Tintern Abbey



KING HENRY VIII now bestrode his realm like a colossus – albeit a somewhat uncomfortable colossus :physically the serious injury caused to his leg in a jousting contest in 1535 was troubling him as it would do for the remaining years of his life. Financially, his Treasury was strapped for cash. Years of foreign wars and the King’s personal gambling brought him to a desperate condition.

Henry now had as his principal agent and adviser, one Thomas Crumwell (now usually spelled Cromwell – a piece of Protestant propagandising). This Crumwell had been Cardinal Wolsey’s principal agent and frequent Commissioner. But when Wolsey’s downfall was in progress, Crumwell stole from Wolsey’s private records Henry’s license under Seal, authorizing Wolsey to exercise his Legatine powers within the Realm. He delivered the document back to the King. This was a critical event for Henry’s purposes, for he was charging Wolsey with Praemunire offences for the very act of exercising his Papal Legate A Latere (Abroad) powers in the Realm!

The King’s gratitude seems to have hardly known any bounds. For Crumwell became (in a unique Royal office “Vicar General of the Realm”, Lord Privy Seal, Chancellor of Cambridge University ( succeeding St John Fisher so lately martyred by the King!) and, though not a Cleric, Dean of Wells along with other religious benefices and, in Parliament, he took precedence over all of the Nobility and the Bishops!

Melrose Abbey
Crumwell had been Cardinal Wolsey’s Commissioner in the examination of the lesser Monasteries, in an endeavour to assess their viability. Many were believed to fulfill their religious have too few monks to function properly and to fulfill their religious obligations. Cardinal Wolsey, losing his Legatine powers had canonically suppressed those monasteries and negotiated the re-location of their monks to larger monasteries of their Orders. The properties were sold and the proceeds used to build Cardinal College Oxford.

Crumwell’s past therefore enabled him to suggest a solution to the King’s financial distress. Now that the King was, according to his Parliament, Head of the Church in England, and able to threaten all and sundry with trial under the Law of Praemunire should they displease him, he had legal power over the monasteries. If he came to “believe “that the monasteries were corrupt, why should he not suppress them? No! that was a canonical term; why not rather, dissolve them! The proceeds of their dissolution would be made forfeit to the Crown- financial problem solved!

Glastonbury Abbey

In the 27th year of his reign, in 1536, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was commenced.

All monasteries whose annual income did not reach 200 Pounds were dissolved and were confiscated by the Crown. They were STOLEN there is no other term to describe the process honestly. The process involved sending out the King’s Commissioners who assessed the Monasteries’ incomes and took an inventory including property, Sacred Vessels, Shrines and cash. The inventory would be useful for later stages of the Dissolution process.

The Commissioners were carefully chosen by Crumwell to produce the desired results, and knew what was expected of them. They were mostly Protestant sympathizers and, to meet the complaints at the dissolution of each Monastery from the people it supported they created tales of scandals and disrepute which varied from ridiculous palpable lies to malign distortions of innocent facts.

It is timely here to consider the role of the Monasteries in England at the time. Their practical significance for their surrounding communities was very substantial. Most Monasteries were by that time, very old and owned significant lands in their region, as a result of bequests, donations and their earnings from rents on their holdings. The monks of course received no personal income and the Monasteries were thus very effective in building up their assets. They were, apart from the properties of the Nobility, the principal factor in the local economy, much of which depended on them and the local community relied heavily on the Monasteries. At that time, there were no “Social Services” provided by the Crown and no secular welfare services. The Monasteries provided food and lodgings for the poor, the distressed and the unsupported aged and the ill.

Even local Parish clergy depended on the Monasteries. Before the Protestant Deformation of the Church, outside the Cities, the local Parish clergy were appointed as “Vicars” of the local Abbot. The Church of England still uses the term “Vicar” to describe its Parish ministers, but the origin of the term can be seen to be Catholic – from the time of the stolen Monasteries.

It can be quickly seen that demolition of this social structure was going to create turmoil and great strife and would take dramatic justification if it was to be accomplished without revolution. Lies about scandal, and the bigger the lie the better, would do nicely.

This was no small undertaking. No less than 374 of these Lesser Monasteries were dissolved and this took about 4 years. The Commissioners would arrive after the earlier assessment; turn out the monks onto the street – if they were not killed- as sometimes happened. They would then pillage the Monastery taking all Sacred Vessels, Votive Offerings, Shrines of value, Reliquaries(after desecrating the relics they contained) .Then they would strip the Monastery roof of its valuable lead roof and it great timber beams, and these were carted away for sale.

The Commissioners were entitled to their cut first- often a fee plus” costs”, but it can be shown that it was commonly exceptional. They then returned the rest of the proceeds to the Royal Treasury via Crumwell who often reserved items for himself (e.g. in one case a particularly valuable Monstrance he had earlier spotted and noted for his own booty.)

Our knowledge of the sordid detail is great, in part because, when Crumwell himself fell, he fell far and fast- so fast he did not have time to destroy his papers, even his meticulous personal notes, which are preserved.

After the four years of severe pillage and plunder, Henry turned his attention to the Hospitals and Hospital Churches of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in England and Ireland, which with all their lands and assets were also confiscated to the Crown.

We are told that “practice makes perfect”. These institutions were devoured within two years. But the Monster had acquired an enormous appetite and was still ravenous.

In the 34th year of his reign Henry turned on all the Colleges, Chapels, Chantries, Hospitals, Fraternities and Guilds and their properties and assets were all confiscated to the Crown.

By the time the exercise was completed, the Royal Monster had devoured:

374 Lesser Monasteries

186 Great Monasteries and Abbeys

90 Colleges

110Religious Hospitals

2,374 Chapels and Chantries.    WHITBY ABBEY

THE PHYSICAL STRUCTURE OF CATHOLIC ENGLAND’S LIFE BUILT UP OVER THE PRECEDING 1,300 YEARS HAD BEEN STOLEN AND CONVERTED TO CASH WITHIN 10 YEARS. THE VALUE OF THE THEFT WAS METICULOUSLY ASSESSED BY THE KING’S COMMISSIONERS AT 1,338,442 Pounds 9 Shillings and 2Pence and 1 Ha’penny. in the currency of the day. Four hundred and sixty three years have passed since that infamous accounting. Who would attempt a conversion to modern currency allowing for inflation? Certainly it would be a dreadful task. But if the result was not billions of dollars, one would be surprised.

This extraordinary amount did not include the value of Sacred Vessels, Shrines, Votive Offerings and Reliquaries. Some idea of what that entailed may be gleaned from an account of the goods stolen from the greatest of the Shrines, that of St. Thomas A’Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. The King’s Receiver records removing 26 carts of gold, silver, precious stones and sacred vestments. In the Treasurer’s Roll, the plunder was assessed by weight:

Pure Gold 5,030 ¾ ounces

Silver Gilt 4,425 ounces

Parcel Gilt 840 ounces

Silver 5,286 ounces

Fortunately for the Archdioceses and Dioceses and their great Cathedrals, Henry died in 1547. For in the preceding year his attention had turned ominously to them and he had forced the “exchange “of 72 properties belonging to the Archdiocese of York for certain infertile Crown Lands and 30 properties belonging to the Diocese of Norwich and considerable properties belonging to the Diocese of London  on the same basis.                                                           Thomas Crumwell

In our next installment, we shall look at what became of the funds realised from the stolen properties and, in God’s good time, what became of the receivers of the stolen property. It is a sorry story.


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