The Decay and Dissolution of the Monastic System.

By the time the Mendicant Friars appeared on the scene in 1221-1224 AD, the established monks were already beginning a downward turn in their level of education. In part this reflected a growing diminution of standards as monasteries and convents became refuges ( and comfortable ones at that) for a basically lazy class of person. It also became the place to send some outcasts of society, the fractious son and daughter,  and those who just wanted a quiet and comfortable life without responsibility. Intellectually they were inferior to their predecessors with a level of attainment that stopped at basic Latin – sufficient to perform their duties and perhaps write a letter. Arithmetic was enough to do their accounts but there was no great effort in the field of literature, philosophy or indeed religion. There were the occasional exceptions but this was the general level of education for the Orders. As such the existing system was overshadowed by the activity of the Mendicant Orders, and jealousy, competition for privileges, and donations became underlying strains on relationships between them. With a view to improving both education and relationships there began a period of expansion of colleges , including Merton College at Oxford in 1264 and Baliol College a few years later. At Cambridge Peter House was founded ca 1257. These colleges received royal support  throughout the reigns of the three Edwards (1272-1377) and other donors contributed to a total of eight colleges at Oxford and six at Cambridge. Ironically this explosion of  education for the church produced more qualified persons than there were posts for them to fill,  and many became secular clerics to the benefit of the government.

Resentment was building, however, against the passing of thousands of pounds from rentals and tithes back to Rome. Another significant change was the statute of mortmain in Edward I reign. This was the principal of law applied to land given to the church that never became liable to death duties, as other land did, because its holders were a corporation which did not of itself die. A statute in 1279 forbid the passage of land into mortmain which had an impact on the revenues of the church. In practice a license was required from the king, thus bringing  the church under control and also the practice of donating land to the church but retaining the revenues (without taxation).

 In the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) the statutes of
were reviewed with the intention of depressing the civil power of the Pope and to break the connection with Rome. Praemunire was an offence immediately affecting the king and his government, though not subject to capital punishment. It simply meant a writ  for the offence of disobeying the king`s mandate, incurring the penalty of  forfeiture. It had its origins from the exorbitant claims of the Pope who claimed total supremacy in all things. But although content to yield spiritual superiority, total subjection was too much to bear. Edward I was the first to resist when he required bishops to swear not to accept the papal benediction. As became the “Hammer of the Scots” Edward resisted Rome by making light of Papal Bulls, ignored instructions not to invade Scotland, refused to send monies to Rome, and seized land , estates, and revenues from the clergy. His first statute against Rome appeared ca 1305. The statute of praemunire  was deemed necessary because  “
every  encouragement of the papal power  is a diminuition of the authority of the crown.

In the reign of the weak Edward II  Rome again sought to claim rights but this time parliament resisted. Edward III  was of a different temper and was prepared to go to war against France and the Emperor, rather than be dictated to by Rome. He enforced praemunire and brought in other enactments that penalised papal interference, including any demands that people should appear before the courts of Rome. The statutes were subsequently toughened up by succeeding monarchs – Richard II  ( in (year)16, Richard II, c5) is generally regarded as the definitive statement. But Henry IV extended the scope of liability , as did Henry VII (24 Henry VII c 12); and Henry VIII (25 Henry VIII c 19, 20 and 21) who removed appeals to Rome from any of the king`s courts, and restored the king`s right to appoint bishops, with penalty of praemunire if any archbishop or bishop refuse to consecrate his nomination. Notably Cardinal Wolsey had foreseen the need for reform  and had initiated some modest schemes for raising revenue for better education of clerics in the Church. This was seen as the thin edge of the wedge by many but all came to nought ; Wolsey fell to a charge of praemunire over the apparent delays he was alleged to have caused in the divorce sought by Henry VIII. When convicted his estates were forfeit to the king. St Alban`s Abbey should have reverted to  the prior and monks of the house, but the property and revenues of the See of Winchester   were reserved for the king`s use.  With this close example Henry experienced for the first time the support of the people, Lords and Parliament. He soon realised that he did not require a church man as his Chancellor to help control the clerics nor did he need the Papal support; he also saw that he had the weapon available for raising more money from the clergy.

