Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII

The Reformation in Tudor England was a period of unparalleled change. One of the principal outcomes of the Reformation was the dissolution of the monasteries, which commenced in 1536.

The Reformation was instigated when Henry VIII sought to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, due to her failure to produce a male heir.

Upon the Pope’s refusal to grant the annulment, Henry established the Church of England. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 affirmed the separation from Rome, proclaiming Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

The monasteries symbolised the authority of the Catholic Church. Additionally, the monasteries were the most affluent institutions in the nation, and Henry’s extravagant lifestyle, coupled with his military campaigns, had depleted the treasury.

Monasteries possessed more than a quarter of all cultivated land in England. By dismantling the monastic system, Henry could appropriate all its wealth and assets while eradicating its Catholic influence.



At the time of their dissolution, a small proportion of English and Welsh religious establishments could trace their roots back to Anglo-Saxon or Celtic origins before the Norman Conquest.

The vast majority of the 625 monastic communities dissolved by Henry VIII had arisen during the surge of monastic fervour that swept across western Christendom in the 11th and 12th centuries.

King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII c. 1537 by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Few English institutions had been established after the close of the 13th century; the most recent foundation among those dissolved was the Bridgettine nunnery of Syon Abbey, established in 1415.

Typically, founders of the 11th and 12th centuries had endowed monastic institutions with both material wealth, in the form of revenues from landed estates, and spiritual riches, such as tithes appropriated from parish churches under the founder’s patronage.

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As a result, religious houses in the 16th century controlled the appointment to approximately two-fifths of all parish benefices in England, disposed of about half of all ecclesiastical income, and possessed around a quarter of the nation’s landed wealth.

An English medieval proverb suggested that if the abbot of Glastonbury were to marry the abbess of Shaftesbury, their heir would inherit more land than the king of England.

The 200 friaries in England and Wales represented a second distinct wave of foundations, with almost all of them emerging in the 13th century. Friaries, for the most part, were concentrated in urban areas.

Armagh's Franciscan Friary. Dissolution of the Monasteries
The chancel of Armagh’s Franciscan Friary. The friary was the longest monastic structure in medieval Ireland. It was suppressed in 1542 with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

Unlike monasteries, friaries had refrained from acquiring income-generating endowments; the friars, as mendicants, relied on financial support from offerings and donations from the faithful, while aiming to sustain themselves by producing their own basic provisions from extensive urban kitchen gardens.

Dissolution of Monasteries

The dissolution of monasteries in England and Ireland occurred within the political context of other assaults on the ecclesiastical institutions of Western Roman Catholicism, which had been ongoing for some time.

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Many of these assaults were linked to the Reformation in Continental Europe. By the end of the 16th century, monasticism had largely vanished from those European states whose rulers had embraced Lutheran or Reformed confessions of faith (with Ireland being a notable exception).

However, monastic orders persisted in those states that remained Catholic, and new religious orders such as the Jesuits and Capuchins emerged alongside the older ones.

The religious and political transformations in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI differed in nature from those occurring in Germany, Bohemia, France, Scotland, and Geneva.

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Across much of continental Europe, the appropriation of monastic property was associated with widespread discontent among the common people, lower clergy, and civil society against powerful and wealthy ecclesiastical institutions.

Such popular animosity towards the church was uncommon in England before 1558; the Reformation in England and Ireland was orchestrated from the monarch and the highest echelons of society.

Initially, these changes were met with widespread popular suspicion, and in certain instances and localities, there was active resistance to the royal agenda.

Religious Reforms

Pilgrimages to monastic shrines remained highly popular until they were forcibly suppressed in England in 1538 by Henry VIII’s decree. However, the dissolution of the monasteries brought about minimal changes to the religious practices observed in England’s parish churches.

Generally, the religious reforms undertaken in England during the 1530s did not align closely with the teachings of Protestant Reformers and faced significant opposition from the public when they did.

In 1536, Convocation endorsed and Parliament enacted the Ten Articles, with the initial portion borrowing terminology and concepts from Luther and Melanchthon.

Dissolution of Tintern Abbey
West end of Tintern Abbey, Wales

However, any progression towards Protestantism halted when Henry VIII expressed his preference for maintaining orthodoxy with the implementation of the Six Articles in 1539, which remained in force until his death.

As early as 1518, Cardinal Wolsey had secured a papal bull permitting limited reforms within the English Church. Nevertheless, reformers, both conservative and radical, grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of significant progress.

