Apart from his red hair, beard, giant girth and his equally gargantuan appetite for wives, the one thing we all associate with Henry VIII is the event that the authors of 1066 and All That called, with an eye for a memorable spelling mistake, ‘the Disillusion of the Monasteries’.
Other countries had embarked on national programmes of monastic closure before Thomas Cromwell realised that was a way to make his king rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
Indeed,earlier monarchs were in the habit of temporarily seizing the assets of priories tied to French mother houses whenever England was at war with France, and Henry V finally ‘nationalised’ all these ‘alien priories’ by act of Parliament in 1414. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, not to mention Eton College, were great beneficiaries of the closure of monasteries whose wealth was diverted into education.
But these were all partial and smallscale dissolutions compared with the one that Thomas Cromwell executed, and the thoroughness with which he managed the process makes today’s stealth-taxing politicians look like rank amateurs.
First, laws were passed in 1534 enabling Cromwell and his agents to visit every monastery to assess their value. This Valor Ecclesiasticus, or church valuation, was later used as a loot list. Cromwell deployed preachers who were commissioned to travel the length and breadth of the country during the autumn of 1535 with prepared sermons: the double message they hammered home was that monasteries were hives of licentiousness and corruption and that ‘if the abbeys went down, the king would never want any taxes again.’
The destruction that we associate with the Dissolution was neither universal nor instantaneous. Scenes of mass plunder were relatively rare, but the iconoclasm we associate with the later Puritan Revolution began as early as the 1540s, sometimes deliberately fostered by those who wanted to ensure that the Dissolution was permanent, with no opportunity for the monks to reconvene.
From Roche Abbey, in South Yorkshire, we have a very rare account of the speed and completeness with which a proud monastery could be brought low. It was written by Michael Sherbrook, rector of Wickersley (some five miles west of Roche) from 1567 to c. 1610. Sherbrook was only a child at the time of the Dissolution, but he recorded the memories of his father and uncle who witnessed the spoliation of Roche first-hand.
To read the full fascinating account look at issue 218 of Current Archaeology