|Carthusian Saint John Houghton|
In the fifteenth centuries a number of defunct religious houses were closed and their properties devoted to other charities—hospitals and schools primarily---and Cardinal Wolsey got the idea during his administration to shutter a number of smaller religious houses and transfer their members to more stable abbeys while using their endowments for two educational foundations he was making—a grammar school in his native Ipswich and a new College, Cardinal College, at Oxford. Cardinal College later was renamed Christchurch and today is perhaps the icon-college of Oxford even as Kings is of Cambridge.
With Wolsey’s fall, Henry was not quick to close down other monasteries but he did note how the monastic wealth could be diverted to other causes. He filed that piece of information away in his mind for later use.
The Religious of England—monks, nuns, canons, friars—almost universally acceded to the royal supremacy. A notable exception was John Houghton, prior of the Carthusians in London. Prior Houghton was persuaded to swear to the 1533 Act of Succession which named Henry Head of the Church “so far as the Law of Christ Allows.” However, the following year the Act of Supremacy declared Henry to be “the only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England” and Prior Houghton and two other Carthusian priors—Robert Lawrence of Beauvale and Augustine Webster of Axeholm—along with Richard Reynolds (a Bridgettine of Syon Abbey) and John Haile (the Vicar of Isleworth, the town where Syon Abbey stood) were hanged, drawn, and quartered for refusing the swear to the royal supremacy. The process—usual for treason—was that the condemned person was hanged until near death, then cut down while still alive and cut open with his heart and entrails removed, and then the corpse cut into four pieces to be taken and displayed at four different points of the realm. Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, would go to their deaths—simple beheadings—later that summer for refusing to swear to the same act. Carthusians William Exmew, John Davy, William Greenwood, Thomas Green, William Holm, Thomas Johnson, Humphrey Middlemore, Sebastian Newdigate, Walter Pierson, Thomas Redying, John Rochester, and James Walworth, followed Houghton, Lawrence, and Webster to their deaths rather than swear to the supremacy.
Several Franciscans, especially among the Observant Franciscans at Greenwich—a house particularly important to Henry and the Tudors because of its proximity to the Royal Palace and the site of Henry’s Marriage to Katherine of Aragon as well as his own baptism and the baptism of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth—resisted the Royal Supremacy. Friars Anthony Brookby, Thomas Courtt and Thomas Belchiam refused to take the oath and paid with their lives. Friars Richard Risby and Hugh Rich were Observant Franciscans from other convents who refused to swear to the supremacy and were martyred for their stalwart loyalty to the Holy See. Henry, in exasperation declared that the Observant friars were “disciples of the Bishop of Rome and sowers of sedition.” Some sources say that there were more martyrs among the Franciscans and Carthusians, but their names have been lost. That is certainly possible but the comprehensive lists of English martyrs from this times make the historian conservative in estimating the numbers much beyond those actually known and recorded. On the other hand, searching through various records—and the English were great keepers of records—to identify various other religious and their divergent fates is exactly the sort of work that doctoral students do. Various charters, wills, ordination records, etc. make it possible to reconstruct with considerable accuracy the memberships of various abbeys, monasteries, and friaries at any point from the fourteenth century through their dissolution in the sixteenth. These lists can be checked against not only court records but appointments to ecclesiastical benefices subsequent to Henry’s disbanding of the religious foundations and that would be of immense help in discovering the fate of many of the religious who either took or refused the oaths of royal supremacy. As it is, given the number of religious in England in 1535—approximately fifteen thousand—the number of martyrdoms is remarkably small. It should also be noted that there are approximately two dozen Benedictines or Cistercians executed in the period, as well as a Premonstratensian presumably for refusing to swear to the supremacy, though some may have been connected more with the Pilgrimage of Grace. By and large the religious or the other orders all subscribed to the royal supremacy without much hesitation. Many, no doubt, considered a temporary sort of thing that would resolve itself and reconcile with the papacy in a period of time. And indeed one would have thought that with Katherine’s death in 1536 that the reason for the break was over—especially as Ann was to go to the scaffold only five months after Katherine’s death and Henry was free to make a new beginning. But by this time Henry had plans for his Church of England and those plans did not admit of any other person at its head than he himself.