On 4 August 1540, Thomas Epsam, a former monk of the Benedictine Abbey at Westminster, was brought from Newgate and made to stand before the justices. He had been a prisoner for three years, but still “he wold not aske the kynges pardon nor be sworne to be true to him”, the chronicler Edward Hall wrote. Epsam was publicly stripped of his monk’s cowl for his “malicious obstinacie”. He was, Hall said, “the last Monke that was seen in his clothing in Englande”.
In the week before Easter, the same year, the Augustinian abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham in Essex had been the last monastic house to be dissolved on the English mainland; the small Cistercian community at Rushen, on the Isle of Man, survived until 24 June. Five years earlier, there had been some 850 religious houses in England and Wales, and perhaps 10,000 religious – monks, nuns, canons, friars. Now there were none.
How and why that happened is the subject of James G Clark’s monumental new book, The Dissolution of the Monasteries. It has been decades since we last had a single-volume history of the dissolution, and Clark has made excellent use of work published in recent decades, including archaeological reports which have done much to illuminate monastic life in England, alongside his own exceptional and extensive archival research.
It is hard to overstate the importance of monasticism to late medieval English life. Religious houses weren’t merely often the oldest buildings in any landscape; they had made the landscape as people knew it. Thanks to their extensive centuries-old landholdings, it was monasteries which had laid out the fields, grubbed out the woodlands, built the roads, the bridges, the ferries. Towns and cities were shaped around them: how the streets and water courses were configured, where the market met and on what terms.
They defined the places where people lived, and also the spaces between them. Monastic houses knitted together the landscape not only in terms of ownership and management, but also in terms of spacial experience: it was difficult to travel travel much across England without their hospitality.
They were curators of the nation’s religious, political and mythic histories, too. But more than merely curate it, they embodied it; as institutions they made manifest the Augustinian idea of time as a present of things past, present of things present, and a present of things future. In many communities the sound of the precinct bells was the principal measure of time by which people understood their day. Monasteries were, then, key to how people experienced their lives. Their spiritual and temporal authorities were so blurred it was impossible to know where one began and the other ended.
As Clark amply demonstrates, and contrary to Reformation narratives of decay and decline, monasticism was in good health at the turn of the sixteenth century. The first few decades of the Tudor peace saw a spate of new building: new transepts and vaults at Milton Abbey in Dorset; red-brick walls around the precinct at Leicester’s St Mary in the Meadow; Italianate brickwork at St Osyth’s in Essex.
In keeping with the material renewal, Tudor patrons became increasingly involved in the management of houses, in stewardship and appointments and so forth. This was particularly true of the Tudors themselves. Henry VII’s projected family chantry, centred on Westminster but involving thirty churches across the country, was a statement of power and ambition, legacy building on the grandest of scales, but it was also a demonstration of royal affinity with the historic monastic orders of England.
On the eve of the dissolution, recruitment was buoyant. Hyde Abbey had five new monks at Easter 1535, Peterborough seven at Michaelmas, Tynemouth four in the week before Christmas. Even as late as the winter of 1539 a great abbey like that of St Werbergh in Chester could boast five new novices. The monastic houses of the diocese of Norwich were fuller than they had been for over a century. The renewal also found expression in a new enthusiasm for marking admission to an order with a change of Christian name, particularly among the male professed.
But monasticism was changing. The daily offices could now be easily followed using a printed book; prodigious feats of memory were receding. Meanwhile, the need for privacy was growing and dormitories were subdivided into cells to meet it. Relatedly, the newly professed were bringing more personal possessions with them – books, clothes, furniture, plate – when they joined. Such developments can be seen, and indeed were seen, as markers of moral decline – that Reformation narrative again – but it was really more a marker of monastic health, of institutions evolving as society evolved and societal, intellectual and other fashions changed. Pilgrimage might have been on the wane, but cults persisted – in part fueled by printed stories of saints and their relics.
In many, larger houses complex administrative structures had grown up to manage the major tasks of land management, resource distribution and often nakedly commercial enterprise that monasteries of necessity undertook or oversaw. One house, it was said, specialised in the manufacture and sale of clavichords. Between them, London’s five friaries rented out parts of their precincts to some 40 businesses.
