6 March 1536 – The Dissolution of the Monasteries

Posted By on March 6, 2017

In February 1536, a parliament which has become known as “The Reformation Parliament” was recalled and met until it was dismissed on 14th April 1536. It had first sat in October 1529 and is referred to as the Reformation Parliament because it was responsible for passing the legislation which led to the break with Rome and the English Reformation. As Clare Cherry and I wrote in our book George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat:

“The Reformation Parliament was established on the theory that England was governed by one supreme head, namely the King, and that all jurisdiction in the land, including that of spiritual matters, belonged to the King. It naturally followed that no foreign power could dictate English public policy – specifically, the Pope. It established that only law enacted by a monarch within a sovereign state was binding; hence, this sovereign power was supreme and gave the King and Parliament authority over church law.”

For those of us interested in the Boleyns, George Boleyn attended this Parliament from February 1533 to its close in April 1536, and was actively involved in the Reformation until his downfall at the beginning of the following month.

On 6th March 1536, the Act for the Suppression (or Dissolution) of the Lesser Monasteries was introduced into the Reformation Parliament. This act affected the “lesser monasteries”, i.e. those with fewer than twelve members and those worth less than £200 per year. These religious houses were to be dissolved, their heads pensioned off and their members to become secularised or moved to larger monasteries “where they may be compelled to live religiously for reformation of their lives”.

Here is the text of the act – warning, it’s a little wordy!:

An Act whereby all Religious Houses of monks, canons, and nuns which may not dispend manors, lands, tenements, and hereditaments above the clear yearly value of £200 are given to the King’s Highness, his heirs and successors, for ever.

Forasmuch as manifest sin, vicious, carnal, and abominable living, is daily used and committed amongst the 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 12 persons, whereby the governors of such religious houses and their convent spoil, destroy, consume, and utterly waste, as well their churches, monasteries, priories, principal houses, farms, granges, lands, tenements, and hereditaments, as the ornaments of their churches and their goods and chattels, to the high displeasure of Almighty God, slander of good religion, and to the great infamy of the King’s Highness and the realm if redress should not be had thereof; And albeit that many continual visitations hath been heretofore had by the space of two hundred years and more for an honest and charitable reformation of such unthrifty, carnal, and abominable living, yet nevertheless little or none amendment is hitherto had, but their vicious living shamelessly increaseth and augmenteth, and by a cursed custom so rooted and infested that a great multitude of the religious persons in such small houses do rather choose to rove abroad in apostasy than to conform them to the observation of good religion; so that without such small houses be utterly suppressed and the religious persons therein committed to great and honourable monasteries of religion in this realm, where they may be compelled to live religiously for reformation of their lives, there can else be no reformation in this behalf: In consideration whereof the King’s most Royal Majesty, being Supreme Head in earth under God of the Church of England, daily finding and devising the increase, advancement, and exaltation of true doctrine and virtue in the
said Church, to the only glory and honour of God and the total extirping and destruction of vice and sin, having knowledge that the premises be true, as well by the compts of his late visitations as by sundry credible informations, considering also that divers and great solemn monasteries of this realm wherein, thanks be to God, religion is right well kept and observed, be destitute of such full numbers of religious persons as they ought and may keep, hath thought good that a plain declaration should be made of the premises as well to the Lords spiritual and temporal as to other his loving subjects the Commons in this present Parliament assembled; whereupon the said Lords and Commons by a great deliberation finally be resolved that it is and shall be much more to the pleasure of Almighty God and for the honour of this his realm that the possessions of such spiritual religious houses, now being spent, spoiled, and wasted for increase and maintenance of sin, should be used and converted to better uses, and the unthrifty religious persons so spending the same to be compelled to reform their lives; And thereupon most humbly desire the King’s Highness that it may be enacted by authority of this present Parliament, that his Majesty shall have and enjoy to him and to his heirs for ever all and singular such monasteries, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons, and nuns, of what kinds or diversities of habits, rules, or orders so ever they be called or named, which have not in lands and tenements, rents, tithes, portions, and other hereditaments, above the clear yearly value of two hundred pounds; And in like manner shall have and enjoy all the sites and circuits of every such religious houses, and all and singular the manors, granges, meses [messuages], lands, tenements, reversions, rents, services, tithes, pensions, portions, churches, chapels, advowsons, patronages, annuities, rights, entries, conditions, and other hereditaments appertaining or belonging to every such monastery, priory, or other religious house, not having as is aforesaid above the said clear yearly value of two hundred pounds, in as large and ample manner as the abbots, priors, abbesses, prioresses, or other governors of such monasteries, priories, and other religious houses now have or ought to have the same in the right of their houses; And that also his Highness shall have to him and to his heirs all and singular such monasteries, abbeys, and priories which, at any time within one year next afore the making of this Act, hath been given and granted to his Majesty by any abbot, prior, abbess, or prioress under their convent seals, or that otherwise hath been suppressed or dissolved; And all and singular the manors, lands, [etc.] … to the same monasteries, abbeys, and priories or to any of them appertaining or belonging; To have and to hold all and singular the premises with all their rights, profits, jurisdictions, and commodities, unto the King’s Majesty and to his heirs and assigns for ever, to do and use therewith his or their own wills to the pleasure of Almighty God and to the honour and profit of this realm.

