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Whitby Abbey as it appeared in 1780.

Dissolution of the Monasteries in England

The dissolution or suppression of the monasteries in England was carried out during the reign of King Henry VIII. It was a process started by Thomas Wolsey and completed by Thomas Cromwell. Ostensibly, the monasteries were eliminated due to prevalent corruption and indolence; in reality, it was to secure the King's absolute power and to fill the dwindling royal coffers.

The Condition of the Monasteries on the Eve of their Dissolution.
— Having made himself supreme head of Church as well as State, Henry's next step was to secure resources to maintain his absolutism, and by a judicious distribution of bribes to guard against a return of the old order. A way was disovered in the dissolution of the monasteries, which offered the further attraction of crushing a class which contained the most determined opponents of the royal policy. These were the real reasons for the step, suggested, no doubt, by the resourceful Cromwell, who boasted that he would make his King the richest prince in Christendom. On 21 January, 1535, he received a commission as Vicar-General and Viceregent to hold a general visitation of all the churches and monastic and collegiate bodies in the realm.

The King and his supporters represented to Parliament that they were proceeding against the monasteries because of the "slothful and ungodly lives" led by the inmates. This, however, was largely a pretext, and the charges brought forward to support it were doubtless greatly exaggerated; moreover, the manner in which the work was carried out cannot be justified. On the other hand, the condition of the monasteries was such as to lend at least a color of justice to the movement against them. Formerly they had been the pioneers in husbandry, felling the forests, draining the marshes, and cultivating the waste places, or, in the case of the Cistercians, in sheep raising. They had served as inns for travelers, as depositories for articles of value; they had cared for the poor, and had fostered learning and education. But they no longer filled the place which they had in the past. Their agricultural methods were antiquated, and they no longer drew from the capital in their possession the returns which might be expected from efficient management. Their method of promiscuous giving tended to nourish poverty rather than to check it, while their scholastic and educational methods were quite out of date.

As their influence declined, the merchant and agricultural classes began more and more to hunger after their vast wealth. All through the fifteenth century their numbers had fallen off steadily. From 1399 to 1509 only eight houses of religion and seventy houses of learning and charity (i.e., colleges, schools, and hospitals) had been founded. Of twelve hundred monasteries established since the introduction of Roman Catholicism into England hardly more than half had survived into the reign of Henry VIII.

Further, religious orders had been subject to intermittent attacks on the part of the temporal power from a period as early as the reign of Edward II, when twenty-three preceptories of the Knights Templars were destroyed. The pious Henry V, as a blow against France, suppressed the alien priories. In 1506, when Bishop Foxe of Winchester was thinking of making monastic endowments, a brother bishop declared that "the monks have already more than they are like to keep," and Wolsey's dissolution of some of the smaller monasteries followed not many years after. The extent of the monastic wealth was doubtless exaggerated. According to some accounts the monks owned at least a quarter of the realm, but more sober and reliable estimates put it at about one tenth.1

Cromwell's Monastic Visitors, 1535-1536.
— In July, 1535, visitors appointed by Cromwell began their rounds. Armed with articles of inquiry, they hurried from house to house, asking all sorts of questions about revenues and debts, about relics, pilgrimages, superstitions, and immoralities. They were an ambitious, greedy, and unscrupulous set, chiefly concerned with securing the sort of information that would suit their purpose. The letters and reports or "comperts" which they sent to the Viceregent seem to have been based upon the scantiest as well as the most partial investigation; for they feared to lose any time lest the monks might seize the opportunity to dispose of their plate and jewels. By no means all the houses were visited; but enough to frame a case for the Parliament.

Besides the articles of inquiry the visitors carried with them a series of injunctions which they were authorized to impose upon the monasteries which they visited. Some were obviously designed to destroy the communities against which they should be enforced. Monks were not only to accept, but to teach royal supremacy and repudiation of papal claims; they were forbidden to leave their grounds and buildings, which made the management of their distant estates impossible; and they were ordered to spy on and report their disobedient superiors, thus subverting all discipline. Some of the injunctions, however, provided for salutary reforms. Victuals were not to be distributed to sturdy and idle beggars; tables were to be "not over sumptuous, and full of delicate and strange dishes, but honestly furnished with common meats"; reading and study of the Scriptures was enjoined; and each house was to maintain a monk or two at the universities to better prepare him to teach and preach the word of God.

The Act Suppressing the Smaller Monasteries, 1536.
— When Parliament met, 4 February, 1536, popular feeling in the City was inflamed by means of sermons, caricatures, and pamphlets. Cranmer declared at Paul's Cross that the destruction of the monasteries would relieve the people of a great burden of taxation. It is stated that "when the enormities were first read in Parliament House they were so great and abominable that there was nothing but 'down with them'" and an act was carried suppressing all monastic houses with an income under £200 a year or with less than twelve inmates.2 Commissions composed of local gentry, appointed to wind up the affairs of the houses denounced by Cromwell's agents, testified to the fair character of many.

