James G. Clark’s _The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History_ (Yale, 2021)

James G. Clark’s _The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History_ (Yale, 2021)

Full though our reading lists tend to be, James G. Clark’s _The Dissolution of the Monasteries_, published only last year (Yale University Press), seems worth considering for those interested in monastic history in England.  According to this review, Clark’s book is “dense and impressive” and is said to supersede David Knowles’s _The Religious Orders in England III: The Tudor Age (Cambridge, 1959).  The supersession is important because—along lines apparently similar to Eamon Duffy’s scholarship concerning the faithful in general on the eve of the English Reformation—Clark shows consecrated religious life in England was not the “lukewarm” presence and observance Knowles has claimed.

Following are the chapter titles and opening excerpts from each chapter.

INTRODUCTION (pp. 1-20) – The week before Easter 1540 saw the end of almost a millennium of monastic life in mainland England. In the last days of Lent, the Augustinian abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham (Essex) was surrendered into the hands of William Petre, proctor of the Vicegerent in Spirituals, Thomas Cromwell. Abbot Robert Fuller and his seventeen brother canons entered their chapter house for the final time, perhaps following their Morning Mass, the mid-point of the monastery’s daily routine. There they heard Petre read out the deed that would formalise their surrender to the Crown.”

I THE LEGEND OF THE CLOISTER (pp. 23-55) – Sir Galahad rode non-stop for four days until his horse brought him to an abbey built from bright white stones. ‘There was he receyved with grete reverence’ and ‘made of hym grete solace and . . . souper.’ ‘On the morne they aroose and herde masse.’ In the abbey church ‘behynde an aulter’ Galahad spied a great shield, ‘as whyte as ony snowe’, emblazoned with a cross of red, which, he later learned, was painted with the blood of Joseph of Arimathea, ‘that was sent by Jesus Christ into this land’.¹ 

II THE RELIGIOUS PROFESSION (pp. 56-98) – In the winter of 1539 five young people passed through the gates of the monasteries in their home city of Chester to begin a life under a rule. In the north-east corner of the city’s Roman walls at the Benedictine abbey of St Werbergh, Richard Downe and Thomas Rutter now exchanged colourful tunics and hose for the washed-grey worsted habit and woollen stockings of the novice.  Richard’s worldly outfit may have been finer than Thomas’s because his was a family of some property and position in the region, whereas his new colleague was a city boy, ‘trade’.

III A REGULAR WORLD (pp. 99-146) – One Sunday evening before 1539, Thomas Warner was making his way home through the well-kept grid-plan streets of Bury St Edmunds when he was set upon by John Barnysby. Badly beaten about the head and body, Thomas was found in the street and helped home to his wife, Alice. But his wounds were mortal and he did not survive the night. Barnysby was a renowned roustabout and his ‘ill-disposed and myschevous mynde brekinge the kynges peace’, brutally demonstrated to Warner, was not untypical. By day, Barnysby was factotum to the sacrist of the town’s Benedictine abbey whose gateway presided over the northern end of the market square. In her raw grief, Alice ran to the town’s under-steward, the ‘rewler’ of the porters and officers of the burgus, to request Barnysby’s arrest. They responded with a demand for payment for a warrant, knowing full well that their price was beyond her means. Barnysby was not detained. Such had been the pattern at Bury ‘these x or xii yeres . . . yf such as have been porters and officers and reteynynge unto the sayd abbey’, Alice later reported, ‘and it ys nott to be doughted that yf it had fortuned that . . . anye other honest persone not being servant or reteynynge to the abbey . . . shuld have done suche a dede or a gretter lese offence he schuld soo never escaped but have had the utmost judgment of the lawe’. Constrained by the authority of the abbey which extended right across her neighbourhood, Alice reached out for the pity of another loyal wife. She wrote to the queen.

