In G.K. Chesterton’s The Red Moon of Meru, Father Brown successfully foils the theft of a priceless ruby at an English manor. As the story ends, the cleric reminds his police colleague that while one crime may have been prevented a much greater theft occurred almost five hundred years before; he points to the Gothic outline of the former abbey currently serving as the aristocratic family’s dwelling. Chesterton’s reference to the suppression and seizure of the monasteries between 1536 and 1540 is reflective of how controversial these events remained for English Catholics even in the early 20th century. For the prolific writer and apologist Hilaire Belloc the dissolution of the religious houses was central to his fairly simplistic assessment of the English Reformation in How the Reformation Happened. In his latest monograph, The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Geoff rey Moorhouse provides a detailed though somewhat uneven overview of this notorious episode.
In 1530 there were more than 800 religious houses in England containing over 9,000 professed men and women. The celebrated Benedictine abbey at Durham is the primary lens through which Moorhouse examines what life was like in the monasteries on the eve of the dissolution, as well as the dissolution itself. The first third of the book mainly examines the history and daily routine of this monastery. The author details at length how the life of the Durham abbey was structured around the Liturgy of the Hours. He also delves into the somewhat unique (and occasionally tense) relationship between the monks and the local cathedral.
The presence of the bodies of St. Cuthbert and Venerable Bede in Durham elevated the spiritual profile of the abbey. While monasteries both large and small were integral elements of the communities where they were located, the extensive landholdings and sizeable revenue of the Durham Benedictines made them major players in the affairs of the region. As Moorhouse notes, “The priors of Durham distributed largesse like princes when they were able to, and they themselves lived like the lords they more than nominally were.”
The monasteries—like Church institutions during the 16th century—were not immune from corruption and laxity. Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s chief advisors, seized on this pretext as a justifi cation for the Crown to get its hands on the extensive wealth of these professed communities. Commissioners were dispatched in 1535 to investigate the state of each religious house. The most notorious among these officials were Richard Layton and Thomas Leigh, who filed reports rife with shocking tales of monastic perversion. The credibility of these descriptions has been challenged by many historians, who note how extreme the findings of Layton and Leigh were when compared to the reports of the many other officials engaged in these monastic visitations. Thus the outrageous nature of their reports should be understood more as the product of zealous advocates of reformed theology eager to please their bureaucratic overlord than as an actual barometer of contemporary monastic corruption.
Nevertheless, the findings of the various commissioners were utilized by Cromwell to initiate the dissolution of some of the smaller religious communities. Moorhouse points out that Cromwell’s dissolution strategy was not entirely novel, but rather was clearly influenced by the actions of his former master, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, over a decade before. In 1525 Wolsey, the paragon of English ecclesiastical corruption, had suppressed—with Cromwell’s assistance—almost two dozen smaller monastic houses in order to fund new colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. In April 1536, Parliament passed the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries. All religious communities of fewer than 12 members were to be suppressed and all their lands, goods, and income were to be turned over to the Crown. The monks and nuns of these dissolved houses were allowed either to transfer to a larger community or re enter the world and receive a pension from the Crown. The Court of Augmentations was created to oversee the dissolution process and the perjurer and ladder-climber Richard Rich was appointed as its head. In fact, one thing a reader will likely take away from Moorhouse’s study is that Cromwell and Rich were possibly even more conniving and venal than Robert Bolt’s famous play A Man for All Seasons made them out to be.
However, it would be a mistake to hold that Cromwell envisioned a fullscale destruction of English monasticism from the outset. Even Hilaire Belloc, in spite of his hatred of Cromwell, recognized this. For if a plan for wholesale dissolution had already been decided, why would monks and nuns from the lesser houses have been allowed to relocate to other communities? Moreover, a number of the smaller houses were given exemptions during the first phase of the dissolution. On top of that, Henry even founded several religious communities while these smaller houses were being dissolved. In reality, the relatively smooth and lucrative nature of the initial suppression invited a much wider policy of dissolution and seizure over the next several years.
