Reform or Power Play?

Posted on November 17, 2011 by


The  Reformation began in the Holy Roman Empire with a man named Martin Luther. By nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Catholic Church in 1517, he introduced a new religion called Protestantism to Europe.

England, however, was predominantly Catholic at the time, and was ruled by the 26-year-old King Henry VIII. Henry and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, were both devout Catholics and, according to Wikipedia, Henry “attended mass five times a day”. When Henry heard of Luther’s rebellion, he quickly produced a pamphlet called Defense of the Seven Sacraments, which challenged the Protestant idea of having a select few sacraments.

“We have in this little book, gentle reader, clearly demonstrated, I hope, how absurdly and impiously Luther has handled the Holy Sacraments” –Henry VIII, Defense of the Seven Sacraments

Pope Leo X was so impressed with Henry’s endeavors to preserve Catholic beliefs that he conferred him the title of ‘Fidei defensoror  ‘Defender of the Faith’. However, this recognition by the pope proved ironic. When Catherine fails to produce a male heir, Henry asks the new pope, Clement VII, for an annulment from Catherine on the basis that she had been married to his older brother Arthur, who died at the age of 16. Clement refused his request, on ostensibly religious grounds. It should be pointed out, however, that the pope might have been pressured by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who happened to be Catherine’s nephew.

Henry creates a “Reformation Parliament” and they decree that Henry is “the only head, sovereign lord, protector and defender of the church”. Henry then appointed a new archbishop, a man named Cramner, who declared the marriage between Henry and Catherine unlawful. However, even after the divorce took place and he took a different queen, Henry did not stop there. From then on the King and the Archbishop began to reform the Catholic church. With the help of Thomas Cromwell, a Protestant advisor who is believed by most Catholics to have been a manipulative, power-hungry schemer, Henry began sweeping across England and seizing the Catholic monasteries and reselling or leasing them to laypeople. Henry gave Thomas Cromwell the power to perform “visitations” of all religious houses. Previously, visitations could only be performed by ecclesiastical leaders. The ‘visitors’ were sent ostensibly to find improprieties in the monasteries and to insure a loyalty to Henry as the new head of the church. In a primary source titled The Suppression of the Abbot of Glastonbury, abbey ‘visitors’ write to Cromwell about what they find at the abbey.

The first, by Richard Leyton, dated September 22nd, 1539;

… Please it your lordship to be advertised, that we came to Glastonbury on Friday last past, about ten o’clock in the forenoon; and [because]…the abbot was then at Sharpham, a place of his, a mile and somewhat more form the abbey, we, without any delay, went into the same place, and there…examined him upon certain articles. And [because]…his answer was not then to our purpose, we advised him to call to his remembrance that which he had as then forgotten, and so declare the truth, and then came to him the same day to the abbey; and there of new proceeded that night to search his study for letters and books; and found in his study…a written book of arguments against the divorce of his King’s majesty and the lady dowager, as also divers pardons, copies of bulls, and the counterfeit life of Thomas Becket in print; but we could not find any letter that was material. And so we proceeded again to his examination concerning the articles we received from your Lordship, in the answers whereof, as we take it, shall appear his cankered and traitorous heart and mind against the King’s majesty and his succession; as by the same answers, signed with his hand, and sent to your lordship by this bearer, more plainly shall appear. And so, with as fair words as we could, we have conveyed from him hence into the tower, being but a very weak man and sickly…We have in the money 300l. and above; but certainty of plate and other stuff there as we know not, for we have not had the opportunity for the same, but shortly we intend (God willing) to proceed to the same; whereof we shall ascertain your lordship so shortly as we may. This is also to advertise your lordship that we have found a fair chalice of gold, and divers other parcels of plat, which the abbot had secretly hid from all such commissioners as have been there…

and the second, by Richard Pollard, dated November 16th of the same year;

Pleaseth it your Lordship to be advertised that..the late abbot of Glastonbury went from Wells to Glastonbury, and there was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called the Torre, where he was put to execution; at which time he asked God for mercy and the king for his great offences towards his highness… Afore his execution [he] was examined upon divers articles and interrogatories to him ministered by me, but he could accuse no man of himself of any offence against the king’s highness, nor would he confess no more gold nor silver nor any other thing more than he did before your Lordship in the Tower… I suppose it will be near Christmas before I shall have surveyed the lands at Glastonbury, and take the audit there…

Rather than discussing any concerns related to spiritual matters, the primary focus of the letters is on assessing the wealth of the monastery and the loyalty of its members to Henry as the new head of the church. Richard Leyton writes: ‘this is also to advertise your lordship that we have found a fair chalice of gold’ and ‘[we found] a written book of arguments against the divorce of his King’s majesty and the lady dowager [Catherine]’. Leyton’s only concerns seem to be what treasures he can take back to the king and “the cankered and traitorous heart” of the Abbot.

The second letter by Richard Pollard informs Thomas Cromwell that the Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was hanged. There is no mention for the crime that he committed in the letter, however Pollard goes on to state that, “it will be near Christmas before I shall have surveyed the lands at Glastonbury, and take the audit there”.

At the start of the dissolution of monasteries in 1536, there were about 800 nunneries, monasteries, and friaries in England. By 1541, there were none left. 15,000 monks and nuns were ‘dispersed’. They were either allowed to break their vows and become a layperson, or join another religious group. All buildings and land were seized by the crown and sold/leased to lay occupiers.

So, the big question we ask ourselves now is; was Henry really looking for reform, or was he simply seeking more wealth? Given his history as a once-devout Catholic, his desire for a male heir, and the enormous financial benefits he accrued by the “Suppression of the Abbeys,” it seems as if Henry used the reforms happening in other parts of Europe as an excuse to gain wealth and power.

“bare ruin’d choirs/ where late the sweet bird sing” –William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73


Works Cited

-Halsall, P. 1997 Medieval Sourcebook: The Suppression of Glastonbury Abbey 1539

-Suppression of the English Monestaries under Henry VIII Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Co. NY

-Castell JH 2011 The Suppression of the English Monestaries

-Robinson, B. 2011 An Overview of the Reformation

Suppression of English Monasteries under Henry VIII. Catholic Encyclopedia;

Pictures Cited

Portrait of Henry VIII:

Excerpt from Defense of the Seven Sacraments:

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell:

-Disused Glastonbury Abbey:

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