The religious aminosities both between the Catholic and Protestant sectors and between the monastic orders showed itself  in the days of John Wyckcliffe (1324-1389) and carried on with increasing ardour and persecution, into the sixteenth century. It was hastened on its way by the introduction of printing, the growth in the number of bibles available, particularly in English, and the alternate truths preached in the vernacular by the Lollards etc. It was also a time of emancipation for the common man who was gradually escaping serfdom and allowed to think for himself. In the larger cities, but especially London, foreign trade and commercial enterprise was having far reaching consequences, creating a new wealth. With it came a greater stability within the kingdom.
But  also becoming more apparent was the great extent of the land
holdings of the monasteries. It was estimated that two thirds of London
was occupied by convents and hospitals, and one third of the total area of

Matters were certainly exacerbated by the attitude and behaviour of Pope Leo X who took the papal throne (1513 – 1521). He was much inclined to sensual indulgence and `remarkable for his prodigality, luxury and imprudence`. An act of his in 1516 was to create some thirty one new cardinals, which was notable for a severe storm that struck Rome and the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus dropped the child, while the symbolic keys in St Peter`s hand also fell to the ground. One can imagine what was made of such a portent.  His behaviour and scandalous use of Indulgences to raise revenue was at the heart of Martin Luther`s objections which led to the split in Europe.
Under the pretext of a war against the Turks Leo X authorised  a collection throughout Christendom to pay for it; this became known as the `ten shilling` Pardon or Indulgence, whereby a person bought a pardon for his or her sins ( past, present, and future). This scam was brought into Germany by a Dominican friar named Tetzel and was the cause of Martin Luther`s

posted on the church door in Wittenburg. Despite the furore surrounding Luther and the vindictive attempts to get him sent to Rome for trial, Pope Leo issued further Indulgences in 1518 declaring the doctrine that Bishops of Rome had power to  release and dispense, and grant indulgences for both the living and the dead. The further renewal of the indulgences in 1522 attracted the opposition of another Reformer, Uldricus Zwingili (Zuinglius), and maintained the momentum of the Reformation.

In England Henry VIII wrote against Luther and garnered praise from the Pope  being given the title “Defender of the Faith” However, the matter of Henry VIII`s divorce forced change on the relationship with Rome, and took the first steps towards the creation of a Protestant kingdom.

The monastic Orders generally resented Henry VIIi`s actions and were fearful of what lay ahead. The Bulls from Rome were no longer regarded with reverence or dread and abolition appeared to be a reality. The monks and friars now sought to inflame the people against arbitrary government, while Thomas Cromwell, now appointed Vicar General, instituted  Commissioners to make enquiry of all religious foundations as to their devotion and maintenance of their Rule. He also required the Commissioners to  ascertain how the revenues were expended. The information gathered in the space of only ten weeks, sometimes under threat of praemunire, was the foundation for the legislation of  4 February 1536. The act dissolved  all monasteries whose revenues did not exceed  two hundred pounds a year, resulting in 380 houses dissolved, and yielding  some £32,000 in annual revenues and plate and jewellery  valued at £100,000. Some 10,000 persons were cast out with no allowance save forty shillings and a new gown. A further 31 monasteries obtained the king`s licence to continue for a short while, but it was only for a short while. Meanwhile for the better management of the dissolved monasteries, a special court entitled “The Court of augmentation of the King`s Revenue” was established and clearly indicated the way things were going.

In the countryside rioting took place in Lincolnshire, October 1536, when Dr Makeril prior  of Bailings disguised as a cobbler, and calling himself ” Captain Cobbler” led a large body against the Duke of Suffolk, but they were soon dispersed. Six days later another riot broke out in Yorkshire  called “The Pilgrimage of Grace” which was not easily nor quickly suppressed. Against this background, and having picked off the smaller houses, Thomas Cromwell astutely advised Henry VIII to secure the help of the nobles by letting them enjoy some of the plunder . This was perceived as a means of mitigating the arbitrary action  and for it to be viewed with more complacency  by the aristocracy. Moreover, the dissipation of lands into many hands would make recovery very difficult in future and thus less of a temptation to even make the attempt.

