Henry VIII inherited considerable wealth but, unlike his frugal father, Henry spent, flaunted and gambled with his money. His celebration of the peace agreement between France and England at the Field of Cloth of Gold, near Calais in 1520 is a perfect example of this. Keen to impress the French king, Francis I, Henry shipped vast quantities of luxury goods over the Channel for the festivities. However, when Henry financed good causes or took away the wealth from the Church, his tactics sometimes backfired. The wealth either ended up in his ministers’ pockets, or with the lay officials that replaced the clergy and exploited the Church’s wealth for their own ends. In the decade of the 1530s, and led by Thomas Cromwell for Henry VIII, 200 years of monastic re‑foundation & new foundations and 300+ years of consolidation & stability were wiped from the face of England. The first monastic community to suffer was probably the Augustinian house of Holy Trinity at Aldgate which was suppressed in 1532 without reference to the Pope!
By 1534 rumours & plans to confiscate Monastic church wealth were circulating and in mid-1535 a major survey of this wealth, Valor Ecclesiasticus, was initiated. This valuation of the wealth of the Church in England and Wales – was written in Latin with illuminated portraits of Henry VIII enthroned in his ‘middle years’ and surrounded by his courtiers. The survey provided important information for Henry who had, by then, appointed himself Head of the English Church. The survey was completed in February 1536. By the end of the year Henry’s major initiative involving the dissolution of more than 800 monasteries was beginning. This whole project would come to an end in March 1540 when Waltham abbey [founded by King Harold & converted to an Augustinian house by Henry II] surrendered. With that, organised monastic life in England was extinguished.
The only ‘blip’ in this whole process appears to be that of the Lincolnshire Rebellion which was followed by the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536/7. That started just north of the Fens at Louth and then moved northwards. There is no record of it directly impacting on Fenland monastic life but it must have caused some concern, or maybe hope, about the future in the southern Lincolnshire monastic houses such as Crowland.
So – what does this whole ‘project’ comprise? Well, at the time of the Black Death, the total English monastic population had comprised some 14,000 monks & 3,000 nuns. Recovery from the trauma had been slow but by 1500 the estimated monastic population had recovered to around 10,000 monks & 2,000 nuns. The decline had started in 1534 with a rule that enforced all monks or nuns under the age of 24, or who had been professed before the age of 20, should be dismissed. The next step was the closing – and destruction – of the monastic houses and, as a result, the ‘departure’ of the monks and nuns.
The monastic houses we have been following – Ely, Crowland, Thorney, Ramsey and Peterborough – highlight the variety of results.
Ely was the only monastic settlement in our area that had cathedral status at the dissolution. The monastic Priory on the site was closed but the building remained. This became the home of the ‘King’s School’ set up by Henry VIII. The school now has a much larger presence but the old Priory house remains.
When Crowland monastery was dissolved in 1539 the eastern parts of the Church were destroyed. The aisled nave was retained for parochial purposes. However, the nave roof fell in 1720, the main south wall was taken down in 1744, and the outer north aisle now serves as the parish church. Of the monastic buildings which stood south of the church, no trace remains.
Thorney had an abbot and twenty monks at the dissolution – and an annual value of £411 12s 11d. The monks were given pensions and the Abbot retired to Whittlesey. The Abbey itself was rapidly stripped of many building materials, some of which went to Cambridge to build college chapels, and the Abbey’s church was reduced to a ruin. By 1550, the island of Thorney and its surrounding fens were granted to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. The nave of the Abbey church survived, and was restored as the Parish Church of St Mary and St Botolph in 1638. The aisles were demolished and the arcade openings walled up.
Sometimes other buildings took on the role of the parish church, such as we see at Ramsey where the present church began life as the hospital – not a place where the sick went but the place where visitors were met and provided with ‘hospitality’. At the time of the Dissolution there were still 34 monks in situ. However, in 1539 Sir Richard Williams, alias Cromwell, the crown grantee systematically used the monastic buildings as a source of profit, by selling the building material. During the third quarter of the 16th century Gonville and Caius College, King’s College and Trinity College, Cambridge, were all very largely built of these materials. The towers of Ramsey and Godmanchester parish churches were also built of them. The gateway at Hinchingbrooke is thought to have been taken from Ramsey while the miserere stalls in Over church and the stalls in Somersham church also came from Ramsey. There is also little doubt that much of the material also found its way into the walls of the neighbouring houses.
Peterborough was treated in an unusual way in that its outstanding Abbey church become a Cathedral and it was created as a Bishopric at the same time. But there was more to it than that. The new Cathedral was, and still is, situated at the very edge of its See – the Northampton area would have been a much more sensible place for a new cathedral. Now, whether both actions were because Peterborough was the site of Henry’s Queen Katherine’s grave, or as a result of the political machinations of Peterborough’s last abbot – John Browne [alias Chambers] who had ‘friends in high places’, we may never know. Nonetheless many of the monastic buildings were destroyed, a task finally completed by a Cromwell called Oliver a century or so later we’ll never know.
So ended 900 years of monastic life in England – was it a decision driven by religious beliefs, attitudes and politics or was it an excuse for the plundering of considerable identified wealth in the form of land, property and ‘moveables’? Whatever were the reasons; it was effective and is considered by many as a watershed in the social and political life of this country.
By 1540, over 800 monasteries had been dissolved. The process had taken just about four years
I hope you have found the story of the Fenland monasteries interesting and informative. All five of these monasteries remain in one form or another and are well worth a visit.
Ely Cathedral remains as awe-inspiring as it was around 1,000 years ago.
Peterborough became a Cathedral at the dissolution of the Monasteries; at the time of the Civil War it was on the ‘wrong side’ and suffered some significant damage – but most of this is quite difficult to spot now. What is easy to see, though, are some reminders of the church before the Normans arrived. Enjoy the inside of the Cathedral and walk round the outside and marvel at the huge arches of the infirmary
Crowland also suffered significantly during the Civil War – I’ll tell you about that in the not too far distance. Now the Parish Church, you will find inside the story of Saint Guthlac – the ‘founder’ of monasticism in this part of the Fens – being told in a beautiful manner.
Thorney also remains as an impressive Parish Church. Relax and admire inside then look outside. A quiet walk round the church yard will show you just how large the building was during its life as a monastery.
This just leaves us with Ramsey – and we can’t see that because it is no more. However – you can visit the church that is close by and was the monastery’s hospitality building.
Want to see more? Just Google these 5 names and marvel what is left.