Reformation in England and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

Home/British History, Church history, English History, History of Rome, World History/Reformation in England and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

Reformation in England and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

The Reformation in England was the process by which the English Church rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and established a Litany and Doctrine of its own. The reformation in other 16th century European countries was doctrinal in principle and practice, but the English was not. It was precipitated by the monster king Henry VIII, second of the Tudor dynasty, after the Pope, his cardinals and archbishops and clergy had rejected his petition for divorce against his Queen, Katherine of Aragon. She had been unable to give him a male heir, and he wished to marry Anne Boleyn to try again.

The brute’s response was to use Parliament to pass acts separating the English Church from Rome. The English clergy were to be permitted to recognise Henry, rather than the Pope, as Supreme Head of the Church (1531). Three years later the Act of Supremacy ended the Pope’s authority in England. In the late 1530s all the monasteries in that country were to be dissolved and their properties and revenues were to be made forfeit to the Crown.

The carefully-planned abolition of monasticism and the transfer of monastic property to the Tudor monarchy was an unavoidable part of the English Reformation. Henry and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell could not have changed Catholicism into Protestantism without the dissolution, and anyway this astonishing piece of gangsterism brought great fortunes for the Tudors, as well as the beginnings of immense prosperity for the formerly Catholic nobles who decided to opt for the King for financial reasons.

Cromwell, who was Henry’s ‘Vicar-General’ started the process by commissioning the Valor Ecclestiasticus, a survey of Church wealth, and by sending special agents to investigate ‘standards’ within the monasteries and convents themselves. One of the reactions was ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’, a Catholic revolt against Parliament and the King, put down with the usual mayhem and rolling heads. Cromwell set about ‘persuading’ certain abbots to hand over large houses and their lands to the King. By 1540 all 800 English monastic houses had been closed. More than 11,000 monks, nuns and their dependants were expelled from their communities, and mostly left destitute.

The Charterhouse in London, under its Prior, John Haughton, was an austere but thriving priory. Haughton bravely refused to accept Henry’s new position as Supreme Head of the English Church, or to swear the Oath of Succession to be true to Queen Anne Boleyn, and declare Lady Mary, daughter of the King and Katherine of Aragon a bastard. He was joined by a number of other Carthusians. On 20 April, 1535 ten Charterhouse monks were sent to the prison at Newgate, including the Priors at Beauvale in Nottinghamshire, and Axholme, Lincolnshire and Haughton. They were shortly afterwards joined by Bishop John Fisher. Because none of them would consent to the King’s supremacy, they were accused of treason. The sentence was hanging, drawing and quartering.

In June of the same year three more monks, Sebastian Newdigate, William Exmew and Humphrey Middlemore suffered death in the same barbarous way. In 1545 Edward North, responsible for disposing of church lands, took Charterhouse for himself, demolished the church and cloisters, and built a house called Master’s Court in 1546. After this many other great nobles helped themselves with permission of the King.

Glastonbury Abbey was, in the early part of the 16th century a huge and famous Benedictine monastery, with the longest naved church in the country at 580 feet. Commissioners of Henry visited Glastonbury and decided it was fit only for a king. There was vast wealth in its closed coffers. Henry decided this should be his. The Abbott, one Richard Whiting, thought otherwise.

When he refused to hand over the Abbey and/or its possessions, he was cross-examined on behalf of the king and found to have ‘a cankered and traitorous heart and mind’. Off to the Tower he went, though sick and aged, and was condemned on 14 November. There is a note to be seen in Thomas Cromwell’s files that reads, “the Abbott of Glastonbury to be tried and executed with his accomplices.” This was written before Whiting had been tried.

Whiting and two of his monks were killed in the usual way on Glastonbury Tor, sufficiently high for their last sight of the doomed abbey that had been their home. Whiting’s quarters were displayed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgewater. His head was spiked on one of the entrance gates at Glastonbury Abbey. A scribe who was present at the execution reported that the three monks took their death ‘patiently’.

It is patently obvious even to the dullest intelligence that Haughton and Whiting’s crime was that would not donate their monasteries to the Crown. They had not acted treasonably, but they had refused to accept an order from their king and his chief minister. The same death and confiscation of properties happened to Hugh Cooke, Abbot of Reading, and Thomas Beeche, Abbot of Colchester.

Out of the eight hundred religious houses only three abbots and four priors stood up to defend their centuries-old life and existence from the clutching royal hand. Thomas More and John Fisher had to go too. By 1540, not one monastery remained in England. Henry married his Anne Boleyn, who gave him a daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Anne herself then paid the price for disobedience in not supplying her husband with a son and heir. She had her head cut off on 19 May 1536. Thomas Cromwell became Earl of Essex in 1540 and was beheaded in the same year.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Charles C. Rhys December 24, 2013 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    John Rice was the legal ARM of Thomas Cromwell in the destruction of the Monistaries ca 1515-1540 and It’s my understanding that he beacme personally wealthy from the work…I also read that a JohnPrice may have been burned at the STAKE by Queen Mary in retribution….do you know of that story? Kind REGARDS Charles Rhys

    • Dean Swift December 26, 2013 at 10:46 am - Reply

      Charles, I’m working on it, though Rhys is not the same as Rice or even Price. Regards Dean.

Leave A Comment