The Dissolution of the Monasteries, by James Clark

Ann Hughes enjoys a richly detailed account of how Henry VIII imposed his power over the church

September 23, 2021
Crowland Abbey in  Lincolnshire, almost destroyed in dissolution, illustrating Ann Hughes’ review of ‘The Dissolution of the Monasteries:  A New History’ by James Clark
Source: iStock
Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire was almost destroyed in dissolution

This formidably researched book offers a thorough account of the dissolution of the 850 monasteries and friaries of England and Wales over “precisely four years” between March 1536 and Easter 1540, expelling some 10,000-12,000 men and women committed to the religious life as well as many lay servants and officials. James Clark’s focus is on the experiences of this last generation of “the religious”, derived from strictly contemporary sources, and on the proceedings of the royal commissions enforcing dissolution. He is resolutely sceptical about the polemical, retrospective accounts emerging, he argues, only in the later decades of Queen Elizabeth’s reign when, “amid a rising tide of Reformation narrative, recent history was recalled as melodrama”. Only then, also, did the dissolution come to be regarded as a “watershed between old and new”.

There is not much melodrama here. The accusations of monkish corruption and immorality stressed by Protestants, and the sufferings of defiant friars at Thomas Cromwell’s hands in Catholic narratives, are covered briefly in a book that instead stresses rather local particularities and practical matters. Clark demonstrates that the complete extinction of the monastic life was not the inevitable culmination of a long-standing plan, but rather a slower, contingent process. Early Tudor monarchs were enthusiastic if intrusive patrons of monasticism. Henry VIII’s Lenten devotions were led by monks and friars as late as 1539. Even Cromwell emerges here as more hesitant than in other works. Thomas Wolsey’s humanist-inspired conversion of monastic resources to educational purposes was an important precedent, but one conducted under papal authority. Henry VIII’s divorce and the establishment of royal supremacy over the personnel and resources of the church transformed the situation.

The book is a considerable achievement, absorbing in its detail, not easy to do justice to in a short review. Among many striking discussions, there is vivid, wide-ranging treatment of monastic life in late medieval England and Wales, from abbey towers dominating the countryside and bells marking the hours for miles around to the long-established intricate relationships with lay people at all social levels. These cover the full sweep from the magnate descendants of the abbeys’ founders to the poor who were relieved at their gates.

An equally compelling section covers the immediate aftermath of dissolution for people, animals and property of all sorts, encompassing stained glass, jewels, sheep and fisheries as well as the buildings subject not to “savage ruin but strange abandonment”. The ban on wearing the clerical habit both threatened individual identity and marked overall cultural change, although experiences varied: some lucky priors moved almost seamlessly to new bishoprics; former nuns with small pensions pooled their resources in continued communal living.

Clark’s narrative foregrounds the material and the worldly. Religion as such takes up little space, not so much ignored as taken for granted. More pages are devoted to difficulties in maximising the profit from the lead in abbey roofs than to the spiritual purposes of the monastic life or to why reformers (certainly not yet “Protestant”) might oppose it. This is a most illuminating account of the process and immediate impact of dissolution, but there is more to be said of its meaning and significance.

Ann Hughes is professor of early modern history, emerita, at Keele University.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History
By James Clark
Yale University Press, 704pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300115727
Published 12 October 2021


Print headline: The twilight of monastic life

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