The Dissolution of the Monasteries:
A New History
by james g. clark
yale university, 704 pages, $35
The closure of the eight hundred or so religious houses of medieval England and Wales by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1540 is now one of the set pieces of English history. The “Dissolution of the Monasteries” has become as well known as the Norman Conquest, the Spanish Armada, or the Glorious Revolution. Yet it has not received scholarly attention on the scale attempted here by James G. Clark since the two volumes issued by Cardinal Francis Gasquet long ago in 1888–89. There have been some excellent brief surveys, notably those of G. W. O. Woodward (1966) and Joyce Youings (1971), and Dom David Knowles covered the subject elegantly in the final volume (1959) of his great trilogy, The Religious Orders in England. But in the light of advances in our understanding of the English Reformation since the 1960s, it is time that someone took a fresh look at the Dissolution.
Clark’s monumental volume operates at an unprecedented level of detail and takes the reader in ten chapters from a world in which the monastic life was familiar and important to one in which it was but a memory (a memory superbly explored in Harriet Lyon’s Memory and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press, 2021). The book’s first and most successful part, in three chapters, can be seen as a companion to Eamon Duffy’s masterpiece, The Stripping of the Altars. Duffy’s magisterial and moving depiction of late-medieval English religion rather oddly left the “religion” out (“religion,” here, in the medieval sense of the vowed religious life). Clark evokes a world in which “religion” was part of the mental as well as the physical landscape, to all appearances inextricably integrated with the life of England’s regional and local communities.
Yet after its promising start, Clark’s laudable effort does not quite live up to its promise. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a remarkably well-documented process, but it was also complex and even tortuous, and its story is tricky to tell. Clark has consulted a stupendous range of archival material and extracted a vast amount of detail. But he seems to stagger under the load. The volume is studded with intriguing anecdotes and enlightening observations, but there is too much detail, not to mention needless repetition—for example, the same source is used to argue, at two different points, that the canons of Beeston in Norfolk were ignorant because they thought they were friars and evasive because they said they were. The decision to present this bulk of material in ten chunky chapters (one of them more than sixty pages long), without any subheadings, is inimical alike to rigorous analysis and compelling narrative. Despite the broad narrative arc—from pre-Reformation complacency to the often troubled fates of the dispossessed ex-religious—the focus of attention shifts confusingly along the way, both within and between the chapters, back and forth across those short five years. The reader is cast adrift on the ocean of detail.
The absence of a big picture or unified theory is partly intentional. Clark is rightly concerned to dispel any sense that the Dissolution was the fruit of some grand design, whether of Henry VIII or of Thomas Cromwell. Clark’s Dissolution is a contingent process, not so much a policy as a destination at which Henry’s government arrived before it realized where it was going. This account is persuasive up to a point, but no further. Evidently the Dissolution began as a mere restructuring. There were too many religious houses, many of them underendowed and understaffed. The statute of 1536, which mandated the closure of houses worth less than £200 a year, and the transfer of their inmates to larger, better managed institutions, was perhaps sensible. On a much smaller scale, the early Tudor period had a track record of closing down failing religious houses and reallocating their assets, mostly to educational goals. Now, of course, the assets were to be reallocated to Henry, Cromwell, and their cronies, which was not quite the same thing. But few people thought or feared in 1536 that the entire sector was at risk.
Among those who did were the northerners who rose in the greatest rebellion ever faced by a Tudor monarch, the Pilgrimage of Grace (October to December 1536). These rebels stalled the closures for a season, but when they had gone home the Dissolution resumed with a vengeance. A number of monasteries had played a part in the uprising, with two critical consequences. First, the monasteries that had been involved were either shut down by naked royal power or induced to surrender themselves into the king’s hand “voluntarily.” Second, and still more important, the monastic role in the rebellion touched off the king’s disenchantment with the vowed religious life as such.
It was the fall of the great Cluniac priory at Lewes in Sussex, in November 1537 (and its later demolition, with which Clark dramatically opens chapter VIII), that illustrated both the latent potential of “voluntary surrender” and the extent of the king’s dissatisfaction. A great house, worth far more than £200 a year, untainted by treason or rebellion, surrendered itself at the will of the king. If Lewes could go, nowhere was safe. This event was not just a harbinger but a signal, one widely received and understood. By January 1538, England was ringing with rumors that the king intended to close down every religious house in the land. Clark notes these rumors but then takes at face value Cromwell’s public denial, which he interprets as a “candid explanation” that Cromwell “did not look for, nor expect, a general suppression.” Wiser perhaps to heed the words of that quintessentially British character, the Rt. Hon. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister: “First rule in politics: never believe anything until it’s officially denied.” From that point onward, the Dissolution was a sort of race between a regime that knew what it wanted but realized it could not accomplish it at a stroke, and a population that suspected what was going on, assumed the worst, and sought to salvage what it could by all kinds of skulduggery before the crown gathered in the harvest of centuries of endowment and benefaction. Clark may be correct in his idea that, even at the start of 1540, when but a score of religious houses still stood and Cromwell was still at the height of his power, the Henrician regime had not yet determined on the absolute termination of the long history of English monasticism. But it’s hard to believe.
