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Cromwell cast in a kinder light

23 July 2021

Was the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the 1530s an early form of Vision and Strategy for the C of E, David Wilbourne muses


Ben Miles plays Thomas Cromwell in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2014

Ben Miles plays Thomas Cromwell in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon...

HAVING grown up in Aughton, the home of Robert Aske, leader of Yorkshire’s Pilgrimage of Grace, and having been 12 years a Vicar of Rievaulx, the home of the foremost Cistercian Abbey in England, I feel highly qualified to reimagine the 1530s and see them in a kinder light.

For instance, might the Dissolution of the Monasteries be a deliberate distortion of Thomas Cromwell’s original De Solution of the Monasteries, a legal term combining Latin and English, in translation: “Concerning the solution of the monasteries”? If so, Cromwell’s unequivocal intent was to not to destroy the monasteries, but to solve their problems, enabling their exponential growth, under the direction of the Cromwell Commission for Monastery Multiplication.

Many have accused Cromwell of urging his commissioners to dismantle physically the monastic buildings, giving the high-quality stone to the King’s cronies to build their Tudor mansions. But, just maybe, Cromwell had actually realised that the essence of monasticism, centuries of daily prayer, had soaked into those stones, making them acutely numinous. Dispersing the stones throughout the kingdom thereby hallowed the secular stones and homes with which they came into contact, would enable each single monastery to spawn 10,000 others.


CROMWELL’s commissioners’ stripping of the monastery roofs has been deemed a deliberate act of vandalism to hasten the buildings’ demise. But was Cromwell dutifully led by the science, which advised ventilating communal buildings to minimise the impact and transmission of bubonic plague and the Black Death? These two global epidemics had already devastated the monastic population in previous centuries: a decline that Cromwell, as monasticism’s champion, would wish to guard against and reverse.

Furthermore, burning the timbers from the aforementioned roofs may have had no destructive intent whatsoever. Rather, was it aimed at providing warmth for the monks and nuns in damp and dank (and now extremely draughty) monastic buildings, thereby offsetting the predicted effects of global freezing, aka the Tudor mini-Ice Age?

Cromwell’s commissioners have been accused of melting down the lead from the aforementioned roofs, forming ingots of the precious metal and transporting them away for their own financial gain. Once again, were they ahead of the game, merely following the science, which deemed lead to be highly toxic and dangerous? With scant regard for their own personal health and safety, did they extract and remove and safely dispose of the lead, often burying it deep in their own back gardens?


MUCH was made in the media of the mass expulsion of monks and nuns. Monks who had subscribed to the 1534 Act of Supremacy were “encouraged” to become parish priests and take nuns as their wives; those who had refused to subscribe were impoverished, begging for their keep, and nuns were often forced into prostitution.

Could not this be false news, spinned by scurrilous rascals? After substantial and careful consultations between the commissioners and each monastic community, the monks and nuns concerned would be extremely keen to follow our Lord’s injunction, recorded in Luke 10.

So, they became missionary disciples, going out in pairs to plant Christ in every part of the community: a mixed ecology, which included centres of severe poverty and utter degradation. In being keen to pair off, monks and nuns, living in love and faith, would counter previous slurs about unnatural and perverted acts committed in all-male or all-female monasteries and nunneries, setting before their congregations the ideal of one-woman-one-man relationships.

The commissioners have been accused of sentencing abbots and abbesses who refused to subscribe to the Act of Supremacy to be hanged, drawn, and quartered: the most horrendous of executions. Once again, could this be a gross slur and misrepresentation of the most kindly intent?

The abbots and abbesses concerned, afflicted by severe abdominal problems caused by modelling the poor diet dictated by their orders, would need acute surgery. Might Cromwell’s high regard for these monastic leaders have fast-tracked them to the top of the hospital waiting lists, so that they didn’t have to hang around, with lots being drawn as to which abbot or abbess should be the first to be quartered in an infirmary?

Led by the science, world-beating pioneering surgery, administered by the most highly trained practitioners, understandably would draw large crowds of sympathetic medical students, keen to witness this innovative technique. As with any medical initiative, initial mortality rates would unfortunately be extremely high. Anaesthesia, too, was in its infancy, meaning that limitation and control of pain would not always be as good as one would have wished.

Whatever, as we clap our Henrician Health Service heroes for performing so many complex operations so rapidly, perhaps we might spare the biggest applause for Cromwell, the hero of monasticism’s hour. Except that, whenever I visited, it wasn’t Morituri te salutamus that Rievaulx’s ruined stones cried out; rather, it was paradoxical St Paul who repeatedly pierced my fevered imagination: “Dying, but behold we live.”

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in the diocese of York.

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