Dissolution of Monasteries (England)

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Between 1534 and 1540 King Henry VIII, showing the same hasty, thoughtless stubbornness that marked his quest for a son, dissolved most of the English monasteries and confiscated their property.

Early in the sixteenth century England’s enemy was Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire later described as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” The Catholic world looked to Charles V to champion the cause of Catholicism against the impious king of England, and precious metals from the New World poured in to Charles, enlarging his vision of possibilities.

The dissolution of the monasteries occurred against the backdrop of the Reformation, the sixteenth-century religious movement that began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church, and ended with the establishment of the Protestant churches. Thus the forces of the Reformation in England made monasteries a clear and open target. In addition, expenses for public works impelled Henry VIII along a course that ended in the confiscation of vast holdings of ecclesiastical properties. Aside from extravagant court expenditures, Henry VIII financed a major enlargement of the English navy, and a significant improvement of England’s harbors and ports. Paying for these public expenditures with more taxes was not workable. Taxes were already high and any increase would have prompted tax evasion, perhaps increasing collection costs as much as revenue. Henry VIII resorted to currency debasement, the worst such episode in English history, and to the confiscation of ecclesiastical properties. Monasteries had large landholdings that generated income and were also storehouses of gold and silver candlesticks, crosses, plate, and other precious metal objects.

Legislative action began in 1534 with the Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries. This law covered all monasteries with annual incomes of less than 200 pounds, accounting for about two-thirds of all the monasteries in England. In 1538 Henry expanded the policy of dissolution to friaries, and in 1539 he expanded it to the larger monasteries.

The monasteries were stripped and sometimes destroyed. About 75,000 pounds sterling in gold and silver was sent to London from dissolved monasteries. Bells were melted down and recast as cannon, and lead from roofs and gutters was exported. By 1540 nearly all ecclesiastical orders had ceased to exist, although a few survived until Henry’s successor, Edward VI, dissolved them in 1547, thus completing Henry’s policy.

The abbots of targeted monasteries resorted to various stratagems to hide precious metals when the king’s agents came to dispose of monastery property. Some abbots placed gold and silver objects with private individuals in hopes of getting them back later. Some objects were hidden in secret vaults and walls, and some were sold for money, converting ecclesiastical property into private property. Nevertheless, the king’s agents were tenacious, and uncovered much property that had been concealed or secretly sold.

Where possible, gold and silver were coined directly, but in some cases embedded jewels, wood, or other materials had to be extracted and separated. Gold and silver either went straight to the mint or ended up at the goldsmiths.

The sanctity of religious temples, churches, and monasteries had always enabled these facilities to accumulate larger quantities of gold and silver than private individuals could safely shelter. During the Reformation the Catholic institutions lost some of their inviolability in countries destined to be predominately Protestant, and governments pressed for funds tended to expropriate the precious metals for their own use.