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Henry sought to address this dissatisfaction, and in November 1529, Parliament passed legislation aimed at rectifying perceived abuses within the English Church.

These laws imposed restrictions on fees for probate of wills and burial expenses in consecrated ground, tightened regulations regarding sanctuary rights for criminals, and limited the number of church benefices one individual could hold to two.

These measures aimed to demonstrate that establishing royal authority over the Church would facilitate progress in religious reform where papal jurisdiction had been insufficient.

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Subsequently, attention turned to the monasteries. In his biography of Henry VIII, J. J. Scarisbrick noted:

“Suffice it to say that English monasticism presented a significant and pressing challenge; radical action, though the precise form it should take was uncertain, was deemed necessary and inevitable.

The purification of religious orders was likely seen as the foremost task of the new regime—as the primary duty of a Supreme Head empowered by law ‘to visit, extirpate, and rectify’.”

Dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey
The overgrown ruins of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey c1900

The accounts of misconduct, vice, and extravagance within the monasteries, to be compiled by Thomas Cromwell’s visitors, might have been biased and exaggerated.

However, with the exception of the Carthusians, Observant Franciscans, and Bridgettine orders, the religious establishments in England and Wales had largely ceased to play a prominent role in the spiritual landscape of the nation. Apart from these select orders, adherence to strict monastic regulations was often lacking.

The exceptional spiritual discipline observed by the Carthusians, Observant Franciscans, and Bridgettine monks and nuns had earned them royal favour over the preceding century, particularly as their houses benefited from endowments confiscated by the Crown from suppressed alien priories.

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During this period, donations and bequests tended to favour parish churches, university colleges, grammar schools, and collegiate churches, indicating greater public approval for such causes.

Monastic debts were on the rise, and the number of professed religious was dwindling, although recruitment to the monasteries persisted until the end.

While only a minority of monks and nuns lived in opulent luxury, most enjoyed comfortable living conditions according to contemporary standards. Fewer individuals upheld the rigorous standards of asceticism or religious devotion.

Dissolution of Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley in North Yorkshire. It became one of the wealthiest abbeys in England until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1538 Henry ordered the buildings to be rendered uninhabitable and stripped of valuables such as lead.

In many cases, monastic complexes stood largely empty, despite dominating the towns they were situated in. From 1534 onwards, Cromwell and King Henry pursued methods to redirect ecclesiastical income to the Crown’s benefit, arguing that much of it had been misappropriated from royal resources initially.

This mirrored actions taken by Renaissance rulers across Europe grappling with financial strain due to escalating military expenditures.

The dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales primarily targeted monastic wealth and properties. While the closures sparked resistance among the populace, defiant monasteries and abbots faced royal antagonism.

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The surrender of the friaries, viewed from an official standpoint, was a secondary consideration, undertaken for administrative efficiency once the decision to dissolve all religious houses had been made.

Despite official actions, monasteries generally enjoyed local support, sustaining themselves through their own resources.

Friaries, lacking self-sufficiency, often encountered local hostility, particularly as their solicitation of legacies was perceived to diminish anticipated family inheritances.

Precedents for Confiscations

By the time Henry VIII turned his attention to reforming the monasteries, the royal efforts to suppress religious houses had a long history spanning over 200 years.

The initial targets were the ‘alien priories’, which were branches of French religious orders owning significant estates in England due to the Norman Conquest.

These priories varied in nature; some were essentially agricultural estates overseen by a single foreign monk, while others, like Lewes Priory, held considerable wealth and answered to prestigious French abbeys such as Cluny.

Dissolution of New Abbey
Sweetheart Abbey, New Abbey in Dumfries, Scotland.

Tensions between England and France during the late Middle Ages led successive English governments to oppose funds flowing abroad to French-controlled priories, fearing that the French king might lay claim to them. They also objected to foreign prelates exercising authority over English monasteries.

After 1378, French monasteries, and consequently their dependent alien priories, remained loyal to the Avignon Papacy. Their suppression, supported by rival Roman Popes, was conditioned upon all confiscated monastic assets being redirected to other religious causes.

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Starting under Edward I in 1295–1303, royal officials seized the assets of alien priories, a process repeated over the 14th century, notably during Edward III’s reign.

Priories with active communities had to pay hefty sums to the king, while those functioning solely as estates were confiscated and administered by royal officers, with proceeds going to the royal treasury. These properties proved lucrative during England’s conflicts with France.

