VISITATION OF THE MONASTERIES: THEIR SCANDALS AND SUPPRESSION. (SEPTEMBER 1535 TO 1536.)
THE death of the late tutor and friend of the prince was to be followed by a measure less cruel but far more general. The pope who treated kings so rudely should not be surprised if kings treated the monks severely. Henry knew — had indeed been a close witness of their lazy and often irregular lives. One day, when he was hunting in the forest of Windsor, he lost his way, perhaps intentionally, and about the dinner hour knocked at the gate of Reading Abbey. As he represented himself to be one of his Majesty’s guards, the abbot said: ‘You will dine with me;’ and the king sat down to a table covered with abundant and delicate dishes. After examining everything carefully: ‘I will stick to this sirloin,’ said he, pointing to a piece of beef of which he eat heartily. The abbot looked on with admiration. ‘I would give a hundred pounds,’ he exclaimed, ‘to eat with as much appetite as you; but alas! my weak and qualmish stomach can hardly digest the wing of a chicken.’ — ‘I know how to bring back your appetite,’ thought the king. A few days later some soldiers appeared at the convent, took away the abbot, and shut him up in the Tower, where he was put. upon bread and water. ‘What have I done,’ he kept asking, ‘to incur his Majesty’s displeasure to such a degree?’ After a few weeks, Henry went to the state prison, and concealing himself in an ante-room whence he could see the abbot, ordered a sirloin of beef to be set before him. The famished monk in his turn fell upon the joint, and (according to tradition) eat it all. The king now showed himself: ‘Sir abbot,’ he said, ‘I have cured you of your qualms; now pay me my wages. It is a hundred pounds, you know.’ The abbot paid and returned to Reading; but Henry never after forgot the monks’ kitchen.
The state of the monasteries was an occasion of scandal: for many centuries all religious life had died out in most of those establishments.
The monks lived, generally, in idleness, gluttony, and licentiousness, and the convents which should have been houses of saints had become in many cases mere sties of lazy gormandizers and impure sensualists. ‘The only law they recognize,’ said Luther, speaking of these cloisters, ‘is that of the seven deadly sins.’ History encounters here a twofold danger: one is that of keeping back what is essential, the scandalous facts that justify the suppression of monasteries; the other is that of saying things that cannot be named. We must strive to steer between these two quicksands.
All classes of society had become disgusted with the monasteries: the common people would say to the monks: ‘We labor painfully, while you lead easy and comfortable lives.’ The nobility regarded them with looks of envy and irony which threatened their wealth. The lawyers considered them as parasitical plants, which drew away from others the nutriment they required. These things made the religious orders cry out with alarm: ‘If we no longer have the pope to protect us, it is all over with us and our monasteries.’ And they set to work to prevent Henry from separating from the pope: they circulated anonymous stories, seditious songs, trivial lampoons, frightful prophecies and biting satires against the king, Anne Boleyn, and the friends of the Reformation. They held mysterious interviews with the discontented, and took advantage of the confessional to alarm the weak-minded. ‘The supremacy of the pope,’ they said, ‘is a fundamental article of the faith: none who reject it can be saved,’ People began to fear a general revolt.
When Luther was informed that Henry VIII. had abolished the authority of the pope in his kingdom, but had suffered the religious orders to remain, he smiled at the blunder: ‘The king of England,’ he said, ‘weakens the body of the papacy but at the same time strengthens the soul.’ That could not endure for long.
Cromwell had now attained high honors and was to mount higher still. He thought with Luther that the pope and the monks could not exist or fall one without the other. After having abolished the Roman pontiff, it became necessary to abolish the monasteries. It was he who had prevailed on the king to take the place of head of the Church; and now he wished him to be so really. ‘Sire,’ he said to Henry, ‘cleanse the Lord’s field from all the weeds that stifle the good corn, and scatter everywhere the seeds of virtue. In 1525, 1528, 1531 and 1531 the popes themselves lent you their help in the suppression of monasteries; now you no longer require their aid. Do not hesitate, Sire: the most fanatical enemies of your supreme authority are to be found in the convents. There is buried the wealth necessary to the prosperity of the nation. The revenues of the religious orders are far greater than those of all the nobility of England. The cloister schools have fallen into decay, and the wants of the age require better ones. To suppress the pope and to keep the monks is like deposing the general and delivering the fortresses of the country up to his army. Sire, imitate the example of the protestants and suppress the monasteries.’
