Dissolution of the Monasteries - Some possible questions & answers on this subject.

What is a monastery?

Although individual monks took a vow of poverty, monasteries were usually very wealthy because rich barons gave them land and endowments. Using these assets most monks were able to wisely venture to various investment opportunities which were instrumental in boosting the monasteries' savings . The Cistercians for example were very successful sheep farmers. they used their resources to help the sick and the poor. Some monasteries had hospitals and all had sick bays for monks who fell ill.

Monasteries were also usually built in remote country areas, not in the centres of towns. Monks had plenty of time on their hands, and often experimented with herbs and plants which they made into medicines. their treatments were based on these herbs and plants but also in their belief in the power of God. Patients were also kept clean and allowed plenty of rest.

What was the role of a Nun/Monk?


Monasticism , form of religious life, usually conducted in a community under a common rule. Monastic life is bound by ascetical practices expressed typically in the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, called the evangelical counsels. Monasticism is traditionally of two kinds: the more usual form is known as the cenobitic, and is characterised by a completely communal style of life; the second kind, the eremitic, entails a hermit's life of almost unbroken solitude, and is now rare (see hermit).

Monasticism in general has played an important role in Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism), Jainism, Islam, and Christianity. Practitioners of monasticism in ancient times included the vestal virgins of Rome, the Jewish Essenes, the Therapeutae of Egypt, and the Peruvian virgins of the sun. The life of the Shakers had many analogies with monasticism. The Reformation saw the sudden end of monasticism in the Protestant countries of Europe. The Oxford movement, however, reintroduced religious orders into the Church of England in the 19th cent., and after World War II renewed interest in monasticism led to the establishment of a Protestant monastery at Taizé, France.

Why did Henry Vlll want to close the monasteries?

Prior to 1536, Henry had ordered that Thomas Cromwell, his Vicar-General, carry out an audit of the monasteries, which he did with four men in just six months, resulting in some wrong decisions. Cromwell reported 'Manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys'. The reports of Cromwell often differed with the reports of the relevant Bishops and he tended to brand all houses as corrupt.

The closure of the monasteries was initiated by the Suppression Act of 1536, which transferred to the Crown all the lands and property of any religious house with an income less than 200 pounds per year. Within four years, however, all monasteries in Britain had been dissolved - even those with an income greater than 200 pounds per year.

Why did Henry close the monasteries?

  • He could not obtain a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon
  • He resolved to break with the Catholic religion, on hearing that his divorce had not been approved by the Pope
  • He refused to accept Papal authority
  • He needed money to fight his wars against France and Scotland
  • He wanted to establish a new Church of England, independent of the Church of Rome

Why did the King not like the monasteries?

  • They were independent, and could organise their own finances
  • Their ultimate head was not the King, but the abbot, prior or prioress (i.e. the head of the monastery)
  • The monks could make decisions independent of government
  • Many of the monasteries remained loyal to the Catholic religion


When and how were the monasteries closed?


The Dissolution of the Monasteries covers the four years between April 1536 and April 1540. In April 1536, the 27th year of King Henry VIII's reign, there were over 800 monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries that were home to over 10,000 monks, nuns, friars and canons. By April 1940 there were none left.

To fully understand the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it is necessary to go back to the time of Saint Benedict (c.480 - 547). Saint Benedict was a university drop out, who became a hermit and who then founded a monastery based upon his Rule. This monastery and the Rule of Saint Benedict became the foundation stone of monasteries around the world. It was Saint Augustine that introduced the Benedictine Rule to England when he arrived in Canterbury in 597. Each monastery, nunnery etc. was headed by an abbot, an abbess, a prior or prioress, all of whom took vows of celibacy and personal poverty. This did not mean that religious lived in poverty, their order could be very wealthy, but they would live in spartan conditions in individual cells.


The primary function and responsibility of religious orders was to maintain a daily cycle of prayer, praying together eight times a day between midnight and 7.00 p.m. People from the surrounding area, both rich and poor, would give what they could afford for prayers to be offered on their behalf and this was one way that orders acquired money and land.

The religious way of life had nearly died out by 920, following the invasions of the Vikings who destroyed many of the monasteries and nunneries. Decades later there was a revival and the monasteries of Romsey, Abingdon and Glastonbury were rebuilt. By the 12th Century, many people felt the Benedictines no longer followed the Rule of Saint Benedict, becoming lax in their prayers and work and so the Cistercian order was founded. The Cistercian's favoured solitude and so built their monasteries in the middle of moors and mountain valleys. The Augustinian order was also founded at around this time, and they were dedicated to evangelism, teaching and working with the poor and sick, and so lived near towns and castles. In the 13th Century, orders of Friars were founded and they depended upon the charity of the people they ministered to.

The 14th Century was another period of monastic decline, with little new building and few people willing to become a religious. The Black Death compounded the problem and by the end of the Century most of the great monastic houses were half empty, although the cycle of prayer was maintained. By now many of the large houses had become very wealthy, thanks to the wool trade of the Middle Ages and many senior monks found themselves having to devote their time to earthly business matters instead of to God. As they became more wealthy and owned more land, they found themselves obliged to serve the Crown and thus oversaw issues of drainage, food stocks etc. Thirty of the most senior abbots took up seats in the House of Lords and lived the life of a lord, hunting and hawking and wining and dining lavishly in their own houses away from their monks.

What happened with the closure of the monasteries?

