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 how the abbot was “chaste of his living” and took good care of his house, the agent concluded, “I can object [to] nothing but that he is negligent in overseeing his brethren.”

With most Catholic monasteries, however, it wasn’t moral neglect but devotion to the Pope that accelerated dissolution.

In 1535, monks of the London Charterhouse, for example, were required to take an oath on the Gospels to accept the king as supreme head of the church. Prior John Houghton, among others, refused. He was tried at Westminster Hall in April, and he and his fellow prisoners were condemned to death. They were executed in their monastic habits, with the hair shirts of their rule beneath. They died, as one sympathizer put it, “for the love of Jesus, and for the faith of His bride, the Catholic Church.”

With formal reasons in hand, Parliament passed acts in 1536 and 1539 to dismantle all religious houses, taking their possessions and lands, with all income reverting to the crown.

For example, the London Charterhouse was closed and the remaining monks disbanded in November 1538: “The church and buildings, desecrated and forlorn, were used as a store for the king’s pavilions and arms.”

Another Catholic lamented the destruction of so many houses across England: “The abbeys [were] one of the beauties of this realm to all men and strangers passing through the same.”

What was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s part in this policy? Most of the monastic land sold passed into laymen’s hands, not to bishops or archbishops. Cranmer did not profit from such developments.

He did garner materials for his personal library, though. Cranmer was a great book man and from these monastic libraries created one of the greatest collections of books and manuscripts in Tudor England.

In addition, Cranmer wrote a brave letter to Cromwell in 1535, attempting to halt the persecution of the Carthusians. Cranmer advised Cromwell to persuade them to submit rather than punish them. Cranmer, in fact, offered his services: “And if it would please the king’s highness to send them unto me, I suppose I could do very much with them in this behalf.” Cranmer’s proposal, however, was rejected.

Money Maker. Though Catholic monks hid many valuable religious objects, the English government still more than doubled its income by seizing church property. In the process, a great deal of medieval religious art was forever destroyed.

No More Praying for the Dead

Chantries were institutions founded for the saying of masses for the dead. Like religious houses, chantries were sources of great income and held large amounts of property. Under an act of Parliament in 1547, chantries were also dissolved. The value of possessions seized by the government was less than that taken from the monasteries. Still, traditional figures—that the dissolution involved 2,374 chantries, 90 colleges, and 110 almshouses—are almost certainly underestimated.

The motives for dissolving chantries were mixed: the crown wanted to obtain money for wars against France and Scotland, and praying for the dead was deemed “superstitious.”

Chantries, however, lay at the heart of popular religion. Though some chantries were in decline, their dissolution raised strong feelings. In 1549, during the dissolution of two local chantries, the local people became angry. A Yorkshire mob of some 3,000 murdered a former mayor of York and a chantry commissioner and his wife.

Cranmer had come to reject praying for the dead. He wrote, “Correction without repentance can nothing avail; and they that be dead [are] past the time of repentance, and so no correction or torments in purgatory can avail them.” Still Cranmer did not profit from the chantry dissolutions. He openly disapproved of the appropriation of property by the crown and asked that chantry endowments be used to found schools—to no avail.

Yet, since reformers like Cranmer were closely allied with the government, their cause suffered from involvement in the destruction of these popular religious institutions.

Paul Ayris is head of IT services at the Cambridge University Library. He is co-editor of Thomas Cranmer: Churchman and Scholar (Boydell & Brewer, 1993).