Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

King Henry VIII eliminated the English monasteries in an attempt to place their accumulated wealth at his disposal. He thereby increased the secularization of English society, magnified the already desperate plight of the poor, and significantly changed the cultural landscape of England.

Summary of Event

In January, 1535, Henry VIII exercised for the first time his newly defined powers as Supreme Head of the Church in England by appointing his chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell, as his ecclesiastical vice-regent with the title of vicar-general. Cromwell had already drafted most of the Reformation acts and had boasted that he would make his royal master the richest prince in Christendom. He proceeded to make good his boast by suppressing 550 religious houses in England. Monasticism;England Henry VIII Cromwell, Thomas Aske, Robert Layton, Richard Legh, Thomas Rice, John ap London, John Cromwell, Thomas Layton, Richard Legh, Thomas Rice, John ap Aske, Robert Mary Tudor (queen of England) Henry VIII (king of England)

In July, 1535, Cromwell nominated three lawyers (Richard Layton and Thomas Legh, priests, and John ap Rice, a layman) to a royal commission that was to visit the religious houses, enjoin the inmates to lead stricter lives, and report to the vicar-general on the spiritual and material status of the various monasteries and convents. The commissioners actually went further and dispensed from vows all religious postulants under the age of twenty-two years and any other monks or nuns who requested dispensations. Religious vows had hitherto been dispensed only by the pope, and the visitors initiated a novel exercise of royal supremacy.

Cromwell studied the reports of the commissioners between November, 1535, and February, 1536. It was a portent of future action when six small houses voluntarily surrendered to the Crown and were suppressed. On March 11, 1536, Parliament passed an act to suppress all religious houses in England with an annual income of less than £200 sterling, which was to affect about 160 monasteries and 60 convents. It was believed that such small houses, having generally fewer than twelve members, could not properly carry out their functions. Furthermore, the commissioners had reported that the moral and spiritual life of the small houses was inferior to that of the large ones.

Members of the suppressed institutions who desired to do so could enter the larger houses of their orders, which had not been suppressed. Others who wished to return to the world were to be given stipends by the Crown; superiors were to be pensioned off with money or lands, while priests were to be permitted to apply for positions as parish clergy. The provisions of the act were carried out quickly and thoroughly by committees of local laymen appointed to assess the worth of the religious houses and arrange for the transfer of inmates.

In October, 1536, a brief uprising in Lincolnshire demanded the restoration of the monasteries together with economic concessions such as the reform of taxation. Most of the rebels were townspeople, but they were joined by some of the gentry and the rural middle class. While the revolt was being put down, a larger rebellion, which came to be known as the Pilgrimage of Grace Grace, Pilgrimage of (1536-1537) , took place in Yorkshire. The northern rebels also consisted of townspeople but included several members of the nobility and many of the gentry. Their leader, Robert Aske, sought restoration of the monasteries and the dismissal of Cromwell; he also accused the king of employing suspected Lutherans in his government.

The ranks of the Yorkshire rebels at one point swelled to forty thousand. Representatives of the king promised to summon Parliament to consider the demands of the rebels, and meanwhile issued a general pardon. The rebels dispersed, but all pardons were canceled the following January in the face of several sporadic uprisings. More than two hundred persons were put to death, including Aske and several monks who had been implicated.

Meanwhile, suppression of the smaller houses had proceeded, and Henry VIII and Cromwell began to consider suppressing the larger institutions. Instead of using statutory methods, however, they decided to use coercion. Cromwell brought pressure to bear on superiors to surrender their houses voluntarily; realizing that suppression was inevitable, most cooperated with the Crown in the hope of obtaining favorable settlements. Nearly 250 institutions disappeared in this manner, the last being surrendered on March 23, 1540. Only 3 houses rejected the idea of the Royal Supremacy altogether: the Observant Franciscans of Greenwich, the Carthusians of London, and the Bridgettine nuns of Sion. In these cases, the strongest opponents were put to death and others were scattered.

