Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Joseph Pearce’s new book, Faith of Our Fathers: A History of True England (Ignatius Press).
The destruction of England’s monasteries was carried out in two phases. First, the smaller religious communities were closed under the pretext of “reform” and then, once the appetite for plunder had been awakened in the avaricious hearts of the aristocracy, the larger abbeys and monasteries, with their richer pickings, were plundered. A total of between eight and nine hundred religious institutions were seized throughout the country, with the thousands of nuns and monks being ejected unceremoniously.
In terms of realpolitik, Henry would not have been able to get his hands on the wealth of the Church without bribing the nobles with a promise of a share of the plunder. Had the aristocracy not been bought in this way, they would no doubt have rebelled in defiance of the king and in defence of the Church. It was, therefore, in appealing to the baser appetites of the ignoble nobility that Henry succeeded in sacking the Church and removing its power from his realm.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
What Henry unleashed, once the pillaging began, was a feeding frenzy of greed, which he could no longer assuage or control. He complained to Thomas Cromwell, whom he had put in charge of overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries, that “the cormorants, when they have got the garbage, will devour the dish”. Cromwell reassured him that there were more rich pickings in the larger abbeys that had not yet been pillaged. “Tut, man,” the king replied, “my whole realm would not staunch their maws.” By the time that the dissolution of the monasteries was complete, the king was not much wealthier than he had been before the debauch began. Even worse, from his perspective, was the realization that he had inadvertently compromised his own position of power by creating a new secular plutocracy, a new class of “lords of the manor”, which owned the huge tracts of land that had previously belonged to the Church and the wealth and power associated with such ownership.
As for the monasteries themselves, it is only possible to offer a few examples of the tragedy of the plunder and of the heroism of the monks and nuns.
In August 1535, Thomas Cromwell’s inquisitors arrived at Glastonbury. When the elderly abbot, Richard Whiting, refused to surrender the Abbey to the king, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He and two other monks were dragged on a hurdle to the Tor, the hill overlooking the Abbey, where they were hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered. The Abbot’s head was stuck on a pike above the entrance to the Abbey for all to see. His quarters were boiled in pitch and then displayed in the nearby towns of Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgewater. Abbot Richard Whiting was seventy-eight years old when this act of barbarism was inflicted upon him, a mark of the merciless Machiavellianism of the king and his “good servants”. With the brutal execution of these three monks, the curtain fell on England’s oldest Marian shrine, which dated from the first century and which, according to legend, had been founded by St. Joseph of Arimathea as early as 63AD.
The abbots of the monasteries at Reading and Colchester also embraced martyrdom but most of the other abbots chose a more comfortable option. The seventy-second and last Abbot of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, the first Benedictine Abbey to be founded in England, surrendered the Abbey with all its possessions to the king’s commissioners in 1538, accepting a generous annual pension for his “loyalty”. Henry VIII then turned the Abbey into a palace for Anne of Cleves, the fourth of his wives. And yet even these so-called “voluntary surrenders” were acts of coercion. As William Cobbett quipped, they were the sort of voluntary surrender “which men make of their purses when the robber’s pistol is at their temple or his blood-stained knife at their throat”.
The dissolution of the monasteries had a significant impact on London, changing the political and commercial hub of the nation from a complex interweaving of religious and commercial activity to an avowedly secular metropolis. There were thirty-nine religious houses in London at the time of the Dissolution, of which twenty-three were within the single square mile that comprised the City itself. “Almost overnight,” wrote Simon Jenkins, “the City and its surrounding land saw a transfer of ownership and wealth on a scale not witnessed even during the Norman Conquest.” The vast bulk of this property “passed to aristocrats, merchants and cronies of the monarch”.
