman church) and against the King. The big picture was all about wanton destruction and, indeed, desecration. Subsequent chapters point out that this was often not reflected on the ground at the time of the events. Yes, there was a deliberate focus on ensuring that the church buildings in particular could not easily be returned to ecclesiastical use – but this need not (and usually did not) extend to widespread demolition and ruination. The author points out that the cloister and its ranges could be (and often were) converted readily and rapidly into secular residences. He also notes in Chapter 5, ‘Avenues for Common Opportunity’ – although perhaps too briefly – that many monastic churches were saved by continuation of their parochial function, while cathedrals such as Canterbury, Durham, Rochester, and Winchester continued to function but with their monastic communities reformed into the new Deans and Chapters.
In the medium to longer term, of course, many abbeys and priories did become ruins set in deliberately Romantic, Picturesque landscapes – but that process is beyond the confines of this book, which largely covers the events and processes of the 16th and 17th centuries. Chapters 3 (‘The Destruction and Asset Stripping of the Religious Houses’), 6 (‘The Conversion to Domestic Use’), and 7 (‘New Landscapes of Leisure’) are particularly strong in their use of archaeological evidence, and will be invaluable in providing references and pointers for both professional researchers and a general readership.
I did have a couple of issues – with the publisher, rather than the author. I found the typeface rather small (though not uncomfortably so), as were many of the illustrations: Figures 7.7-7.8 and 7.13-7.14 particularly spring to mind. The number of typographical errors is also unfair on the author. That apart, however, this is undoubtedly an important work of scholarship that will be valuable for many years to come.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England and Wales, Hugh Willmott, Equinox Publishing Ltd, £85, IBSN 978-1781799543.
Review by Graham Keevill.