Sunday, 8 March 2015


Cromwell and the Monasteries

He 'banished the undeserving from their altars'. He 'restored true religion'. He ensured that 'the precepts of God began to be held in their due honour'. Those words were not applied to Thomas Cromwell. They were composed in honour of Henry VIII and by Henry VIII. In 1537 they were part of a eulogy of the king which featured in a full-length mural he ordered Holbein to paint for the privy chamber of his new palace at Whitehall. Henry's proudest boast was his reformation of religion, and the Whitehall Cartoon (as it is known) was commissioned in the aftermath of the defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was in large measure, a response to the dissolution of the smaller monasteries. Henry took responsibility for it. He was proud of it. He regarded his triumph over the rebels as a sign of divine approval. And he used the rebellion as justification for his assault on all the remaining religious houses.

But was the dismantling of English monasticism something Cromwell lured the king into - with promises of mouth-watering wealth? This is the central question that has to be addressed if we are seeking a deeper understanding of Cromwell and his motivation. We should not allow ourselves to be diverted by emotive reflection on 'bare ruined choirs' or loss of 'cultural heritage' (a concept largely meaningless in the 16th century). The question rests on two other questions: 'What did Henry want?' and 'What did Cromwell want?'

As Professor Bernard has argued, the king never held in high regard the abbeys and the paraphernalia of relics and pilgrimages with which they were associated. He made one pilgrimage, to Walsingham, at the very beginning of his reign and never repeated the experience. When Wolsey closed down 29 religious houses and used the proceeds to pay for his educational foundations at Oxford and Ipswich, he received warm praise from his sovereign. Any lack of interest Henry had in monasticism turned to animosity when his matrimonial misadventures provoked criticism from outspoken leaders of the religious orders, particularly the Observant Franciscans and the Carthusians (some of whom encouraged the rabble-rousing 'Nun of Kent', Elizabeth Barton). Henry's mounting hostility towards the religious orders was, as far as we can tell, political rather than theological. He did not, like Luther, regard the entire institution as founded on non-biblical error which encouraged a doctrine of salvation by works. He was concerned because the 800 or so houses were beyond his control. Their allegiance was either directly to the pope or to superiors in foreign mother houses. This was a concern shared by other European monarchs who were also bringing the religious under closer supervision. English bishops shared Henry's concern at the semi-independence of houses within their dioceses which made it difficult to exercise discipline and initiate necessary reforms.

Cromwell's opposition went deeper. Even in the 1520s, when he was acting as Wolsey's agent for the closing of minor houses, there were complaints of his heavy-handedness which suggests that he had little sympathy for the dispossessed inmates. As a reader of Erasmus' and Tyndale's New Testaments he understood salvation as a work of grace available to all and not especially offered to a minority of 'first class Christians' who had taken monastic vows. As a visitor of abbeys and nunneries he would have seen at first hand the behaviour of such 'first class Christians', who gave little evidence of remarkable holiness. He had also long been familiar with the satirical pamphlets and woodcuts which, at best, poked fun at monks and nuns and, at worst, angrily demanded reform of abuses. By 1530 he will have read Simon Fish's inflammatory Supplication for the Beggars which complained of monks who lived in idle luxury and sexual debauchery while most of the king's subjects struggled to survive. This was exaggerated diatribe, despatched from the safety of a foreign press but, as Professor Dickens pointed out, 'tavern talk had now found open and eloquent expression'.

It was not long after this that Cromwell realised that he held much in common with Luther. He knew that, in lands where the reformers held sway, monasticism was withering on the vine. He had profound religious reasons for dismantling the system in England. But if he urged Henry to set in hand a root-and-branch reform he will have discovered that he was pushing against a door that was already open. The only question was how to bring it about.

Ways and means were Cromwell's speciality. In 1535 a thorough survey of ecclesiastical wealth (the Valor Ecclesiasticus) was made. The following year agents were despatched to examine the smaller houses to determine which were non-viable. Essentially, this was a continuation of the work Cromwell had done for Wolsey. The angry reaction of the Pilgrimage of Grace in the northern shires played into the government's hands. This spontaneous uprising was blamed upon 'traitorous priests' and 'renegade monks'. Thereafter, few abbots or priors were prepared to resist the wave of closures which followed, particularly as financial inducements were offered to those who willingly left their houses.

Were the religious bullied into abandoning their vows? Certainly. Were the findings of Cromwell's agents coloured to show the victims in the worst possible light? Probably. But there was sufficient undoctored evidence available from some locations to provide justification for the closures. Fraudulent 'miracle-working' images were exposed. Accusations of sexual immorality were substantiated by confessions. When villagers gazed on the wagon loads of treasures being trundled away from despoiled abbeys Fish's exposure of the difference between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' seemed to be well proven.

Those who remember Mrs Thatcher's assault on the coal mining industry in 1984 will still carry vivid images of mounted police clashing with crowds of stone-throwing miners. It was all very distressing. It always is when centuries-old communities are broken up and an ancient way of life comes to an end. But few would now contest the argument that the industry, a bedrock of Britain's Industrial Revolution, was no longer relevant two centuries later. To everything there is a time. So it was with English monasticism in the form in which it had existed for generations. It belonged to the past and - for several reasons - it could not serve the Tudor present. It certainly could not serve Henry VIII's regime. He dispensed with it for reasons which are at least questionable. Thomas Cromwell provided the cold, clinical bureaucratic machine which turned his master's will into reality. But at least he had, what Henry lacked, a vision for the future: a financial stable government able to use the bonanza resources as the foundation of a Christian commonwealth. But the iron will of the king, which put paid to England's monastic past, also prevented the realisation of Cromwell's hoped-for future. 

Next time:  8. Why was Cromwell executed?

G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, 2005, pp 249ff
A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 1989, pp 167ff
 J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, 2008, pp 110ff
R.W. Hoyle, 'The origins of the dissolution of the monasteries', Historical Journal, 1995, pp 275ff
D. Wilson, Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man, 1996, pp 244f

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