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Dissolution of the Monasteries

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was the formal process, in 1536-1540, by which King Henry VIII confiscated the property of the Roman Catholic institutions in England for himself as head of the new Church of England. This happened at about the same time that the Protestant Reformation was taking place in mainland Europe. Getting the lands and treasuries of those religious houses was as much his purpose in splitting with the Church of Rome as getting divorced from Catherine of Aragon was, as evidenced by the timing and manner of the procedure he followed.

In 1534 King Henry had Parliament authorize Thomas Cromwell, a layman, to "visit" all the monasteries (which term includes abbeys and convents), ostensibly to make sure their members were instructed in the new rules for their supervision by the king instead of the pope, but actually to inventory their assets. A few months later, in January 1535 when the consternation at having a lay visitor instead of a bishop had settled down, Cromwell's visitation authority was delegated to a commission of laymen. This phase is termed the "Visitation of the Monasteries."

In the summer of that year, the visitors started their work, and "preachers" and "railers" were sent to deliver sermons from the pulpits of the churches on three themes:

  • The monks and nuns in the monasteries were sinful "hypocrites[?]" and "sorcerers[?]" who were living lives of luxury and engaging in every kind of sin there was.
  • Those monks and nuns were sponging off the working people and giving nothing back and, thus, were a serious drain on England's economy.
  • If the king got all the property the abbeys had, he would not need any taxes from the people ever again.

Meanwhile, during the last half of 1535, the visiting commissioners were sending back written reports to Cromwell of all the scandalous doings they said they were discovering, some of them sexual, and some of them financial. The law Parliament enacted in early 1536, relying in large part on the reports of impropriety Cromwell had received, provided for the king to take all the monasteries with annual incomes of less than 200, and that was done but did not raise as much capital as had been expected, even after the king re-chartered some of the confiscated monasteries and confiscated them again.

In April 1539 a new Parliament passed a law giving the king the rest of the monasteries in England. Some of the abbots resisted, and that autumn the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury, and Reading were executed for treason in doing so. The other abbots gave in and signed their abbeys over to the king. Some of the confiscated church buildings were destroyed (and many others vandalized, their altars and windows smashed -- including irreplaceable stained glass ones -- and their tombs stripped and emptied), others were sold for nominal amounts (often to the local townspeople), and some of the lands the king gave away; there were also pensions to be paid to some of the dispossessed clerics. Although the total value of the confiscated property has been calculated to have been as high as 200,000 at the time, the actual amount of income King Henry received from it from 1536 thru 1547 averaged only 37,000 per year, about 20% of what the monks had derived from it.

See List of monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII of England



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