More than Financial Gains? The Religious Reasons behind the Dissolution of Monasteries

Like most English monarchs, King Henry VIII held a great interest in his finances: more money meant more power. In comparison to his father who made £133,000 annually, Henry VIII received a rather low annual income of £80-90,000.[1] With a need for more money, Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, sought out a viable plan: to shut down all of the monasteries of England and Wales. With the establishment of the Court of Augmentations in 1536, all monastic properties including the money earned were transferred to it.[2] In total, the amount collected was reported to have been more than £130,000 a year.[3] The dissolution of the monasteries made Henry, as well as select members of the Privy Chamber, richer than ever, and Henry’s newfound wealth in theory gained for him more financial security for a war with France. Judging from the immense monetary gain, one would assume that the principal reason for the dissolution of the monasteries was financial, but some historians believe otherwise. Henry VIII may not have been the most devout leader, but a deeper look at the conditions of the monasteries could have provided enough religious reasons for their dissolution.

Throughout his reign, Henry VIII was known to be power-driven and easily influenced by his Council. As with any significant change, Henry was met with intense opposition when he broke from Rome in 1534, especially from Observant Franciscan friars and Carthusian monks.[4] Observant Franciscans were firm supporters of Elizabeth Barton, also known as “The Mad Maid of Kent,” a Catholic nun who spoke out against the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, while the Carthusians would rather have sacrificed their lives than accept the king as the new supreme head. Because the religious orders were dissatisfied with Henry’s decision, Henry thought that his authority was being challenged. Furthermore, upon taking a closer look at the monasteries, Henry was exposed to acts of sexual misconduct among the leaders of religious houses. Purported offenses included the births of children to seventeen nuns, acts of sodomy from the monks, and ‘per voluntarias polluciones,’ an older Latin phrase for masturbation. It is speculated that most of the misconduct like sodomy were either greatly exaggerated or fabricated certain extent. However, a nun who was pregnant was a blatant offense that could not be rejected because of the physical changes that would follow. With so many accusations being made, many monks admitted to acts that they were not even guilty of committing because they assumed that they needed to accept defeat.[5] After being exposed to the corruption in some monasteries, Henry came to the conclusion that the monasteries should be abolished altogether.

Henry had other reasons for wishing to reform the smaller monasteries. The smaller monasteries were viewed as unqualified to fulfill duties and often lacked the resources to complete the requirements such as the upkeep of the visitations records. Therefore, monks and nuns from the smaller monasteries had to transfer to the larger ones if they were to remain religious figures so many of them took the offer. Since so many of them were willing to transfer to the larger monasteries, Henry exempted some of the smaller houses from the dissolution and even allowed them to expand.[6] If Henry’s main priority was financial gains from the monasteries then he could have easily destroyed them all without a need for reform. As Martin Heale writes, “it was not necessary to suppress every monastery in England and Wales for the king to make his fortune and protect his coastline…”[7] Because the monasteries greatly influenced the laity, Henry was undoubtedly not pleased that some of the monasteries were not in favor of him.[8] In light of the extra attention that was focused on the monasteries, and the distribution of commissioners to dissolve the smaller monasteries, it is evident that there was more to Henry’s reasoning than financial means. Henry could have felt threatened by the level of influence the monasteries had on the public, therefore, he needed to reduce the numbers of them. Otherwise, the laity could have viewed the lack of admiration of the King as acceptable. By abolishing the monasteries, Henry VIII would be reminding the public that the monasteries do not have all the influential power after all.

In addition to the corruption within the monasteries, the supposed training in superstition to the public had to be put to an end. The issue of superstition had to do with the “…veneration of images and relics…”[9] According to Henry VIII and other “hostile commentators,” the monasteries were deceiving people by fabricating miracles, promoting saint cults and attracting large, questionable crowds to the pilgrimage sites.[10] For one, the value of offerings for some monastic shrines slightly increased which brought a fair annual sum of £5-£10.[11] Although the amount was nothing to be envious of, it was still money being donated to the monasteries that were supposedly deceiving the public. In addition to the money that was collected, the idolatry of such shrines or cults was a matter that Henry was completely against during his reign.[12]

At the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, monasteries and monks were large in numbers and certainly hard to ignore. Although Henry and Cromwell were interested in the financial gains from the monasteries, there is some belief to suggest that religious reasons were also the cause for their dissolution. The religious institutions were created to uphold the Catholic beliefs of the people of England, Wales and Ireland. Therefore, to Henry VIII’s disbelief and possible satisfaction, not all of the monasteries were commendable. From scandals among the leaders to neglected duties, the monasteries certainly did not meet Henry VIII’s idea of a religious institution.

-Sonya Koh

References:

[1] Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), 25.

[2] Ibid., 88.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] G.W. Bernard, “The Dissolution of the Monasteries,” The Journal of the Historical Association 96, no. 324 (2011): 394.

[5] Ibid., 395-398.

[6] Ibid., 397-400.

[7] Martin Heale, “Training in Superstition? Monasteries and Popular Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 58 (2007): 439.

[8] Ibid., 438.

[9] Ibid., 421-422.

[10] Ibid., 422-436.

[11] Ibid., 432.

[12] Ibid., 439.

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