By the early Tudor period, England contained over 800 religious houses of various kinds, which, in total, commanded a yearly income of almost £200,000. In the late 1530s, Parliament dissolved these institutions and provided for the transfer of their property to the Crown. This dissolution was neither a direct nor an inevitable consequence of Henry VIII’s break with Rome; the monasteries were not destroyed for being propapal—few were—and the king could have undertaken some measure of dissolution even without the new statutory powers conferred on him as supreme head of the church. Beginning in 1535 with Thomas Cromwell’s appointment as the king’s deputy in his ecclesiastical authority, the dissolution of certain religious houses was undertaken both to reform English monasticism and to increase royal revenue.
Almost 12,000 monks, nuns, regular canons, and friars resided in English religious houses in the 1530s. The abbeys also housed numerous lay servants and a small number of lay corrodians, men and women (usually elderly or infirm) who had arranged room and board for life. Many other nonresidents were dependent on the monasteries for their livelihoods, including agricultural laborers and lay officials such as receivers, stewards, and bailiffs. The monasteries derived their income from the rents and dues generated by their landed endowments. By the 1530s, most monasteries had leased their lands, except for a small home farm to supply the residents’ needs, to local gentlemen. However, especially in the north, some monasteries enclosed their land for sheep and derived a substantial income from the sale of wool. Some houses also derived income from the impropriation of tithes belonging to local parishes for which the monastery held the advowson, or right of presentation to the parish living.
In the 1520s, Thomas Wolsey gained papal approval to dissolve 29 small houses with declining memberships. In 1535, Cromwell initiated a national survey of all monastic wealth, the results of which were recorded in the Valor Ecclesiasticus. In 1536, Parliament dissolved all houses (about 300) with incomes under £200 per year and established the Court of Augmentations to administer the monastic properties that came to the Crown as a result of the dissolution. The Court arranged for all those who wished to continue the religious life to be transferred to other houses and provided pensions to abbots, abbesses, and heads of all dissolved houses.
Monastic involvement in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, as well as growing lay demand for monastic property, increased government pressure on the remaining houses to voluntarily surrender themselves to the Crown. When this policy produced only scattered results, the government dispatched groups of commissioners throughout the kingdom to accept the surrender of all houses. An act of 1539 formally dissolved these institutions, with the last functioning monastery, Waltham Abbey in Essex, surrendering in March 1540. Although a few recalcitrant abbots were executed and the members of the austere Carthusian order offered particular resistance to the royal supremacy, opposition to the dissolution was remarkably slight. Seeking to minimize resistance, the government granted pensions to all religious who willingly departed their houses and annuities to all lay officers and corrodians. Monks were also given licenses to obtain other church livings. Because some attempt was made to find places for lay servants, it seems unlikely that the dissolution seriously aggravated the early Tudor vagrancy problem.
By 1539, many of the smaller monasteries had been granted as gifts to laymen, mostly members of the peerage and gentry who enjoyed royal favor. By 1540, the Crown began selling monastic lands, the purchase price usually being 20 times the net annual value of the property. In a newly energized land market, many estates went to local gentlemen, Crown officers, lawyers, and merchants, with some going at secondhand to small gentry, yeoman farmers, and country traders. By Henry VIII’s death in 1547, more than half the former monastic property had been alienated from the Crown; by the death of Mary I in 1558, more than three-quarters had passed into lay hands. Thus, Cromwell’s original intention, the permanent endowment of the Crown with monastic income, foundered on the land hunger of the gentry and nobility, and on the need of the late Henrician government to meet the enormous expense of war.
See also Enclosures
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