Some larger alien priories were allowed to continue under English rule, such as Castle Acre Priory, after paying substantial fines. However, around ninety smaller priories faced dissolution by Parliament in 1414.

Dissolution of Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey, Scotland. Founded by Cistercian monks in 1136, the abbey was always subject to sacking and rebuilding, and most of the surviving building is 15th century.

The Crown took over these properties, redistributing some to Henry’s supporters, allocating others to new monastic establishments like Syon Abbey and the Carthusians at Sheen Priory, or repurposing them for educational endeavours.

While these suppressions had papal consent, 15th-century popes sought assurances that the confiscated funds would be used for religious and educational purposes.

In medieval legal understanding, a religious house was defined by its endowments rather than its inhabitants. Thus, if a house’s endowments were seized or surrendered, the house effectively ceased to exist regardless of whether its members continued religious life.

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The founder and their heirs retained certain rights over the house’s functioning, including the right to nominate its leader and burial rights within the premises.

The dissolution of alien priories set a precedent for handling English-founded houses that ceased to exist. Disputes over founder rights were resolved through jury verdicts, with the Crown typically claiming founder status.

When a community disbanded, the bishop sought papal approval to repurpose the endowments, usually with royal agreement.

Dissolution of Roche Abbey
Ruins of Roche Abbey. South Yorkshire, England.

Benefits of The Dissolution

Educational foundations, particularly Oxford and Cambridge colleges, benefited from these dissolutions. Bishops, such as John Alcock and Cardinal Wolsey, dissolved monastic establishments to establish these colleges, often with papal approval.

Despite support from monarchs and bishops, reform efforts faced resistance from within religious houses and local elites.

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The King supported reform-minded bishops, yet progress was slow, especially with orders exempt from episcopal oversight. Challenges arose when dealing with dissolved houses with significant assets, leading to legal and financial complications.

In some cases, dissolution occurred without a jury trial, underlining the complexities of reforming monastic institutions in England.


After failing to obtain a declaration of nullity for his marriage from the Pope, Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in February 1531. He then embarked on a legislative campaign to establish this Royal Supremacy in law and ensure its acceptance throughout his realm.

In April 1533, the Act in Restraint of Appeals abolished the clergy’s right to appeal to “foreign tribunals” (Rome) above the King in spiritual or financial matters. All ecclesiastical charges and levies previously payable to Rome were redirected to the King.

Dissolution of Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey in Jedburgh, Scotland

Through the Submission of the Clergy, the English clergy and religious orders acknowledged the King as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, a position Henry believed he had always held.

Thus, any resistance by monastic institutions to royal authority was deemed treasonous and a violation of the monastic vow of obedience.

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Under severe threats, nearly all religious houses, including those of Carthusian monks, Observant Franciscan friars, and Bridgettine monks and nuns, reluctantly accepted the Royal Supremacy and swore to uphold the validity of the King’s divorce and remarriage.

Despite efforts to coerce, bribe, deceive, and intimidate these houses into compliance, some remained steadfast in their opposition. Those who persisted were imprisoned, and in some cases executed for treason.

Dissolution of Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey was a 7th century monastery that later became a Benedictine abbey. The abbey and its possessions were confiscated by the crown during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

The Observant Friars’ houses were transferred to the mainstream Franciscan order, while the friars from Greenwich endured harsh treatment, resulting in numerous deaths.

Eventually, even the Carthusians relented, except for those from the London house, which was shut down. Some monks were executed for treason in 1535, and others perished in prison.

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Leading Bridgettine monks from Syon Abbey also resisted the Supremacy and were imprisoned, although the strictly enclosed Syon nuns escaped punishment, with the abbess’s compliance deemed sufficient for the government’s purposes.

G. W. O. Woodward concluded that the vast majority accepted the Royal Supremacy without objection, reflecting the prevailing sentiment among Englishmen at the time, who harbored distrust towards foreign Italian prelates.

Visiting The Monasteries

In 1534, Cromwell, acting on behalf of the King, conducted a comprehensive inventory of the assets, debts, and revenue of the entire ecclesiastical estate of England and Wales, including the monasteries (refer to Valor Ecclesiasticus).

This inventory aimed to determine the taxable value of the Church and was carried out by local commissioners, who submitted their reports in May 1535. Concurrently, Henry obtained parliamentary approval for Cromwell to “visit” all the monasteries, including those, like the Cistercians, previously exempted from episcopal oversight by papal dispensation.

