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Raised from the Ruins: Monastic houses after the Dissolution, by Jane Whitaker

08 October 2021

William Whyte on the Dissolution’s legacy

AUTHOR of several titles, including Tithes too Hot to be Touched, the 17th-century antiquary Sir Henry Spelman hoped to make his name with The History and Fate of Sacrilege. In it, he argued that the families who profited from the Dissolution of the Monasteries had brought a terrible curse upon themselves. Ironically enough, Spelman’s text was sent to the printers in 1663, but lost during the Great Fire of London, and finally published only in 1698.

The sense Spelman articulated was widely shared, however. A new and expanded edition of his Sacrilege was published in the 19th century. So were a host of Victorian novels, many of them depicting the degenerate descendants of those who had grown rich on the despoliation of sacred sites. There is a hint of this, too, in Jane Austen’s work, not least Catherine Morland’s expectation that Northanger Abbey will call up “some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun”.

Rather like Catherine’s encounter with the actual Northanger Abbey, nothing could be further away from Spelmanian gloom than the gorgeous photographs and enthusiastic prose of Raised from the Ruins. Taking a small sample from the 850 monastic houses closed between 1535 and 1540, Jane Whitaker shows the ways in which both institutions and individuals reshaped their sites, adapting and altering these centuries-old foundations to their own purposes.

Ranging from Oxbridge colleges to private houses and from the grandest to the most diminutive of convents, the book is, however, a little like Spelman in its approach. Each chapter details a single case study — whether of Magdalene College, Cambridge, Reading Abbey, the London Charterhouse, Newstead Priory, or one of the other 32 houses described.

This massing of examples has the virtue of revealing variety. The collegiate story is one of continuity. Indeed, as Diarmaid MacCulloch once observed, it is not clear to what extent the monastic colleges were truly dissolved at all. The private houses, however, each have rather different stories to tell — and some now have almost no visible connection to their monastic past.

The disadvantage is one of repetition. It is also hard for any reader to see the wood from the trees. It would be wonderful for someone to synthesise this into a single volume, drawing out the key themes. Whitaker, who writes winningly and really understands her stuff, would surely do that brilliantly. In the mean time, we can enjoy this insightful, intriguing, and beautiful study.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


Raised from the Ruins: Monastic houses after the Dissolution
Jane Whitaker
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