The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries, in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided for their former personnel and functions. Although the policy was originally envisaged as increasing the regular income of the Crown, much former monastic property was sold off to fund Henry's military campaigns in the 1540s. He was given the authority to do this in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from Papal authority, and by the First Suppression Act (1535) and the Second Suppression Act (1539).
The dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s was one of the most revolutionary events in English history. There were nearly 900 religious houses in England, around 260 for monks, 300 for regular canons, 142 nunneries and 183 friaries; some 12,000 people in total, 4,000 monks, 3,000 canons, 3,000 friars and 2,000 nuns. If the adult male population was 500,000, that meant that one adult man in fifty was in religious orders.
At the time of their suppression, a small number of English and Welsh religious houses could trace their origins to Anglo-Saxon or Celtic foundations before the Norman Conquest, but the overwhelming majority of the 625 monastic communities dissolved by Henry VIII had developed in the wave of monastic enthusiasm that had swept western Christendom in the 11th and 12th centuries. Few English houses had been founded later than the end of the 13th century; the most recent foundation of those suppressed was the Bridgettine nunnery of Syon Abbey founded in 1415. (Syon was also the only suppressed community to maintain an unbroken continuity in exile; its nuns returned to England in 1861.)
Typically, 11th- and 12th-century founders had endowed monastic houses with both 'temporal' income in the form of revenues from landed estates, and 'spiritual' income in the form of tithesappropriated from parish churches under the founder's patronage. In consequence of this, religious houses in the 16th century controlled appointment to about two-fifths of all parish benefices in England, disposed of about half of all ecclesiastical income, and owned around a quarter of the nation's landed wealth. An English medieval proverb said that if the Abbot of Glastonbury married the Abbess of Shaftesbury, the heir would have more land than the King of England.
The 200 houses of friars in England and Wales constituted a second distinct wave of foundations, almost all occurring in the 13th century. Friaries, for the most part, were concentrated in urban areas. Unlike monasteries, friaries had eschewed income-bearing endowments; the friars, as mendicants, expected to be supported financially by offerings and donations from the faithful, while ideally being self-sufficient in producing their own basic foods from extensive urban kitchen gardens.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England and Ireland took place in the political context of other attacks on the ecclesiastical institutions of Western Roman Catholicism, which had been under way for some time. Many of these were related to the Protestant Reformation in Continental Europe. By the end of the 16th century, monasticism had almost entirely disappeared from those European states whose rulers had adopted Lutheran or Reformed confessions of faith (Ireland being the only major exception). They continued in those states that remained Catholic, and new community orders such as the Jesuits and Capuchins emerged alongside the older orders.
But, the religious and political changes in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI were of a different nature from those taking place in Germany, Bohemia, France, Scotland and Geneva. Across much of continental Europe, the seizure of monastic property was associated with mass discontent among the common people and the lower level of clergy and civil society against powerful and wealthy ecclesiastical institutions. Such popular hostility against the church was rare in England before 1558; the Reformation in England and Ireland was directed from the king and highest levels of society. These changes were initially met with widespread popular suspicion; on some occasions and in particular localities, there was active resistance to the royal program.
Dissatisfaction with the general state of regular religious life, and with the gross extent of monastic wealth, was near to universal amongst late medieval secular and ecclesiastical rulers in the Latin West. Bernard says there was
widespread concern in the later 15th and early 16th centuries about the condition of the monasteries. A leading figure here is the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus who satirized monasteries as lax, as comfortably worldly, as wasteful of scarce resources, and as superstitious; he also thought it would be better if monks were brought more directly under the authority of bishops. At that time, quite a few bishops across Europe had come to believe that resources expensively deployed on an unceasing round of services by men and women in theory set apart from the world [would] be better spent on endowing grammar schools and university colleges to train men who would then serve the laity as parish priests, and on reforming the antiquated structures of over-large dioceses such as that of Lincoln. Pastoral care was seen as much more important and vital than the monastic focus on contemplation, prayer and performance of the daily office.
Erasmus had made a threefold criticism of the monks and nuns of his day, saying that:
in withdrawing from the world into their own communal life, they elevated man-made monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience above the God-given vows of sacramental baptism; and elevated man-made monastic rules for religious life above the God-given teachings of the Gospels;
notwithstanding exceptional communities of genuine austere life and exemplary charity, the overwhelming majority of abbeys and priories were havens for idle drones; concerned only for their own existence, reserving for themselves an excessive share of the commonwealth's religious assets, and contributing little or nothing to the spiritual needs of ordinary people; and
the monasteries, almost without exception, were deeply involved in promoting and profiting from the veneration of relics, in the form of pilgrimages and purported miraculous tokens. The cult of relics was by no means specific to monasteries, but Erasmus was scandalised by the extent to which well-educated and highly regarded monks and nuns would participate in the perpetration of what he considered to be frauds against gullible and credulous lay believers.