Such language alarmed the friends of the papacy, who stoutly opposed a scheme which they believed to be sacrilegious. ‘These foundations were consecrated to Almighty God,’ they told the king; ‘respect therefore those retreats where pious souls live in contemplation.’ ‘Contemplation!’ said Sir Henry Colt smiling; ‘tomorrow, Sire, I undertake to produce proofs of the kind of contemplation in which these monks indulge.’
Whereupon, says an historian, Colt, knowing that a certain number of the monks of Waltham Abbey had a fondness for the conversation of ladies, and used to pass the night with the nuns of Chesham Convent, went to a narrow path through which the monks would have to piss on their return, and stretched across it one of the stout nets used in stag-hunting. Towards daybreak, as the monks, lantern in hand, were making their way through the wood, they suddenly heard a loud noise behind them — it was caused by men whom Colt had stationed for the purpose and instantly blowing out their lights they were hurrying away, when they fell into the toils prepared for them. The next morning, he presented them to the king, who laughed heartily at their piteous looks. ‘I have often seen better game,’ he said, ‘but never fatter. Certainly,’ he added, ‘I can make a better use of the money which the monks waste in their debaucheries. The coast of England requires to be fortified, my fleet and army to be increased, and harbors to be built for the commerce which is extending every day. All that is well worth the trouble of suppressing houses of impurity.’
The protectors of the religious orders were not discouraged, and maintained that it was not necessary to shut all the convents, because of a few guilty houses.
Dr. Leighton, a former officer of Wolsey’s, proposed a middle course: ‘Let the king order a general visitation of monasteries,’ he said, ‘and in this way he will learn whether he ought to secularize them or not. Perhaps the mere fear of this inspection will incline the monks to yield to his Majesty’s desires? Henry charged Cromwell with the execution of this measure, and for that purpose named him vice-gerent and vicar-general, conferring on him all the ecclesiastical authority which belonged to the king. ‘You will visit all the churches,’ he said, ‘even the metropolitan, whether the see be vacant or not; all the monasteries both of men and women; and you will correct and punish whoever may be found guilty.’ Henry gave to his vicar precedence over all the peers, and decided that the layman should preside over the assembly of the clergy instead of the primate; overlook the administration not only of the bishops but also of the archbishops; confirm or annul the election of prelates, deprive or suspend them, and assemble synods. This was at the beginning of September 1535. The influence of the laity thus re-entered the Church, but not through the proper door. They came forward in the name of the king and his proclamations, whilst they ought to have appeared in the name of Christ and of His Word. The king informed the primate, and through him all the bishops and archdeacons, that as the general visitation was about to commence, they should no longer exercise their jurisdiction. The astonished prelates made representations, but they were unavailing: they and their sees were to be inspected by laymen. Although the commission of the latter did not contain the required conditions, namely the delegation of the flocks, this act was a pretty evident sign that the restoration of the members of the Church to their functions was at that time foreseen and perhaps even regarded by many as one of the most essential parts of the Reformation of England.
The monks began to tremble. Faith in the convents no longer existed — not even in the convents themselves. Confidence in monastic practices, relics, and pilgrimages had grown weaker; the timbers of the monasteries were worm-eaten, their walls were just ready to fall, and the edifice of the Middle Ages, tottering on its foundations, was unable to withstand the hearty blows dealt against it. When an antiquary explores some ancient sepulcher, he comes upon a skeleton, apparently well preserved, but crumbling into dust at the slightest touch of the finger; in like manner the puissant hand of the sixteenth century had only to touch most of these monastic institutions to reduce them to powder. The real dissolver of the religious orders was neither Henry VIII. nor Cromwell: it was the devouring worm which, for years and centuries, they had carried in their bosom.
The vicar-general appointed his commissioners and then assembled them as a commander-in-chief calls his generals together. In the front rank was Dr. Leighton, his old comrade in Wolsey’s household, a skillful man who knew the ground well and did not forget his own interests. After him came Dr. Loudon, a man of unparalleled activity, but without character and a weathercock turning to every wind. With him was Sir Richard Cromwell, nephew of the vicar-general, an upright man, though desirous of making his way through his uncle’s influence. He was the ancestor of another Cromwell, far more celebrated than Henry VIII.’s vice-gerent.
Other two were Thomas Legh and John Apprice, the most daring of the colleagues of the king’s ministers; besides other individuals of well known ability. The vice-gerent handed to them the instructions for their guidance, the questions they were to put to the monks, and the injunctions they were to impose on the abbots and priors; after which they separated on their mission.