Nevertheless, aside from biased reports of the visitors and the charges in contemporary satires and ballads, the correspondence of men high in the Church testifies that there was much need of reform. It might have been well, too, for economic reasons, to suppress or consolidate the smaller and poorer houses, but it seems very strange to have drawn the line between virtue and vice at £200 a year or at groups of twelve. There is a story that Henry resorted to great pressure to carry the measure, that he summoned the Commons before him and announced that he would have the passage of the bill or some of their heads. In the Upper House one speaker referring to the smaller houses said: "These were the thorns, but the great abbots were the petrified old oaks and they must follow." This prophecy was soon realized.

In accordance with the Act some 376 monasteries were dissolved. A portion of their inmates went into larger houses, others were provided with pensions. By paying large sums of money a few houses were allowed to continue for a time. As near as can be estimated, about 2000 monks and nuns were dispossessed, and of servants, farm laborers, and others dependent upon them, perhaps four times as many more were affected. Aside from lands and buildings, money, plate, and jewels, as well as the proceeds of the sale of lead, bells, cattle, and furniture, passed into the King's hands. For dealing with all this property a special court known as the Court of Augmentation was created. The smaller monasteries having been disposed of, Oxford and Cambridge were next visited, measures were framed against the old learning, and others were adopted to encourage the study of Greek and Hebrew.

1. The total ecclesiastical revenue has been computed at £320,000; of this about £150,000 was monastic.
2. Besides the comperts, later writers speak of a famous "Black Book," containing the results of the visitors' findings, which was laid before Parliament. According to the Protestant writers of Elizabeth's reign it was destroyed during the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary, while historians of the opposite party have insisted that it was disposed of earlier, because it contained charges that could not be substantiated. There is no good evidence that such a book ever existed.


Cross, Arthur Lyon. A History of England and Greater Britain.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914. 322-324.

The dissolution of the smaller monasteries, combined with dissatisfaction over recent statutes governing enclosures and uses, as well as outrage over the Ten Articles, all led to the uprisings known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. After the Pilgrimage of Grace was brutally quelled, the King used the uprising as a pretext for moving to suppress the larger religious houses as well.

The Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries
— The abbots in the disturbed districts were attainted of treason, and by a great stretch of the law their houses were suppressed. The process, thus facilitated by the part which the monks took in the rising, went on until not a single religious house remained in England.

Henry had no legal right to the larger monastic houses, especially those not involved in the rebellion. So he employed through his agents the method of "voluntary surrender." Those heads who consented to yield were promised pensions and other rewards, while such benefits were withheld from those who proved "wilful and obstinate." Thus, chiefly during the years 1538 and 1539, some 150 monasteries and 50 convents of women were surrendered into the royal hands. During the autumn of 1538 and the spring of the following year the English friars were destroyed.1

Parliament in 1539 dealt the final blow by passing an act vesting in Henry and his heirs all the monasteries which had already or should surrender for the future. The abbots of Reading, Colchester, and Glastonbury were executed for pretended treason. With the surrender of Waltham, 23 March, 1540, the last of the abbeys fell victim to the royal rapacity and the irresistible assertion of supremacy, though the pretext that their inmates led "slothful and ungodly lives" was still insisted on.

*        *        *

The Results of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
It has been estimated that over 8000 monks, canons, and friars were dispossessed, while at least ten times that number of dependents were affected. The annual value of property secured seems to have been from £150,000 to £200,000. Of this only about £45,000 was retained by the King, the rest was either appropriated for public purposes or given or sold to royal supporters. The melting value of the gold and silver was probably about £85,000. Altogether, what with proceeds of sales and annual revenues, the King secured, exclusive of vestments, ecclesiastical furniture, and jewels, close to £1,500,000.*

Of the property thus acquired, some was given in pensions to the dispossessed monks, a very small proportion, however, of what had been taken from them; some was devoted to the erection of six new bishoprics,2 and some was applied to coast defenses. But the greater part went to certain favored nobles and gentry. In this way some of the best known of the present English families — the Russells, Dukes of Bedford, and the Cavendishes, Dukes of Devonshire — started on their upward road. The purpose of the King's seeming generosity was to ensure the permanence of the separation from Rome; for men gorged with church plunder would never return to the fold.

Another result of the dissolution was to weaken the spiritual power of the House of Lords, since the bishops were no longer reenforced by abbots and priors. Finally, the economic and social situation was profoundly affected. A further impulse to enclosures was given, and the state was forced to give more attention than would have been immediately necessary to the subjects of education and poor relief. Although the monasteries had outlived their usefulness and had ceased to make the best use of their resources, the method employed by Henry and his agents to suppress them was marked by great cruelty and injustice, and caused much suffering to innocent people.

1 The leading orders were: The Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Austins, and the Carmelites. They had about 200 houses and 1800 members.

[*AJ Note: an amount equal to approximately £924,000,000 in purchasing power, compared to 2017, or nearly $1.25 billion. Source: Measuring Worth]

2 Five of which exist today.


Cross, Arthur Lyon. A History of England and Greater Britain.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914. 328-330.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Moorhouse, Geoffrey. The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries
           New York: BlueBridge, 2009.

Woodward, G.W.O. The Dissolution of the Monasteries. 2nd ed.
           London: Pitkin Guides, 1993.

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Created by Anniina Jokinen on December 27, 2008. Last updated May 3, 2023.

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Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
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