Richard Whiting, Abbot of Glastonbury


Henry VIII and the Reformation

The dissolution of the monasteries

From about the 5th century onwards, monasticism had been an important part of Christianity.
England itself was converted by monastic missionaries.
The Cistercian order was particularly influential in England in the 12th century.

But monasticism began a slow decline in numbers and influence:  the Black Death reduced the number of monks, and the friars became more influential in lay circles.
When Henry VIII launched his attack on the English monasteries they were poorly placed to defend themselves.
A greedy monk
Ruined corbel portraying a greedy monk
[Photograph Michael Best.]


Although the population of England was increasing during the 16th century, the number of monks and nuns was in decline. (The number of monks fell from about twelve to ten thousand, and of nuns from 2,000 to 1,600).
Monastic houses varied greatly both in the number of monks and in their revenues. The vast land holdings of the monasteries, however, meant that in total  they controlled about one half of the church's annual income.

Polemical literature accused monks of many scandalous faults - Protestant tracts were particularly keen on accusing nuns of murdering the infants that resulted from their promiscuous lives. In fact, most religious were guilty of little more than lacking any vocation and so living as comfortably as they could. Only the three small orders of Bridgettines, Franciscan Observants, and Carthusians were noted for high standards.
The monasteries were major landlords and were no better (but no worse) than their lay counterparts in the way they treated their tenants.
Waltham Abbey
Waltham Abbey
Thomas Cromwell began to conceive of dissolving the monasteries in about 1534, but the plan was not put into practice until 1536. Henry's government needed money, but knew it would be unpopular to demand new taxes from Parliament.
First, Thomas Cromwell orchestrated a publicity campaign to make monasteries seem corrupt. Then, in 1536 Parliament passed an Act dissolving all monasteries with an income of less than 200 per annum. The members of minor monasteries were allowed to move to the larger ones.

The Initial Impact of the 1536 Dissolution

Because initially only the lesser religious houses were dissolved (and even a few of these were able to obtain licenses to continue), the impact of the 1536 Dissolution varied in different parts of England. The impact on the South West, for example, was far less than on the North.

In 1539, another Act was passed dissolving the larger monasteries also. The last English monastery - Waltham Abbey - was closed in 1540.
Some provision in the form of pensions was made for the monks and nuns, especially for abbots. The Court of Augmentations was created to administer the monastic land, and it paid pensions even after most of this land had been sold by crown; but by 1552 about half of pensions were in arrears.

 Consequences of the Dissolution

Sir Thomas Pope, who grew wealthy administering the dissolution

The immediate effect of the Dissolution was to transfer vast tracts of land to the Crown. Monastic land was worth at least three times as much as existing royal landholdings. Henry also acquired vast amounts of gold and silver plate, worth as much as one million pounds.
The Crown also acquired the monasteries' right to collect tithes (support from the parish to its priest) which had been taken over by the monasteries in exchange for them paying the priest a wage instead.
Many monasteries had also held the right to choose which person should become priest of a parish. This right of presenting to a church living was known as an advowson, and about two in five English advowsons were controlled by monasteries. All these fell to the Crown making it an overwhelmingly powerful patron.

Before the Reformation, 25 abbots had sat in the House of Lords; -  all of them lost their places leaving the secular lords in a majority over the Bishops (who continued to sit).
The Dissolution of the monasteries involved a certain amount of physical destruction: buildings decayed because the lead was seized from the roofs; libraries were broken up and sold off. Moreover, traditional charitable functions of feeding and housing travelers ceased.
Henry VIII promised to found thirteen new bishoprics on the proceeds from the dissolution, but only nine (Peterborough, Gloucester, Chester, Oxford, Bristol and Westminster; the last of these was suppressed by Edward VI in 1550) were actually created.

Great Gate
Trinity College, Cambridge

Henry VIII did found a number of schools and Trinity College, Cambridge, but on balance charity and education suffered.
Not only the Crown gained by the Dissolution - many royal administrators and clients lined their pockets with monastic money.

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said,
What a good boy am I!

Jack Horner was the steward of the last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting. In 1543, as part of an attempt to obtain Henry VIII's favor, Whiting sent Jack Horner to the king with title deeds of a number of valuable properties. To foil thieves, these deeds were concealed in a large pie. On the journey, Jack Horner surreptitiously opened the pie and extracted the deed of Mells Manor, Somerset.

Shortly after the Dissolution, the Horner family moved into Mells Manor, and live there to this day.

  1. The steward's name was Thomas, not Jack (although it is true that 'Jack' is a common English nickname for any amusing rogue).
  2. There is no written source for this story before the 18th century.
  3. The Horner family has always insisted that the manor was perfectly legitimately purchased (along with some other properties).


The seizure of monastic land gave the Crown the possibility of complete financial independence. Had Henry VIII exploited it prudently, he and his successors might never have needed to call Parliament again. 
But from the very beginning, and particularly between 1543 and 1547, Henry sold most of the land to pay for extravagant wars with France and Scotland.

The land was bought by merchants, by yeomen syndicates, by noblemen, and - overwhelmingly - by neighboring gentry families.
Nobles and gentlemen also bought the impropriated tithes and advowsons, and so strengthened their hand in parish affairs.
The enrichment of the gentry increased their power and independence relative to both Church and Crown. It also created a powerful pressure group with a vested interest in ensuring that the old Roman Catholic church was never fully restored.


The English Bible

 William Tyndale's New Testament was published in part in Cologne in 1525, and in full at Worms in 1526; it was soon banned in England as heretical. Tyndale produced a revised version in 1534.
But Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer did persuade Henry VIII to allow the publication in England of a vernacular Bible. This project came to fruition in Matthew's Bible of 1537 (a version combining Tynadle's New Testament with Miles Coverdale's Old Testament, revised, annotated, and edited by John Rogers (who worked under the assumed name of Thomas Matthew.)
In 1539, it was revised and reissued as the Great Bible, In May 1541, a Royal Proclamation ordered every parish to comply Cromwell's instructions and have a copy  for public use before Ash Wednesday, 1541.
(The first Welsh translation of the Bible was not printed until 1567).
Henry grew increasingly concerned about the social and political consequences of allowing the lower orders to read the Bible, but his attempts to limit access were ineffectual.
The title page of the Great Bible shows Henry passing on the word of God to his bishops and people


In his speech to Parliament of December 1545, Henry complained that he was
 "sorry to know and hear how unreverently that most precious jewel, the word of God is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern".



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