Christchurch, Oxford--a foundation established
on the income of suppressed religious houses
In the background of Henry’s decision we should note that over the centuries the Church had become very land rich—indeed the Church owned more land in England than the Crown—owning approximately a third of the land in England. About half this land was owned by religious orders, the other half by the dioceses, bishops, rectories, and other entities representing the secular clergy.
How did the Church manage to come into such wealth? Remember that medieval Europe did not have a cash economy. The foundation of wealth was land. And when people wanted to make a contribution to the Church they often gave land. Kings and nobles, in founding monasteries, provided land for the support of the monks or nuns. Kings and nobles might also—out of piety or penance or even just good will—give land for the support of a particular church. The Earl of Warwick, for example, might give a manor to provide income for a pastor in Warwickshire. The pastor—or actually, “rector” of the church in question would receive the rent each year from this manor as part of his income. The Duke of Norfolk might give the tolls on a bridge to the Dean of Norwich as part of the income to the deanery. A knight in Coventry, dying without heirs, might will his fief to salary a canon at Lincoln. You get the idea. And of course the King, using the bishoprics to provide positions and salaries for his important advisors, would richly endow those bishoprics with income-producing lands. These endowments—or rather the positions they salaried—were called benefices. Over the centuries, these incomes add up and positions from Archbishops and their Archdeacons down to canons and rectors were usually well provided for.
Moreover, people making pilgrimage to certain shrines—the tomb of Saint Thomas a Becket at Canterbury being the richest—but also Saint Frideswide at Oxford, Edward the Confessor at Westminster, Saint Hugh at Lincoln, Saint Cuthbert at Durham, et al—drew pilgrims and gifts to these abbey and cathedral churches. Glastonbury Abbey was associated with King Arthur but also had legends that it was founded by Joseph of Arimathea. There were even stories that Jesus had visited there as a boy—and returned after his resurrection to see it again. Some monasteries contained relics of dubious provenance or artifacts that were just outright frauds such as the “Rood of Grace” at Boxley Abbey—a crucifix that could move its head, shed tears, and make various facial expressions—controlled by a system of levers managed by a monk from behind a curtain. Fraud it may have been, but as P.T. Barnum said—“There’s a sucker born every minute” and pilgrims flocked to the abbey with their gifts and donations. Such relics—and frauds—would bring in gifts of jewelry, gold, silver, and coin as well as donations of property. People might give or bequeath in their wills to a monastery or to a cathedral houses or shops—the income from which would provide for Masses to be said or prayers to be offered or processions to be conducted for the souls of the donor and his or her loved ones.
Property went to the Church—but the Church, like wise financiers, never alienated property and thus grew very rich. The Benedictine monks and Augustinian Canons, like the bishops and secular clergy, tended to rent out their lands and salary themselves from the rents, but the Cistercian monks were more hands-on. The Cistercians had vast number of lay brothers who actually worked the monastery properties. Indeed the Cistercians were masters at sheep-herding and ran a vast wool industry with the work of the laybrothers. Moreover, unlike the Benedictines and the Canons, both of whom tended to put much of their income into the ornaments for the abbey churches, the Cistercians both lived and prayed frugally. Cistercian churches had no stained glass. Vestments were only of wool and never of silk. Altar cross and candle holders, as well as thuribles and other required furnishings, were of iron, chalices of silver and not gold. Books were not illuminated and there were no organs or instruments in their churches. Thus, by hard work and meager living they grew exceptionally wealthy.
Over the centuries, various monasteries had closed—or been closed—and their incomes diverted to chartable endeavors but the idea of systematically suppressing monasteries was first that of Cardinal Wolsey and it was done for reasons of “reform.” While many monasteries, and especially those of nuns, were poor and had a tough time getting by, there were others whose incomes were more than sufficient. Since many of the poorer ones had few—if any—vocations and numbers were dwindling, Wolsey thought for the sake of organization it might be a good idea to close the smaller houses, move the nuns or monks to larger and more secure communities, and use the property of the closed houses to endow a number of new charitable or educational endeavors. Among his other endeavors, the Cardinal founded two educational institutions from the income of suppressed religious houses: a grammar school in his native town of Ipswich and Cardinal College, Oxford. The former exists today as The King’s School, the latter as Christchurch College, Oxford. Wolsey had no idea of eliminating religious life in England—far from it—and indeed at the time of his fall in 1530 it would have been inconceivable to think that the vast monastic institutions would totally disappear in just a little over a decade. But we will hear more of that in the next posting.