The thousands of monks and nuns made homeless by the avarice of the king and his partners in plunder were not, by any means, the only people to suffer. It was the poorest who suffered most as the richest became richer still. The monasteries were the centres of charity, dispensing help to the sick, disabled and the destitute, as well as providing education. All of this disappeared overnight, leaving the weakest and most vulnerable without any recourse for help. In London, as the monasteries disappeared, “the poor, sick, blind, aged and impotent … were lying in the street, offending every clean person passing by with their filthy and nasty savours”.
Nor was the problem restricted to London. Throughout the country, the monasteries had exercised hospitality to waifs and wayfarers and generosity to the poor. They educated the young and were far more generous as landlords than the new secular lords of the manor would prove to be. Everybody but the king and his partners in crime were victims of the pillaging of the Church. “Here was a breach of Magna Charter in the first place,” wrote William Cobbett, “a robbery of the monks and nuns in the next place, and, in the third place, a robbery of the indigent, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”
The charity of the monasteries was replaced with the brutality of the state. As the country swarmed with beggars, bereft of any means of assistance, laws were passed which made war on the weak and defenceless. The persevering beggar was punished by having part of his ears severed and, should this not prove a sufficient deterrent, he would be put to death if convicted of begging again. Such was the compassion Henry VIII exhibited to the poor whom his own avarice had left bereft of any option but to beg.
As the pillage and plunder continued, the people of England rose in anger in a rebellion that became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
At the beginning of October 1536, a sermon in the parish church of Louth in Lincolnshire sparked the uprising. Within a week, a people’s army had occupied Lincoln. The rising spread to the north, the whole of Yorkshire rising in protest. According to the historian, Gerard Culkin, the rising of the north of England in protest at the king’s “reformation” was “the most serious threat to his throne … in all the long years of his reign”. Thousands of men from all parts of Yorkshire and beyond descended on York to join the people’s army which had assembled there under the leadership of Robert Aske, a London attorney. Under his guidance the revolt became a pilgrimage for the restoration of religion and religious liberty. The pilgrims wore a badge depicting the Five Wounds of Christ and swore an oath to exalt and defend the Church. Aske composed a proclamation, itemizing the purpose and demands of the Pilgrimage, which was presented to the king.
Henry was alarmed by the uprising and had every reason for being so. The Duke of Norfolk, whom Henry had appointed to deal with the uprising, warned him that the royal forces, numbering only 8,000 men, were no match for the 40,000 rebels who now included in their ranks “all the flower of the North”. Furthermore, and of even greater concern, the Duke reported that the king’s own troops “think their quarrel to be good and godly”.
Faced with such unwelcome news, the king had little option but to negotiate. On December 5, the Duke of Norfolk, as the king’s representative, met the leaders of the Pilgrimage at Doncaster and received the list of their demands. The first demand was for the suppression of heresy, the second was for the restoration of the Pope’s authority in spiritual matters, and the third was for the restoration of the suppressed abbeys. As for Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgrimage, he stated that he was willing to die, “unless the bishop of Rome was head of the Church in England as heretofore”.
Powerless to put down the Pilgrimage of Grace by military means, Henry employed that other weapon of the cynical machiavel: the power of the lie. Promising concessions and a general pardon for all who had taken part in the Pilgrimage, Henry persuaded the good-natured but gullible Aske to order the rebels to disperse and disarm. As soon as the tens of thousands of “pilgrims” had returned home, Henry moved his troops into the north of the country. He was now in a position to force his own will on the people. Robert Aske was executed in York on July 12, 1537 and a further two hundred or so would suffer a similar fate.
The king then stepped up his war on the remaining abbeys, accusing the abbots and monks of complicity in the Pilgrimage and executing them as traitors. The abbots of Jervaulx and Fountains and the prior of Bridlington were executed at Tyburn. With the popular uprising defeated by the king’s dissimulation, deception and broken promises, the Church was now utterly defenceless. By 1540 every remaining monastery and religious house in England had been destroyed, its wealth passing into the hands of the ignoble nobility.
[Photo: The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, dissolved in 1539 following the execution of the abbot]