An immense and magisterial history of English monasticism – Catholic World Report

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

James G. Clark’s The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History (Yale University Press), is a dense and impressive volume, effectively superseding the mid-20th-century works by Dom David Knowles.

An immense and magisterial history of English monasticism – Catholic World Report
The remains of Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, England. (Image: JohnArmagh/Wikipedia)

Researching land-ownership patterns in early seventeenth-century England, antiquarian Sir Henry Spelman discovered within a twenty-four-mile circle on the map of Norfolk the sites of no less than twenty-four monasteries, dissolved by Henry VIII seventy-odd years earlier. Today, if one walks the Nar Valley Way (a branch off the Peddar’s Way), one encounters many splendid things. Every few miles there’s another quaint English village or hamlet with an amazing medieval church and pub to soothe the thirsty hiker.1 And all around are remnants of the English Catholic past: Cluniac Castle Acre, Benedictine Blackborough, Augustinian West Acre, Pentney, and Crabhouse. Explaining how these choirs came to be so bare and ruined is the task James G. Clark undertakes in his new history of the Dissolution of the English monasteries.2

After Henry VIII laid claim in 1534 to supreme headship of the Church in England, successive Acts of Parliament put an end to the vowed religious life in England. Between 1535 and 1540, under the direction of Henry’s vicegerent Thomas Cromwell, almost 850 houses were visited, inspected, dissolved, and their property absorbed by the Crown, disrupting the settled patterns of life of perhaps 12,000 religious men and women. The Dissolution, Clark declares, constituted a “disturbance of social and economic life in every region . . . a shockwave shared countrywide” (7-8).

Advertised as the first major treatment of the Dissolution in fifty years, Clark’s book effectively supersedes the third volume of the magisterial history of English monasticism by Dom David Knowles.3 Yale University Press is to be congratulated on the production of this massive tome (689 pages), and on the lavish illustrations and extensive bibliography. This is history done from the archives; if documentation has survived somewhere, it seems that Clark has found it. The author has succeeded in what he calls a “passage through monastic and mendicant England” so thorough that “Cromwellian commissioners might have recognized” it, except for its speed; others might call it a life achievement.

Clark’s work reinforces recent scholarship that the Crown never had a master plan for the Dissolution but stumbled into it. After government commissioners’ inspection and suspiciously scrupulous evaluation of the property of all religious houses in 1534, Parliament’s first suppression Act in January 1535 closed and confiscated all religious houses in England and Wales whose yearly value fell short of £200. The suppression of these small houses was necessary, the Act insisted, because of the “abhomynable lyvng . . . dayly usyd and committed” therein. Embarrassingly (later, were the regime capable of it), the statute directed the displaced religious wishing to persevere in their vocations to transfer to larger houses in the kingdom where religion was “right well-kept and observed.”

The regime’s rhetoric was all religious “reform.” The first Act even announced that the properties confiscated would be put to “better uses.” True, in the end, a few major monastic churches were transformed into or survived as cathedrals, and some others became parish churches, but more than 80 per cent were abandoned for worship purposes. Monastic assets did not end up fortifying communities with religious, educational, or social improvements in any substantial way. By the 1590s it was “demonstrable” that the charitable works, the schools, the hospitals of monastic England “had not been succeeded by institutions of a comparable scale and scope” (540-41). Instead, from 1536, the typical process was “closure, partial demolition, unregulated spoliation and, in due course, dereliction” (498). The permanent closing of more than eight hundred churches to public worship in such a short space caused social disturbance demonstrating clearly that they had not been “the shell of an old world now passed. They were vital” (499).

Most of these ecclesiastical assets did not linger long with the Crown. Since Henry was more interested in ready cash to supply his martial ambitions, the long-term winners of the Dissolution were the nobility and gentry of England, those affluent enough to purchase land. The kingdom ultimately experienced “the emergence of a defined elite, confirmed in their status . . . by the opportunity to acquire and develop property” (494). This end-result explains why today’s fictional Crawleys, like so many actual aristocratic families in England from the sixteenth century to the present, are so realistically placed on an estate called “Downton Abbey”; Abbey, but no abbot, and no monks, and no vows of poverty. Surely, the rich got richer.

This is not a work of Catholic apologetics; Clark has no charge to defend the Catholic religious of the past. He makes no attempt to rhapsodize the heroic resisters of the Henrician revolution: Franciscan friar John Forest, Benedictine abbots Thomas Marshall, Hugh Faringdon, and Richard Whiting, Brigittine Richard Reynolds, and the eighteen or so Carthusians. Nor does he attempt to celebrate the courage and faithfulness of the short-lived popular resistance movement, the Pilgrimage of Grace, ruthlessly crushed by Henry’s forces in 1537. Still, this carefully neutral, scholarly volume manages to achieve what Knowles did not attempt. While the exclaustrated monk, perhaps unwilling to seem too much an advocate for his former way of life, concluded that “on the spiritual level” the Dissolution was “not of itself a great catastrophe” and pronounced that “by and large the whole body ecclesiastic was lukewarm,” this book demonstrates the vitality and the importance of the religious communities in early sixteenth century England.4

Clark limns in great detail the massive influence and impact of the regulars.5 In town and country monasteries had created the infrastructure for life: roads, causeways, bridges, the very field-systems (28). The hospitality offered by religious houses provided “the most possible, practical means to pass through the realm” (27). Throughout England, they were “an important source of employment” (104), lay-employees often serving for life and “rewarded with a pensioned retirement” (106). Monasteries were the burial sites of the aristocracy (37). Relations with a monastery could still be relied upon as a foundation for an ambitious family to rise to prominence (38). Tudor religious houses saw patronal building projects undertaken on a scale not seen since the 1300s (151). Monasteries were “chosen for local, civic and national royal and governmental ceremonies” (124).

