Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

Thomas Cromwell and the Destruction of the Monasteries

Sir Thomas More had given Cromwell good advice when he entered, the King's Council. "Master Cromwell, you are now entered in the service' of a most noble, wise, and liberal prince. If you will follow my poor advice, you shall, in your counsel-giving to his Grace, ever tell him what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do. For if the lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him."

The lion already knew his strength. He had used Cromwell to help him to cast off the Pope and had so taken the first and greatest step towards forming a National Church. The time was now come when he would show the nation that everybody—whether clergyman, noble, or the humblest follower of Wycliffe or Luther, nay even Parliament itself—must bend to the king's will.

A terrible reign of terror, such as England fortunately has seldom if ever known in her history, marks this gloomy middle period of Henry VIII's reign. Cromwell now took steps, at his master's bidding, to "tune the pulpits"; that is, priests were compelled to preach such sermons as should cause men to favour the king's rule over the Church. Schoolmasters were made to revile the Pope in the presence of their scholars. Cromwell's spies were all over the country, ready to report to their master every word, written or spoken, which could be regarded as an offence. Erasmus might well say that "men felt as though a scorpion lay beneath every stone."

One of the first martyrs for the old Church was Elizabeth Barton, known as the Holy Maid of Kent. Although only a servant, she became famed for her saintliness. Miracles were said to be done by her, and she had the gift of prophecy. In those days people were much disturbed by what was passing and perhaps easily believed the prophecies of such a far-famed person. She spoke against the divorce and predicted the king's death. This could have a very dangerous effect on the nation at such a time of ferment. The king decided that she must be executed and made an example to others.

Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More were accused of knowing of her predictions and not revealing them to the king, who tried to have them both condemned as traitors without a trial. But Parliament would not agree to this.

Now More was one of the most learned and best known men in England. When he was young he had prepared himself for a religious life by scourging himself with rods, and wearing a hair shirt and sleeping upon bare boards. He did not, however, become a priest, but he gained great fame not only as a lecturer and author, but also as a lawyer and statesman. "What did Nature," wrote Erasmus, "ever fashion daintier, sweeter, or happier than the character of Thomas More?" In the early years of his reign, Henry VIII was very devoted to More. He used often to visit and dine with More in his house at Chelsea, walking in his garden with his arm round More's neck.

But More knew the character of his royal friend. "I have no cause to be proud of the king's friendship," said More to his son-in-law Roper, "for if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."

Wolsey made him Speaker in the House of Commons, and as Speaker, More showed his great courage to do what was right. When Wolsey went in all his pomp to the House of Commons to demand a great grant of money for the king, the Speaker was not afraid to stand up for the rights of Parliament. "Would you had been in Rome, Master More, when I made you Speaker," remarked Wolsey afterwards. After Wolsey's fall, More became Chancellor and the chief minister of Henry VIII, but he soon resigned.

As a loyal subject of the king, he was quite ready now to accept Anne Boleyn as queen. But neither he nor Bishop Fisher could take the oath which Henry demanded, because they truly believed that the Pope was the Vicar of Christ on earth, and that Henry could not be the Head of the Church. It was a very serious thing for the king to be opposed by men like Fisher and More, whose learning and piety were renowned through Europe.

Thomas More and daughter


All possible means, fair and foul, were taken to compel these two brave and good men to call Henry Head of the Church. Bishop Fisher was the old friend of the Tudor family. But he had been fearless in supporting Catharine and the liberty of the Church. Neither of these men would go against his conscience, and the king at last had them both executed—to the horror and disgust of all Europe. "Had we been master of such a servant," said the Emperor Charles when he heard of More's death, "we would rather have lost the best city of our lands than have lost such a worthy councillor."

The friars at this time did most of the preaching in the country. All their houses were now visited, so that they might take the oath acknowledging Henry as Head of the Church. Many of them submitted.

The Charterhouse


The monks of the famous Abbey of the Charterhouse in London were the most renowned and the most pious in the country. These stood their ground against the self-willed king, just as Fisher and More had done. Their prior, everywhere known for the beauty and piety of his character, was sent to the Tower. Cromwell compelled a jury to say that the prior and his brethren were guilty, and these pious, noble men were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, in accordance with the barbarous custom of those days.

Thus the most learned and pious men in the realm were struck down. Men had almost lost their most simple rights of liberty. Not even Henry VIII could persuade his Parliament to agree to this butchery without a good deal of murmuring and questioning.