And then there were the other duties of care for which the religious were responsible, and which saw no sign of abating; Richard Ingworth, Thomas Cromwell’s agent in the surrender of the friaries, found over 300 people waiting for dole in the courtyard of the Gloucester Dominicans on the day he visited. The monasteries were great employers too: the chronicler Charles Wriothesley reckoned the 1536 Act of Suppression alone cost some 10,000 of the poor their livings.
These then, were institutions deeply embedded in every aspect of life, which is why the humanist drive for greater separation of the worldly from the spiritual – derived from humanism’s engagement with the early church fathers, from the belief that Christianity had moved too far from patristic authority – was so corrosive. While individual religious may have been able to live uncompromised, cloistered lives, it was not possible for the institutions to which they belonged to retreat so from the world. They were complex societal entities – political, civic and commercial – as much as they were devotional, memorial, contemplative spaces. It was antithetical to their nature to cleave those functions apart; moreover, the call to do so came during a period in which the boundary between the two worlds, as Clark amply demonstrates, was becoming more porous, not less.
Which is not to say that humanism’s promise of reform, of moral, spiritual and civic renewal was necessarily inimical to the ideals of monasticism. Indeed, it’s possible to see the outlines of a different future for English monasticism in which religious houses were in the vanguard, driving a rebirth of religious life through education and the learned exploration of the full range of patristic writings. More regulars passed through university in the last three decades of English monasticism than in the previous 150 years. Cromwell’s commissioners found no shortage of reform-minded religious during their visitations. Katherine Bulkeley, the abbess of Godstow, may have been a Cromwell appointment, but she spoke for many when she said of her convent “ne praying to dede saints ne used ne regarded amongst us”.
It has suited both Protestant and Catholic historiography to believe that the dissolution was part of a great struggle, that it was a considered, decisive and strategic blow by the new order against the old. But, as Clark makes clear, there was no grand plan. It may be a dismal thought that a thousand years of history, faith and culture can be swept away so easily by mere carelessness and incompetence, yet, on this reading, that seems to be the case. Certainly the Reformation account of monasticism, which Clark describes as “compelling in its perfect alignment of cause and effect”, is thoroughly picked apart. At no point, even in monasticism’s last months, does there seem to be a crux at which a final decision was made.
In Clark’s hands, then, the dissolution itself dissolves as a single event; instead it becomes a long, complex series of decisions and indecisions, with consequences both intended and unintended, and with individuals from the king down behaving in ways that are inconsistent and irreducible to generalisation. Not only is it not possible to say how monasticism responded to Henry’s reformation, it’s not possible to say how different orders or different houses responded. Just as profession was ultimately an individual choice, so was reaction to change.
Resistance therefore took many forms. Monastic houses had long been willing to defend their rights with violence, and increasingly so after the experience of the Wars of the Roses. At Peterborough in 1517, the religious fought a pitched battle with their tenants remembered locally as the Battle of Borough Fen; men from Leicester Abbey rained down arrows on tenants who pulled up boundary hedges. Houses on the Scottish Borders had always needed to defend themselves from raiding parties. Thus when Cromwell’s commissioners were greeted by an armed mob at the priory of St Nicholas in Exeter, and pelted with missiles from the tower, it was entirely unexceptional. (The only difference here was that the mob was “disguysed… in womens appareill” – a further insult to the visitors.) If Cromwell’s men were shocked to see the monks at Sawley bearing “bows and spears”, that speaks mostly to their own naivety.
Most resistance was less direct, however. At Ludlow, the altar plate was hidden “in the backside of the… house in an olde hose”. At Glastonbury, pieces were found “Hyde and muryde up in walls, vaultis, and other secret placis”. At Coventry Charterhouse, ready cash was simply buried.
Government officials were rightly suspicious of leases and tenancies agreed at the last gasp, but some of the chicanery was hard to unravel. Concealed grants of land were still coming to light some 50 years later. But then, monastic houses had always lived or died by such property transactions, so perhaps it makes particular sense for them to feature as acts of passive resistance.