IV. Provided always and be it enacted that forasmuch as divers of the chief governors of such religious houses, determining the utter spoil and destruction of their houses, and dreading the suppressing thereof, for the maintenance of their detestable lives have lately fraudulently and craftily made feoffments, estates, gifts, grants, and leases under their convent seals, or suffered recoveries of their manors, lands, tenements, and hereditaments in fee simple, fee tail, for term of life or lives, or for years, or charged the same with rents or corrodies, to the great decay and diminution of their houses, that all such crafty and fraudulent recoveries, feoffments, estates, gifts, grants, and leases, and every of them, made by any of the said chief governors of such religious houses under the convent seals within one year next afore the making of this Act, shall be utterly void and of none effect.. . .

V. And it is also enacted by authority aforesaid, that the King’s Highness shall have and enjoy to his own proper use all the ornaments, jewels, goods, chattels, and debts which appertained to any of the chief governors of the said monasteries or religious houses in the right of their said monasteries or houses at the first day of March in the year of our Lord God 1535[— 6] or any time since, wheresoever and to whose possession soever they shall come or be found : Except only such beasts, grain, and woods, and such like other chattels and revenues, as have been sold in the said first day of March or since for the necessary or reasonable expenses or charges of any of the said monasteries or houses.. . .

VIII. In consideration of which premises to be had to his Highness and to his heirs as is aforesaid, his Majesty is pleased and contented of his most excellent charity to provide to every chief head and governor of every such religious house during their lives such yearly pensions or benefices as for their degrees and qualities shall be reasonable and convenient; wherein his Highness will have most tender respect to such of the said chief governors as well and truly conserve and keep the goods and ornaments of their houses to the use of his Majesty, without spoil, waste, or embezzling the same; And also his Majesty will ordain and provide that the convents of every such religious house shall have their capacities, if they will, to live honestly and virtuously abroad, and some convenient charity disposed to them toward their living, or else shall be committed to such honourable great monasteries of this realm wherein good religion is observed as shall be limited by his Highness, there to live religiously during their lives.

IX. And it is ordained by authority aforesaid that the chief governors and convents of such honourable great monasteries shall take and accept into their houses from time to time such number of the persons of the said convents as shall be assigned and appointed by the King’s Highness, and keep them religiously during their lives within their said monasteries in like manner and form as the convents of such great monasteries be ordered and kept.

XIII. Provided always that the King’s Highness, at any time after the making of this Act, may at his pleasure ordain and declare, by his letters patents under his great seal, that such of the said religious houses which his Highness shall not be disposed to have suppressed nor dissolved by authority of this Act shall still continue, remain, and be in the same body corporate and in the said essential estate, quality, and condition, as well in possessions as otherwise, as they were afore the making of this Act, without any suppression or dissolution thereof or any part of the same by authority of this Act. . . .

XVII. And further be it enacted, ordained, and established by authority aforesaid, that all and singular persons, bodies politic, and corporate, to whom the King’s Majesty, his heirs or successors, hereafter shall give, grant, let, or demise any site or precinct, with the houses thereupon builded, together with the demesnes of any monasteries, priories, or other religious houses that shall be dissolved or given to the King’s Highness by this
Act, And the heirs, successors, executors, and assigns of every such person, body politic, and corporate, shall be bounden by authority of this Act, under the penalties hereafter ensuing, to keep or cause to be kept an honest continual house and household in the same site or precinct, and to occupy yearly as much of the same demesnes in ploughing and tillage of husbandry, that is to say, as much of the said demesnes which hath been commonly used to be kept in tillage by the governors, abbots, or priors of the same houses, monasteries, or priories, or by their farmer or farmers occupying the same, within the time of 20 years next before this Act : And if any person or persons, bodies politic or corporate, that shall be bounden by this Act do not keep an honest house, household, husbandry, and tillage in manner and form as is aforesaid, that then he or they so offending shall forfeit to the
King’s Highness for every month so offending £6. 13s. 4d. to be recovered to his use in any of his Courts of Record.

27 Henr. VIII, c. 28: Statutes of the Realm, iii, 575.

Notes and Sources

  • Cherry, Clare and Ridgway, Claire (2014) George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat, Chapter 11: The Reformation Parliament (1529-1536).
  • The text of the act is taken from ed. Tanner, J. R. (1922) Tudor constitutional documents, A.D. 1485-1603, Cambridge University Press, p. 58-63. This can be read online at https://archive.org/stream/cu31924030504322#page/n85/mode/2up.
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