Dissolution of Byland Abbey
Byland Abbey, Yorkshire

The purpose of these visitations was to reform the religious practices within the monasteries, instructing them to acknowledge the King’s authority and reject papal jurisdiction.

Cromwell delegated his visitation authority to carefully chosen commissioners, primarily Richard Layton, Thomas Legh, John ap Rice, and John Tregonwell.

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These commissioners were tasked with assessing the quality of religious life in the monastic houses, investigating the prevalence of ‘superstitious’ religious practices such as relic veneration, and examining evidence of moral misconduct, particularly of a sexual nature.

Most of the appointed commissioners were secular clergy and seemed to hold Erasmian beliefs, exhibiting doubts about the value of monastic life and displaying a dismissive attitude towards relics and miracles.

Dissolution of Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire, England. It was one of the great abbeys in England until it was seized in 1538 under Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

An impartial evaluation of monastic observance in England during the 1530s would likely have been largely critical. Compared to the valuation commissions, the schedule for the monastic visitations was stringent, resulting in some houses being overlooked entirely.

The inquiries primarily focused on major faults and laxity, often leading to reports of misconduct that were rushed and highly exaggerated, sometimes referencing events and scandals from previous years when checked against other sources.

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During the visitations, each member of the monastery and selected servants were interviewed individually, encouraged to confess personal wrongdoings and report on others. Correspondence with Cromwell indicates that the visitors anticipated and sought findings of impropriety.

However, if no faults were disclosed, they were not reported. While the visitors tended to interpret information in the most negative light possible, there is no evidence to suggest that they fabricated allegations of misconduct outright.

Written Reports of Visitations

In the autumn of 1535, the visiting commissioners sent back written reports to Cromwell, detailing sensational revelations they claimed to have uncovered. These reports included bundles of alleged miraculous relics such as wimples, girdles, and mantles that monks and nuns had purportedly been lending out for profit to the sick or women in labour.

Dissolution of Creake Abbey
The ruins of Creake Abbey, Norfolk

The commissioners consistently instructed the monastic houses to reinstate strict practices of communal dining and cloistered living, advising those unable to comply to depart. Many individuals took up the opportunity to be released from their monastic vows, opting to start anew elsewhere.

The commissioners reported the number of professed religious persons remaining in each house. In seven cases, impropriety or religious decline was so significant, or the remaining numbers so few, that the commissioners felt compelled to close the house immediately.

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In other cases, the abbot, prior, or noble patron petitioned the King for the dissolution of a house. Such authority had previously rested with the Pope, but now required a legal basis established by the King.

Consequently, Parliament passed the Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1535 (“Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act”) in early 1535. This Act, relying heavily on Cromwell’s reports of “impropriety,” granted the King the power to dissolve monasteries failing to uphold religious standards.

Dissolution of Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey as seen from the West Pier, Whitby

It empowered the King to compulsorily dissolve monasteries with annual incomes declared in the Valor Ecclesiasticus of less than £200, with the discretion to exempt houses at his discretion. All assets of dissolved houses would revert to the Crown.

Following this legislation, many smaller monasteries below the income threshold presented cases for continuation, offering substantial fines as recompense.

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Only around 330 were referred for suppression, and 243 were actually dissolved at this time. The choice of the £200 threshold has been questioned, as it does not align with discernible differences in religious practice reported in visitation reports.

However, it was likely chosen for practical reasons, as the Valor Ecclesiasticus returns were deemed more reliable than Cromwell’s visitors’ reports.

During 1536, further local commissions visited the identified smaller houses, tasked with inventorying assets and valuables and securing cooperation from monastic superiors. While some houses offered immediate surrender, few did so, leading to a two-stage procedure.

The commissions reported back to Cromwell for a decision on dissolution. In several cases, commissioners recommended continuation where no significant issues were found, arguments Cromwell often accepted.

Dissolution of Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey, Cumbria, England.

Around 80 houses were exempted, mostly by offering a substantial fine. For those dissolved, a second visit arranged closure, asset disposal, and member relocation.

The 1536 Act stipulated that property of dissolved houses reverted to the Crown, managed by Cromwell’s new agency, the Court of Augmentations.

Although the property rights of lay founders and patrons were extinguished, incomes of lay office holders, pensions, and annuities were generally preserved, as were tenant rights.

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Monks and nuns had the choice of secularization or transfer to a larger house of the same order. Most opted to continue religious life. Rehousing those seeking transfer proved challenging, with some areas repurposing suppressed houses for new foundations.

