October 23 – The devastation caused by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries

Posted By on October 23, 2022

On this day in Tudor history, 23rd October 1538, in the reign of King Henry VIII, Thomas Goldwell, Prior of Christchurch, Canterbury, wrote to Thomas Cromwell.

Goldwell was writing to Henry VIII’s chief advisor and vicar-general regarding the forthcoming dissolution of his monastery and its fate.

His letter is rather sad and grovelling. It’s even more sad when you know the full impact of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which was devastating for the country.

Find out more about Goldwell’s priory and what happened to it, as well as what the dissolution entailed…

Transcript:

On this day in Tudor history, 23rd October 1538, Thomas, Prior of Christchurch, Canterbury, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. Here is the record of his letter:
“Thanks Cromwell for his letter received by his servant, John Anthony, allowing the writer to keep his present lodging for life. It is but a poor thing, but nigh the church and a place he has long continued in. Hears from Anthony that Cromwell will also be good lord to him in matters concerning his living. Knows not how to help himself without Cromwell’s favour, -without which he would rather die than live, if it were God’s pleasure.”

As well as being the king’s chief advisor and Master Secretary, Cromwell was vicar general, the man who was in charge of the dissolution of the monasteries. Here, in this letter, Thomas Goldwell, prior of the monastery of Canterbury Christ Church, is thankful that although his monastery is being dissolved, he’s able to keep his lodging, and he’s also hopeful of having some financial support.

Now before I tell you what happened to this monastery, let me explain a bit about the dissolution of the monasteries. By the 1530s, when Henry VIII broke with the authority of Rome and made himself supreme head of the church in England, the monasteries were among the greatest landowners and had also become incredibly wealthy due to their role in the wool trade and their landholdings. Some abbots were not using this wealth for the benefit of the local people, they were living the high life and breaking their vows. Their hypocrisy, debauchery and corruption was causing outrage. So, in 1535, Henry VIII ordered Thomas Cromwell to organise visitations of religious institutions to gather any evidence of irregularities and abuses. There was, however, an alternative motive. Henry VIII wanted money to fund his campaigns, money which his kingdom, which was in debt, just did not have. By dissolving the monasteries, not only could he get his hands on the Church’s wealth, he could punish those who had opposed his supremacy, eliminate further opposition and bribe people’s loyalty with land and money. And his propaganda machinery could make it seem like he was getting rid of hypocrites who were preying on his people and living lives of luxury and sinning, while the people they were meant to be supporting suffered.

Of course, the visitations uncovered all sorts of abuses. Some were true, but many were made up. This so-called evidence was an excuse for the subsequent dissolution of the monasteries, which began in 1536 with the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, those with fewer than 12 members and worth less than £200 per year. These monasteries were closed, their heads pensioned off and their members became secularised or moved to larger monasteries. The monasteries themselves could be used for building materials and the land sold.

The 1536 dissolution of the lesser monasteries wasn’t enough, though, for the king, and in 1539 the larger monasteries were dissolved.
Let’s go back to Prior Thomas Goldwell who wrote that letter to Cromwell on this day in 1538. What happened to him and his priory?
Well, Christ Church Priory, one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in England and Wales, was an obvious target for Cromwell and the king. According to the Canterbury Trust website, the priory was the third richest ecclesiastical house after the abbeys of Westminster and Glastonbury, and, in 1535, it was recorded as having a gross income of nearly £3,000, and the fact that it brought in money from pilgrims coming to make offerings at the shrine of St Thomas Becket.

In November 1535, following a visitation, complaints were made by some of the monks at the priory against Prior Thomas Goldwell. They said that while he had accused them of not living according to the rules of St Benedict, that he was disobeying the king’s injunctions in regulating their diet and that “He retains six persons under 24 years of age in the monastery against their will, &c. He is avaricious, and pretends to be poor; but of late, as God would, his treasure was disclosed besides that which was consumed by fire.” Other complaints made against the prior included him taking a “collette for the bishop of Rome by name of Pope, contrary to his oath and to a law made in that behalf”, leaving out jewels and plate from the official inventory taken of the monastery’s wealth and accusations that he had murdered monks. Oh, and interestingly, when the priory and cathedral were visited by Richard Layton, on behalf of Cromwell, in October 1535, he was “nearly burnt in his bed by an outbreak of fire”.

