Dissolution of the Monasteries

A History of Yorkshire transcribed from Bulmer's Gazetteer (1892)


Henry VIII
When Henry ascended the throne he inherited the immense wealth left by his avaricious father. This amounted, in gold and silver, to £1,800,000, a sum equal to nearly £20,000,000 of our present currency. By a life of profligacy and extravagance he had squandered all, and it now became necessary to replenish his exhausted coffers. The spoliation of the church offered the readiest means. The suppression of the monastic institutions was resolved on; and as a preliminary step, a visitation of monasteries was commenced in the autumn of 1535, by order of Cromwell, chancellor of the exchequer, who filled the office of vicegerent and vicar-general.

The spirit in which this visitation was made, clearly indicated that the reports were meant to form the groundwork for the dissolution of those institutions, and the consequent appropriation of their lands and revenues to the use of the crown. he visitors appointed for the northern counties were Dr. Thomas Leigh and Dr. Richard Layton, men of neither high standing nor reputation in the church; and the matters for investigation were reduced to the following heads:

1. As to the incontinence of the heads of each monastery. 2. The name of the founder. 3. The estate of the convents. 4. The superstitions practised in them. 6. The debt they had incurred; and 6. The names of the votaries who wished to be discharged from their vows.

The reports furnished by the visitors present a deplorable picture of monastic life; but how can we place credence in them, seeing that the visitors were deputed with the set purpose of discovering or inventing some foul stain in the character of the inmates, which might afford a plausible excuse for the suppression of such institutions. A bill was passed through parliament, with very little deliberation, for dissolving all monastic establishments in England, whose clear yearly income did not exceed £200. In the preamble of the bill it is said,

"Forasmuch as manifest sin, vitious, carnal, and abominable living is daily used and committed, commonly in such little and small abbeys, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons, and nuns, where the congregation of such religious persons is under the number of twelve," etc., "whereupon the lords and commons, by a great deliberation, finally be resolved, that it is, and shall be more to the pleasure of Almighty God, and for the honour of this His realm, that the possessions of all such religious houses, not being spent, spoiled, and wasted for increase of maintenance of sin, shall be used and converted to better uses, and the unthrifty religious persons so spending the same, be compelled to reform their lives; be it, therefore, enacted, that his majesty shall have to himself and to his heirs for ever, all and singular monasteries, the yearly value of which do not amount to £200."

It cannot be denied that there were amongst the religious some whose lives were not spotless, but then, let us bear in mind, that there was a traitor among the twelve apostles, and a heretic among the seven deacons. There never was and never will be a society of men without some human failings; but "the collecting of ex parte evidence by stipendiary emissaries, and the making of that evidence a ground for plundering the property of the church, was a proceeding full of injustice, and an example that no future age can imitate with impunity. * * *Baines' History of Lancashire.

By this act of spoliation about 380 communities were dissolved, and an addition of £32,000 was made to the royal revenue (equivalent to £160,000 of our present money), exclusive of £100,000 in money, plate, and jewels. According to Fuller, "ten thousand persons were by this dissolution sent to seek their fortunes in the wide world; some had twenty shillings given them at their ejection, and a new gown, which needed to be of strong cloth, to last till they got another. Most were exposed to want; and many a young nun proved an old beggar."

While thus the royal treasury was enriched, the suppression entailed a heavy loss upon the poor, who derived their chief support from the monasteries. The monks were kind and indulgent landlords, who exacted no rack-rents for their lands; their doors were always open to receive and relieve the wayfarer, the houseless, and the poor. "Religious houses," says Grose, "were also hospitals for the sick and poor, many of both being daily relieved by them. They also afforded lodging and entertainment to travellers, at a time when there were no inns. The nobility and gentry, who were heirs to their founders in them, could provide for a certain number of ancient and faithful servants, by procuring them corrodies or stated allowances of meat, drink, and clothes They were also asylums or retreats for aged indigent persons of good families. The places near the sites of these abbeys were considerably benefitted, both by the recourse of people resorting to them, by fairs procured for them, and by their exemption from the forest laws."

The discontents of the people broke into open rebellion in Lincolnshire, where 20,000 men assembled, under the leadership of Mackerel, abbot of Barlings, who assumed the name of Captain Cobbler, and demanded the redress of their grievances. A promise of pardon from the king was sufficient to disperse this irregular army, their leaders having first been delivered up, and afterwards executed.

See Ninian Staveley for information regarding his involvement in the northern rebellion during The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.


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