  • All monasteries with an income of less than 200 pounds per annum had their income transferred to the government
  • Monks were either banished, killed or told to change their religion
  • Following a rebellion against the Act of Suppression (1536) by the clergy, the King and his army crushed them
  • Thomas Cromwell, the King's Archbishop of Canterbury 'persuaded' monasteries to close, or to hand over their property to the King, on pain of death
  • Monasteries were either destroyed, or had their religious icons destroyed


What happened to Romsey Abbey during the dissolution?


During the reign of Henry VIII, in 1539, the Abbey suffered the same fate as the many other monasteries in Britain, when it was dissolved as a result of the split between Henry and the Church in Rome. However the townspeople were allowed to carry on using the north aisle of the Abbey as their Parish Church and in 1554 they purchased the remaining part of the Church for one hundred pounds. If the people of Romsey had not done this then it is likely that the Abbey would have been destroyed in the same way as all the other buildings belonging to it.

What happened to the Nuns/monks of Romsey Abbey?

Were it not for this shared use of the building, indeed, Romsey Abbey might have suffered demolition under the general dissolution of the monasteries instigated by Henry VIII after his final break with Rome in the late 1530's. The Abbey was suppressed, its nun dispersed and the Lady Chapel was demolished in 1539 .

What happened to the building of Romsey Abbey?

Romsey now had to govern itself, which it most certainly achieved, as the town became wealthy. The main industries locally were weaving and finishing woollen cloth, powered by the water mills along the River Test; brewing and tanning were also important. Sir William Petty, the economist surgeon and founding member of the Royal Society, was born in Church Street. Romsey was granted a Charter by King James I in 1607. The present Town Hall was built in 1866 and stands in the Market Place.


What were the consequences (results) of the dissolution?


In 1536, two thirds of the abbeys were small affairs and many of their names and sites are now lost in the mists of time. Many of these had only a few religious living in them and had no large estates. Whether large or small though, the standard of spirituality in many was not high and the religious vow of chastity was often broken. One exception to all these excesses was the Carthusian order. A Carthusian spent most of his day alone in his cell praying to God, studying or working in his personal garden. Even when Carthusians came together, they maintained a vow of silence, and this was the only order to grow.

So by the time King Henry VIII ascended to the throne, people were willing to accept some weeding out of the religious way of life, but nobody was prepared for what followed. During the first 20 years of Henry's reign some small houses were closed, with the nuns and monks being relocated to houses that had space for them. This was a process led by the Bishops themselves, indeed Bishop Alcock of Ely and Bishop Fisher of Rochester used the proceeds to endow some of the colleges at Cambridge. Cardinal Wolsey closed 29 religious houses and endowed a grammar school in Ipswich and Christ Church College. Oxford.

Prior to 1536, Henry had ordered that Thomas Cromwell, his Vicar-General, carry out an audit of the monasteries, which he did with four men in just six months, resulting in some wrong decisions. Cromwell reported 'Manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys'. The reports of Cromwell often differed with the reports of the relevant Bishops and he tended to brand all houses as corrupt.

It was in this spirit of reform that the Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries, 1536 was passed. The Act clearly pointed out the worthiness of 'great and honourable monasteries right well kept', contrasting these with the smaller houses that were 'sunk irredeemably in iniquity' and had 'resisted all attempts at reform for 200 years or more', and it was these that should be closed down. The Act also stated that 'The idle and dissolute monks and nuns who live in these little dens of vice should be dispersed amongst the greater abbeys where they will, by discipline and example, be brought to mend their ways. The properties and endowments thus vacated can then be transferred to the King, to put to such better uses as he may think fit'. Henry used the money to finance the building of forts around the English coast, hardly a better use.

So it was that all the land and property of a religious house that had an income of less than £200 a year was transferred to the Crown. The Act allowed for the abbots, priors, abbesses and prioresses to be compensated with generous pensions and other monks and nuns could be transferred to another house or return to the secular way of life. The new owners of the lands were encouraged to retain the servants and farmhands.

Neither did Dissolution come about because of Henry's break with the Church of Rome, as most of the clerics had sworn allegiance to the King after the Act of Supremacy. The few that refused to swear allegiance to the King and not the Pope included Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, both of whom were executed on grounds of treason. Therefore the main driving force behind Dissolution was raising money for Henry to spend. The Act of Suppression passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords without any problems and it only applied to three out of every ten houses.

The Act met fierce opposition in the north of England, leading to a rebellion in October 1536 known as the 'Pilgrimage of Grace', with the rebels demanding the restoration of the dissolved houses. They were not successful because of internal squabbling, at which point Henry mercilessly crushed them and the big religious houses that had supported them, including the execution of abbots. The Cistercian abbey of Furness in Cumbria had been sympathetic to the rebel's cause, but Cromwell could find nothing with which to indict the Abbot. The Abbot voluntarily transferred the abbey and lands to the Crown, the first of many monastic surrenders.

Dissolution gained momentum in the latter stages of 1537 and nearly 20 houses a month were disappearing and Henry and his government now wished to get rid of all the religious houses, with the religious themselves having to declare that their monastic way of life had been a 'vain and superstitious round of dumb ceremonies' that they were willing to abandon so that they could live 'as true Christian men' outside the monasteries. No longer was Dissolution a reform. The last Dissolution was that of Waltham Abbey.

So what happened to the monasteries and their property? The altar plates, goblets and vestments became part of Henry's jewel house, the bells became canons and the lead roofing was used for shot. The lead was often melted in furnaces built on site and fired with the roof timbers of the monasteries. In Lincolnshire the monasteries were systematically razed to the ground, others were left to a more gentle ruin, with the stones being used for other buildings in the local area. Some such as Lacock and Beaulieu became homes, others such as Tewkesbury were bought by local townspeople and some survived to become Cathedrals such as Durham.


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