Two houses, Norton Priory in Cheshire and Hexham Abbey in Northumberland, resisted commissioners by force, resulting in severe repercussions from Henry, including imprisonment and execution.

First Phase of Suppressions

The initial wave of suppressions in the autumn of 1535 provoked widespread discontent, particularly in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where they fueled the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.

This event led Henry to increasingly associate monasticism with betrayal, as some spared religious houses in the north of England either willingly or reluctantly sided with the rebels, while former monks resumed religious life in several suppressed houses.

Sections within the Treasons Act 1534 stipulated that the property of those convicted of treason would revert to the Crown.

Dissolution of Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley in North Yorkshire.

Cromwell had drafted these sections with the foresight of using them to dissolve religious houses whose heads were convicted of treason, arguing that the superior of the house legally owned all its monastic property.

First Suppression Act

While the First Suppression Act presented reform rather than outright abolition as its public objective, scholarly debate persists on whether universal dissolution was covertly prepared for at this juncture.

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Most scholars argue that the extensive provision for monks and nuns from suppressed houses to transfer to continuing houses indicates that monastic reform remained the primary goal, at least in Henry’s view.

However, further action against richer monasteries was likely planned. The selection of poorer houses for dissolution in the First Act minimised funds released for other purposes. Despite this, there was a hiatus in official action towards further dissolutions in most of 1537, possibly due to concerns about provoking rebellion.

Episcopal visitations were renewed, internal discipline was adjusted according to Cromwell’s directives, and many houses underwent repair and reconstruction.

Dissolution of Shap Abbey
Shap Abbey, Cumbria. The abbey was one of the last to be dissolved in 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII. The buildings were sold off and the land was divided up. Some of the buildings were used as farm buildings, while others were demolished and the abbey fell into ruin.

Remaining Monasteries

Remaining monasteries required funds, especially those needing to pay fines for exemption. In 1537 and 1538, there was a significant increase in leasing out monastic lands and endowments, alongside the granting of fee-paying offices and annuities to lay notables.

Although these actions created long-term liabilities and reduced eventual returns to the Crown, they were encouraged, with Cromwell himself benefiting personally.

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Additionally, the government’s apparent acceptance of additional rights and fees for tenants and lay recipients of monastic incomes contributed to a growing disposition towards dissolution among local notables and landowners.

Despite Henry’s public stance on monastic reform, it became evident by late 1537 that official policy now aimed for the general extinction of monasticism in England and Wales.

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey circa 1850s.

This extinction was expected to occur through individual applications from superiors for voluntary surrender rather than statutory dissolution. Furness Abbey in Lancashire, implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace, petitioned for voluntary surrender, which Cromwell approved.

Subsequent dissolutions not related to treason were considered “voluntary.” Superiors faced pressure to petition for surrender, with positive incentives such as life pensions offered to cooperating monks.

Meanwhile, Cromwell targeted houses showing wavering resolve, pressuring superiors to apply for surrender. Despite these actions, the government maintained publicly that well-run houses could survive, cautioning against rumors of general dissolution.

Second Phase of The Dissolution

Throughout 1538, surrender requests flooded in. Cromwell assigned a local commissioner to each case to ensure swift compliance with the King’s wishes.

They oversaw the orderly sale of monastic goods and buildings, disposed of endowments, and ensured former monks and nuns received pensions, cash gratuities, and clothing. The process proved much quicker and smoother the second time around.

Titchfield Abbey, Hampshire. Titchfield was closed in 1537 by Henry VIII of England during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the building was converted into a mansion by Thomas Wriothesley, a powerful courtier

Existing tenants retained their tenancies, and lay office holders continued to receive their incomes despite having no duties. Elderly, disabled, or infirm monks and nuns received more generous pensions, ensuring no one was left without support. Even monastic servants received a year’s wages upon discharge in some cases.

The endowments of the monasteries, including landed property and parish tithes, were transferred to the Court of Augmentations. The court then distributed life pensions and fees, deducting a 4d fee in the pound and a clerical ‘Tenth’ tax deduction of 10% on clergy incomes.

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Monks’ pensions averaged around £5 per annum before tax, while nuns received around £3 per annum. Former nuns, like monks, were forbidden to marry during Henry’s reign, potentially leading to hardship, especially as they had limited employment opportunities. Those from well-off families often returned home, while others formed shared households.

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire

Dissolution Progression

As the dissolution progressed, the future of the ten monastic cathedrals came under scrutiny. Some, like Bath and Coventry, surrendered, while others, such as Norwich, adopted new collegiate statutes.