The Universities, which sadly needed a reform, were not overlooked by Henry and his representative. Since the time when Garret, the priest of a London parish, circulated the New Testament at Oxford, the sacred volume had been banished from that city, as well as the Beggar’s Petition and other evangelical writings. Slumber had followed the awakening. The members of the university, especially certain ecclesiastics who, forsaking their parishes, had come and settled at Oxford, to enjoy the delights of Capua, passed their lives in idleness and sensuality. The royal commissioners aroused them from this torpor. They dethroned Duns Scotus, ‘the subtle doctor,’ who had reigned there for three hundred years, and the leaves of his books were scattered to the winds. Scholasticism fell; new lectures were established; philosophical teaching, the natural sciences, Latin, Greek, and divinity were extended and developed. The students were forbidden to haunt taverns, and the priests who had come to Oxford to enjoy life, were sent back to their parishes.
The visitation of the monasteries began with those of Canterbury, the primatial church of England. In October 1535, shortly after Michaelmas, Dr. Leighton, the visitor, entered the cathedral, and Archbishop Cranmer went up into the pulpit. He had seen Rome: he had an intimate conviction that that city exerted a mischievous influence over all Christendom; he desired, as primate, to take advantage of this important opportunity to break publicly with her. ‘No,’ he said, ‘the bishop of Rome is not God’s vicar. In vain you will tell me that the See of Rome is called Sancta Sedes, and its bishop entitled Sanctissimus Papa : the pope’s holiness is but a holiness in name. Vain-glory, worldly pomp, unrestrained lust, and vices innumerable prevail in Rome. I have seen it with my own eyes. The pope claims by his ceremonies to forgive men their sins: it is a serious error. One work only blots them out, namely, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. So long as the See of Rome endures, there will be no remedy for the evils which overwhelm us. These many years I had daily prayed unto God that I might see the power of Rome destroyed.’ Language so frank necessarily displeased the adherents of the pope, and accordingly when Cranmer alluded to his energetic daily prayer, the Superior of the Dominicans, trembling with excitement, exclaimed: ‘What a want of charity!’
He was not the only person struck with indignation and fear. As soon as the sermon was over, the Dominicans assembled to prevent the archbishop from carrying’ out his intentions. ‘We must support the papacy,’ they said, ‘but do it prudently.’ The prior was selected, as being the most eloquent of the brothers, to reply to Cranmer. Going into the pulpit, he said: ‘The Church of Christ has never erred. The laws which it makes are equal in authority to the laws of God Himself. I do not know a single bishop of Rome who can be reproached with vice.’ Evidently the prior, however eloquent he might be, was not learned in the history of the Church.
The visitation of the Canterbury monasteries began. The immorality of most of these houses was manifested by scandalous scenes, and gave rise to questions which we are forced to suppress. The abominable vices that prevailed in them are mentioned by St Paul in his description of the pagan corruptions. The commissioners having taken their seats in one of the halls of the Augustine monastery, all the monks came before them, some embarrassed, others bold, but most of them careless. Strange questions were then put to men who declared themselves consecrated to a devout and contemplative life: ‘Are there any among you,’ asked the commissioners, ‘who disguising themselves, leave the convent and go vagabondizing about? Do you observe the row of chastity, and has any one been convicted of incontinence? Do women enter the monastery, or live in it habitually?’ We omit the questions that followed. The result was scandalous: eight of the brothers were convicted of abominable vices.
