State theft or The Dissolution of the Monasteries

Rievaulx - 'one of the ruins that Thomas Cromwell knocked about a bit' / walkingenglishman.com

Rievaulx – ‘one of the ruins that Thomas Cromwell knocked about a bit’ / walkingenglishman.com

In civilized society there is a multitude of ways used by ‘the authorities’ to extract money from citizens like squeezing pips from a lemon or orange. Clever people, versed in these ways,  invent new names for new taxes every day, and equally astute parliaments in democratic countries shovel them into a hat and out roll new Acts or Orders perfectly phrased – and the citizen reaches into his fast emptying pocket to pay, again, for something he has certainly already paid for. Charging  direct tax on income, for instance, and then charging indirect tax on everything sold including services, means duplication or triplication of the same tax. As far as I know only the State of New Hampshire USA charges no income tax but maintains indirect taxation on goods and services.

In the sixteenth century the state, in this case England, organised a massive state theft that would leave you breathless if you had any breath left. It happened between 1536 and 1540, and was the systematic abolition of monasticism (very widespread and very rich) and the transfer of monastic property (Roman Catholic) into the ready hands of the Tudor monarch – Henry VIII, Britain’s answer to Ivan the Terrible.

It started with a mild suggestion made by the king to his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, whom he addressed fondly as ‘my little dog’. Henry needed money for his wars and his clothes and his changes of wives, and knew that across his kingdom lay hundreds of monasteries, convents, churches, church lands, rectories belonging to churches etc., stuffed with wealth, and staffed by a few monks, nuns and novices who never knew where their next meal would come from. Easy. Take away the estates and the churches and the monasteries and leave the incumbents on their knees to pray. After all they were Catholics and praying is what the Catholics do best.

Thomas Cromwell was the king’s ‘Vicar-General’ and he quickly commissioned the Valor Ecclesiasticus (1535) which was an inquisitive and exhaustive enquiry into church wealth. Trained agents were sent to the religious houses to investigate the morals of the monks. Then Parliament began the Great Sting by dissolving monasteries with annual incomes of less than £200. Naturally there were objections, and the trades union of those days organised ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’, an uprising that required putting down.

Cromwell, always encouraged by his tall, fat monarch, then forced certain abbots to hand over the larger religious houses to the king, and then another Act confirmed all surrenders that had already been made, and thus all monastic land passed to the Court of Augmentations of the King’s Revenue – a Department of State.

There was little or nothing the religious orders could do, except perhaps set fire to themselves or jump in the river. Resistance was negligible. By 1540 more than 800 English religious houses were closed and their incomes transferred to the King. It was a masterpiece of the coup rarely equalled since, though in the Spain of the 1980s, Felipe Gonzalez’ state theft of the commercial empire of Mr Ruiz-Mateos and subsequent cheapskate selling of the expropriated properties such as banks and hotels came somewhere near.

Eleven thousand monks, nuns and their dependants were ejected from their houses with hardly any compensation. Henry was pleased with his ‘little dog’. The Dissolution had quite a number of consequences apart from the wholesale destruction of most of the religious houses and the theft of their libraries and sundry treasures. The nobility were delighted to pay ready money in small amounts to the king in return for adding vast church wealth to their fortunes. Many of today’s greatest houses and the land associated with them came originally from the Dissolution though it would be rare to find a Duke readily admitting this.

All is not so black as it seems, because the termination of monastic charity and the closure of monastery schools brought about the introduction of the Poor Law System, and the foundation of many grammar schools, a first class educational idea which lasted for three centuries before a female Minister of Education decided to close them – as they were (she announced) ‘elitist’.

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