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The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A new history by James G. Clark

22 April 2022

Alec Ryrie on the looting of English monasticism

TUDOR England’s Reformation was in many ways rather humdrum: no wars of religion, no true theological giants, and in the end an awkwardly compromised religious settlement. Only in a few aspects was it an outlier. Its rulers’ ecumenical cruelty: nowhere else executed both Catholics and Protestants with such balanced verve. And, of course, the fate of its monasteries. Most Protestant countries allowed the old religious orders to expire quietly. England’s eight hundred houses were exterminated in less than four years: the most traumatic exercise of royal power since the Norman Conquest.

For all that we all know the huge significance of this event, recent historians have shied away from it: a story at once too big and complex, and too brutally simple, to tell. Now James Clark, a historian at Exeter University, has had the nerve to take it on, over nearly 700 pages. The result is not definitive, but will be a starting point for all future students of the Dissolution.

The book’s strongest point is its back-story. England’s monasteries were not waning in their last century, but they were being brought ever more firmly under royal control. This sometimes included selective dissolutions, aimed at releasing funds to support pious projects: Archbishop Chichele did it in the 15th century, Cardinal Wolsey in the 16th. Wolsey, as the first non-monk to serve as an abbot since 1066, is, indeed, something of a turning point. But there is no hint that the Tudor regimes despised or feared monasticism. They valued it enough to want it reformed.

And their orders were obeyed. Henry VIII’s subjects included ten thousand religious; only sixty refused to acknowledge him as Supreme Head of the Church. The execution of a small awkward squad in 1534 served very effectively to encourage the others. An obedient, modernised, fit-for-purpose monastic estate beckoned.

alamy“Henry VIII Monk Hunting” by John Leech (1817-64), from The Comic History of England (1846), used in the book

What went wrong? Clark firmly agrees with the modern consensus that there was no conspiracy or premeditated plan. Instead, a limited round of closures in 1536 drove a few monasteries to offer some rash support to the rebels of that autumn. And this started a cascade, in which monasteries suspected of treason were ordered to submit, and those who feared that they might be next rushed to buy their way to immunity. The regime probably intended to honour these deals, but could not resist coming back for more. And no one could now resist them.

Seeing which way the wind was blowing, lay people stopped giving alms to the friars, who depended on charity to survive; so another group of foundations fell into the regime’s lap. The regime’s assault on the cult of relics fatally undermined another group of houses. Before anyone realised what was happening, it was almost over. Commissioners across the country found themselves unexpectedly responsible for vast properties: as they lacked any coherent plans for them, it was all that they could do to keep looting to a minimum.

Clark is so determined to show us that the Dissolution was not inevitable that at times this reads like an explanation of why it did not happen. But even if no one planned it, that does not mean that it could have been avoided. European settlers in North America had no premeditated plan to seize the entire continent from its indigenous people, but it is hard to imagine a world in which that did not happen. The proverbial drunkard has no plan to end up in the gutter, but his listing progress along the street still has only one possible final destination.

But you will not read this book for its account of government policy: rather, for its view of how that policy looked and felt to the communities that were destroyed by it, and to the commissioners who were trying to put it into practice even without quite knowing what it was. The book ends, not with a conclusion telling us what it all meant, but an epilogue tracing the fate of England’s last monks and nuns, and how successive generations soon began to rue the destruction.

History does not teach lessons, but perhaps there is one here: in the hands of an overbearing but incoherent government, the unthinkable can become the inevitable with bewildering haste. And there will be centuries of leisure during which to repent.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.


The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A new history
James G. Clark
Yale £25
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