The black sheep having been set apart for punishment, Leighton called the other monks together, and said to them: ‘True religion does not consist in shaving the head, silence, fasting, and other observances; but in uprightness of soul, purity of life, sincere faith in Christ, brotherly love, and the worship of God in spirit and in truth. Do not rest content with ceremonies, but rise to sublimer thing’s, and be converted from all these outward practices to inward and deep considerations.’ One visitation still more distressing followed this. The Carthusian monastery at Canterbury, four monks of which had died piously, contained several rotten members. Some of them used to put on lay dresses, and leave the Coherent during the night. There was one house for monks and another for nuns, and the blacksmith of the monastery confessed that a monk had asked him to the away a bar of the window which separated the two cloisters. It was the duty of the monks to confess the nuns; but by one of those refinements of corruption which mark the lowest degree of vice, the sin and absolution often followed close upon each other. Some nuns begged the visitors not to permit certain monks to enter their house again. The visitation being continued through Kent, the visitors came on the 22nd of October to Langdon Abbey, near Dover. William Dyck, abbot of the monastery of the Holy Virgin, possessed a very bad reputation. Leighton, who was determined to surprise him, ordered his attendants to surround the abbey in such a manner that no one could leave it. He then went to the abbot’s house, which looked upon the fields, and was full of doors and windows by which any one could escape. Leighton began to knock loudly, but no one answered. Observing an axe, he took it up, dashed in the door with it, and entered. He found a woman with the monk, and the visitors discovered in a chest the men’s clothes which she put on when she wished to pass for one of the younger brethren. She escaped, but one of Cromwell’s servants caught her and took her before the mayor at Dover, where she was placed in the cage. As for the holy father abbot, says Leighton, he was put in prison. A few of the monks signed an act by which they declared that their house being threatened with utter ruin, temporal and spiritual, the king alone could find a remedy, and they consequently surrendered it to his Majesty. The abbot of Fountains had ruined his abbey by publicly keeping six women. One night he took away the golden crosses and jewels belonging to the monastery, and sold them to a jeweller for a small sum. At Mayden-Bradley, Leighton found another father prior, one Richard, who had five women, six sons, and a daughter pensioned on the property of the convent: his sons, tall, stout young men, lived with him and waited on him. Seeing that the Roman Church prohibited the clergy from obeying the commandment of Scripture, which says: A bishop must be the husband of one wife, these wretched men took five or six. The impositions of the monks to extort money injured them in public opinion far more then their debauchery. Leighton found in St. Anthony’s convent at Bristol a tunic of our Lord, a petticoat of the Virgin, a part of the Last Supper, and a fragment of the stone upon which Jesus was born at Bethlehem. All these brought in money.
Every religious and moral sentiment is disgusted at hearing of the disorders and frauds of the monks, and yet the truth of history requires that they should be made known. Here is one of the means — of the blasphemous means — they employed to deceive the people. At Hales in Gloucestershire, the monks pretended that they had preserved some of Christ’s blood in a bottle. The man whose deadly sins God had not yet pardoned could not see it, they said; while the absolved sinner saw it instantaneously. Thousands of penitents crowded thither from all parts. If a rich man confessed to the priest and laid his gift on the altar, he was conducted into the mysterious chapel, where the precious vessel stood in a magnificent case. The penitent knelt down and looked, but saw nothing. ‘Your sin is not yet forgiven,’ said the priest. Then came another confession, another offering, another introduction into the sanctuary; but the unfortunate man opened his eyes in vain, he could see nothing until his contribution satisfied the monks. The commissioners having sent for the vessel, found it to be a ‘crystall very thick on one side and very transparent on the other.’ ‘You see, my lords,’ said a candid friar, ‘when a rich penitent appears, we tram the vessel on the thick side; that, you know, opens his heart and his purse.’ The transparent side did not appear until he had placed a large donation on the altar.
No discovery produced a greater sensation in England than that of the practices employed at Boxley in Kent. It possessed a famous crucifix, the image on which, carved in wood, gave an affirmative nod with the head, if the offering was accepted, winked the eyes and bent the body. If the offering was too small, the indignant figure turned away its head and made a sign of disapproval. One of the Commissioners took down the crucifix from the wall, and discovered the pipes which carried the wires that the priestly conjuror was wont to pull. Having put the machine in motion, he said: ‘You see what little account the monks have made of us and our forefathers.’ The friars trembled with shame and alarm, while the spectators, says the record, roared with laughter, like Ajax. The king sent for the machine, and had it worked in the presence of the court. The figure rolled its eyes, opened its mouth, turned up its nose, let its head fall, and bent its back. ‘Upon my word,’ said the king, ‘I do not know whether I ought not to weep rather than laugh, on seeing how the poor people of England have been fooled for so many centuries.’
These vile tricks were the least of the sins of those wretches. In several convents the visitors found implements for coining base money. In others they discovered traces of the horrible cruelties practiced by the monks of one faction against those of another. Descending into the gloomy dungeons, they perceived, by the help of their torches, the bones of a great number of wretched people, some of whom had died of hunger and others had been crucified. But debauchery was the most frequent case.
