Dissolution

One of the great infamous acts of British history was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries 1536-41. On a recent trip across England we came across three of the great religious houses that were dissolved in this process – those at Glastonbury, Dunstable and Bury St Edmunds. The sheer extent of the ruins and the size of the remaining fragments emphasise the enormity of what happened, in a huge transfer of wealth and power from religious to royal authority. Most of the religious buildings in the abbey complexes were subsequently destroyed. Of course, these are just a small sample from the nearly 900 religious houses involved.

A modern day consolation is the wonderful opportunity for photographs offered by the remaining buildings/ fragments.

Glastonbury Abbey
Dunstable Priory, where Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled
Bury St Edmunds Abbey, with modern cathedral tower in background

6 thoughts on “Dissolution

    • A matter of opinion? I think infamous is the appropriate word for an act that destroyed all those wonderful buildings, stole the wealth and land of the religious institutions, removed the livelihood of 2% of the population, murdered a number of religious leaders, and removed the then rural social security system.

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      • How do you think all those ‘religious institutions’ got their money to fund the raising of so many buildings?

        What we might call relic tourism was the best known and easiest method (also, specific production of something like beer or cheese or wine or whatever that could be sold to create some revenue), which is why just about every church building place claimed to have significant relic one was expected to come and see to be considered ‘pious’. This is still in use to day by all kinds of religions.

        But the real money came – especially for cathedral construction that could take centuries and so were awarded by this king or that over time to financially meet this end (and, in exchange, told that such a ‘selfless’ act would help grant entry to heaven for the pious king… who may have suspected that such a path might be in doubt) – from land grants. What might considered ‘infamous’ was the way this done… based on ‘stealing’ a ridiculous portion (usually between a third and three quarters) of product (or its monetary equivalent) on what these farmers produced because all land was owned by the Crown (or whatever the tribal leader might be called), which was then diverted away from the Crown and towards the religious institution. How generous! No concern for the subsistence level farmer, of course… just their ‘souls’.

        So this is the source of both granted lands and money made on it that we’re talking about, the lands that were later ‘infamously’ taken back.

        So sure, from the religious administration point of view, these ‘reassigned’ granted lands (for the institutions financial benefit alone) were later ‘reassigned’ again – hence the term ‘stolen’. But were they?

        The Crown that claimed ownership over all lands it could defend – regardless of any other claims made upon – constantly ‘reassigned’ land to alter political allegiances (granted as rewards and used this way in negotiated Treaties) to a teetering Crown after various power struggles advanced certain ‘houses’ over others. So at best, then, these lands were ‘re-stolen’ if we want to stick to this framing! Yet this is the act that many consider ‘infamous’ not because it was unusual but because it adversely affected the income of religious institutions, which is a rather ironic and hypocritical position to take seeing how that’s how these lands were gained by the same religious institutions!

        Land grants to religious ‘institutions’ like these has been going on for ever and exported around the world as part and parcel of Colonial rule – not just by the West as some misinformed people might presume but by various Crowns around the globe including Asian and Africa. It was this assigning of lands exported to ‘new’ lands (especially in the Americas) where churches made vast fortunes from the same kind of Crown-approved land grants… regardless of who actually lived there. Such massive land grants by some distant Crown to competing religious institutions fomenting conflict and persecution (never considered ‘infamous’ by religious believers themselves it seems) is one reason why Jefferson SPECIFICALLY disallowed this kind of religious granting to be recognized by the new form of government in the US. In addition, such previous granting by various European Crowns was by a stroke of the pen reclaimed and so all religious land grants became public lands under trust to the state governments. This is why I say the use of the term ‘infamous’ for only one selected theft of land (no doubt entirely pious) is a very particular kind of framing that demonstrates a very partisan religious position.

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