The majority of religious houses had already sworn to recognize the king as Supreme Head of the Church in England before suppression had begun. Sixteen of the suppressed monasteries survived in other forms: Fourteen were made into cathedral foundations, with the former monks making up the staff and two others became educational centers, although they disappeared soon afterward. The government fulfilled its promise to use the income of the suppressed houses to provide pensions for those who had been ejected, but the lands and other assets enriched the Crown by some 140,000 pounds sterling annually. The Court of Augmentations was created to deal with the many thousands of acres of land acquired in this way, and it gradually sold or leased its acquisitions to private parties.

The reaction to Henry VIII’s suppression was rather mild in London, where the early seeds of English Protestantism were being nurtured. The situation in the north, particularly in Yorkshire, was very different, in part due to lingering opposition to the Tudors and a more conservative Catholicism. In 1536, the Pilgrimage of Grace protests took place, attacking both the abolition of papal supremacy (1534) and the confiscation of the smaller monastic properties. The protesters were particularly hostile to Thomas Cromwell. Several thousand men occupied Lincoln, but they were rebuked and dispersed by Henry VIII. Robert Aske led a gathering in Yorkshire. He was arrested and executed in June, 1537. Martial law was declared in the northern counties, ending any open opposition to the government’s religious policies.


When Mary ascended the throne of England in 1553 after the brief reign of her sickly brother Edward VI, she restored papal authority but refrained from reclaiming monastic lands. The few religious houses that she refounded were suppressed by her half sister Elizabeth I between 1559 and 1560.

The immediate effect of the suppression of the monasteries was to add considerable wealth and property to the royal treasury. Longer-term impact was more complex. First, the abolition of the prominent role of the clergy in education and government administration encouraged the secularization of society and culture, since the government bureaucracy was no longer composed of minor clergy of the church. Second, it changed the face of England, since the great monasteries were left either to become ruins, like Tintern or Fountains Abbeys, or to become the mansions of the wealthy, like London’s Charterhouse. Third, royal seizure of ecclesiastical property endorsed materialistic greed, which the religious houses were at least officially against, but it also vastly reduced the amount of aid available to the poor and homeless since the church, and particularly the monks, nuns, and friars, had been their principal benefactors.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brigden, Susan. London and the Reformation. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990. A brilliant scholarly book on Reformation England that is accessible to the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. 2d ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Challenged by later scholars, this influential study presents a Reformation seen springing from the general populace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickens, A. G. Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation. London: English Universities Press, 1959. This remains an important study, although overly tolerant of an often wily figure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dodds, M. H., and R. Dodds. The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536-7, and the Exeter Conspiracy, 1538. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1915. Reprint. London: F. Cass, 1971. This older scholarly text is the foundation of later references in general histories of the English Reformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society Under the Tudors. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. The definitive challenge to Dickens’s view of the Reformation in England. Haigh sees several phases of reformations imposed “from above” and not widely supported by the general population.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knowles, David. The Religious Orders in England. Vol. 3. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1959. Knowles acknowledges the corruption of many religious houses but also emphasizes rapacious greed as the principal motivation behind the suppression.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McEntegart, Rory. Henry VIII, the League of Schmalkalden, and the English Reformation. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002. Study of Henry’s alliance and consultation with the Protestant League of Schmalkalden, analyzing his partial incorporation of German religious ideology into his own theology and the nascent Church of England. Looks both at the evolution of Henry’s religious thought and at the wider political implications of that evolution. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Peter. Reformation England, 1480-1642. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Extremely detailed, meticulously supported argument that the English Reformation should be understood to begin in the late fifteenth century and to last well into the seventeenth century. Grapples with and explicates the specific meanings of Protestantism and Catholicism to the major players and to laypeople during the Renaissance. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorhouse, Geoffrey. The Pilgrimage of Grace: The Rebellion That Shook Henry VIII’s Throne. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002. Detailed history of the Pilgrimage of Grace and of Robert Aske, its leader. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newcombe, D. G. Henry VIII and the English Reformation. London: Routledge, 1995. Intended for the schools, this history provides an excellent, well-written, and reasonably thorough introduction.

1515-1529: Wolsey Serves as Lord Chancellor and Cardinal

1531-1540: Cromwell Reforms British Government

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

Jan. 28, 1547-July 6, 1553: Reign of Edward VI

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

May, 1559-Aug., 1561: Scottish Reformation

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Categories: History