Clark points out that the dissolution was also the largest transfer of livestock in English history, but that wasn’t for the efforts of at least some of the religious. A herd of sheep owned by Hartland Abbey in Devon mysteriously shrank from a thousand heads to just four. Some 500 sheep vanished from Launde Priory in Lancashire. Not all goods were moveable, of course: the 100,000 carp and pike in the ponds at Titchfield remained in situ. But at St Radegund’s in Kent, even the priory woodlands were swiftly felled to diminish the site’s value to the king.
But the fact that none of this stopped the snowballing of events doesn’t mean that the eventual outcome was inevitable. The dissolution emerges here not as an active policy but as a process born of reaction to events, mostly ad hoc, often driven by events on the ground, barely overseen by a weak and ineffectual centre, with its direction of travel always clouded by what Clark calls “The persistent uncertainty of the government position”. The dissolution becomes, on this reading, something much less dramatic, more more contingent, much more complex. Monastic reform, Clark writes, was merely “another of the many moods that washed over policy”; the phrase captures perfectly the sense of drift that defines his account of government.
Which is not to say that things couldn’t happen quickly when the king so desired. As soon as the London Charterhouse fell, the order went out for “All suche rosemarie graftys ande oder suche thynges” to be brought from its garden for Henry’s use. At St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, 300 men were immediately set to work day and night to turn it into a royal palace. Night work was lit by hundreds of candles. Braziers burned continuously to dry the new plasterwork as autumn turned to winter and the year approached its end.
As often as not it seems to be Cromwell’s agents who drove the process along. There is the strong sense of them improvising, as they had to, day by day, in the absence of clear instructions or a sure sense of policy from their master. They are, as a group, often portrayed as arrogant, corrupt and vicious sorts of men, but Clark manages the difficult task of making the reader sympathise with at least some them, overwhelmed by their responsibilities, charged to undertake duties which no-one had thought through, with little experience to go on, often at their own expense. Ingworth’s plaintive plea for guidance from Cromwell in July 1538 – “I artely beseche you send to me yowr pleasure whether ye will have ye… freers styll… or nott” – strikes home. Five weeks later, he was still waiting. Men whose training was largely legal and theological found themselves valiantly reckoning the weight and value of a building’s roof lead before it had even been stripped, or – as in the case of George Gyffard at Polesworth in Warwickshire – assessing the quality of the pasture. “Either a heth grownd or els itt is a very dire and a hard spieri grasse,” Gyffard declared to a surely bemused Cromwell. One almost feels sorry for them.
Clark pursues his arguments through the meticulous accumulation of detail, much of it new. Every page is packed with it. But this is not detail for detail’s sake: it supports an argument against the dominant, ideological interpretations of the dissolution, presenting instead a profoundly nuanced portrait of individuals and institutions grappling with complex problems in a time of great turmoil and change. This is messy, granular stuff, and readers hoping for broad brushstrokes and the glories of a grand narrative may find it hard going; but it is glorious nonetheless – thrilling in its mastery of the sources and both provocative and persuasive in the richness and subtlety of its thought. It is emblematic of Clark’s nuanced approach that, in discussing the Pilgrimage of Grace, he writes: “the religious were neither at the margins of the trouble nor were they its originators or its mainstay”. His unwillingness to generalise from the particular is striking.
This reader would have welcomed a fuller account of the spiritual and religious life of English monasticism in what turned out to be its final decades. Such rites and devotions lay at the heart of their enterprise and it was what gave the lives of the houses – and of the men and women inside them – meaning. Its absence here is a pity; this is, one feels, only half of their story, the half that faced the material world.
Still, if your principal criticism of a 700-page book is that it isn’t long enough, you know you have something truly exceptional in your hands. This is quite simply the best history yet written on English monasticism in the 16th century, and it will surely remain so for years to come.
Why then did monasticism fall? Clark’s position, if I may grossly over-simplify it, is ultimately that the monastic houses were doomed by a range of factors, most but not all triggered – often unintentionally – by government action: by the depletion of their income, by local and government interference and the depredations such interference entailed, by the loss of control over their own affairs. Which is to say, they were not doomed at all, but circumstances made it so.
I finished the book with a strong sense of the fragility of institutions, even ostensibly great and powerful ones, and of how vulnerable they can be to indifference, complacency and incomprehension – and to good intentions carelessly applied as much as to bare hostility.
This is a much extended version of a review that first appeared in the April 2022 issue of History Today.
Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.