by  Winston  Churchill

The End of the Monasteries

THOUGH all had been bliss at Court while Jane was Queen rural England was heavy with discontents. Henry was increasingly short of revenue and Church properties offered a tempting prize. Just before Anne's trial he had gone down to the House of Lords in person to recommend a Bill suppressing those smaller monasteries which contained fewer than twelve monks. There were jparly four hundred of them, and the combined rent of their lands amounted to a considerable sum. The religious orders had for some time been in decline, and parents were becoming more and more averse to handing over their sons fo the cloisters. Monks turned to the land in search of recruits, and often waived the old social distinctions, taking the sons of poor tenant farmers. But the number of novices was rarely sufficient. At some houses the monks had given up all hope of carrying on, and squandered the endowments, cutting down woods, pawning the plate, and letting the buildings fall into disrepair or ruin. Grave irregularities had been discovered by the ecclesiastical Visitors over many years. The idea of suppression was not altogether new: Wolsey had suppressed several small houses to finance his college at Oxford, and the King had since suppressed over twenty more for his own benefit. Parliament made httle difficulty about winding up the smaller houses, when satisfied that their inmates were either to be transferred to large houses or pensioned off. During the summer of 1536 royal commissioners toured the country, completing the dissolution as swiftly as possible.

The King had now a new chief adviser. Thomas Cromwell, in turn mercenary soldier in Italy, cloth agfat, and moneylender, had served his apprenticeship in statecraft under Wolsey, but he had also learned the lessons Of his master's downfall. Ruthless, cynical, Machiavellian, Cromwell was a man of the New Age. His ambition was matched by his energy and served by a penetrating intelligence. When he succeeded Wolsey as the King's principal Minister he made no effort to inherit the pomp and glory of the fallen Cardinal. Nevertheless his were more solid achievements in both State and Church. In the administration of the realm Cromwell devised new methods to replace the institutions he found at hand. Before his day Government policy had for centuries been both made and implemented in the royal household. Though Henry VII had improved the system he had remained in a sense a medieval king. Thomas Cromwell thoroughly reformed it during his ten years of power, and when he fell in 1540 policy was already carried out by Government departments, operating outside the Household. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, though not so dramatic as his other work, was his inception of the Government service of modern England: Cromwell is the uncommemorated architect of our great departments of State.

As First Minister Cromwell handled the dissolution of the monasteries with conspicuous, cold-blooded efficiency. It was a step which appealed to the well-to-do. The high nobility and country gentry acquired on favourable terms all kinds of fine estates. Sometimes a neighbouring merchant, or a syndicate of City men and courtiers, bought or leased the confiscated lands. Many local squires had long been stewards of monastic lands, and now bought properties which they had managed for generations. Throughout the middle classes there was great irritation at the privileges and wealth of the Church. They resented the undue proportion of the national income engrossed by those who rendered no economic service. The King was assured of the support of Parliament and the prosperous classes. Most of the displaced monks, nearly ten thousand in all, faced their lot with relief or fortitude, assisted by substantial pensions. Some even married nuns, and many became respectable parish clergy. The dissolution brought lands into the Crown's possession worth at the time over £100,000 a year, and by the sale or lease of the rest of the former monastic properties the Crown gained a million and a half—a huge sum for thrae days, though probably much less than the properties were worth. The main result of this transaction was in effect, if not in intention, to commit the landed and mercantile classes to the Reformation settlement and the Tudor dynasty.

The immediate impact on the masses is more difficult to judge. There does not seem to have been any widespread unemployment or distress among the sturdy proletariat, but many poor, weak, and ailing folk, especially in the North, who had found their only succour in the good works of the monastic orders, were left untended for a long time.

In the North also, where the old traditions died hard, the new order aroused stiffer resistance than in the South, and the new lay landlord could be harsher than his clerical predecessor. But laymen were not the only enclosing landlords, and more than one pre-Reformation abbot had sought by one means or another to improve farming and husbandry through enclosure. English agriculture, to meet the demands of a growing population and an expanding cloth industry, was turning from arable farming to pasture. Hence the broad acres on the ecclesiastical estates were now fertilised by the ideas and the money of their new owners, the country gentlemen and merchants. The Reformation is sometimes blamed for all the evils attributed to the modern economic system. Yet these evils, if such they were, had existed long before Henry VIII began to doubt the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Thomas More, who did not live to see events run their course, had already in Utopia outlined to his contemporaries the sharp features of the new economy.

In the field of religious belief the Reformation brought profound change. The Bible now acquired a new and far-reaching authority. The older generation considered that Holy Writ was dangerous in the hands of the unlearned and should only be read by priests. "I never read the Scripture," said the Duke of Norfolk, "nor never will read it. It was merry in England afore the new learning came up: yea, I would all things were as hath been in time past" But complete printed Bibles, translated into English by Tyndal and Coyerdale, had appeared for the first time late in the autumn of 1535, and were now running through several editions. The Government enjoined the clergy to encourage Bible-reading, and there were well-founded rumours that Thomas Cromwell, the King's vicegerent in spiritual affairs, had helped to promote the translation. Preaching, even by licensed preachers, was altogether suspended until Michaelmas, except in the presence of a bishop, and in August 1536 Cromwell ordered the Paternoster and Comipandments to be taught in the mother tongue instead of in Latin. Next year The Institution of a Christian Man, prepared by Cranmer for popular edification, displayed a distinct leaning to the New Opinion. Here indeed was a change and a revelation. The country folk were deeply agitated, particularly in the fiercely Catholic and economically backward North........