Dissolution of Monasteries Facts & Worksheets

Dissolution of Monasteries facts and information plus worksheets and fact file. Includes 5 activities aimed at students 11-14 years old (KS3) & 5 activities aimed at students 14-16 years old (GCSE). Great for home study or to use within the classroom environment.

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    • Henry VIII and the Reformation
    • The role of monasteries
    • Ecclesiastical estate valuation and monastic visitation
    • Suppression of the smaller monasteries
    • Suppression of the larger monasteries
    • Reactions to and consequences of the dissolution

    Key Facts And Information

    Let’s know more about Dissolution of Monasteries!

    • The 16th-century dissolution of English monasteries was one of the policies that resulted from Henry VIII's split from the Church of Rome. The Acts of Suppression of 1536 and 1539 were enacted after Thomas Cromwell completed the financial assessment and visitations of monastic institutions.
    • The first act targeted the monasteries with annual revenues of less than £200 whilst the second act broadened the scope of dissolution to larger ones. As a result, vast amounts of monastic estate and assets were transferred to the Crown. Monks and nuns lost their residence and employment whilst many people who relied heavily on monasteries had nowhere to go.

    Henry VIII and the Reformation

    • The English Reformation was spearheaded by Henry VIII. The need for an heir drove his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. When the king's annulment from Catherine of Aragon was delayed and denied, his sentiments toward the Roman Catholic Church changed. For this reason, he sought to break with Rome to achieve his dynastic goals.
    • From November 1529 to April 1536, the Reformation Parliament enabled Henry VIII’s split from Rome and the creation of the Church of England.
    • This brought about many changes to aspects of religious and secular life.

    • Much of the legal changes were orchestrated by Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.
    • The Crown was confronted with a population divided over the issue of reform.
    • Thomas Cranmer supported the independence of the Church of England, however many intellectuals, such as Chancellor Thomas More and Reginald Pole, rejected the schism.
    • On the other hand, individuals such as Hugh Latimer called for a much more radical Protestant reform than the one proposed by the king.
    • A series of acts passed by Parliament included the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which made Henry VIII, not the Pope, the head of the Church of England.
    • The king had the final say in matters concerning legal disputes and doctrine. This meant he could grant his own annulment.
    • Henry VIII stemmed the flow of money to the Catholic Church. He also had the final say in who was appointed bishop.
    • He required his court to take the Oath of Supremacy - that he was head of the English Church and State.
    • He later dissolved the monasteries.

    The role of monasteries

    • Monasteries and priories played a large role in assisting poor people and communities. Some monasteries were very rich and had existed since the early Middle Ages. These religious houses were run by monks or nuns.
    • What were the functions of the monasteries?
      • Monasteries helped poor people: they provided sanctuary and medicine for those who were sick or dying.
      • Monasteries owned large estates and rented land to farmers. Some wealthy people bequeathed their land and wealth to the Church.
      • Monasteries educated many people that belonged to wealthy families. Rare books and manuscripts were preserved in their libraries.
      • Travellers could stay in monasteries.
    • Monasteries offered employment for the local community.
    • Whilst there were still some 800 monasteries spread across England and Wales, many were in decline.
    • Around thirty monasteries had already been closed during a reform project by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in the 1520s.
    • The profits from this project were used to build public educational institutions, including the Cardinal College, which was to become the college of Christ Church, Oxford.
    • During this period, the reduced number of monks, friars and nuns across the country meant that many monastic houses and nunneries were not well-kept as there was not enough staff to look after them properly.
    • However, the vast monastic estates remained to entail some 20% of all the cultivated land in Henry VIII’s kingdom.

    Ecclesiastical estate valuation and monastic visitation

    • The impressive lands and ecclesiastical properties became a tempting target during Henry VIII’s Reformation. The confiscation of these assets through the dissolution of monasteries could help clear the country’s debts, considering that the Church had three times more revenue than the state. Apart from this reason, this could be seen as a way to eliminate organisations that were opposed to Henry VIII’s policy.
    • In 1534, Cromwell was commissioned by the king to undertake a survey of the endowments, liabilities and income of the entire ecclesiastical estate of England, Wales, and part of Ireland controlled by England, for the purpose of assessing the Church’s taxable value.
    • He was also ordered by the king, with Parliament's authorisation, to visit all the monasteries in order to investigate the quality of monastic observance and to instruct the religious in their duty to obey the king and reject Papal authority.
    • Valuation commissions
      • Laymen assessors were appointed to travel the realm and note the financial situation regarding every single monastic institution in England and Wales.
      • Findings were listed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, which for the first time gave the king and government a detailed account of the scale of the wealth of the Church and monasteries in the kingdom.
    • Monastic visitation
      • Commissioners were appointed to gather a list of transgressions and abuses involving members of monastic institutions.
      • Findings were compiled in the Comperta Monastica, which reported gross faults and laxity of the religious houses.
    • Following the completion of these surveys, Parliament enacted the Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1536, or the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act, based largely on the debatable reports received by Cromwell.
    • The act assigned all monasteries with annual revenues of less than £200 to the king.

