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Dissolution of The Monasteries

In the early sixteenth century, one in every 375 people in England was in a religious order. Monasteries were great landowners, and thirty abbots were lords in Parliament. The widespread view that they were wholly corrupt is probably exaggerated. However, the supposed corruption allowed the official case against the monasteries to rest on moral grounds, even though the motive was to gain finance for the Crown. Henry VIII needed money, and Thomas Cromwell* saw in the dissolution a good way to enrich the royal purse. A subsidiary motive of Cromwell was possibly the desire to stamp out the veneration of relics.

The dissolution began when Parliament gave its approval in early 1536 to an Act for the suppression of smaller monasteries. This meant in practice that 243 were actually closed, which was three of every ten religious houses. Many of the dispossessed monks and nuns transferred to larger houses. Despite the violent language of its preamble, this Act of 1536 should not be regarded as the first stage of a carefully planned attack upon English monasticism, but rather as a moderate measure of reorganization to release surplus property for secular use. In the north of England the dissolution provided rebels with a popular cause and rallying cry. The Pilgrimage of Grace* was, however, soon put down. The fact that monks from the larger abbeys had taken part in the rebellion resulted in the establishment of important precedents for surrender and forfeiture when once the government decided later to suppress all the religious orders.

Between 1537 and 1540 the larger abbeys and houses of the friars were gradually taken over through a process of surrender. By March 1540 the religious orders in England were no more. The Act of 1539, sometimes called “the Second Dissolution Act,” did not transfer to the Crown the property of any abbeys. Rather, its purpose was to set at rest the doubts concerning the validity of deeds of surrender and to legalize all surrenders that had occurred and would occur.

See G.W.C. Woodward, The Dissolution of the Monasteries (1966).