These changes reflected evolving ideas about the future of monastic communities, with reformed models like Stoke-by-Clare serving as examples. By early 1539, the continuation of a select group of monasteries as collegiate refoundations had become an established expectation.

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The Second Suppression Act of May 1539 empowered the King to establish new bishoprics and collegiate cathedrals from existing monastic houses.

However, the plan to create new bishoprics was curtailed due to financial constraints, with only six abbeys raised to cathedrals and two re-founded as non-cathedral colleges. Cromwell had considered allowing select nunneries to continue if they demonstrated high-quality observance and commitment to reform.

Godstow Abbey near Oxford was one such example, initially spared in 1538 due to its reputation for providing education for girls of notable families. However, by November 1539, all surviving nunneries, including Godstow Abbey, were suppressed, as Henry was adamant that none should remain.

Later Dissolutions

None of this legislative and visitation process applied to the friaries. In the early 14th century, there were approximately 5,000 friars in England, residing in extensive complexes in towns of any significance.

By the time of the dissolution, there were still around 200 friaries across England. However, except for the Observant Franciscans, the friars’ income from donations had plummeted by the 16th century.

Valle Crucis Abbey, Wales. The name Valle Crucis (Valley of the Cross) derives from the nearby Eliseg’s Pillar, which originally supported a cross. The influence of the abbey came to an end with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1537.

Their numbers had dwindled to fewer than 1,000, and their conventual buildings were often in disrepair or commercially leased out, along with their enclosed vegetable gardens.

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No longer self-sustaining in terms of food and with secular tenants occupying their cloistered spaces, most friars, contrary to their rules, now resided in rented lodgings outside their friaries, congregating for worship in the friary church. Many friars supported themselves through paid work and owned personal property.


By early 1538, the suppression of the friaries was widely expected. In some friaries, all friars except the prior had already departed, and assets such as standing timber, chalices, and vestments were being sold off.

The Nave, Jedburgh Abbey, Scotland.

Cromwell delegated Richard Yngworth, suffragan Bishop of Dover and former Provincial of the Dominicans, to secure the friars’ surrender swiftly. Yngworth achieved this by enforcing each order’s rules and compelling friars to return to a strict conventual life within their friaries.

For most friars, failure to comply with the king’s wish for voluntary surrender meant facing homelessness and starvation. Once surrender was secured, Yngworth reported briefly to Cromwell, detailing the state of each friary’s buildings and assets.

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However, he lacked the authority to dispose of lands and property or negotiate pensions. The friars were released from their vows and given a gratuity of around 40 shillings each.

Yngworth listed the remaining friars in each house at surrender, enabling Cromwell to grant them permission to pursue a secular priesthood. The friary churches, despite continuing to attract congregations, were swiftly disposed of by the Court of Augmentations.

Byland Abbey, Yorkshire. Byland was once one of northern England’s strongest monastic centres. It was closed in 1538 as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries.

Only a few friary churches, such as St. Andrew’s Hall in Norwich, Atherstone Priory in Warwickshire, the Chichester Guildhall, and Greyfriars Church in Reading, remain standing today.

In April 1539, Parliament passed a law retroactively legalizing acts of voluntary surrender and safeguarding tenants’ rights. However, by then, the vast majority of monasteries in England and Wales had already been dissolved or earmarked for collegiate foundations.

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Some abbots who resisted were executed for treason, leading to the dissolution of their houses and the provision of a basic pension of £4 per year to their monks.

St Benet’s Abbey in Norfolk was the sole abbey in England to escape formal dissolution. As the last abbot had become the Bishop of Norwich, the abbey’s endowments were transferred directly to the bishops.

Eastern exterior of the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset, UK

The last two abbeys to be dissolved were Shap Abbey in January 1540 and Waltham Abbey on 23 March 1540. Several priories also survived into 1540, including Bolton Priory in Yorkshire (dissolved on 29 January 1540) and Thetford Priory in Norfolk (dissolved on 16 February 1540).

Canterbury and Rochester cathedral priories were transformed into secular cathedral chapters in April 1540.

Impact on Public Life

The surrender of monastic endowments automatically signified the cessation of regular religious observance by its members, except for a few communities like Syon, which chose exile.

There are recorded instances where groups of former members of a house settled together, but no entire community did so, and there is no indication that any such groups continued to observe the Divine Office.

The nave looking east, Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire.

