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The Dissolution

Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire Wolds

In the mid 1530’s, King Henry VIII of England authorized Thomas Cromwell to shut up the monasteries in that country under the guise of consolidation.  A methodical review of all of the monasteries, complete with inventory, was conducted.  Most of the smaller, poorer monasteries were closed, the monks and nuns forced to seek shelter at the bigger monasteries.  At the bigger monasteries, a different kind of pogrom took place.  Some of the abbotts and abbesses were able to negotiate small pensions to ease their way and that of some of their charges in the world.  The monasteries and convents were stripped of their wealth and sent to Henry’s treasury where he rewarded his retainers to ensure their loyalty.  The monasteries themselves were broken apart, the libraries made into bonfires and the tenants dispersed.

Those who resisted, like the Bishop of Glastonbury, were treated to “black propaganda”.  They were accused of the most heinous offences of pedophilia, sexual licentiousness and the like.  And while there were instances of immorality, sloth and greed at some of the richer abbeys, it wasn’t true of all.  The Bishop of Glastonbury did not survive his encounter with Henry’s men.  He was charged a traitor to the crown and was drawn, quartered and his parts nailed to the gates.

Nuns fared particularly poorly.  Henry forbade them from marrying unless they were coerced to take their vows before the age of 20.  Some nuns did eventually marry but were persecuted for it in some areas of the north.  The convents themselves were places of education for anyone who could spare the time from their daily chores to learn.  They were particularly important to women because there was virtually nowhere else in England where women could learn languages other than English or be acquainted with the classics or discuss Aristotle.  It is said that after the dissolution, education for women did not recover its former capacity for two centuries.

Oddly enough, Anne Boleyn, who was the instigator of the reform movement in the first place, tried to intercede for a number of convents that applied to her for help.  She had limited success.  She also came into conflict with Cromwell who performed his duty to enhance the power of the state under Henry.  Anne was appalled that the proceeds of the dissolution were going into the hands of the already rich and powerful.  She challenged Cromwell and Henry to turn the monasteries into colleges and to distribute the money to the taxpayers who had footed the bill for the monasteries for centuries.  She had her chaplain sermonize to Henry about it from the pulpit.  He was not amused.

It was this conflict that finally cost her her head.  Maybe Henry could have given her a couple more years to produce an heir.  Maybe he could have worked out a deal with Emperor Charles V to recognize his marriage to Anne while restoring his daughter Mary to the succession.  But he couldn’t tolerate Anne’s bleeding heart liberalism getting in the way of enriching his treasury.  Cromwell saw her as a threat to his authority and set her up.  Henry signed off on the plan.  To the Tower she went.

History and human nature have ways of repeating themselves.  Those of us who get too comfortable are in for a nasty shock when the rules holding the social compact together get relaxed.  There will always be people who look after themselves and cement their place in the hierarchy using violence, intimidation and propaganda to satisfy their greed for power and wealth.  It has happened since time immemorial and will happen wherever the general public lets down its guard or is lead astray by clever salesmen.  Whatever wealth there is goes to the sociopathic robber barons with the blessing of the state.  Tenants are evicted.  People die in old age in poverty.  No system of government is immune.

A system tends towards disorder without constant vigilance.

For more on the subject of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, listen to the In Our Times podcast.

For more on the Dissolution of America, read There Will Be Blood by Paul Krugman.