the 'voluntary surrender' of church wealth -- 6/20/16

Today's selection -- from Tudors by Peter Ackroyd. When England's King Henry VIII made his epochal split from the Catholic Church in 1533, he and his court took the further step of seizing most of the wealth of the church, which was estimated to hold one-third of all the land in England. The first of this occurred when some of the monks and abbots of England unsuccessfully rebelled against the split:

"Any monks or abbots complicit in the late rebellion were seized and executed, their houses surrendered to the king. The abbots of Kirkstead and Barlings, of Fountains and Jervaulx and Whalley, were all hanged; they were followed a year later by the abbots of Glastonbury, Colchester and Reading. This was merely the prelude to a more general confiscation. The fact that the king had prevailed over the Pilgrimage of Grace meant that he and Cromwell felt emboldened to continue, and to widen, their policy of suppression. Within three years the monasteries, the friaries, the priories and the nunneries would be gone. ...

Glastonbury Abbey, dissolved in 1539

"Some of the great abbots were first obliged to surrender their houses, signing a declaration that 'they did profoundly consider that the manner and trade of living, which they and others of their pretended religion, had for a long time followed, consisted in some dumb ceremonies . . . by which they were blindly led, having no true knowledge of God's laws'. This might charitably be called a voluntary surrender, although the threat of death or imprisonment lay behind it. These submissions were then followed by induced surrenders as one by one the greater monasteries fell. In the first eight months of 1538, for example, thirty-eight of them were appropriated by the Crown. ...

"Where did the spoils go? It had previously been proposed that the dissolution of the monasteries was for the higher good of the nation. The incomes of the various priories would be spent on colleges and hospitals and schools 'whereby God's work might the better be set forth, children brought up in learning, clerks nourished in the universities, old servants decayed to have livings, almshouses for poor folk to be sustained in, readers of Greek, Hebrew and Latin to have good stipends, daily alms to be ministered, mending of highways .. .' It never happened. The only deity worshipped was that of Mammon.

"It is difficult to estimate the size of monastic occupation. At the time it was believed that the clergy owned one third of the land, but it may be safe to presume that the monks controlled one sixth of English territory. This was of immense benefit to the Crown, and represents the largest transfer of land ownership since the time of the Norman conquest.

"The greater parts of the monastic lands were sold to the highest bidder or the highest briber; many went to the local gentry or to newly rich merchants who were eager to secure their status in a society based solidly on land ownership. ... [the king's chief minister Thomas] Cromwell and the duke of Norfolk, for example, shared between them the lands and revenues of the wealthy Cluniac priories at Lewes in Sussex and at Castle Acre in Norfolk. Crom­well eventually appropriated the land and revenue of six religious houses, and was widely reputed to be (after the king) the richest man in England. The duke of Northumberland secured eighteen monastic properties, while the duke of Suffolk became master of thirty foundations. Cartloads of plate and jewels were taken to the royal treasury."


Peter Ackroyd


Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I


St. Martin's Griffin


Copyright 2012 by Peter Ackroyd


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