Those pretended priests of a God who has said: Be ye holy, for I the Lord am holy, covered themselves with the hypocritical mantle of their priesthood, and indulged in infamous impurities. They discovered one monk, who, turning auricular confession to an abominable purpose, had carried adultery into two or three hundred families. The list was exhibited, and some of the Commissioners, to their great astonishment, says a contemporary writer, found the names of their own wives upon it. There were sometimes riots, sieges, and battles. The Royal Commissioners arrived at Norton Abbey in Cheshire, the abbots of which were notorious for having carried on a scandalous traffic with the convent plate. On the last day of their visit, the abbot sent out his monks to muster his supporters, and collected a band of two or three hundred men, who surrounded the monastery, to prevent the commissioners from carrying anything away. The latter took refuge in a tower, which they barricaded. It was two hours past midnight: the abbot had ordered an ox to be killed to feed his rabble, seated round the fires in front of the convent, and even in the courtyard. On a sudden Sir Piers Dulton, a justice of the peace, arrived, and fell with his posse upon the monks and their defenders. The besiegers were struck with terror, and ran off as fast as they could, hiding themselves in the fish-ponds and out-houses. The abbot and three canons, the instigators of the riot, were imprisoned in Halton Castle. Fortunately, the king’s Commissioners met with convents of another character. When George Gifford was visiting the monasteries of Lincolnshire, he came to a lonely district, abounding in water but very poor, where the abbey of Woolstrop was situated. The inhabitants of the neighborhood, notwithstanding their destitution, praised the charity of the recluses. Entering the convent, Gifford found an honest prior and some pious monks, who copied books, made their own clothes, and practiced the arts of embroidering, carving, painting, and engraving. The visitor petitioned the king for the preservation of this monastery.
The Commissioners had particular instructions for the women’s convents. ‘Is your house perfectly closed?’ they asked the abbess and the nuns. ‘Can a man get into it? Are you in the habit of writing love-letters?’ At Litchfield the nuns declared that there was no disorder in the convent; but one good old woman told everything, and when Leighton reproached the prioress for her falsehood, she replied: ‘Our religion compels us to it. At our admission we swore never to reveal the secret sins that were committed among us.’ There were some houses in which nearly all the nuns trampled under foot the most sacred duties of their sex, and were without mercy for the unhappy fruits of their disorders.
Such were frequently in those times the monastic orders of the West. The eloquent apologists who eulogize their virtues without distinction, and the exaggerating critics who pronounce the same sentence of condemnation against all, are both mistaken. We have rendered homage to the monks who were upright; we may blame those who were guilty. The scandals, let us say, did not proceed from the founders of these orders. Sentiments, opposed beyond a doubt to the principles of the Gospel, although they were well-intentioned, had presided over the formation of the monasteries.
The hermits Paul, Anthony, and others of the third and fourth centuries gave themselves up to an and-Evangelical asceticism, but still they struggled courageously against temptation. However, one must be very ignorant not to see that corruption must eventually issue from monastic institutions. Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up, is the language of the Gospel.
We do not exaggerate. The monasteries were sometimes an asylum in which men and women, whose hearts had been wrecked in the tempests of life, sought a repose which the world did not offer. They were mistaken; they ought to have lived with God, but in the midst of society. And yet there is a pleasure in believing that behind those walls, which hid so much corruption, there were some elect souls who loved God. Such were found at Catesby, at Godstow, near Oxford, and in other places. The Visitors asked for the preservation of these houses.
If the visitation of the convents was a bitter draught to many of the inmates, it was a cup of joy to the greater number. Many monks and nuns had been put into the convents during their infancy, and were detained in them against their will. No one ought to be forced, according to Cromwell’s principles. When the visitation took place, the Visitors announced to every monk under twenty-four years of age, and to ever nun under twenty-one, that they might leave the convent. Almost all to whom the doors were thus opened, hastened to profit by it. A secular dress was given them, with some money, and they departed with pleasure. But great was the sorrow among many whose age exceeded the limit. Falling on their knees, they entreated the Commissioners to obtain a similar favor for them. ‘The life we lead here,’ they said, ‘is contrary to our conscience.’ The Commissioners returned to London; and made their report to the Council. They were distressed and disgusted. ‘We have discovered,’ they said, ‘not seven, but more than seven hundred thousand deadly sins. ...
These abominable monks are the ravening wolves whose coming Christ has announced, and who under sheep’s clothing devour the flock. Here are the confessions of the monks and nuns, subscribed with their own hands. This book may well be called The Book of God’s Judgment. The monasteries are so full of iniquity that they ought to fall down under such a weight. If there be here and there any innocent cloister, they are so few in number that they cannot save the others. Our hearts melt and all our limbs tremble at the thought of the abominations we have witnessed. O Lord! what wilt Thou answer to the five cities which Thou didst consume by fire, when they remind Thee of the iniquities of those monks, whom Thou hast so long supported? The eloquence of Ptolemy, the memory of Pliny, and the pen of St. