The Dissolution of the Monasteries

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The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century In January, 1535, the newly appointed Vicar-General of the English Church, Thomas Cromwell, sent out his agents to conduct a commission of enquiry into the character and value of all ecclesiastical property in the kingdom. Overtly, they were reformers, exercising the new powers accorded to the Crown by the Act of Supremacy: “from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities “which ought or may be lawfully reformed. But Dr.Layton, Dr.Legh, Dr.John and the other tough-minded and venal officials chosen for the job had no doubt what the Crown expected of them. It took them only six months to submit for Cromwell's

scrutiny an accurate and detailed tax-book, the Valor Ecclesiasticus. Along with it came evidence of corruption and scandalous immorality in England's monasteries. Such evidence was not hard to find, for by the 16th century many of the religious houses had long since lost their sense of purpose. Some, as landlords, oppressed the local population with exorbitant rents. Heavy debts encumbered others that had been poorly managed. For a thousand years communities of English monks, had pursued God's work in what Alfred the Great had once called a marvelous freedom from the tumult of the world, but their number declined steadily after the Black Death. During Henry VIII's reign the ancient tradition came to an abrupt and sometimes violent end. Within five years, Cromwell's agents had

closed down every religious house. Where such visionary marvels of medieval architecture as Rievaulx and Fountains Abbey once soared skywards, only ruins remained. Exposed to time and the weather, these became symbols of transient glory, but also, from our perspective, signs that England had passed out of the Middle Ages into a new era. A number of volatile forces-political, religious, social, and personal-contributed to the relative ease with which Henry accomplished the Dissolution. The momentum for change had begun building some years earlier when Henry married his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. After 18 years, Katherine had still not given Henry a son. Increasingly anxious to secure an undisputed succession, the King then fell passionately in love with Anne Boleyn.

Reasons of the heart combined with reasons of state strengthened his desire for divorce. Only the Pope could annul the marriage, however, and so Henry and Clement VII spent years in fruitless negotiations until Thomas Cromwell proposed a radical solution to his King's problem. The son of a blacksmith, and a self-confessed ruffian, Cromwell had knocked about Europe as a soldier of fortune before putting his shrewd mind to work as an attorney. Eventually he became secretary to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the King's Chancellor and papal legate. Henry blamed Wolsey for failed to secure his divorce, arrested him, and ordered his execution. Wolsey died in November 1530, on his way to the scaffold. A loyal and capable administrator, Cromwell survived his fall to work his way into ever more

influential positions at court. Eventually he recommended to the King that he free himself from papal authority by assuming absolute control of his own church. Henry soon had pressing reasons to act. Already pregnant, Anne secretly married the King in January, 1533 so that she might give him a legitimate heir. Two months later, Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals, a statute master-minded by Cromwell that gave the Crown jurisdiction over ecclesiastical issues and made it a treasonable offence to appeal to Rome. This cleared the way for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, to declare the King's divorce absolute and final. Soon afterwards, he recognized the validity of the King's marriage to Anne, whose daughter Elizabeth was born that year. The Roman church,