The dissolution Acts primarily concerned the disposal of endowed property; they never explicitly forbade the continuation of a regular religious life.

However, given Henry’s hostility towards religious resumption during the Pilgrimage of Grace, it would have been unwise for any former community of monks or nuns within his dominion to maintain covert monastic observance.

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Local commissioners were instructed to ensure that parts of abbey churches used by local parishes or congregations continued to be utilized for worship. Consequently, sections of 117 former monasteries survived and are still in use for parochial worship, alongside the fourteen former monastic churches that remain intact as cathedrals.

In around twelve instances, affluent benefactors or parishes acquired complete former monastic churches from the commissioners and presented them to their local communities as new parish church buildings.

Ruins of Roche Abbey. South Yorkshire, England.

Many other parishes purchased and installed former monastic woodwork, choir stalls, and stained-glass windows. With abbots’ lodgings often expanded into substantial residences by the late medieval period, these properties were frequently converted into country houses by lay buyers.

Tudor Mansions

In other cases, such as Lacock Abbey and Forde Abbey, the conventual buildings themselves were transformed into Tudor mansions. The lead on roofs, gutters, and plumbing was the most marketable fabric in monastic buildings, often leading to buildings being burned down for easier extraction.

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Stone and slate roofs were sold to the highest bidder, while many monastic outbuildings were repurposed as granaries, barns, and stables. Cromwell initiated a campaign against “superstitions,” resulting in the looting and destruction of ancient and precious valuables, as well as the desecration of tombs and relics at sites like Glastonbury, Walsingham, Bury St Edmunds, and Shaftesbury, reducing them to ruins.

Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley in North Yorkshire.

Once new and re-founded cathedrals and other endowments were established, the Crown’s wealth increased by around £150,000 per year. However, after Cromwell’s fall in 1540, Henry required funds urgently for military endeavors, leading to the sale of monastic property, representing an annual value of £90,000 by 1547.

Lands and endowments were not auctioned but sold in response to applications, which had flooded in since the dissolution began. Purchasers were mainly nobles, magnates, and gentry, with no discernible religious preference, other than a desire to maintain or enhance their status.

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Feudal Rights

Feudal rights associated with manorial estates were highly sought after to establish families in the late medieval gentry, leading to widespread acquisition. The Court of Augmentations retained sufficient lands and income to meet its pension obligations, with surplus property becoming available each year for further disposal.

The last surviving monks continued to receive pensions into the reign of James I, over 60 years after the dissolution.

Site of the Monks’ Dining Hall, Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire

The dissolution of the monasteries had little impact on English parish church activity. Parishes that had paid tithes to support a religious house now paid them to a lay owner, but rectors, vicars, and other incumbents remained in place, with their incomes and duties unchanged.

Congregations continued to worship in former monastic churches, with the derelict parts walled off. Chantries endowed in parish churches remained unaffected for a time, as did over a hundred collegiate churches in England.

However, these were dissolved under the Chantries Act 1547 by Henry’s son Edward VI, with their property absorbed into the Court of Augmentations and their members added to the pensions list.

Dissolution in Ireland

The dissolution process in Ireland diverged significantly from that in England and Wales. In 1530, there were approximately 400 religious houses in Ireland—a notably higher number relative to the population and material wealth compared to England and Wales.

Unlike in England, where the friars’ houses experienced decline, the friaries in Ireland flourished during the 15th century, garnering popular support, financial endowments, and embarking on ambitious building projects while maintaining regular conventual and spiritual life. Friaries comprised around half of the total religious houses.

Dunbrody Abbey, Ireland. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536 and granted to the Etchingham family in 1545, at which point part of the church was converted into a residence. A massive collapse occurred on Christmas Eve in 1852, destroying the south wall of the church and some of the monastery.

In contrast, Irish monasteries saw a drastic decline in professed religious members, with only a minority observing the Divine Office daily by the 16th century.

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Henry’s direct authority as Lord of Ireland, and later as King from 1541, was limited to the Pale area around Dublin. Beyond this region, he relied on strategic agreements with clan chiefs and local lords to proceed.


Despite challenges, Henry was determined to implement a dissolution policy in Ireland. In 1537, legislation was introduced in the Irish Parliament to legalize monastery closures.

Church of Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny, Ireland. The abbey flourished until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by the English king Henry VIII.

Facing opposition, only sixteen houses were suppressed initially. Henry persisted, and following the Tudor conquest of Ireland, he sought to expand the areas of successful dissolution.

