Real-life abbey drama

Few Americans have much in common with the people portrayed in the PBS drama series “Downton Abbey,” which had its Season 2 finale last month. Still, it is very popular. Human relationships and experiences have common notes among all people, rich or poor, then or now, anywhere. 

The series revolves about the family of the fictional English earl of Grantham and their servants. Their sumptuous residence has an interesting name, “Downton Abbey.” Abbeys are religious houses, and very few abbeys are not Roman Catholic. 

An abbey as the home of a noble family would not be unknown in Britain, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with religion. 

Downton Abbey

When King Henry VIII ordered that the Church in England had to separate from its union with the pope, his action did not meet universal approval, to say the least. Very many people in England at the time opposed the king. 

Controlling the common folk was not that much of a task for the king. He had the forces of government, the police, the army, and so forth, at his disposal. 

Bringing into line the nobility and the religious communities, such as monasteries and convents that literally were sprinkled across the map of England, was something else. The monarch was not almighty. 

Nobles owned, and often occupied, vast tracts of land. Untold thousands of people depended on them. For generations, nobles had developed ties with the people living on their lands or working for them. (Admittedly, not every circumstance was happy.) 

The nobles inevitably were rich. The king needed revenues from taxes. Nobles sat in Parliament, in the House of Lords. The king needed their political support, especially in a matter then so revolutionary as breaking religious bonds with the pope. 

Then there was the reality of the monasteries. The abbeys and convents were more than houses of prayer. They were magnets for local towns and regions. In them were schools. Often, there were hospitals, at least as such were known in the 16th century. In the monasteries, the poor found relief. They were centers of worship and devotion. Finally, many abbots sat in Parliament. 

If unchecked, the monasteries very likely could frustrate the king as he sought to change religion in England. 

So, he instituted a policy to dissolve the monasteries. It was an amazing, stupendous undertaking, as if Congress today ordered the closing of every college and university in this country. Brute force played a role. Resistance varied. For example, among the first martyrs of those days were Carthusians from an abbey. They would not acknowledge the king’s order separating the Church from Rome, so they were executed. 

Less edifying, some monks thought that if they accommodated the king, they could keep their monasteries intact. The Benedictine monastic community at Westminster Abbey fell into this category. They were wrong. Even if religious followed the king away from Rome, he closed their abbeys. 

As a result, the king in a relatively short period of time had at his disposal huge areas of land, once occupied by the monasteries, along with everything that the monasteries had owned. 

A few of the monasteries were kept as Anglican churches, although the monks were expelled. Westminster Abbey is an example. 

In many other cases, the king simply seized whatever had belonged to monasteries as his own. Then, on some occasions, he gave the land to nobles whom he wished to placate. Some real-life English nobles today own and occupy land once the site of a Catholic abbey. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.