Dissolving the monastery was first talked about in 1538, hence Prior Goldwell’s letter, and two months before Goldwell’s letter, the shrine of Thomas Becket at the prior’s cathedral had been destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII and twenty-six cartloads of gold and silver were taken from it to London. In 1539, some of the priory’s landholdings were exchanged with the king. Then, unsurprisingly, the priory was dissolved in 1540, with its prior being given a pension of £80 and lesser pensions being given to those monks who were not retained for the new cathedral.

OK, so there were clearly some abuses at this priory, as there were with some of the other monasteries, but surely those could have been tackled without dissolving them. Not only did the landscape of England and Wales change forever, with these once beautiful buildings being ransacked and falling into ruin, but many books and manuscripts were lost for ever. Then there was the social aspect. These monasteries had employed many people as servants, but also tradesmen and artisans, so these people were now unemployed or had lost valuable commission. Then there was the fact that the monasteries had been the social welfare system of the day, feeding the poor, acting as hospitals, schools, care homes, orphanages etc. So there was a rise in the number of beggars and vagrants, a growth in crime and a reduction in care for the elderly, sick and mentally ill. It really was an awful situation.

So, not only was beautiful architecture destroyed by Henry VIII’s policies, but also history, literature, art and social welfare for communities. If you’ve ever read Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth series, you’ll know just how integral these monasteries were in communities. Sad.

1 thought on “October 23 – The devastation caused by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries”

  1. Christine says:

    This was another cataclysmic event in Henry V111’s reign that changed and ruined the lives of many for ever, it was Cardinal Wolsey who started with the closure of twenty abbeys during his attempts to bring about the kings marriage annulment, yet it was his successor along with his royal master, who are to be blamed solely for the dreadful ruination of these beautiful buildings up and down England, some whom were very ancient and had been founded by saints and some of the kings royal ancestors, Henry V111 coveted the riches which he wanted for his treasury, which was depleted by his own reckless spending and fruitless wars, it was also a way of punishing the catholic monks and abbots and nuns whom had opposed the reformation, sadly these beautiful houses were the refuge of many a poor man, beggars and cripples, whom could not work and many who were disabled or old, they were also sanctuaries and places of worship by the devoted to seek spiritual peace, between 1538 to 1540 Henry and Thomas Cromwell had destroyed 800 and thus many had no homes they could not eat nor drink and had to sleep rough under the stars, the king cared little at the injustice of it all and the monks nuns and abbots were also without their calling in life, they had no profession now, also as the video mentions, the artisans and men who worked on the abbeys and monasteries, there was the big gluttonous king and his lawyer greedily relishing the riches that had come their way, in the kings fine palaces, but for these poor people and men of the cloth, life had become very very hard, we know however the blatant hypocrisy of most of these children of god, their living was not as pure as it ought to have been, much like today a lot of priests and bishops have been discovered to have indulged in unnatural lusts, Sir Thomas Goldwell the prior of Christchurch in Canterbury was described as mean and avaricious by his flock, very unchristian like behaviour, in illustrations of the dissolution of the monasteries there are rosy cheeked portly monks sitting at tables decked with pies and meat and wine, the nuns are inevitably sitting on their laps and the whole company are drunk and cavorting gleefully, it is easy to imagine such scenes being carried out in some of these religious houses in 16th century England, many of these men probably had mistresses Cardinal Wolsey did, and a bastard son, but Henry V111 was not concerned about their loose living though he may have brought up the subject to his council as an excuse for the devastation caused, what was more pitiable were the destruction and loss of the many beautiful manuscripts lost some from the medieval period, precious and carefully illustrated in gold leaf, the beautiful religious ornaments the statues of the virgin and her son, the wonderful windows decorated and painted in jewel colours, the tomb of Henry 1st interred in Reading Abbey was also lost, the tomb of the kings own sister had to be moved to St Mary’s Church in Suffolk and Katherine of Aragon had wished to be buried in the Chapel of the Observant Friars but that too had been destroyed, it was a turning point for England and after she was never the same again, with the death of the religious houses an old order was lost, before 1538 those who wept for their loss vented their fury on Henry’s second queen, although Anne Boleyn was against the riches being used for the kings own personal gain, when she died the dissolution still raged much to the sorrow of his third queen Jane Seymour, Shap Abbey in Cumbria was another such destroyed, a modern illustration of how she once looked is available online, it is very sad to contemplate the destruction of these sacred beautiful buildings, the flames must have lit the skies for miles around, and the earth must have been heavy with the smoke, another black moment in the reign of this most unusual and iconic monarch.

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