IV THE TUDOR REFORMATION (pp. 149-205) – At the height of their head-turning powers both Boleyn girls, Anne and Mary, involved themselves in the business of monasteries. In the summer of 1528, Anne, at twenty-six already secure in the royal circle and skilled in its politics, took up the cause of her sister-in-law, Elinor Carey, a professed nun of the Benedictine abbey at Wilton, where the leadership was at last vacant after the death of the aged abbess. An ancient monastery whose royal associations reached as far back as legends of King Alfred, the vacancy commanded attention at the highest level. The dauntless Anne made ‘grete laboure’ and ‘reportyd and promised to dyversis freynds of dame Elinors care’; no doubt to the king himself, since soon he showed he had heard more than enough of ‘Mr Carye’s sister’. Yet other interested parties were already at work. The politicking greatly animated the courtiers following the king on his country progress, and it washed over the cloister community at Wilton where the sisters were said to be ‘untoward’, a mood made worse because they had quarantined themselves against that summer’s ‘grete plage of swetyng’. Then a tale of Elinor’s ‘such dissolute lyvyng’ was told to the king – she had confessed to bearing two children since taking her vows – and he declared that his ‘mind and pure consciens’ was decided that ‘he wold not have her of all women’.

V THE KING’S COMMISSIONS (pp. 206-263) – A fortnight after Easter 1535, Sir John Markham, sheriff of Nottingham, set out into his county with a new commission arising from King Henry’s ‘supreme headship of the Englyshe churche’.¹ With two colleagues, he was charged with making a survey ‘for the rate and the trew value of all spiritual promotions and possessions withyn the countie’. The valuation, which in the form of the massive ledgers returned to Westminster came to be known as the ‘Valor ecclesiasticus’, was intended to cover every component of the institutional Church, of which the religious houses were generally the largest and oldest of all.

VI THE CHALLENGE OF CONFORMITY (pp. 264-313) – Around the last day of September 1536, one Mr Saunderson of Reasby, a grange of Barlings Abbey (Lincolnshire), painted the three-cornered shield of the Holy Trinity on a parchment sheet and pinned it to towelling scrap which he attached to the end of a pole. Soon after he took it in his hands and walked out in the direction of the Roman road that led south-west to the city of Lincoln. Saunderson’s towel was remembered later as ‘the first banner in the field’ when the professed religious and the employees of four monasteries in a twenty-mile radius – Barlings, Bardney, Louth Park and Kirkstead – and their town-and-country tenants and neighbours converged on the cathedral to make an armed challenge to the conduct of the king’s commissioners. It was the first act of four months of unrest. The Lincoln protest was stifled in four days but the call to arms found an echo eighty miles due north in the neighbourhood of York, where another march mustered within the week; from then until February 1537 the disturbance ran further north, east and west as far as the Lancashire coast, forming what has become known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.

VII PUNYSSHID, SUBPREST AND PUT DOWNE (pp. 314-376) – In the last week of August 1536 four gentlemen, two of them local and two courtiers, rode into the coastal village of Ingham (Norfolk) with a commission from the king to close the monastery. It appeared that they had come too late. ‘The howse was founde wyde [empty] of any religious persons’, one of them later reported to Cromwell. More than this, there was not a trace of the domestic doings of the place, the usual huddle of working men, women and animals. The church, whose tower they had spied several miles away, the cloister and compact precinct seemed to have been abandoned. ‘A bargayne [was] made with the hedde of the same’, a bystander had volunteered, doubtless enjoying their bewilderment. True to his report, when the commissioners had ‘repaired us’ to Coxford Priory more than forty miles to the west, Sir William Woodhouse MP paid his respects, as the new proprietor of Ingham. He told them how the prior had indeed given up his religious house to him, on the grounds that it belonged to the European order of the most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians), and that the prior and his brothers were ‘no monke nor chanon’ but friars ‘withoute [beyond] the case and daungier of the statute of suppression’.

