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The Last Days of the Smaller Monasteries in England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Sybil Jack
Senior Tutor, Department of Economics, University of Sydney, Australia


The dissolution of the monasteries in England was a dramatic action which both at the time and since has captured popular imagination. A persisting myth pictures the monks turned out by the agents of Henry VIII departing, slowly chanting, into the snow-bound countryside which shrouded their later fate from human eyes. Historians, who have been equally drawn to the subject, have given the picture a different slant. The story of the suppression has been fitted into a wider background of fast-moving religious and secular change in the decade 1530 to 1540, and can be seen as one of a number of moves which were designed at once to strengthen the king's control over the Church and to improve his finances. By 1536, indeed, the religious were already accustomed to the passage of royal commissioners and had had the power of the crown brought forcibly home to them by a number of direct royal interventions in matters of internal monastic discipline.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1970

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page 97 note 1 Recently repeated, for example, by Miss Elisabeth Goudge in her novel The Dean's Watch.

page 98 note 1 Faculty Office Registers 1534–1549, ed. Chambers, D. S., Oxford 1966Google Scholar, sub nom.; Hodgett, G. A. J., ‘The Unpensioned Ex-Religious in Tudor England’, in this Journal, xiii (1962), 195202Google Scholar. For a summary of the evidence, see Woodward, G. W. O., The Dissolution of the Monasteries, London 1966Google Scholar, chap. x.

page 98 note 2 A volume of such letters, mainly extracted from the Cottonian collection in the British Museum, was edited by T. Wright for the Camden Society as long ago as 1843. A more recent, but not a better, edition is by Cook, G. H., Letters addressed to Thomas Cromwell and others about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, London 1965Google Scholar. Some of these and others from the collection of State Papers have been calendared in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, ed. J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner and R. H. Brodie (henceforward referred to as L. & P. Henry VIII).

page 99 note 1 L. & P. Henry VIII, xi. no. 504. Ovingham, it may be noted, was a separate house, but legally a cell dependent on Hexham: hence the master's presence at Hexham at this moment.

page 99 note 2 Oxley, J. E., The Reformation in Essex to the death of Mary, Manchester 1965, chap. vi.Google Scholar

page 99 note 3 G. W. O. Woodward, The Dissolution of the Monasteries, 80–5.

page 99 note 4 Knowles, M. D., The Religious Orders in England, iii: The Tudor Age, Cambridge 1959Google Scholar; Richardson, W. C., A History of the Court of Augmentations, Baton Rouge, 1961Google Scholar.

page 99 note 5 Knowles, M. D. and Hadcock, R. N., Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, London 1953Google Scholar. Some of the dates of dissolution require revision. There have been various studies of the suppression in individual counties: e.g., Archbold, W. A. J., The Religious Houses of Somerset, Cambridge 1892Google Scholar; Davis, E. J., ‘The Beginning of the Dissolution: Christchurch, Aldgate, 1532’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, viii (1925), 127–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hibbert, F. A., Monasticism in Staffordshire, London 1910Google Scholar; Hodgett, G. A. J., ‘The Dissolution of the Monasteries in Lincolnshire’, unpub. London M.A. thesis, 1947Google Scholar; Kennedy, J., ‘The Dissolution of the Monasteries in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight’, unpub. London M.A. thesis, 1953Google Scholar; Mason, R. J., ‘The Income, Administration, and Disposal of the Monastic Lands in Lancashire’, unpub. London M.A. thesis, 1962Google Scholar; Snell, L. S., The Suppression of the Religious Foundations of Devon and Cornwall, Marazion and Penzance 1967Google Scholar; Woodward, G. W. O., ‘The Benedictines and Cistercians in Yorkshire in the Sixteenth Century’, unpub. Trinity College, Dublin, Ph. D. thesis, 1955Google Scholar; Youings, J. A., ‘The Disposal of Monastic Property in Land in the County of Devon, with particular reference to the period 1536–1558’, unpub. London Ph.D. thesis, 1950Google Scholar; and my own study, Thorpe, S. M., ‘Monastic Lands in Leicestershire on and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries’, unpub. Oxford B.Litt. thesis, 1961Google Scholar. Most of these studies, however, are more concerned with monastic property than with monastic life and make only passing reference to the months during which the lesser monasteries were awaiting dissolution. Mr. Mason alone deals with the subject in any detail, but his major preoccupation was the peculiar problems created by the need for liaison between the Duchy of Lancaster, which was responsible for the monastic land in Lancashire, and the central Court of Augmentations.