Meanwhile, Luther's teachings were spreading in the country. Heresy, (which Henry considered the 'reformed' teachings of Christianity') was very common, especially in the eastern counties, where a great many Flemish weavers had settled, for (it was said) every weaver was a heretic. All over the country, Lollard and Lutheran books were secretly read. More preaching went on in the villages than was ever known before, for sermons had seldom been heard except at Lent. Men in the towns gathered together in the ale-houses to discuss the Scriptures rather than to drink ale, as they used to do.

The burning of forbidden books and of heretics went on as usual. Some Cambridge gospellers, devoted to the study of the Bible, were burnt by the Bishop of Norwich. Tyndale offended Henry by calling the Bible the "Head of the Church." The heretics used his English New Testament, and Henry took care that he too should suffer burning, even though he was living in Flanders.



All these changes and troubles caused much discontent in the country, especially in the North and West. There were fewer towns and roads in those parts, new ideas spread more slowly than in the South, and so the North the North and West remained the most backward and West districts till the days of steam and factories in the nineteenth century. And as there were fewer roads and larger wastes, the monasteries were very badly missed by travellers.

Everywhere the clergy were terrified of the king. The poor had lost some good friends in the monks. The nobles hated the new men, such as Cromwell, in the council. Cromwell was told to his face that he was the cause of all this rebellion and wickedness, and that he was daily trying to strike off men's heads.

His servants were at this time roaming all over England, destroying beautiful abbeys, taking away their valuables, tearing the lead off the roofs and pulling down the bells to sell them to the highest bidders. The storm now burst, first in Lincolnshire, where thirty-seven abbeys had been destroyed, then in Yorkshire, where no less than fifty-three abbeys had been spoiled. These two counties had been in the midst of all this terrible havoc.

The men of Louth, in Lincolnshire, seized the king's officer, put his register on the bonfires, and ordered all the English Testaments to be burnt, for they were afraid of heresy. The movement spread throughout the county. The king sent his ambassador to say he was horrified that his business should be stopped by the "rude commons of one shire, and that the most beastly and brute in the whole realm." The ringleaders Were captured and some fifty were gibbeted in the various towns of Lincolnshire.

In the same year a much more serious rising took place in Yorkshire and soon spread to all the northern counties. This was called the Pilgrimage of Grace: Men complained that their abbeys had been destroyed. Their kind landlords, the abbots, had been turned adrift; and now there was no one to build them bridges and highways and provide meat for strangers. The men of the North hated heresy and image-breaking, and loathed Cromwell and his men, but they stated that they were thoroughly loyal to their king.

These pilgrim rebels wore as a badge the Five Wounds of Christ. They lit beacons all over the wolds, and rang the church bells to tell their friends of their rising. Led by a brave young lawyer named Robert Aske, they marched through Yorkshire, York and Hull opened their gates to them, and with an army of thirty thousand men they reached Doncaster. Here they were met by the king's forces, and after some discussions, pardons were offered them.

But the faithless king did not keep his word, and there wasp a second rising. A terrible and barbarous revenge was now taken. The king told his officers that the people of every rebel town, village, and hamlet were to be hanged up on the trees, and their heads were to be set up in every town. They were to do this without pity or respect. Abbots, friars, landowners—all the leaders of this religious crusade, were executed. Seventy-four rebels were hanged in Carlisle alone. Some of the finest abbeys, including the magnificent Furness Abbey in Lancashire, were now destroyed by the king's orders.

Henry VIII had thus, in his cruel and heartless way, crushed out the first serious rebellion in England since the days when the Cornishmen marched to Blackheath some fifty years before.

Bridge in Yorkshire


The men of the North had taken up the cause of the monks, and Cromwell and his master now decided that the larger monasteries must share the fate of the smaller. The Long Parliament had specially, spared them because of their "good conduct," Yet it was now given out that they were to be destroyed because of the "slothful and ungodly lives of the monks." Most of the, monks submitted; those who did not were accused of wickedness or treason.

Reading Abbey


The brave and noble abbots of Reading, Colchester, and Glastonbury would not give in to the cruel king. They were accused of treason, and a sham trial was held.

In reality they were murdered by the king and Cromwell. We can still see Cromwell's notebook, in which he had written "The Abbot of Glaston to be tried at Glaston, and to be executed there." This saintly old abbot, whose only offence was that he had obeyed his conscience, was actually tied to a hurdle and dragged past his abbey, and then beheaded on the hill near the village.

St. Botolph's Priory


Some six hundred and sixteen abbeys were handed over to the king. In lands and rents they were worth about twenty million pounds, reckoned in our money. Men hoped again that taxes would not be wanted, that the poor would be provided for, and that new schools and bishoprics would be founded. The Navy was indeed strengthened, and half a dozen new bishoprics were founded. But, as before, most of the wealth went to the king and his courtiers, and new nobles and landlords grew fat on the property of the monasteries. Such men would take care that the English Reformation should never be undone. The thirty-one mitred abbots no longer sat in the House of Lords, and for the first time the other nobles had a majority in that House.