The early sixteenth century was not a period of sterility for English religious. The idea that monks generally lived an easy life indulging their appetites Clark labels a “prejudice” (50). In some areas “their spiritual primacy was still beyond question”; for instance, half the cathedrals of the nation were staffed by regular clergy (117); episcopal appointments, it should be noted, always had royal approval. Confraternities flourished at monastic and friary churches (122). Even at the height of the Dissolution, London presses continued to publish works originating in religious houses (55). There was no widespread belief that devotion to the opus Dei had faltered (82-83); in fact, “monastic leaders were showing renewed interest in their performance in the choir” (84). Monastic involvement in education was much sturdier than later historians have supposed (74-75, 140-41). Satirists and the reform-minded critics carped, but “the religious houses still made a vital contribution to the whole spectrum of social welfare, from hospitality to charity to health care. There was a conviction voiced at every level of lay society that the regulars’ provision for travelers, the poor and the sick was vital” (135). Moreover, on the eve of suppression, there was a cohort of religious “committed to creating a new age of monastic religion” (263). In some orders, expansion in 1536-1537 reflected a “sustained demand for their spiritual services” (348). “The prospect of the religious life held out as much promise as it ever had done” (98).

Clark demonstrates that new patterns of relations arose between Tudor regulars and patrons, and layfolk were “drawn into the affairs of the cloistered community like never before” (152). Far from being “the world forgetting, by the world forgot,” monks and nuns were deeply entwined in the social life of early modern England. “Profession transformed Tudor men and women as much as it had their forebears but,” Clark insists, “their continuing presence outside their precincts also transformed their world” (98). One may question whether Benedict ever explicitly envisioned this, yet in practice transformation of society has been the way of monks for the fifteen hundred years since he wrote his Rule, and this was evident in Henrician England.

No scholar, no well-read adult (except perhaps the Cromwell-smitten Hilary Mantel), can still harbor respect for Cromwell and the government agents that inspected the religious houses and drafted the reports to justify their suppression and confiscation. After the first orders to close the smaller houses, a number of them stayed open in defiance of the statute by simply paying off commissioners (334-35), notwithstanding the corruption supposedly lurking within their very walls. Not all commissioners were as harsh as Thomas Legh, who was critiqued by his own colleagues for handling the religious “very roughly for small causes” (239) and whose behavior incited accusations that he was as guilty as some he visited, using his position for “notabyll sensualyte and abuses” (247). Another, Richard Leighton, leaves us an evidently delighted self-description of how, when not introduced promptly enough at Langdon Abbey, Kent, he grabbed a “short polax . . . and with yt I dasshede thabbotts dore in peissus . . . and aboute howse I go with that polax in my hande” (246-47). A man like this did not find it difficult to brow-beat timid brothers or terrified nuns into admissions of faults. Sexual failings seem to have been the primary focus of Leighton; when he discovered dereliction his own accounts reveal him breathlessly rolling in their details like a dog in a stink. Clark labels Leighton’s predilections an “obsession” (251-52).

Religious superiors who were identified as incontinent and yet were cooperative with government agentstended not to suffer sanctions (252), making it clear that reform was not the primary goal of the process. The pretense that corrupt houses had been suppressed leaving good houses of religion secure was tested early in 1538. Abbess Katherine Bulkeley of Godstow, the ruins of which may still be seen near Oxford, prided herself that no cause of dissatisfaction had been discovered in the visitations of 1536. Yet, she reported to Cromwell, one of his commissioners was nevertheless “cummyd unto me with a greate rowte with him to supress the house in spite of my tethe” (361). The sturdy abbess persuaded Cromwell to call off his man, for a time.

Clark’s masterful knowledge of the archives reveals various factors contributing to the success of the Dissolution. By the eighth Henry’s reign, the Tudor regime had successfully entrenched itself in the reform and running of England’s religious congregations (211). English superiors were conditioned to governmental interference, often exercised by Thomas Cardinal Wolsey as papal legate but also at the same time Lord Chancellor of the Realm. While the first suppression statute was a real break with historical and canonical precedent, assigning to the monarch “material lordship and moral leadership,” the monks’ reaction to it was for the most part their customary compliance (209). The majority of regulars accepted the claims of royal supremacy in 1534 and took the oath of succession. There was even wide cooperation when the royal order directed the removal of the Pope’s name from monastic liturgical books (217). No more than fifty religious in England showed significant initial resistance, a tiny percentage (218).