page 100 note 1 These have been largely neglected from this point of view. An honourable exception is Williams, Glanmor, ‘The Dissolution of the Monasteries in Glamorgan’, Welsh Reformation Essays, Cardiff 1967, 91110Google Scholar. Mr. Oxley, The Reformation in Essex, has used the accounts rendered by the local bailiffs or rent-collectors, which are well known because they have been extensively used by those interested in monastic lands. He has not realised, however, that the accounts rendered by the county receivers are more informative about the course of the dissolution. The county receivers' accounts are more scattered than those of the local ministers. Some of them are among the special collections in the Public Record Office, Ministers' Accounts, S.C.6; some in the miscellaneous books of the Court of Augmentations, E.315; and some in the various classes of Land Revenue records, principally L.R.6. Since more than one copy was made of these accounts (I know of at least four copies of the first Essex receiver's account), it is quite possible that some which are lacking in the central archives may turn up in local record offices or in private collections.

page 100 note 2 It is not possible to trace the passage of the bill through parliament.

page 100 note 3 Some may have been given orally: cf. my forthcoming article ‘The Role of the Auditor in the Court of Augmentations’.

page 100 note 4 P.R.O. L.R.8/416.

page 101 note 1 Opponents of the friars, after all, had long since argued the opposite case, as expressed in Piers Plowman, that an adequate endowment would reduce the friars' avaricious worldliness.

page 101 note 2 For a longer account of all these various precedents, see Woodward, Dissolution of the Monasteries, 48–9.

page 101 note 3 Stone, L., ‘The Political Programme of Thomas Cromwell’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, xxiv (1951), 118Google Scholar, discusses a document which probably dates from 1534 and which proposes conversion of ecclesiastical revenues. Later historians have been less certain that the scheme was produced on Cromwell's orders: like so many of these plans it cannot be definitely tied to one particular person or to government circles, but if Cromwell did not inspire it, it still shows that such ideas were current and that it was of sufficient interest to preserve.

page 101 note 4 It was, after all, the virtuous monks of Ulverscroft in Leicestershire who were described as ‘great hunters’ (Nichols, J., History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, London 17951815, iii. sub UlverscroftGoogle Scholar).

page 102 note 1 The abbot of Leicester spent no less than £20 on such a tour in his last year of office: P.R.O., E.315/279.

page 102 note 2 A letter dated 1541 survives among the Decrees and Orders of the Court of Augmentations (P.R.O., E.315/93) from the dean and canons of Newark, which being a college survived until 1547, thanking the court for the return of their books, and there are similar decrees for other colleges—yet the commission of 1535 is the only one which would have had the legal right to obtain such books. Occasionally, where the status of a house was in doubt, the Court of Augmentations did successfully demand to see the evidences, but this would not strictly relate to financial records.

page 102 note 3 Knowles, Religious Orders, iii. 309; Faculty Office Registers, ed. Chambers, xlvii–xlviii.

page 102 note 4 L. & P. Henry VIII, x. nos. 599, 1236.

page 102 note 5 Ibid., x. no. 364 (p. 143); xi. no. 261.

page 102 note 6 Cook, Letters about the Dissolution, 90.

page 102 note 7 A draft proclamation survives in P.R.O., Treasury of Receipt, Miscellaneous Books, E.36/116 fol. 50, but it is not included in the volume of printed proclamations (Tudor Royal Proclamations, i: The Early Tudors (1485–1553), ed. Hughes, P. L. and Larkin, J. F., New Haven 1964)Google Scholar, possibly on a technicality.

page 103 note 1 P.R.O., Special Collections, Rentals and Surveys, S.C. 12/33/27. St. Mary's was lucky and obtained exemption, but Stanley in Wiltshire did not.