And this was the end of the monastic system in England. There is scarcely a town or village in this land where we cannot still find traces and sometimes beautiful remains of the splendid abbeys of the Middle Ages. The monasteries had done a great work in the land. The destruction of the larger abbeys was one of the blackest deeds in this cruel reign, and many noble men and women were made to suffer terrible hardships through no fault of their own.

English Monasteries

On account of Henry's treatment of the Church, the Pope expected that France, Scotland and the Emperor would combine to attack England. The terrible Henry replied to the Pope by destroying the family and relatives of the man who was trying hard to bring about this European invasion. This was Cardinal Pole, once Henry's friend and now his bitterest foe. Pole's aged mother, the Countess of Salisbury, was thrown into prison, and two years later she was beheaded without a trial—perhaps the most wicked and cruel crime of this reign.

The king also beheaded Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth, and the very next day he married Jane Seymour. Jane died soon after the birth of her son, Prince Edward. Cromwell then persuaded Henry to marry a German princess, Anne of Cleves, who was a follower of Luther. The famous artist, Holbein, had painted a flattering picture of her, but Henry disliked her from the first, and soon got her to retire.

Although Cromwell had only just been made Earl of Essex for getting rid of the abbeys, he was now condemned for treason and heresy. The king had him executed without a trial—in the same way as others had been executed.

Both at the beginning and the end of Henry's reign there was war with France and Scotland. His most successful martial achievement was the invasion of France in 1512, when he routed the French cavalry at the Battle of Spurs. That was in his young days, when he took great delight in manly and warlike exercises. He was then fond of tennis and archery and skilled in the use of the sword; armour that he wore is still in existence.

knight in armor


Scotland was humbled at the Battle of Flodden. The French king later tried to secure the friendship of Henry, but the famous meeting between the two kings at the gorgeous Field of the Cloth of Gold  came to nothing. It is to Henry's credit that throughout his reign he kept England free from the horrors of civil war and from foreign invasion—at a time, too, when there was very real danger of both. This had a beneficial effect on the trade of the country, and in spite of his many acts of cruelty, Henry retained his popularity to the end of his days.

But Henry's reign was very wasteful. It is said that he took more money from the realm than all his predecessors on the throne. He plundered no less than six hundred monasteries, ninety guilds, and one hundred and ten hospitals. He took pensions from France, he issued coins which were not up to standard value, and he made poor men suffer thereby. He raised forced loans and made men pay "free-will offerings" or benevolences; and yet he was always in want of money.

We may all agree with a great historian that Henry VIII was a man of iron will and determined purpose, and a man who would have been infinitely greater and better and more fortunate if he would have lived for his people and not for himself. That he was able to retain the respect of his people, and even the love of many of them, was due to the fact that in a great measure he was like themselves—free, open, and merry, with a hearty friendly manner towards rich and poor alike.

"The habits of all classes," says Froude (a famous modern writer on this period), "were open, free, and liberal. We read of 'merrie England' of these days and of the glory of hospitality, by the rules of which all tables, from the table of the freeholder to the table of the baron's hall and abbey refectory, were open at dinner-hour to all comers, without constraint or reserve. To every man according to his degree there was free beer and free lodging; bread, beef, and beer for his dinner; for his lodging perhaps only a mat of rushes in a spare corner of the hall, with a billet of wood for a pillow, but freely offered and freely given; the guest probably fared much as his host fared, neither worse nor better. There was little fear of abuse of such licence; for any man found at large, and unable to give a sufficient account of himself, there were the ever-ready parish stocks or town gaol.

"The hour of rising, winter and summer, was four o'clock, with breakfast at five. In the country every unknown face was challenged and examined; if the account given was insufficient, he was brought before the justice. Thieves were then hanged so fast, Sir Thomas More tells us, that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet. If the village shop-keeper sold bad wares, if the village cobbler made 'unhonest' shoes, if servants and masters quarreled, all used to be looked after by the justice. At twelve the country gentleman, the justice of the peace, dined; after dinner he went hunting, or to his farm."

Throughout all the changes of this and the succeeding reigns the country gentleman remained a power in the land. It was he who chiefly benefited from the material destruction wrought by the Reformation. Some of the old abbeys, in the hands of their new owners, were transformed into luxurious mansions. While the Reformers pulled down Gothic churches and monasteries, the country gentlemen built palatial houses for themselves in a new style derived from Italy.

Wroxton Abbey