The verdict of unprejudiced historians at the present day would probably be—abstracting from all ideological considerations for or against monasticism—that there were far too many religious houses in existence in view of the widespread decline of the fervent monastic vocation, and that in every country the monks possessed too much of wealth and of the sources of production both for their own well-being and for the material good of the economy.
Pilgrimages to monastic shrines continued to be widely popular, until forcibly suppressed in England in 1538 by order of Henry VIII. But the dissolution resulted in few modifications to the practice of religion in England's parish churches; in general the English religious reforms of the 1530s corresponded in few respects to the precepts of Protestant Reformers, and encountered much popular hostility when they did. In 1536, Convocation adopted and Parliament enacted the Ten Articles of which the first half used terminology and ideas drawn from Luther and Melancthon; but any momentum towards Protestantism stalled when Henry VIII expressed his desire for continued orthodoxy with the Six Articles of 1539, which remained in effect until after his death.
Cardinal Wolsey had obtained a Papal Bull authorising some limited reforms in the English Church as early as 1518, but reformers (both conservative and radical) had become increasingly frustrated at their lack of progress. Henry wanted to change this, and in November 1529 Parliament passed Acts reforming apparent abuses in the English Church. They set a cap on fees, both for the probate of wills and mortuary expenses for burial in hallowed ground; tightened regulations covering rights of sanctuary for criminals; and reduced to two the number of church benefices that could in the future be held by one man. These Acts sought to demonstrate that establishing royal jurisdiction over the Church would ensure progress in "religious reformation" where papal authority had been insufficient.
The monasteries were next in line. J.J. Scarisbrick remarked in his biography of Henry VIII:
Suffice it to say that English monasticism was a huge and urgent problem; that radical action, though of precisely what kind was another matter, was both necessary and inevitable, and that a purge of the religious orders was probably regarded as the most obvious task of the new regime—as the first function of a Supreme Head empowered by statute "to visit, extirp and redress".
The stories of monastic impropriety, vice, and excess that were to be collected by Thomas Cromwell's visitors to the monasteries may have been biased and exaggerated. But the religious houses of England and Wales—with the notable exceptions of those of the Carthusians, the Observant Franciscans, and the Bridgettine nuns and monks—had long ceased to play a leading role in the spiritual life of the country. Other than in these three orders, observance of strict monastic rules was partial at best. The exceptional spiritual discipline of the Carthusian, Observant Franciscan and Bridgettine orders had, over the previous century, resulted in their being singled out for royal favour, in particular with houses benefitting from endowments confiscated by the Crown from the suppressed alien priories.
Otherwise in this later period, donations and legacies had tended to go instead towards parish churches, university colleges, grammar schools and collegiate churches, which suggests greater public approbation of such purposes. Levels of monastic debt were increasing, and average numbers of professed religious were falling, although the monasteries continued to attract recruits right up to the end. Only a few monks and nuns lived in conspicuous luxury, but most were very comfortably fed and housed by the standards of the time, and few any longer set standards of ascetic piety or religious observance. Only a minority of houses could now support the twelve or thirteen professed religious usually regarded as the minimum necessary to maintain the full canonical hours of the Divine Office. Even in houses with adequate numbers, the regular obligations of communal eating and shared living had not been fully enforced for centuries, as communities tended to sub-divide into a number of distinct familiae. In most larger houses, the full observance of the Canonical Hours had become the task of a sub-group of 'Cloister Monks', such that the majority of the professed members of the house were freed to conduct their business and live much of their lives in the secular world. Extensive monastic complexes dominated English towns of any size, but most were less than half full.
From 1534 onwards, Cromwell and King Henry were constantly seeking ways to redirect ecclesiastical income to the benefit of the Crown—efforts they justified by contending that much ecclesiastical revenue had been improperly diverted from royal resources in the first place. Renaissance princes throughout Europe were facing severe financial difficulties due to sharply rising expenditures, especially to pay for armies, fighting ships and fortifications. Most tended, sooner or later, to resort to plundering monastic wealth, and to increasing taxation on the clergy. Protestant princes would justify this by claiming divine authority; Catholic princes would obtain the agreement and connivance of the papacy. Monastic wealth, regarded everywhere as excessive and idle, offered a standing temptation for cash-strapped secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
In consequence, almost all official action in respect of the Dissolution in England and Wales was directed at the monasteries and monastic property. The closing of the monasteries aroused popular opposition, but recalcitrant monasteries and abbots became the targets of royal hostility. The surrender of the friaries, from an official perspective, arose almost as an afterthought, as an exercise in administrative tidiness once it had been determined that all religious houses would have to go. In terms of popular esteem, however, the balance tilted the other way. Almost all monasteries supported themselves from their endowments; in late medieval terms 'they lived off their own'. Unless they were notably bad landlords or scandalously neglected those parish churches in their charge, they tended to enjoy widespread local support; particularly as they commonly appointed local notables to fee-bearing offices. The friars, not being self-supporting, were by contrast much more likely to have been the objects of local hostility, especially since their practice of soliciting income through legacies appears often to have been perceived as diminishing anticipated family inheritances.