Dissolution of the Monasteries in England

Guest post: Karen Heenan

Karen Heenan writes in the Tudor period of England.

Karen’s Tudor Court series

About Karen Heenan

As an only child, Karen Heenan learned early that boredom was the enemy. Shortly after she discovered perpetual motion, and has rarely been seen holding still since.

She lives in Lansdowne, PA, just outside Philadelphia, where she grows much of her own food and makes her own clothes. She is accompanied on her quest for self-sufficiency by a very patient husband and an ever-changing number of cats.

One constant: she is always writing her next book.


A Royal Land-Grab: The Dissolution of the Monasteries, 1536-1540

When I began work on my recent book, A Wider World, I knew the timeline would cover the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I, and I looked forward to researching unfamiliar aspects of the period.

There was only one part I dreaded: the dissolution of the monasteries. Though I’ve read Tudor history since my teens and had a good general understanding, I’d never quite gotten why the dissolution was such a huge event. I understood, in theory, Henry’s break with Rome – he wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and the Pope said no. Not willing to take that “no” for an answer, Henry broke with the church and set himself up as the head of the church in England, just slightly under God.

But he was still, for all intents and purposes, Catholic – just not willing to submit to the pope. And the monasteries of England were not willing to acknowledge the king as head of the church, not when the pope was God’s representative on earth. A king could not replace him simply because he wished to.

This was another form of “no” which Henry would not hear. The Catholic church, through its religious houses, owned over quarter of all cultivated land in England – valuable land that contributed nothing to the royal coffers, which were growing empty because of Henry’s lavish spending and his wars with France. Closing the monasteries meant their land and treasure could be confiscated, and the royal financial problems could be solved while also eliminating the troublesome Catholic influence over his subjects.

Whether the idea originated from the king or from Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, the remarkable efficiency of the dissolution had Cromwell’s fingerprints all over it. Prior to the dissolution itself, there was a full valuation of the buildings, land, funds, and any relics and treasures belonging to the monasteries. Closures began in 1536 and continued apace until, by 1540, approximately fifty houses were being closed per month.

In a matter of four years, a system which had taken many centuries to build disappeared entirely. Over eight hundred monasteries, priories, and convents were dissolved, their members (over nine thousand, according to some records) either pensioned off, given positions in the new church (if their consciences permitted), or evicted and left to fend for themselves. The former religious were relieved of their vows of poverty and obedience, but not the vow of chastity; a former monk or nun could not marry.

Not having been raised in any particular religion myself, it was difficult at first to see the dissolution as a negative for anyone other than for the displaced religious, but the more I read, the more I understood just what an enormous and lasting effect the dissolution had on English society.

Religion almost completely aside, monasteries provided a vital social safety net for the English people. Boys were educated in monastery schools; monks provided large-scale hospitals and medical care in a time when only the wealthy could afford to call for a physician; their farms provided food, shelter, and employment for large numbers of people. Monasteries cared for the poor and the vagrant and provided hospitality to travelers.

All this was in addition to their primary purpose of perpetual, intercessory prayer. In a society bound by religious belief, it was a great comfort to know that there were men and women engaged in perpetual prayer as nearby as the local monastery – and at the time of the dissolution, almost everyone in England lived within a half-day’s journey to a monastery, priory, or convent.

When the monastery system was dismantled, the buildings themselves were often destroyed, the valuable lead stolen from the roofs, the stained glass windows smashed or looted. Worse, the great monastic libraries, filled with illuminated manuscripts and local historical records of equal value, were lost. Thousands of volumes were sold or burned, and there is no record of how much knowledge ceased to exist because of Henry’s royal land-grab.

As church property became royal property, not only monks and nuns were driven from the premises. There was no longer a need for farm laborers, nor their families. Monastery servants lost their jobs. Coastal fishermen suffered from lack of demand. Schools were broken up, and there were few free or low-cost alternatives.

The entire fabric of society for the lower classes had been transformed, all because – it must have seemed – the king wanted a new wife, and had to have a new religion to get her. While there was a growing belief in religious reform, it was generally among the more well-off, as the poor had little opportunity to be exposed such teachings. The mass was still said in Latin, and even if an English Bible made it to the local church, which would not happen for at least a decade, most people were incapable of reading it.

The Pilgrimage of Grace came about not just because the English people wanted their Catholic faith restored to them. They wanted the structure of their lives put back where it was, when a poor man might still have a job, and send his clever son to be educated, and take his dying father to be eased from life by men of God. It hurt something fundamental in the English consciousness to see those same men of God as vagrants, seeking work and shelter along with their former tenants.

It must have built up a mighty resentment toward Henry VIII. While he was revered as the king, it was a devout time, and putting himself between a man and his God was just one step too far. Replacing the only religion most people had ever known with something new and unfamiliar, complete with a head of the church who doesn’t appear to care that for hungry and homeless, tipped the balance in favor of revolt.

The pilgrimage was put down quickly and efficiently, though pockets of resistance remained for some time, especially in the north. Punishments were severe, for both citizen rebels and former members of the religious houses. Richard Whiting, the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor; Robert Aske, a London lawyer involved in mounting the pilgrimage, was hanged in chains on the wall of York Castle, a particularly unpleasant way to die.

Eventually the English came to accept the loss of the monasteries and find a new normal, in both life and religion. This lasted until the death of Henry VIII, when his young son instituted harsh Protestant reforms, attempting to erase the last remnants of Catholicism his father had not eradicated.

Just a few years later, Mary I was crowned, and brought back Catholicism, though she never managed, before her death and Elizabeth’s accession, to revive the monastic system in England, whose members were scattered and its buildings demolished or sold off.

This was how I chose to look at the dissolution in A Wider World, through somewhat of a modern-day lens. Even those who today who are devout can scarcely conceive what religion was like in the early part of the sixteenth century when there was only one religion, one way of looking at God – and one day, it all disappeared.


You can find Karen’s books at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08T837LBF?ref_=dbs_m_mng_rwt_calw_tkin_1&storeType=ebooks&qid=1622814884&sr=1-4