VIII NOTHING ENDID (pp. 379-420) – During the morning of 21 March 1538 the church of the Cluniac priory of St Pancras at Lewes was suddenly shattered and broken by an explosion. Perhaps the sound of the blast was muffled by the walls of the chancel which the military engineer who laid the charges of gunpowder had calculated to be at least five feet thick, although there was surely some reverberation in Southover, the hamlet of a few dozen souls, and an almshouse of fourteen residents, that had hugged the precinct wall since the twelfth century. It was a Friday, still formally a day of observance, and among the startled passers-by would have been some hurrying to or from the parish church of St Thomas. The Italian engineer, Giovanni Portinari, preferred for the job because of his knowledge of what could, and could not, withstand artillery, had attracted no great attention when he arrived with seventeen skilled tradesmen recruited in London, ‘moch better than the men fynd in the contrey’.  Lewes was a prosperous trading place accustomed to traffic from out of town. The last prior was himself the son of a foreigner whose profits had helped him purchase one of the best town houses. But the detonation of high explosives, the heavy fall of dressed stone and the rapid rush of rubble that ‘putt the hole down to the ground’ forced an impression on their business minds.

IX CHANGES OF HABIT (pp. 421-468) – At the turn of 1540, when fewer than twenty religious houses remained in England, Thomas Goldwell, prior of the premier monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury, was moved, above all, to address Thomas Cromwell on the matter of their habits: “Ther is a comen spekyng here abowte as that religiouse men shall leve or forsake their abitt or go as secular prists doo. Whether they mynde of some certen religion or of all I knowe nott as conserving this mater . . . ye have sent me word before this tyme that I and my bretherun shuld nott be constrained so to doo. And as for my part I will never desire to forsake my abit as long as I lyve for dyvers consideracions that movyth me to the same. One is because religious men have ben and continued in this oure cherche this ix hundred yeres and more. Also I made my profession to serve god in a religious abiit as moche as lay in me to so to do. Also yf we that be religious men do forsake ower abitts and go abowte the worle we shall have meny moo occasions to offend god and to comytt synne than we have nowe.”

X THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW (pp. 469-529) – In May 1540, barely a month after the last monasteries were dissolved, ‘a lytll broken byll’ bearing ‘straynge words’ was dispatched to Sir William Kingston, comptroller of the king’s household and Gloucestershire MP. The source of the words was alleged to be one John Plommer of Wotton-under-Edge, in Kingston’s county. He himself ‘steffly denyd’ the claim, although his neighbours in the parish readily confirmed it. ‘Ther shall be a new world [af] or mydsummers day,’ Plommer was said to have declared. And he ‘hopyd that ther shole be a new order menyng . . . that the kyngs hyenes . . . wold mak sum order of ponysment for such persons that wold nother fast nother pray’. Over the past year old and new worlds had been spoken of and scribbled about across the kingdom, from provincial parishes such as Wotton to the Privy Chamber and secretariat from which government policy emerged. The drafts of bills planned for Henry’s parliament had included such new-age ideas as statutory social welfare for the elderly and a standing army. One popular rhyme saw Church reform as just the beginning; ahead was revolution: ‘what shalle comme of those yt bee gaye with the goodes of the clergy . . . when a third mischefe commeth oute’. Charles Wriothesley, one of the only observers of events to commit his thoughts to paper at the time, saw the suppression that spring of the last of the religious houses as a definitive dividing line: ‘so that their is now but one order in the cleargies through this realm’.

EPILOGUE (pp. 530-544) – The regulars of medieval England outlived the Tudor monarchy. The Crown’s liability for their pensions continued at the Stuart succession and perhaps for a further five years. Jacobean England held a handful of men and women who had made a monastic profession before the autumn of 1539, in the south and the north; perhaps also elsewhere. Thomas Fuller claimed, at a distance of half a century, that the very last pensioner of all was living in Hampshire, although, of course, it may not have been the county of their profession.


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