The Dissolution

Years roll on years; to ages, ages yield;
Abbots to abbots, in a line succeed;
Religion's charter their protecting shield,
Till royal sacrilege their doom decreed.

Elegy on Newstead Abbey.  Byron.

THE dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century was not without precedent in this country, although those of earlier days were on a small scale and effected for reasons peculiar to the Order or the houses dissolved.

The three Acts to dissolve the religious houses and dispose of the proceeds were as follows :—

An Act of 1535-1536 (27 Hen. VIII, c. 27) Intituled "An Acte establishing the Courte of Augmentacions" provided inter alia that the dissolved houses and their revenues should, with certain exceptions, be in the Survey of the said Court. In other words this required that the proceeds must be paid into the Court of Augmentations, the treasurer of which was named by the king.

An Act of 1535-1536 (27 Hen. VIII, c. 28) Intituled "An Acte wherby all Relygeous Houses of Monks Chanons and Nounes which may not dyspend Manors Lands Tents & Heredytaments above the clere yerly Value of ijCli (£200) are geven to the Kings Highnes his heires and Successours for ever". The preamble began thus: "Foreasmuch as manifest sin, vicious carnall and abominable living, is daily used and comitted amongst the little and small religious houses . . . ". This was a gross libel. Suitable pensions were ordered to be paid but the scale was not laid down in the Act. The dispossessed persons were:— (a) To have capacities if they wished, to live virtuously and honestly abroad, or

(b) To be committed to the great monasteries, but as these were dissolved only three years later, this option was not of much value.

An Act of 1539 (31 Hen. VIII, c. 13) Intituled "An Acte for dissolucon of Abbeys". This Act dissolved and gave to the king all monasteries and other religious houses, hospitals and friaries not already closed, and any surrendered voluntarily or closed since the passing of 27 Hen. VIII, c. 28. The procedure for paying the revenues into the Court of Augmentations remained unaltered. Most of the hospitals, colleges and chantries were not, however, dissolved till the next reign.

Cromwell was made Vicar General in 1535 and ordered a general visitation of all religious houses, and it was completed in six months. There were eighty-six questions in the Articles of Enquiry, the last twelve being for nuns only. His main agents were Dr. Richard Layton, Dr. Thomas Legh, Dr. John London and Sir John Ap Rice; all were without scruple, and each was an agent provocateur as they were determined to find, by fair means or foul, evidence to suit their master.

The outbreak of 1536, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, followed by a more serious outbreak in the north, mainly in Yorkshire, which was not suppressed till 1537, were due to the resentment felt at the dissolutions.

It is estimated that about 376 smaller houses were suppressed by the Act of 1536, and about 645 larger houses by the Act of 1539, with the result that by the winter of 1540 there was hardly a monk or a nun left in the cloister.

The proceeds of the suppression were vested in the Court of Augmentations set up by the Act of 1535-1536 and ultimately in the Exchequer, and one estimate puts them at £130,000 although other estimates put them at a higher figure in money values of that period; but even if the above figure be accepted, the value today would be in the region of £6,500,000. The value of the silver delivered to the King's Jewel House is unknown but it must have been enormous.

Some of the monks were given licences to live on their pensions, some became parish priests. The pensions awarded to the inmates of the Nottinghamshire houses have already been noted in cases where they received pensions ; most of the heads of those houses did pretty well, but not so well as the heads of some great houses in other counties who received £3,000, £4,000 and in one case £9,000 a year in terms of modern money.

The Crown was the principal gainer in the pecuniary sense, although certain monastery lands were bestowed on well-known nobles. The Earl of Shrewsbury acted through his agents as steward for at least six monasteries prior to the Dissolution, and was therefore in the know and able to get in on the ground floor. Others who benefited in this way included the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk, but contrary to common belief most of these lands were sold at a fair valuation. Out of the huge sum which accrued to the king as a result of the plunder of these ancient houses, he founded six new bishoprics (far fewer than he had promised), and spent some money on education and some on defence.

It is difficult to offer reasons for the decline of the monasteries, but that they had declined is proved by the fact that by the sixteenth century the number of inmates had fallen fifty per cent, below the number in the year 1300. The monasteries therefore only continued in their hey-day of fervour and numbers from about the year 1100 to the year 1300. We shall agree none the less that the method of suppression was inhuman and that it was effected mainly for mercenary and other unworthy motives.

The Dissolution produced a vast amount of suffering; one third of the land of England was then transferred and let at higher rents with the result that the cost of living rose; a great loss resulted to art and higher education; no such changes had been known for generations and charity was much reduced and the number of poor increased. We should remember that there was no Poor Law legislation of any importance in England until the passing of Queen Elizabeth's great Act of 1601, 43 Eliz. c. 2.

Those who condemn the movement in its later days allege that the moral state of many monasteries was bad. This allegation gets little if any support from modern investigators and can be dismissed as groundless. There were no doubt houses in which conditions were not as they ought to have been, but nothing like the number of such cases some writers allege. On this matter we can quote no less an authority than Sir William Holdsworth who states in his History of English Law that the monasteries were not so corrupt as the Visitors stated, although their usefulness had nearly gone. From the end of the twelfth century there were no great leaders or saints such as Dunstan, Lanfranc, Ailred, Hugh of Lincoln.

The destruction of those noble buildings erected to the Glory of God, by the pious ancestors of men still living, and the cruel dispersal of thousands of monks and nuns, rudely torn from the cloisters they had come to love, caused untold grief to the helpless witnesses, and it still causes grief to many of their descendants, although some four hundred years have passed since then, but years during which toleration has increased and respect for men's religious beliefs has become an article of faith, ingrained in our national way of life and thought.

The Religious Houses in Nottinghamshire Prior to the Dissolution

(This table is based on the dates in The Religious Houses of Medieval England by Dom David Knowles. Sheed and Ward. 1941.)




Owning House 





Holy Trinity, Rouen. Independent, 1409



Wallingwells (Nunnery)







Cluny till 1392


Augustinian Canons






c. 1120



Shelford       Temp H. 11









c. 1170




c. 1185











(a) Canons

Wei beck




(b) Canonesses*

Broadholme Temp-Stephen


Carthusian Friars




(a) Franciscan




(b) Carmelite



(c) Observants



N.B.—The Priory at Mattersey is stated by some writers to have included Canons and Canonesses in its early days. Similarly the Priory at Broadholme is said in its early days to have included Canons and Canonesses.

* The author states probably Gilbertines, but his opinion is not shared by all historians.

Plan of the Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary, Roche, Yorkshire.