In November 1537 Cromwell began targeting the better-endowed priories and abbeys. Great efforts were made to limit any possible resistance or criticism from local populations. The Crown claimed that these monasteries were being “surrendered” or “handed-over” as opposed to being “confiscated” or “dissolved.” By the following year the very notion of monastic life was being challenged, as royal officials argued that the religious houses embodied and encouraged superstitious practices. Still, while some involved in overseeing or promoting the dissolution may have been motivated by religious ideology, the king and his council were plainly driven by greed. As Thomas Marshall, the abbot of Colchester, bitterly reflected, “If all the water in the Thames were flowing gold and silver, it were not able to slake their covetousness.” Not surprisingly, the abbot was later hanged, drawn, and quartered for this candor. On the last of day of 1539, with little fanfare, the great Durham abbey was surrendered to the Crown. By March of 1540 all the convents and monasteries had been suppressed and the religious communities disbanded.
It has often been said that the bishops during the English Reformation were not made of the stuff of martyrs. This refrain could also be applied to the professed religious in England. There were few Thomas Marshalls, and even Marshall himself had desperately denied his earlier criticisms during his interrogation in the Tower of London. In truth, the largest monasteries had only facilitated their own demise. When the act suppressing the smaller religious houses was passed in 1536, all 28 abbots in Parliament supported it. Belloc emphasized the complicity of the gentry and aristocracies in the English Reformation, but the reality is that the English church was equally obliging. Hugh Whitehead, the prior of the Durham Benedictines, exemplified this typical behavior.
Moorhouse’s study is not without its flaws. The issue of the dissolution’s impact on Tudor society, particularly the poor, should have been more fully considered. His juggling of the book’s dual focus on Durham abbey and the general dissolution is at times unwieldy. While he may be much more historically sensible and rigorous, his writing can’t even come close to matching Belloc’s always engaging prose. Finally, the book ends with a rather ridiculous ode to Whitehead’s accommodation of the dissolution, which frankly sums up Anglicanism in the 21st century.
The dissolution of the monasteries was also the subject of the first of C.J. Sansom’s excellent historical novels set during the reign of Henry VIII. His fourth and latest tome, Revelation, centers once again on Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer and disillusioned reformer. The story is set in 1543 London as rumors run rampant that the once-again bachelor king is attempting to woo a sixth wife, Catherine Parr, the somewhat reluctant widownext- door (she’d been married one time before). With these political developments unfolding in the background, Shardlake is pulled into investigating a series of grisly murders which may be inspired by the last book of the New Testament and could possibly derail the potential marriage of Henry and Lady Catherine.
The label “bad historical novel” is usually a redundancy, but Sansom manages to defy the odds. His Shardlake series has been rightly praised for its ability to construct entertaining, suspenseful plots while effectively recreating the aura of the Tudor period. While most of the main characters are fictional, the historical figures who do appear are depicted in a mostly credible and interesting way. Thomas Cranmer is rather world-weary, Thomas Seymour is exceedingly reckless, Catherine Parr is quietly circumspect, and Richard Rich is generally soulless. Sansom thankfully avoids the blatant anachronisms and the insufferable sermonizing that are the typical pitfalls of many historical novels. This achievement may be partially due to the author’s background. He earned a PhD in history from the University of Birmingham and later worked as an attorney before his latest incarnation as a full-time writer.
One of the many things that Revelation— as well as the other books in the series—does so well is convey the religious tumult of Henry’s reformation. The protagonist’s close friend, Guy, is a Catholic who defends the merits of the old religion. One of the recurring themes of the novel is the dissolution’s continuing impact on Tudor society. Shardlake has a legal colleague who is attempting to raise funds for the relief of the poor, an issue that many of the characters acknowledge has been exacerbated by the closure of the monasteries. The book is also populated with a number of characters who are ex monks, including Guy, who attest to a sense of continuing disarray now that they have been thrust back into the world.
Indeed, both Moorhouse and Sansom effectively illustrate the religious fluidity and diversity that existed in England during the early decades of the English Reformation. In doing so they present a more nuanced and accurate depiction of this era than either Belloc or his Anglican sparring-partners were willing to concede.
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