page 103 note 2 For example, both the prior of Owston and the prioress of Langley had bought seed corn for which they had not paid (P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/1828).

page 103 note 3 Wright, T., Three Chapters of Letters relating to the Suppression of the Monasteries, Camden Society, old series, xxvi (1843), 123–5.Google Scholar

page 104 note 1 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7485 (Essex).

page 104 note 2 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/2792: see also under Canons Ashby.

page 104 note 3 This is a technical point, but generally the receivers do not detail the expenditure of the house before the commissioners' survey, simply allowing it as a lump sum, the details of which have been examined on oath; later expenditure, because it represented a change in the state of affairs recorded in the inventory, was detailed. Details of expenditure before the commissioners' first coming can only be recovered if they were unpaid and so remained as a debt which the crown subsequently honoured.

page 104 note 4 The Court of Augmentations was showing some attraction to these ‘universal’ dates. A large percentage of the patents for the pensions to heads of houses is dated 2 July 1536, although the date on which the houses were actually suppressed might be much later. Since the pension was payable from the date of the patent this provided a comfortable bonus for those whose houses were not dissolved until considerably later. It may also have saved the superiors the cost of individually suing out the patent, the costs of which could be considerable. For example, in 1538 five nuns paid £5 3s. 6d. in total costs for their modest pensions (British Museum Additional MS. 11,041, fol. 65).

page 104 note 5 It might be unwise to rely too heavily on these. The only surviving exemplar of the actual account that I know of seems almost certainly a fake (P.R.O., State Papers, S.P. 5/2 fols. 247–259d: cf. my forthcoming note, ‘Dissolution Dates for the Monasteries Dissolved under the Act of 1536’ in Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research).

page 105 note 1 The instructions and schedule for Essex survive: P.R.O., Exchequer, King's Remembrancer, Miscellanea, E.111/37.

page 105 note 2 A few of the larger counties had a receiver to themselves, e.g., Lincolnshire.

page 105 note 3 L. & P. Henry VIII, x. no. 916.

page 105 note 4 P.R.O., L.R. 6/95/1, 2. Not all the circuits were on a county basis. The archdeaconry of Richmond formed a separate circuit which included, as well as part of Yorkshire, some but not all of the houses in Cumberland. In Wales the circuits were arranged by bishoprics: Llandaff, St. David's, Bangor.

page 105 note 5 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7415; E. 315/400.

page 105 note 6 P.R.O., E. 36/154, fols. 126–7.

page 105 note 7 P.R.O., L.R. 6/95/1, 2.

page 106 note 1 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/2792, 3746, 1828.

page 106 note 2 L. & P. Henry VIII, x. no. 721.

page 107 note 1 P.R.O., S.C. 6/3481/50 Addenda.

page 107 note 2 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/1825.

page 107 note 3 See my article, Monastic Lands in Leicestershire and their Administration on the Eve of the Dissolution’, Transactions of Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, xli (1965–6), 940Google Scholar.

page 107 note 4 Kilbourn: P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/2345. This was not the only house which had no demesnes in hand, but elsewhere the grant was of longer standing.

page 108 note 1 P.R.O., E. 315/9, under debts owing, Leicestershire.

page 108 note 2 P.R.O., L.R. 6/95/2.

page 108 note 3 Only a detailed comparison of the pasture available to the house with the totals obtained from surviving inventories could indicate with any certainty to what extent such flocks and herds were below strength. The calculation is complicated by the fact that it is often difficult to know how many sheep and cattle the houses generally expected to run on the commons. For the county of Leicestershire I have tentatively concluded that numbers were down, but not unduly so (Thorpe, ‘The Monastic Lands in Leicestershire’, unpub. Oxford B.Litt. thesis, 42–50). For a general discussion of the problem of sheep statistics in medieval England, see Lennard, R., ‘Statistics of Sheep in Medieval England’, Agricultural History Review, vii (1959), 7481Google Scholar.

page 108 note 4 P.R.O., Exchequer, King's Remembrancer, Valuation of Church Goods, E. 117/12/7. It is, of course, equally possible to assume that the commissioners themselves were making a small profit by assessing the animals in this way.

