Selby Abbey in Yorkshire: when
the Benedictine Community was
suppressed, the Abbey Church
became the parish church
Although most of the 15,000 religious in England went along with the royal supremacy and took the required oath that they recognized Henry as head of the Church, the King determined to suppress religious life in his realm. It seems above all to have been a matter of finance rather than theology or even politics—the king saw the religious houses as a new source of revenue to expand his royal programmes without having to request the Commons for new taxes. He had learned from Wolsey’s suppressions that there were vast amounts of wealth—primarily in land—to be gained by closing down the monasteries. Henry’s agent in the work was Thomas Cromwell. You might want to look at the posting for October 14th to learn more about Cromwell, but Cromwell was in the employ of Cardinal Wolsey and learned well from Wolsey on how to please the King at any cost and without conscience. When Wolsey fell, Cromwell rose to power. It was Cromwell who designed most of the legislation by which Henry separated the English Church from the Roman Communion. And it was Cromwell who moved to suppress the monasteries.
With the first suppressions in 1536 it appeared that this was simply the sort of reorganization that Wolsey had employed and for which even good Catholics had been calling in order to reform the Church. Small houses with little income and few members were first to be targeted. Monks and nuns were transferred to larger houses that could support them. Royal Commissioners would visit the house, interview the community, inventory the assets and make a report back to Cromwell. Not all houses were immediately suppressed—some were allowed for the time being to continue. Those marked for suppression were visited a second time where the visitators would actually close down the house, transfer the religious, and dispose of the property. In the disposal of the properties—the seizure of the assets in the King’s name or their distribution to the King’s friends—the commissioners were very careful to make sure all debts were first settled, those owned a pension given their rights, and matters settled amiably with tenants. Properties were not just seize outright for the King. Those religious—a minority—who wanted to secularize rather than transfer to a new foundation—were also given a cash settlement from the monastery assets. As fair as the royal commissioners were, the canons of the two houses that resisted their suppression—were treated quite brutally, some with imprisonment and others with death. All of these foundations closed in the first wave of suppressions were either monks (Benedictine, Cistercian, or Carthusian), nuns of the same orders, or Canons Regular. About eighty houses were suppressed in this first wave—most having less than a half dozen religious. The Carthusian houses were larger communities but due to the resistance their now martyred colleagues had shown to the royal supremacy, came into particular focus for suppression.
The second phase—in 1537—was accomplished by encouraging larger communities to voluntarily surrender their property and assets to the crown. The Cistercians at Furness Abbey voluntarily surrendered their monastery because Henry was about to move against them for their involvement in the Pilgrimage of Grace—a popular uprising against Henry’s break with Rome. Jervaulx, also Cistercian, surrendered for similar reason. Lewes Priory (Benedictine), Titchfield Abbey (Premonstratensian) Bardsey Abbey (Augustinian), Eye Priory and Easby Abbey all voluntarily surrendered. A new policy was put into practice with the religious not being allowed to transfer to other houses, but being given a modest pension on which to live on their own. Monastic pensions averaged around £5 a year—at that time the income of a modest gentleman. Nuns were less fortunate as their monasteries were usually less well endowed than those of the monks or canons and received about £3 per annum. Henry required that monks and nuns, though no longer living in their cloisters, maintain religious garb and he forbad them a release from celibacy which prevented their marriage. For nuns this mean they usually had to return to their families, but the pension due them provided them with the ability to contribute to the family income. Abbots and priors usually received more handsome—and often more handsome by far—pensions. They also were more likely to be offered Cathedral deaneries or even bishoprics, in which case their new position paid them a salary in lieu of any pension.
Cromwell set up the Court of Augmentations to make sure that the disposal of monastic property was done in such a way as not to leave debtors, tenants, or the religious themselves in undue distress. This was a very wise policy as the sudden collapse of these houses without providing for the religious or their employees or their creditors would have done serious economic damage that would have made the King and his policies very unpopular. As it was, with people able to get their hands on monastic wealth through royal grant or purchase, the dissolution was well received in most circles. Indeed, when Mary came to the throne and investigated the possibility that such properties would be returned to the re-founded monasteries there was great alarm.
By 1538 many of the larger monasteries, seeing where the wind was blowing, were applying for permission to hand over their properties to the Crown in return for pensions. Also by 1538 Cromwell had gotten the dissolution process down to a science and was closing down religious foundations quite quickly and with his usual efficiency.
To this point we have spoken of the monks and canons—both of whom had massive endowments. The mendicant orders—the Augustinian Hermits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites—did not have extensive endowments but lived from their work and from alms. Their convents were also closed down but the religious—not having the assets from which to provide pensions—were not pensioned off. Their buildings were sold or given to clients of the King in return for services done the Crown. This created some hardship for the friars. The priests could seek work as secular clergy—and many having degrees in theology were often rewarded with decent posts—but the lay brothers had no choice but to enter the workforce as common laborers. Like the monks and nuns, the friars—clergy and lay—were not release from the obligations of celibacy.
Thus by 1539 most—but not all—of the religious foundations of England and Wales had been suppressed. Only a few great abbeys remained. Vast amounts of land were in new hands and huge amounts of wealth were in the royal treasury. At the same time, Henry was not releasing the religious from their vows and especially from celibacy. England was in many ways still very Catholic but the elimination of the religious removed one very important bulwark of religious orthodoxy and in time that would tell.