King Henry VIII became king of England in 1509. In April 1536, in the 27th year of his reign there were throughout England and Wales more than 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries and within them 10,000 monks, canons, nuns and friars.
By April 1540 these places of religious, artistic and architectural patronage had been dealt a parliamentary act of death. The social and religious turmoil of these four years is what is known as the dissolution of the monasteries.
Fundamentally monasticism is a specialised religious discipline that seeks to refine and deepen the experience of God by giving up certain aspects of ordinary human life. Monks, nuns and friars take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The origins of monasticism can be traced to Egypt in the late 3rd century, and by 4th century it had developed two main forms: the life of an individual in a completely solitary existence (as a hermit), and life in a community according to agreed customs and rules (coenobitic life).
Monasticism in England is as old as the conversion of the English to christianity. Augustine and his companions who came to Canterbury in 597 all lived by the Benedictine rule. Although this rule was well known in England it did not become the normal form of monastic organisation until the 10th century.
As a result of the Viking invasions most monastic communities were destroyed and by 920 monasticism in England was almost extinct. A spiritual revival largely inspired by St Dunstan ensured that some of England's oldest monasteries such as Glastonbury, Abingdon and Romsey were re-founded some years after Viking destruction. The Norman Conquest inspired further building of Benedictine monasteries.
The Cistercian order was founded in the 12th century to challenge the leniency in the Benedictine monasteries. The monks of the Cistercian order sought the solitude of moorland and mountain valleys for the setting of their great houses. These elaborate buildings contrasted with the disciplined and simple lives of the monks that lived in them. At around the same time Augustinian and Premonstratension canons started to appear. These small houses were dedicated to teaching and evangelism. They flourished close to towns and castles bringing the word of god to the poor and sick. In the 13th century several orders of friars were founded. They relied exclusively on the charity of the people they ministered to and dedicated themselves to the spiritual and educational of both poor and intellectual alike.
At the time of the Black Death (1348-1349) there were around 1,000 houses of which 200 were friaries and 150 were nunneries. At this time it is estimated that 14,000 men and 3,000 women were living the religious life.
In the 14th century the monastic enthusiasm of the past 200 years had abated. There were still new periods of building but recruits to the orders had declined.As a result of the Black Death most of the great houses were half-empty, and in general there was little enthusiasm for the religious life.
Many of the large abbeys were landowners on a large scale and had become trapped in the drudgery of property owning and the responsibilities that it entailed. Senior monks found themselves deeply involved in management and administration, supervising tenants or engaging in litigation in defense of the abbeys rights and privileges. As a result of this they were drawn into a very secular way of life that was little distinguished from the country gentry around them.
In the more important houses the abbots found themselves obliged to serve the crown in a variety of capacities. Thirty of the most important abbots sat in the upper house of Parliament. These men were no longer sharing the common life with their monks they had established themselves a household in a separate lodging surrounded by their own servants and retainers. Even the recreational pursuits that they engaged in were secular in style, hunting and hawking being popular with many.
The large and famous abbeys were only one side of English monasticism. Two thirds of religious houses were small and their names and sites in many cases have been forgotten today. A lot of them housed only a few monks and nuns and had no vast estates or large staffs to depend upon. As a result they had to contend themselves with a modest way of life. Even in the smallest houses the spiritual way of life was not strictly adhered to and vows of chastity were regularly broken. The general pattern in English monastic life by the early 16th century was one of decline.
In 1536 the concept of suppression was not a new one; Cardinal Wolsey had suppressed several small houses to finance his college at Oxford, and the King had suppressed others for his own benefit.
Before the act, Henry's vicar general, Thomas Cromwell compiled a report on nearly every monastery and nunnery in the country. It was with cold- blooded efficiency that Cromwell handled the dissolution, he reported to Parliament that manifest sin, and vicious, carnal and abominable living was a daily practice amongst the smaller abbeys. As a result and under the concealment of reform, the Suppression Act transferred to the crown all the lands and property of any religious house with an income of less than £200 a year. The country's response and lack of resistance to the Act was varied. In Southern England the government benefited from widespread indifference to monastic life, but in the north conservative religious rhetoric played a prominent part in organised opposition.
The revolt that took place in the north of England was called the Pilgrimage of Grace. The rebels chose as their leader a lawyer from London called Robert Aske. The position in which he found himself was a precarious one and not one of his choosing. Aske co-ordinated the rebels demands and negotiated a peace with the Duke of Norfolk at Doncaster and in doing so was persuaded to disband his forces. After this the King gave a personal assurance in London that there would a redress of rebels grievances, but after further uprisings in Scarborough and Hull in January 1537 Henry changed his mind. The rebels were ruthlessly crushed and Aske suffered the gruesome death of a traitor at York along with 250 other unfortunates around the country.
The government, having now removed all opposition, concentrated on the total dissolution of the monasteries. In March 1540 the task was completed with the surrender of the abbey at Waltham. The dissolution came to an end and there were no religious houses left anywhere in England and Wales.
As a result of the dissolution the royal purse was full and Henry VIII had eliminated the last bastions of potential resistance to his royal supremacy. There occurred a terrible and widespread destruction of art, architecture and literature. Very soon the great houses fell into decay and became the spiritual skeletons that we see today.
The social and economic effects were not as bad as one might think. There was no great loss of charity resulting in large numbers of displaced persons, for monastic charity had been of only marginal significance. There was no great educational disaster either because the monks teaching had always been chiefly directed towards their own novices and postulants. The most notable change was probably the ending of pilgrimages. Most of the famous shrines had been destroyed in 1538 for being focuses of undesirable superstition. What the dissolution did do is contribute significantly to the secularisation of life and society, which was one of the most important features of the reformation that followed.