After the first wave of suppressions, superiors endured the continuation of government interference, and felt very keenly the novelty of laymen put in charge of the process of spiritual reform in their houses (231). While visitation articles and injunctions remained mostly conventional, there were two that were revolutionary: all brethren were prohibited from leaving their cloisters and grounds, and no “reliques or miracles” were to be shown, any donations accruing for these traditional supports for religious houses were to go instead to the poor (235-36). Both measures made economic survival increasingly precarious for religious houses (237). What drove the monasteries towards surrender at the end was not reform, but continued government “rule of their administrative lives” (357).

The Second Suppression Act in 1539 Clark represents as an attempt to “recover a degree of order and oversight over a movement whose momentum was in danger of exploding the limitations of the government machine.” All religious houses and property were by statute “vested in” the actual ownership of the Crown (367). Royal commissioners demanded not the delivery of whole properties at first, but bits and pieces of monastic domain crucial to a house’s annual revenue (372). By 1538 it was evident even to the larger monasteries, in no danger of the first statute, that survival “whether formally under license from the king, or informally under the patronage of Cromwell or one of his agents, could only be purchased” (298). Protection money was required, but funds were harder to find precisely as donations and investment in monasteries dried up (297). The suppressions of 1536-37 had “fixed in the popular imagination the possibility of more” and alms simply evaporated as layfolk feared waste of their charity (352-53). It became common talk that all would go down, another factor in the demoralization evident in the next phase of the assault (362). When the “sweeping declaration of ownership of all commodities” in their possession came it had the effect of provoking houses that were in no danger of dissolution to hasten to do precisely what the government had not ordered.

Most superiors were not so sturdy as the Abbess of Godstow. They caved to pressure and blandishments: the persistent fees and fines and the regime’s indecision eroded “the substance and structure of corporate life.” At this stage, the “one factor that influenced the course of events above all others was that the dissolution of religious houses was never a fully formed policy” (316). Clark outlines Henry’s own continued predilection for regulars through most of the 1530s: abbots got their customary New Year’s gifts from the Crown; Benedictines of Westminster led the procession of prelates and lords into the royal chapel for the coronation ceremony of Anne Boleyn in 1533 and presided later that year at the baptism of Princess Elizabeth (200-201). At Michaelmas 1537, the king made a substantial annuity gift to his Dominicans at Guildford (248). Henry partook of the abbatial hospitality of Waltham more than once in 1539. He picked an Augustinian and a Dominican friar for preachers to the royal household (365). Yet, surrenders proceeded apace. By the thirtieth year of Henry’s reign confusion as to the standing of the English houses of religion reigned. Three-quarters of the religious houses had gone down and yet there still seemed no unequivocal policy of extermination.

Leadership mattered in corporations built upon strict notions of religious obedience. Superiors realized that the “unstinting demands of the Crown could not be sustained” (372). There was also temptation. Clearly the government was willing to reward those who facilitated surrenders (437). Superiors volunteering to turn over houses to Cromwell’s visitors were amply repaid, often with good positions in Henry’s church. The last abbot of Westminster Abbey, for instance, became Dean of the new cathedral. Tellingly, by 1547, former regulars were “the dominant presence” on the episcopal bench. Clark highlights the irony of these “preferential settlements” that “created a hierarchy of former heads” emerging from the Dissolution “process as premier prelates with substantial personal wealth,” even though the Dissolution was presented to the public as a punishment for corruption . . . under these very leaders (438).

Complaints, I had very few. Some minor Catholic terminology issues could be refined. A papal legate a latere does not quite mean “standing on the side of the pope” (184). In a world in which the average life expectancy was between thirty-three and forty, a twenty-seven-year-old might not be as callow as Clark suggests (81). And the Everard Digby who wrote the Dissuasive from taking away the lyvings and goods of the Church in 1589 was not the more famous knight, but rather a Cambridge academic (and the author in 1587 of the first book in England on swimming).

The popular reader may find The Dissolution a little overwhelming in its massiveness and its explosion of historical detail. But the scholar can only be grateful, and a bit awed. Clark succeeds better than any of his predecessors in his objective of outlining the history of the Dissolution and in describing the religious of early modern England as well as the agents of Dissolution “from their own point of view” (18). It is immense; it is dense; it is thorough; and it is a terrific achievement.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History
By James G. Clark
Yale University Press, 2021
Hardcover, 689 pages


1 The seven churches of the Nar Valley Group are still in regular (Anglican) use.

2 Clark’s title, and the common mode of referencing the event—the “Dissolution of the Monasteries”—is technically misleading. Henry dissolved not just monasteries, but the houses also of nuns, mendicant friars, and canons. But sanctified by centuries of casual use, it remains a useful shorthand.

3 David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England III: The Tudor Age (Cambridge, 1959).

4 Knowles, III:466.

5 “Regulars” are those who live under a regula, the Latin word for “rule”; thus, all monks, nuns, friars, canons, and members of the military orders were regulars.

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