In October 1536, an army of commoners and gentry advanced from the north of England under banners marked with the five wounds of Christ.

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Led by Robert Aske, a barrister, they were the Pilgrimage of Grace, a popular rising from York making grievances in protest of King Henry VIII, including protesting the dissolution of the monasteries and changes in religious practice since Henry VIII’s Reformation Parliament had proclaimed him “Supreme Head and Governor” of the Church. 

There were too many in this group — 30,000 to 40,000 — for Henry’s small mercenary army to handle. Henry’s agent, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, pretended to hear their terms to stop the dissolution, get rid of bad advisers such as Thomas Cromwell and restore the freedom of the Church protected in the Magna Carta. Henry promised to call a Parliament in York. In January 1537, another uprising led him to impose martial law and punish the rebels. Aske hung in chains in front of York Castle, dying of exposure, and 215 more rebels, including abbots, monks and parish priests, were executed. 

The Pilgrimage of Grace was the greatest domestic threat Henry VIII faced, and the dissolution of the monasteries the most radical aspect of his otherwise rather conservative religious program. 

Even after he had usurped the spiritual authority of the pope in England, Henry considered himself a Catholic, treasuring his title as Defender of the Faith and zealousness in protecting the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and his chancellor, Cromwell, might have imbibed Lutheran ideas, but not Henry. 

A Fund-Raising Opportunity

So why did Henry target the monasteries for closure? As Cromwell persuaded him, there were two great advantages: money and power. The monasteries held land and great treasuries. By appropriating both, Henry could raise money without additional taxation. As to power — the monasteries and the friaries were great supporters of the pope in Rome. Closing them would remove a great obstacle from Henry’s path to supremacy. He had suppressed monasteries who opposed his Acts of Supremacy and Succession in 1535. The Carthusians and the Observant Franciscans refused to swear the oaths, their members suffering brutal execution. Now the other orders — Benedictines, Augustinian Canons, Cistercians, Franciscans and Dominicans — would discover the consequences of Henry VIII’s new supremacy, which their superiors had loyally supported. 

Henry appointed Cromwell as his vice-regent in this matter. Cromwell was the right man for this job — he had learned the process of dissolving monasteries from a former chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. 

First Cromwell recruited a small group of laymen to undertake a systematic review of all the monastic houses in England, having them send their reports along the way. He also engaged preachers to denounce the monks and promote the fiscal benefit of closing the monasteries — no more taxes. 

Cromwell did not want to hear good news. As John Vidmar relates in “English Catholic Historians and the English Reformation, 1585-1954,” one visitor wrote to Cromwell that the Abbot of Glastonbury was a holy and excellent monk. Cromwell told him to check again, so the visitor, in reply, detailed the abbot’s negligence and unfaithfulness. Reform was not Cromwell’s goal, and there was never any attempt to correct any abuses or redress any injustices.  

Dissolution and Supression

Charging the smaller monastic houses with gross immorality, in February 1536 Cromwell introduced a bill in Parliament for their dissolution. “Smaller” meant worth less than £200. Then Cromwell established a new government department, the Augmentation Office, with a treasurer ready to receive funds from the dissolution of the smaller houses. Commissioners set out to close the monasteries and obtain their wealth. Some of the monks were pensioned off, while some transferred to larger houses. Two monasteries (Norton Abbey and Hexham Priory) resisted the commissioners and were duly punished — Hexham particularly since the monks there joined the Pilgrimage of Grace. But both Henry VIII and his people were disappointed by the results of the suppression of the smaller houses. Henry determined that he needed to close more monasteries; meanwhile, the people missed the services the monasteries had provided. 

The Pilgrimage of Grace, beginning in October 1536 and ending with the execution of its leaders in January 1537, delayed the dissolution of the larger houses. Once begun, some became cathedrals with canons, deans and other officials to offer prayer and worship — Canterbury, Salisbury, Winchester and Durham. The former monks adapted to the new order, although as late as 1569, during the Northern Rebellion against Elizabeth I, at Durham Cathedral they offered the Catholic Mass, casting aside The Book of Common Prayer for a time — until the rebels were defeated and the former monks punished for their intransigence. 

If an abbey church did not become a cathedral, the monastic buildings were plundered for valuable building materials, completely destroyed, converted to their new owner’s use or left to decay slowly into ruins (treasured today by English tourism). The great foundations of the Cistercian order were left to such decay — such as Rievaulx in Yorkshire — while the Benedictine Abbey of Whitby (site of the Synod of Whitby in 664) also fell into ruins. At the houses of the mendicant Dominicans and Franciscans, royal officials found no riches or wealth — and definitely witnessed religious living according to chastity, poverty and obedience. They also found the friars to be most loyal to the Pope. In 1537, the Crown’s commissioners offered the friaries a choice: turn over their friary to the Crown voluntarily, or the Crown could take it by force and they could starve to death. 

Consequences

The loss of the monasteries had cultural and social impact. The monastic libraries were despoiled; bindings of books were kept while the contents were used for cleaning boots or wrapping fish. Manuscripts of English Church music were destroyed, an utterly irreplaceable loss. Henry and Cromwell took all the best treasures for the Crown — and for Cromwell — and Henry sold monastic lands to nobles at court or local gentry. The monasteries had colleges for their monks at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which had to be reorganized. The monasteries had provided hospitality and charity, so the poor lost both refuge and aid, and England was soon filled with beggars and the hungry, leading to the social problems that became so much a part of the Elizabethan era and beyond. In 1535, there were some 800 monasteries, convents and friaries with 8,000 monks, nuns and friars; by 1541, there were none. A whole way of life had disappeared. TCA

Stephanie A. Mann is author of “Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation.” For more information see her website at www.supremacyandsurvival.com. She resides in Wichita, Kan.