page 109 note 1 P.R.O., E. 315/278.

page 109 note 2 P.R.O., E. 315/472.

page 109 note 3 P.R.O., S.P. 5/1 fols. 148–62.

page 109 note 4 P.R.O., S.C. 12/33/27.

page 109 note 5 They may not always have acted with such discretion, of course. After the Pilgrimage of Grace, the duke of Norfolk commented on the failure of the commissioners in the eastern counties to act with due discretion.

page 110 note 1 The instructions survive in several copies in the state paper collections and elsewhere. The instructions for Essex have the original schedule attached: P.R.O., E. 111/57.

page 110 note 2 P.R.O., E. 36/154 fols. 126–7.

page 111 note 1 P.R.O., E. 111/57; Fowler, R. C., ‘Essex Monastic Inventories’, Transactions of Essex Archaeological Society, new series, ix (1906), 395400Google Scholar. Oxley (Reformation in Essex, 108–9) comments that no item is marked ‘sold’, but it was unlikely that they would be so marked since the goods were normally sold only at the actual dissolution. Had any other policy been pursued, there would have been grave administrative problems if the house was in fact redeemed. At Ellerton some of the goods were, in fact, sold at the survey, but this was noted as a peculiarity.

page 112 note 1 Fowler, loc. cit.

page 112 note 2 Again, the accounting position is complicated. The receivers usually rendered a detailed separate account for goods sold and then simply entered the total on the general account. Where this was done and the detailed account survives, one has fairly full details of goods even when the inventory is missing. Otherwise, a partial view of goods can be built up from the details of goods used by the monks subsequent to the inventory (which are detailed in a number of accounts) and goods sold but not paid for which are itemised in the debet—but in this case one can, of course, make no certain argument from silence.

page 112 note 3 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7467.

page 112 note 4 Power, E., The Wool Trade in English Medieval History, Oxford 1941.Google Scholar

page 112 note 5 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/4641.

page 113 note 1 At Campsey on 23 August the harvest may even have been cut, since the grain is estimated in quarters—though this must have been an estimate, since it could hardly have been threshed: P.R.O., E. 117/12/7.

page 113 note 2 The Suffolk figures come from P.R.O., E. 117/12/7; those for Leicestershire from P.R.O., E. 315/278.

page 113 note 3 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7467.

page 113 note 4 At St. Oswald's near Gloucester: P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7415.

page 113 note 5 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/4641. The difference could be quite marked: at Trinity, York, four boves valued at 53s. 4d. were sold for £4 6s. 8d.

page 113 note 6 P.R.O., E. 117/11/7 is the section kept by the prioress of Marham. In general it is the other half which appears to survive.

page 113 note 7 P.R.O., E. 117/12/30 is the section kept by the commissioners for the houses in Hertfordshire. It is interesting to notice that Joan Pigott, the prioress of Sopewell, was illiterate and had to sign with a cross.

page 114 note 1 L. & P. Henry VIII, xiii (2), no. 840.

page 114 note 2 A number of the valors taken at the survey survive among the miscellaneous books of the Court of Augmentations: P.R.O., E. 315/397, 398, 399, 400, 401.

page 114 note 3 It cannot be assumed that because a house was granted by letters patent in May or June it automatically fell into this category. Flaxley in Gloucestershire was granted by letters patent to Edward Beauchamp on 27 May 1536, but there was still an interval of eleven weeks and four days before the survey and the suppression: P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7415.

page 115 note 1 P.R.O., L.R. 6/95/2; S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7415.

page 115 note 2 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7454.

page 115 note 3 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/1828.

page 115 note 4 P.R.O., E. 117/14/22.

page 115 note 5 P.R.O., L.R. 6/152/1.

page 115 note 6 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7415.

page 115 note 7 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/2792.

page 116 note 1 P.R.O., S.C. 6/3481/47 Addenda.

page 116 note 2 P.R.O., S.C. 6/3481/50 Addenda.

page 116 note 3 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7485 (Essex bundle).

