The Dissolution of the Monasteries – A talk by Pip Wright

Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Pip Wright back to the Parish Room once again. As anticipated, the packed Parish Room was enthralled with his account of the dissolution of the monasteries and with the nuggets of information he always manages to unearth.

He began by telling us there were around 800 religious houses in England during the 15th/16th centuries, some 260 for monks, 300 for regular canons, 142 nunneries and 183 friaries – before advising us that nearly 10% of these surprisingly were in Suffolk! He then noted that the dissolution of the monasteries everyone associates with Henry VIII around 1540 was actually the second dissolution as royal action to suppress religious houses then had a history stretching back more than 200 years against so called ‘Alien Priories’.

After the Norman Conquest many French religious orders held substantial property through daughter monasteries in England; some were merely agricultural estates with a single foreign monk in residence but others were rich foundations in their own right (e.g. Lewes Priory was a daughter priory answerable to the abbot of Cluny monastery). Arising from the near constant state of war between England and France in the Late Middle Ages, successive English governments objected to money going overseas (as the French king might get hold of it), they also objected to foreign prelates having jurisdiction over English monasteries.

King’s officers first sequestrated assets of Alien Priories from 1295–1303 under Edward I, which then continued to happen for long periods during the course of the 14th century, particularly in the reign of Edward III. Pip told us that pretty much everyone in society had issues with how religious orders other than churches were run, primarily because of the ostentatious wealth and lavish entertaining that was going on. This was particularly of landowners and wealthy merchants, in the hope they would subsequently bequeath assets to the order to gain speedy passage through purgatory – an intermediate state after physical death through which those destined for heaven underwent ‘purification’ to achieve the holiness necessary to enter heaven. It seems that monasteries with as few as 10 or 12 monks could have up to 35 or so ‘servants’, creating a most unfavourable impression when monks were seen to be enjoying a lifestyle felt to be completely at odds with religious beliefs.

Alien Priories with functioning communities were forced to pay large sums to the king; those that were mere estates were confiscated and run by royal officers, with proceeds going to the king’s pocket (a valuable source of income for the Crown in its wars against the French). Larger priories were often allowed to naturalise, by buying a special legal recognition from the king to become ‘native’ religious houses; however, for around ninety smaller houses their fates were sealed when Henry V dissolved them by act of Parliament in 1414.

When Henry VIII failed to receive a declaration of nullity regarding his marriage from the Pope, he declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England (in February 1531), instigating a programme of legislation to establish his Royal Supremacy in law. We then heard that in 1534, Thomas Cromwell undertook an inventory of the endowments, liabilities and income of the entire ecclesiastical estate of England and Wales (the Valor Ecclesiasticus), including monasteries, on behalf of Henry to assess the Church’s taxable value; Pip advised that larger monasteries could have an income of around £2,000, which equates to millions in todays money.

Henry also had Cromwell “visit” all monasteries to purify them in their religious life and to instruct them in their duty to obey him and to reject Papal authority. Although an objective assessment of monastic observance in the 1530s would have been largely negative, Cromwell did not leave matters to chance – the timetable was tight and inquiries concentrated on gross faults and laxity. Where reports of misbehaviour returned by ‘visitors’ can be checked against other sources, they appear to have been greatly exaggerated, often recalling events and scandals from years before; also, from correspondence with Cromwell it seems that visitors knew that findings of impropriety were both expected and desired – they put the worst construction possible on whatever they were told, though do not appear to have fabricated allegations of wrongdoing.

Everyone had a fantastic evening, hearing an incredible story from a most gifted and natural narrator who both knows his stuff and puts it across in so entertaining a manner. We also learnt one fact that we are sure to remember for all times – Pip told us that Friar Tuck, of Robin Hood fame, could never have existed because there were no Friars in England at the time of Richard the Lionheart, when the stories were set – another myth dashed then!


Our next event will be on 18th March at 7.30 in The Parish Room Little Waldingfield, when James Hayward will regale us with his talk on ‘The Ship of Dreams’ – the story of East Anglians caught up in the most famous maritime disaster in history.

A lawyer by profession, James was educated at Ipswich and St. John’s College Oxford; he has long been involved in the performing arts and when working on a Broadway production of the musical Titanic, his fascination with the “Ship of dreams” developed and led him to research the stories of the passengers and crew with local connections.

The story of the Titanic continues to enthral audiences and this talk, with its emphasis on personal stories and tragedies, should truly capture the imagination and enable guests to re-live the spirit of the times and the sometimes gung ho enthusiasm that anything was possible.

We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is sure to be a fascinating evenings entertainment.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                     19th February 2015


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