There followed a second round of Visitations by the Commissioners, in the winter of 1536, this time to the larger established monasteries from whom resistance was expected. The focal enquiries were to examine everything that related to the conversation of monastics; their views and opinions on the king`s supremacy; and how far they had been involved in the earlier dissolutions. The report in the spring was a whitewash in that anything to excite opinion against the monks was publicised. It threw ridicule upon  the images and relics and declared them fake. Henry VIII had previously declared that in the large monasteries  ”
religion is right well observed and kept up.
” Thus no attempt was made to give the monasteries the appearance of profligate and immoral because it would not have been believed. The clearly selective report was carefully distributed and the Parliament that met  28 April 1539 approved the granting of all the lands  of the monasteries  that had surrendered `freely` to the king. Technically therefore, no monastery had been suppressed or dissolved but merely closed because their income was less than £200 p.a.

Cleverly the act also provided that surrenders

” made, or should be made in future, should be confirmed and that the lands surrendered should pass to the king.”

The same Parliament passed the act of precedence that made Thomas Cromwell, architect of the dissolution, vice regent to the king and above all other persons next to the royal family.

The act concerning the monasteries was speedily passed as Henry had intimated that he wished to use the revenues for useful foundations. In practice Henry endowed thirteen new bishoprics, six of them immediately; and endowed Christ Church, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge. But guile and speedy approval of legislation prevented lengthy debate about whether the monasteries` lands reverted to the original donor, or if not claimed reverted to the king; and, whether the crown had any right to the goods of the monasteries. In the event great quantities of  goods and valuable ornaments from cathedrals were spirited away. In 1539 some fifty seven monasteries surrendered including  Westminster, Waltham Abbey, and St Alban`s. The following year special legislation was passed to suppress the prior and hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem although, again, the word suppression was never used , just a confirmation of all that had or was about to be done. Fierce resistance appeared with Hugh Faringdon, Abbot of Reading who refused to surrender; he was quickly tried for treason and executed at Tyburn with two of his monks. This execution is of itself a curiosity, as in Sept 1529 the king had intervened with Wolsey to release Faringdon who had  been imprisoned for having Lutheran views. However, in a short space the Abbot of Glastonbury and the Abbot of Colchester followed suite. By threat, persecution, and bribery all the remaining larger monasteries eventually yielded with a total revenue of about £100,000 a year to the king. The final step was to physically destroy the buildings so as to prevent use as shelter or reconstruction at a later date. In total The rentals of some six hundred and sixteen abbeys amounting to £142,000 annually passed to the king, and at least £100,000 in gold and silver  was taken up from the larger houses. On top of this was an unknown sum generated from the sale of some monasteries.

The consequence of the so called `dissolution` was that there was hardly a peer in the kingdom who did not profit from the work. A particular gainer was the Duke of Bedford while favourites were rewarded with honours and portions of abbey lands. Sir William Pawlet, created Baron St John , recorded in his diary that

 “ he lived at a time when happened the dissolution of abbeys; which was the harvest of estates; and it argued idleness if any courtier had his barns empty.”

   The inmates of the abbeys  and convents were cast out into a world for which they were largely unprepared. They were frequently compelled to beg and swelled the numbers seeking existence itself. Such was the problem that in Queen Elizabeth`s reign  legislation was introduced for the compulsory support of the poor, including those who previously did just that.

It would be simply wrong to ignore the good works that the monasteries provided in services to the community that were not otherwise available. Their ministrations to the poor, the sick , the homeless, rest for the traveller, refuge for those who sought to get away from the troubles of their day, and a modest education system, were valuable services that could have been continued after Henry VIII rejected Papal authority. But greed fed the spoliation  of the properties, lands and revenues of the monasteries  that could (should) have aided the nascent Church of England. This was the view of Archbishop Leighton (1610-1684) who opined

that the great and fatal error of the Reformation was, that more of those houses , and of that course of life, free from the entanglement of vows, and other mixture, was not preserved; so that the Protestant Churches had neither places of education, nor retreat for men of mortified tempers”  [ Life of Archbishop Leighton, Middleton, (1819)  p xxiv ]

Schedule of “dissolved” monasteries.