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Smashed up and sold off – How were the monasteries dissolved under Henry VIII?

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When we think of the dissolution of the monasteries, we often imagine that Henry VIII’s commissioners marched in, executed the monks and smashed the place up. The reality for the majority of religious houses was a much quieter, more bureaucratic affair. So what was the process of dissolution?

The process started with an audit of all the religious houses in England and Wales. In the mid-1530s there were 825 religious houses, occupied by approximately 9300 men and women. The audit not only recorded the wealth and annual income of each establishment, it also investigated whether the monks and nuns were living lives of frugality and celibacy. For many years there had been allegations of religious personnel living lives of ease and excess, ignoring their religious offices, and entertaining lovers. Actually, very few cases of misconduct were found.

Following this audit, in 1536 the smaller religious houses and those with incomes under £200 were dissolved, and the monks and nuns moved to larger establishments. However, by 1538, Henry VIII and his adviser Cromwell had realised the wealth that was tied up in religious houses, and decided on a wholesale dissolution, which would bring the monastic lands and income into the crown’s coffers.

Commissioners were appointed to local regions, and they visited religious houses one by one, dissolving them. Dissolution followed this process:

* The abbot or head of the religious house signed the document of surrender. At this point the abbey or monastery no longer existed and was in the hands of the crown.

* The abbey seal was handed to the commissioners – this was a symbolic surrender.

* As soon as the seal was handed over, the abbey property – buildings, doors, hinges, plates, blankets, pipes, tables etc - was auctioned off and turned into cash.

* The monks were dispersed and given a pension. For ordinary monks this was £5 a year (about the same as an unskilled labourer); but abbots could be handsomely pensioned. For example, Abbot Sagar, Abbot of Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, was given an annual pension of £100 a year. He also had a job as Henry VIII’s chaplain.

* The abbey’s property might be gifted or sold to those loyal to Henry VIII. Often they used part of the monastic buildings as a house, and demolished the rest.

* Some abbeys were demolished and the stone sold off, but the cost of demolishing all of them was prohibitive.

* Local people often stole stone, windows, and roofing from abbeys to make their own homes. People caught stealing from former abbeys were punished harshly.

* Many former monks found employment as religious clerics.

* Remarkably, the last monk receiving a dissolution pension died in 1607 – almost seventy years after dissolution.

The majority of religious houses submitted to dissolution voluntarily and dissolution was a bloodless process. However, some Abbots, such as the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, opposed dissolution. If they persisted, they were charged with treason and executed: in the Glastonbury case, by being dragged up to the top of the Tor and executed in front of a huge crowd.

My latest novel, Holy Blood, is partly set during the dissolution of the monasteries, but how can one dramatise a process that was essentially bureaucratic? The answer, for me, came in the auction of abbey property. Holy Blood is set in Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire. Hailes was famous for housing a relic known as the Holy Blood of Hailes – a phial of Christ’s blood that was reputedly collected when he was crucified. Abbot Sagar handed over the relic in 1538, and the following year voluntarily signed the document of surrender. Hailes was surrendered on 24th December 1539 – Christmas Eve – and that’s where I found the drama.

Imagine the scene. It’s Christmas Eve, one of the most important dates in the Christian calendar, and the abbey that once housed the blood of the man whose birth is being venerated has just been surrendered. Twenty-two monks now have no vocation and nowhere to live, and everything that belonged to the abbey is just about to be auctioned off. The auctions took place in the cloister or chapter house the moment the abbey was surrendered. So Christmas Eve at Hailes wasn’t characterised by worship and reverence, but strangers grubbing to get every penny they could for the abbey’s property.

What makes it even more shocking is that the monks didn’t own their robes and habits: they were also the property of the abbey and could be sold off. There was the drama: a cold, snowy day; an auction in the middle of the cloister; the bewildered and heart-broken monks watching as their home and vocation is torn from them; and then the final indignity - being told to strip as their robes and habits are to be auctioned off.

The dissolution of the monasteries might not have been an orgy of smashing and killing, but there is drama and real human suffering there. And sometimes, the quieter, personal story of the dissolution is more powerful than the wider, political narrative.

By Kim Fleet

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