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THE DISSOLUTION OF THE MONASTRIES

Where did all the Monasteries go?

By 1291 the country had been divided into parishes, each served by a parish church and Priest. Farmers gave a tythe (tenth) of their crop to pay for this, and the grain was collected and stored in tythe barns. Huge Cathedrals were built and expanded to by communities who were eager to give their best to God, sometimes at great personal cost.

When Henry III came┬áto the English throne in 1217 there were around 680 monasteries in the country, and they owned about a fifth of the country’s wealth. There were also “Chantries” – small chapels where Priests were paid to say masses and pray for people who had died. Medieval chantry chapels can still be seen in the Cathedrals. The Church was becoming very rich and very powerful.

In 1536 there were over 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in England and Wales. In just a short period of 4 years, by 1540, there were none.

In 1534 King Henry VIII made himself supreme head of the Church in England in place of the Pope. All monks and nuns were made to swear an oath accepting the King as their new leader. Most did, but those that refused were hung, drawn and quartered – a slow and painful way to die.

In 1535 the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, ordered a valuation of all church property. After this each monastery was visited to find out if the monks and nuns were living as they should. The report said that there were wrong things happening in many places. This was the excuse the king wanted to shut them down and take their land and money.

In 1536 he started to close all the monasteries, starting with the smallest. The last to go was Waltham Abbey in Essex that closed on 23rd March 1540.

The monks and nuns were each given a small pension to live on. Some monks became parish priests, while many nuns married and lived normal lives. An abbot or abbess was given a house and a bigger pension.

Cromwell became very rich, but he did not live to enjoy it. He upset the king and was executed in 1540.

In 1539 almost all the monasteries in England and Wales had been closed. In 1535 the King’s agents had inspected Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, but had found everything well run – there was no excuse to force it to close.

They also found the Abbey was very rich, and reported of ‘a house so great, so goodly and so princely that we have not seen the like.’ Abbot Whiting was a frail, 80 year old, but he refused to surrender the monastery to the King. It was decided to make an example of him. Abbot Whiting was accused of treason, dragged round the town and up Glastonbury Tor. There he was beheaded, along with two other monks. Whiting’s body was quartered – chopped into four pieces, and each piece was hung up in a neighbouring town, while his head was hung over the Abbey gates.

Glastonbury Abbey was emptied and torn down. The stones were used in other buildings.

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