    Suppression of the smaller monasteries

    • With the 1536 act, smaller monastic houses were identified for suppression. Another set of local commissions visited these houses to create an inventory of assets and valuables, and acquire the cooperation of monastic superiors by the allocation to them of pensions and cash gratuities.

    • It was hoped that the smaller houses would immediately surrender with these commissions. However, only a few did.
    • The commissioners then reported back to Cromwell for a verdict whether to proceed with dissolution.
    • If dissolution was determined, the smaller monasteries would be closed and emptied with their assets and endowments confiscated.
    • For the smaller monasteries saved from dissolution, the agreed fine was collected.
    • To manage the revenues and properties of the dissolved smaller monastic houses reverted to the Crown, Cromwell created the Court of Augmentations.
    • Whilst the lay founders and patrons were denied the property rights of monastic offices, their pensions and annuities were generally preserved, as were the rights of tenants of monastic lands.
    • Ordinary monks and nuns were given the option of secularisation, or of relocation to a continuing larger house of the same order.
    • The result of the 1536 act was the closure of 399 smaller monasteries while 67 had to pay a heavy fine to continue their operations.
    • The monastic life, whose reputation for corruption had been falsely amplified, was in decline due to lack of income.
    • However, the dissolution failed to produce as much money as was expected.

    Suppression of the larger monasteries

    • A few years after the 1536 act, the act of 1539, also known as the Second Act of Dissolution, broadened the scope of dissolution to larger ones. Determined to pursue his religious reforms and the dissolution of the remaining monasteries, Henry VIII targeted those whom he felt most strongly opposed his policies.
    • Several abbots chose to donate their abbeys to the king.
    • Some of the ecclesiastical buildings were demolished to obtain material for secular buildings.
    • Some minor Benedictine houses were assigned to parish churches, or even purchased by wealthy parishes.

    • The relics were eliminated and pilgrimages were discouraged.
    • However, the places that owed their fame to being the destination of pilgrimages, like Glastonbury, Bury St Edmunds, and Canterbury, suffered strong repercussions.
    • Those who resisted the policy, such as the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury and Reading, were executed for treason.
    • By 1540, 552 monasteries and religious houses were dismantled at a rate of around 50 per month.
    • To provide funds for Henry VIII’s ambitious foreign policy and military campaigns, many abbeys and monastic lands were resold at special prices to the new Tudor nobility, making it increasingly a social class aligned with the new Protestant institutions.

    Reactions to and consequences of the dissolution

    • The dissolution of monasteries effected by Henry VIII was met with both support and opposition.
    • Protestants, as well as many nobles, were in approval of the policy.
    • The king’s supporters benefitted from the policy as they were granted the monastic estates.
    • Many commoners were also pleased to see the back of those rapacious and corrupt priests and monks who had blighted their villages.
    • The majority of Henry VIII’s subjects appeared to have been content to follow the directions of the religious and political authorities, as many of them seemed entirely indifferent to the Reformation as a whole.
    • On the other hand, there was a significant proportion of the population opposed to the closing down of the monasteries.
    • In fact, this policy instigated a series of rebellions known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
    • The rebellion, which began in Lincolnshire and broke out in York and elsewhere in the north of England in October 1536, included the common people, clergy, and even some lords and gentry.
    • Apart from opposing the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, the rebels were against the king’s break with Rome, the rise of Cromwell and his policies, and the lack of political representation in the North of England.
    • The uprisings were suppressed. Because of how ruthlessly Henry VIII responded to opponents, further uprisings were deterred.
    • The dissolution of monasteries was also seen as an attack on traditional practices of Catholicism. It affected many ranks of society.
    • Who benefitted from the dissolution of monasteries?
    • The Crown and Henry VIII’s ministers were the primary winners since they no longer fell under the Church of Rome and the Pope’s authority.
    • With the dissolution of monasteries, Henry VIII got rid of all opposition.
    • Noblemen also got a great advantage out of this situation: the king rewarded them with land that they could either sell or farm. Either way, they had the opportunity to increase their income.
    • Who suffered from the dissolution of monasteries?
    • Monks and nuns lost their home and became unemployed.
    • Since monasteries helped the local community, the people that were poor and sick had nowhere to go.
    • Monasteries were also known to rent parts of their land. When Henry VIII dissolved them and handed the land over to nobles, rents suddenly increased, and some people were evicted.
    • Among the major cultural losses resulting from the dissolution was the destruction of monastic libraries: many illuminated manuscripts were lost during this period.
    • Additionally, the disappearance of the monasteries generally contributed to the decline of contemplative practices in Western Europe over the following centuries.

    Image sources:

    1. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw03082/King-Henry-VIII
    2. https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/640x360/p01gmv8t.jpg
    3. http://www.berkshirehistory.com/articles/images/reading_abbot_execution.jpg