page 116 note 4 L. & P. Henry VIII, xi. no. 307.

page 116 note 5 P.R.O., S.C. 12/33/27. It has been customary to minimise the amount which the religious spent on charity as a result of A. Savine, The Monasteries on the Eve of the Dissolution, Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History, Oxford 1909, but Professor Savine's figures can refer only to charitable spending, which was a legal obligation and so deductable for taxation purposes, and this really gives little clue to the actual expenditure of the religious on this activity.

page 117 note 1 P.R.O., E. 315/278.

page 117 note 2 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/1825.

page 118 note 1 One view of account is in P.R.O., E. 315/8; another, of Wymondley priory in Hertfordshire, is S.C. 6/3479/18 Addenda; another two, of Bromholm in Norfolk, are S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/2609, 2610.

page 118 note 2 This probably explains why the date on which the religious and their servants received their rewards is often one or two days out of step with the actual ‘day’ which the receivers regarded for accounting purposes as the day of dissolution. Since the dissolution generally took more than one day, this day of dissolution is to that extent fictitious.

page 118 note 3 P.R.O., S.P. 5/1 fol. 124.

page 119 note 1 It is, of course, quite likely that for much the same reason the farmer immediately re-employed the majority of the outdoor servants who had been formally ‘dismissed’ by the royal officials. In at least one case, when it was later necessary to track down the servants, the majority were found ready to hand. There are only one or two cases in which the demesnes remained unoccupied: St. Nicholas, Exeter, was one: P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/593.

page 119 note 2 Stone from some of the houses was later used for repairs to nearby royal castles, fortifications and residences: cf. P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7415.

page 119 note 3 P.R.O., E.315/278, fols. 58 ff.

page 120 note 1 For Lincolnshire, the story of the monk of Louth Park who was subsequently involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace seems conclusive (L. & P. Henry VIII, xii (1), no. 380); Mr. Chambers, in editing the Faculty Office registers, has come to the same conclusion.

page 120 note 2 Nothing can be deduced from the number of religious receiving rewards about the numbers who actually took capacities. Although a comparison of the brief certificates for Wiltshire, Hampshire and Gloucestershire with the receiver's account (P.R.O., S.C. 12/33/27 with S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7415) shows that the numbers granted rewards are occasionally one or even two down on the number of religious said to be in the house, this cannot be because only those receiving capacities had a reward, since the nuns of Wintney not only had 40s. reward each, but also the expenses of the escort which took them to their new home.

page 120 note 3 P.R.O., E. 315/280, note on Shelford account.

page 121 note 1 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7371. The translation from the Latin is mine.

page 122 note 1 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/4641.

page 122 note 2 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7467.

page 122 note 3 P.R.O., S.C. 6/3491/1 Addenda.

page 122 note 4 L. & P. Henry VIII, xii (1). no. 32.

page 122 note 5 P.R.O., S.P. 5/1 fol. 24; S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/3352, 3361.

page 123 note 1 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/4641.

page 123 note 2 P.R.O., S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7348.

page 124 note 1 Salzman, L. F., History of Hailsham, Lewes 1901Google Scholar; Hodgett, , ‘Unpensioned Ex-Religious’, in this Journal, xiii (1962), 195202Google Scholar.

page 124 note 2 Jack, S. M., ‘Monastic Lands in Leicestershire’, Trans. Leics. Arch. & Hist. Soc., xli (1965–6), 34Google Scholar. All the religious at Peterborough had aliases: P.R.O., S.P. 5/1 fols. 45–6.

page 124 note 3 While the value of the stock on the demesne may have been twice or three times the rentable value of the land, the amount of land so held constituted no more than a quarter, if that, of the total income of any individual house. The real danger was over the jewels and plate, and on these it will always be difficult to come to a conclusion, or even to assess the extent to which the purpose in concealment was acquisitive. Ramsey abbey's chalice and censer were found in a submerged boat when a mere was drained in the nineteenth century. Was this an accidental loss, or a deliberate act to prevent impious use? All that can be said is that a sizeable amount of jewellry and plate did reach either Augmentations or the master of the king's jewels.