If The Dissolution of the Monasteries is short on the big picture, it is long on detail. Its claim on the reader’s attention is the way it seeks to put us in touch with the everyday realities both of late medieval English monasticism and of the crowded years of its rapid demise. Sadly, the book also falls somewhat short of expectations here. The reader of a massive scholarly tome expects to be able to rely on the technical expertise of the author and take the detail on trust. But here and there in the excellent opening chapters, a quizzical eyebrow might be raised at this or that claim or move. One might wonder, for example, about quoting in the context of the 1520s criticisms of the Franciscans from a letter written to Thomas Cromwell in 1538 by an early Protestant, Thomas, Lord Wentworth. Of course, as any professional historian knows, the occasional slip or false step is inevitable.
More serious concern is caused by this claim, concerning the king’s efforts to gain general acceptance for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn:
In the winter of 1533–34 the Carthusians in London and the Birgittines at Syon were subject to informal but persistent instruction. In a curious rotation, Bishops John Fisher, John Stokesley of London and Cromwell’s clerk, Thomas Bedyll, conveyed to them “the lernyng of theologians and that also of lawyers.”
There is nothing controversial in the idea that Henry’s regime was working hard to persuade the nuns of Syon Abbey to sign up to the king’s second marriage. But John Fisher? Fisher had been the most steadfast public opponent of Henry VIII’s long campaign to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon. That Fisher could have lent himself in any capacity to the task of persuading people that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid is quite literally inconceivable, and there is nothing in the source cited to suggest it. Just as disturbing, the phrase quoted from this source (which reads, in its original spelling, “that oone apperteyneng to the lernyng of theologiens and that odre [other] of the lawyers”) does not even refer to persuading the nuns. It is a recollection of the Convocation of the Church of England, which in April 1533 had approved two crucial statements (one in theology, the other in canon law) as the basis upon which Thomas Cranmer would formally annul the king’s first marriage. The writer of the letter was pointing out that a text drafted for the nuns to subscribe was inaccurate because it said that Convocation had approved the king’s second marriage, when in fact all it had done was to condemn his first marriage in the light of the opinions of the theologians and lawyers. This is not a minor slip but a significant misunderstanding. Regrettably, it is not the only one.
Leaving aside the legion of trivial transcription errors, which make the author’s decision to give hundreds of quotations in their original spelling look risky as well as unhelpful, we still are left with too many substantive misreadings and misunderstandings of sources. Only a small sample can be proffered here. Too many inferences, often hazardous, are presented as observations. The Cistercians of Boxley Abbey in Kent did not engage in “sufficient study” of Luther’s works “to put up a refutation of them for locals and pilgrims to read” in 1521. They simply posted on the gates of their abbey the papal condemnation of Luther’s teachings, which Cardinal Wolsey had promulgated across the kingdom in May that year. One John Husee did not write to Cromwell in October 1536 to say that “the religious house in his charge would be ‘soon despatched . . . I hope, if the rebels were once subdued.’” He wrote to Lady Lisle (he was the family's man of business) of his hope that a grant of the lands of a dissolved religious house would soon be “despatched” (that is, “issued”—not “shut down”). There is no suggestion that the house was “in his charge,” nor any reason to identify him as a commissioner for the dissolution (as is suggested here).
None other than the future Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, is called as a late Tudor witness to some supposedly “successful reformation” of monastic life under Henry in the mid-1530s, allegedly recalling how the monks’ “carnall kinde of behavior . . . was afterwarde amended in England, [as] may bee testified by the survey, which by Visitation of the Kings Commissioners was taken under King Henry the eight of famous memory.” Abbot did indeed write these words, but context is all. Having remarked on the “carnall kinde of behavior” that had already overwhelmed the monasteries in the days of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot continues five lines later with, one would have thought, unmistakable irony:
How this was afterwards amended in England, may be testified by the survey, which by visitation of the king’s commissioners was taken under King Henry the eight of famous memory, when by oaths of the religious persons themselves, much sodomitry and other uncleanness was detected.
Abbot was certainly not looking back on any “successful reformation” of monastic life.
