In the 1530s, prior John Houghton, head of a London monastery, was considered “a last flowering, a winter rose, of English medieval [monasticism].” Houghton looked on his Carthusian monks as “angels of God,” and their monastic rule was kept with fervor. It was commonly said that if people wished to hear divine service carried out with due reverence, they should visit his London Charterhouse.

English monasteries of the 1500s were centers of Catholic devotion. They also owned large tracts of land and—in their crosses, vestments, images, and Communion ware—precious metals and jewels. Thus they became an obvious target for Henry VIII, and their dissolution (along with the destruction of “chantries”), one of the most disturbing chapters in the English Reformation.

Destroying Monasteries

Formally, the dismantling of monasteries in the 1530s had little to do with rising Protestantism. The most powerful motive was Henry’s need to finance his government, especially his armies. But it was Henry’s anti-papal mood—and the acquiescence of the Reformers—that made dissolution possible.

The most important fact to Henry was this: the annual net income of religious houses was more than 130,000 pounds (three times larger than the income of the crown’s land holdings). Nonetheless, he needed cause to take that glittering prize. So in the summer of 1535, Thomas Cromwell, the king’s vice-regent for ecclesiastical affairs, conducted an investigation of religious houses to compile an unfavorable report to justify the dissolution.

Still, taking bias into account, not all reports to Cromwell were distortions. One agent’s reports reads, “I went to Eynsham, where I found a raw sort of religious persons … almost in all kinds of sin.” Though impressed with ...

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