This often involved agreements with local lords, exchanging monastic property for allegiance to the new Irish Crown, resulting in minimal acquisition of wealth from the Irish houses.

3 barefoot saints or apostles on a chest tomb carved by the O’Tunney family, now situated in the Northermost of the side chapels to the North of the altar at Jerpoint Abbey

By Henry’s death in 1547, about half of the Irish houses had been suppressed. However, resistance to dissolution persisted into Elizabeth I’s reign, with some houses in the West of Ireland remaining active until the early 17th century. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell led a Parliamentary army to conquer Ireland, systematically destroying former monastic houses.

Despite this, sympathetic landowners sheltered monks or friars near ruined religious houses during the 17th and 18th centuries, albeit with the constant risk of discovery, legal action, or imprisonment.

Implications of The Dissolution

The abbeys in England, Wales, and Ireland had been among the most significant landowners and institutions in the realms. However, by the early 16th century, religious benefactors increasingly favoured parish churches, collegiate churches, university colleges, and grammar schools as the primary centres for learning and the arts.

Nonetheless, especially in regions distant from London, the abbeys, convents, and priories remained hubs of hospitality and education, serving as crucial sources of charity for the elderly and infirm. The removal of over eight hundred such institutions created significant voids in the social fabric.

All that remains of the early c14th chapter house, Thornton Abbey, North Lincolnshire. Thornton Abbey was suppressed on 12 December 1539, but none of the buildings can have been despoiled immediately, for Henry VIII and Catherine Howard stayed there early in October 1541.

Moreover, approximately a quarter of the net monastic wealth, on average, consisted of “spiritual” income derived from holding the advowson of a benefice. This entailed a legal obligation to maintain the spiritual welfare of the parish by appointing the rector and receiving an annual rental payment.

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Medieval Era

Throughout the medieval era, monasteries and priories sought papal exemptions to appropriate the glebe and tithe income of rectoral benefices. However, from the 13th century onwards, English diocesan bishops successfully established the precedent that only the glebe and ‘greater tithes’ could be appropriated by monastic patrons.

The ‘lesser tithes’ had to remain with the parochial benefice, with the incumbent holding the title of ‘vicar’. By 1535, out of 8,838 rectories, 3,307 had been appropriated with vicarages. Yet, a subset of vicarages under monastic ownership did not have beneficed clergy at that late date.

West front and lay brothers’ choir from the cloister, Byland Abbey. Byland was closed in 1538 as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries.

These were mainly parish churches owned by houses of Augustinian or Premonstratensian canons, whose rules mandated providing parochial worship within their conventual churches, often as chapels of ease for a more distant parish church.

Upon dissolution, these spiritual income streams were sold off alongside landed endowments, creating a new class of lay impropriators who gained the right to patronage of the living along with the income from tithes and glebe lands.

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Existing incumbent rectors and vicars serving parish churches formerly owned by monasteries retained their positions and incomes. However, in the parish churches and chapels of ease owned by canons that became unbeneficed, the lay rector as patron also had to provide a stipend for a perpetual curate.

Collapse of The Monastic System

The collapse of the monastic system likely wouldn’t have occurred solely due to royal action without the significant enticement of elevated status for gentry of all sizes and the convictions of the small but determined Protestant faction. Late medieval Europe had witnessed anti-clericalism, which spawned satirical literature aimed at a literate middle class.

Tower and church walls of Fountains Abbey east view. Founded in 1132, the abbey operated for 407 years, becoming one of the wealthiest monasteries in England until its dissolution, by order of Henry VIII, in 1539.

In addition to the demolition of the monasteries, some of which had stood for many centuries, the consequential destruction of the monastic libraries stands out as perhaps the most significant cultural loss brought about by the English Reformation.

For instance, Worcester Priory, now known as Worcester Cathedral, housed 600 books at the time of its dissolution. Only six of these volumes are known to have survived intact to the present day. Similarly, at the Augustinian Friars’ abbey in York, a library containing 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three known survivors.

Some books were dismantled for their valuable bindings, while others were sold off wholesale. King Henry VIII tasked the antiquarian John Leland with salvaging items of particular interest, especially manuscript sources of Old English history, but despite these efforts, much was irretrievably lost.

Private individuals, notably Matthew Parker, also made efforts to collect and preserve valuable manuscripts. Nonetheless, the destruction was extensive, particularly affecting manuscript books of English church music, none of which had yet been printed.