Such often unaccountable errors spoil some of the best stories in the book. In a delightful vignette about the closure of Vale Royal Abbey (about twenty miles southwest of Liverpool), we find Abbot John Harware urging the royal agent, Thomas Holcroft, to get rid of the other monks as soon as possible and then, when they were gone, shutting “himself fast inside” and “declaring his intention to continue the monastic routine,” according to which he “shuld say masse.” Referring to the source cited, however, we find only that Harware urged Holcroft to throw the other monks out (“for they were but knaves”). There is not a word of his holding the house single-handed against all comers, let alone of any obstinate fidelity to reciting the hours; just an enquiry—part naivete, part sarcasm—as to “where he should say mass when I [Holcroft] had plucked down the church.” Again, it would be extremely interesting if the royal commissioner Richard Layton (rather bafflingly, always named “Richard Leighton” in this book) really had “seized the chance to take down some part of a shrine” when making his visitation of Canterbury Cathedral in October 1535. For Henry VIII’s regime made no direct attack on shrines until 1538. But this turns out to be a garbled version of precautions Layton took when a fire broke out in the precincts of the cathedral priory during his visit. He merely had men ready to take down the shrine (obviously that of St. Thomas) and evacuate its jewels and votive offerings (including, no doubt, its silver-gilt statue of Henry VII) to nearby St. Augustine’s if the fire spread to the cathedral itself—which it did not.
The letter from Thomas Goldwell (prior of Canterbury Cathedral) to Cromwell, featured at the start of chapter IX (“Changes of Habit”), is dated at “the turn of 1540,” whereas its actual date is Tuesday, August 20, 1538. Dating this letter correctly reveals it as a strong plea for the continuation of Christ Church, Canterbury as a monastery—rather than, as is claimed here, a personal plea that Goldwell be allowed to continue to wear monastic clothing. Errors such as this might have been avoided had the author opted to specify in his footnotes the writer, addressee, and place and date of writing for each of the hundreds of letters he cites, rather than giving a bare archival reference number. Such good practice might have forestalled the preposterous suggestion that the abbot of York took a spring break in France in 1539. For two letters from the abbot are cited within about two pages. The first, said to date from “early March” 1539, is dated March 1, at York. But the second, given as the source for the visit to France, turns out to be an unsigned letter from Paris in wholly different handwriting, erroneously attributed to the abbot thanks to a poorly edited catalog entry in State Papers Online—and also dated March 1. York to Paris in a day can be managed now, thanks to Eurostar. But not in 1539.
Despite these flaws, The Dissolution of the Monasteries has its merits. It offers a salutary corrective to the easy simplifications of the textbooks, which present a deceptively tidy story of the implementation of a rapidly evolving but at every stage relatively clear-cut plan. Though it draws back with professional reticence from overt moralizing, it retrieves the human experience of the overthrow of a way of life. Our contemporary world loves the speciously unmediated “lived experience,” packaged in interviews with individuals affected by the great events of our time. This study of the Dissolution offers something of that in its fundamentally inductive and synthetic (one might say pointillist) approach, building its picture by the aggregation of details. Clark anatomizes the Dissolution without exaggeration, reminding us that, if the monasteries did not just fall down slowly over long centuries, neither were they all—like Lewes—brought down in a week or two by an organized demolition team using gunpowder. He refrains from idle comment on the manifest tyranny of the king’s proceedings, and brings out not exactly their “bureaucratic” character (for the administration of Tudor England can hardly be called a “bureaucracy” in the modern sense), but the way in which the cataclysmically extraordinary was rendered almost ordinary through the humdrum routine of official instructions, tours of inspection, finely calibrated reports, careful inventories, and meticulously audited accounts. Peeping through that paperwork, of course, is another story, one of nods and winks, bribery and bullying, douceurs and deals, embezzlement, and favors for friends—a story of which we could have been told more.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries remains an important book, the most significant single work on the subject since Gasquet. Unfortunately, it rivals Gasquet in its error-rate as well as in its scale. (Dom David Knowles once said that the aging Gasquet’s “capacity for carelessness amounted almost to genius.”) As a result, though it still has value for the professional historian (not least as an object lesson), it is hard to recommend for the general reader, who will not as a rule be in a position to identify and discount its errors. And the masses of detail end up obscuring the meaning of the events they should illuminate. A process that began as a reform of religion ended up as a redefinition of religion. Until 1535, English people had been told, in church, in English, several times a year, that to take away the property of the church was a sacrilege that brought down on the perpetrator ipso facto excommunication. Within five years, all monastic property had been confiscated, altars had been desecrated, relics had been defiled, churches torn down, holy things of all kinds despoiled, and the monastic life itself dismissed as hypocrisy and superstition. These changes brought about a seismic shift in the landscape of the sacred. The Dissolution of the Monasteries did not make the people of England Protestant. But it may have done more than any other act of Henry VIII’s to make a Protestant Reformation in England possible.
Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge.