This year we are building and, Corona Virus notwithstanding, hoping to display a huge model to commemorating the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflwower. Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of blogs about the events that paved the way for her voyage and the reasons for those on board, who have been called the Pilgrim Fathers, for making the risky voyage across the Atlantic and establishing an English colony at Plymouth (or Plimoth) Colony, Massachusetts, America. In this blog we look back to the dissolution of the monastries.
Following the Acts of Supremacy in 1534 and the break with Rome, power to administer the English Church, to tax it, appoint its officials, and control its laws passed into Henry VIII hands. It also gave him control over the church's doctrine and ritual. While his religious views remained conservative he embraced a programme of reform to further promote the Royal Supremacy. To do this, he relied on men with Protestant sympathies, such as Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer.
For Cromwell and Cranmer, a major step on the Protestant agenda was attacking monasticism, which was associated with the doctrine of purgatory. Henry was not actually opposed to religious houses on theological grounds, there was concern over the loyalty of the monastic orders, which were international in character and resistant to the Royal Supremacy.
The Crown was also experiencing financial difficulties, and the wealth of the church, in contrast to its political weakness, made confiscation of church property both tempting and feasible. The church owned between one-fifth and one-third of the land in all England and Cromwell realised that he could bind the gentry and nobility to Royal Supremacy by selling to them the huge amount of church lands, and that any reversion to pre-Royal Supremacy would entail upsetting many of the powerful people in the realm.
In 1534, Cromwell initiated a visitation of the monasteries ostensibly to examine their character, but in fact, to value their assets with a view to expropriation. The visiting commissioners claimed to have uncovered sexual immorality and financial impropriety amongst the monks and nuns, which became the ostensible justification for their suppression. There were also reports of the possession and display of false relics.The Compendium Competorum compiled by the visitors documented ten pieces of the True Cross, seven portions of the Virgin Mary's milk and numerous saints' girdles.
Leading reformers, led by Anne Boleyn, wanted to convert monasteries into "places of study and good letters, and to the continual relief of the poor", but this was not done. In 1536, the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act closed smaller houses valued at less than £200 a year. Henry used the revenue to help build coastal defences against expected invasion, and all the land was given to the Crown or sold to the aristocracy. Thirty-four houses were saved by paying for exemptions. Monks and nuns affected by closures were transferred to larger houses, and monks had the option of becoming secular clergy.
The Royal Supremacy and the abolition of papal authority had not caused widespread unrest, but the attacks on monasteries and the abolition of saints' days and pilgrimages provoked violence. Mobs attacked those sent to break up monastic buildings. Suppression commissioners were attacked by local people in several places. In Northern England, there were a series of uprisings against the dissolutions in late 1536 and early 1537, including The Pilgrimage of Grace, which saw around 50,000 rebels restore 16 of the 26 northern monasteries that had been dissolved. The revolt was violently put down.
The failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace only sped up the process of dissolution and may have convinced Henry VIII that all religious houses needed to be closed. In 1540, the last monasteries were dissolved, wiping out an important element of traditional religion. Former monks were given modest pensions from the Court of Augmentations, and those that could sought work as parish priests. Former nuns received smaller pensions and, as they were still bound by vows of chastity, forbidden to marry. Henry personally devised a plan to form at least thirteen new dioceses so that most counties had one based on a former monastery (or more than one), though this scheme was only partly carried out. New dioceses were established at Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough, Westminster and Chester, but not, for instance, at Shrewsbury, Leicester or Waltham.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries, official religious policy began to drift in a conservative direction. This was due in part to the eagerness of establishment Protestants to disassociate themselves from religious radicals. It was becoming clear that the King's views on religion differed from those of Cromwell and Cranmer. In 1539 Parliament passed the Six Articles reaffirming Roman Catholic beliefs and practices such as transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, confession to a priest, votive masses, and withholding communion wine from the laity.
On June 28th 1540 Cromwell, was executed. Different reasons were advanced, including that he would not enforce the Act of Six Articles; that he had supported heretics; and that he was responsible for Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife. Traditionalists now seemed to have the upper hand. By the spring of 1543, Protestant innovations had been reversed, and only the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries remained unchanged.
However they overplayed their hand when the attempted to persecute Henry's last wife, Katherine Parr, of heresy. Leading traditionalist politicians, who would have formed a regency council on the event of Henry’s death, were disgraced or arrested, enabling the Protestant Edward Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife (and therefore uncle to the future Edward VI), to gain control over the Privy Council.
In our next blog, we will look at the reign of the young Edward VI.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on the English Reformation; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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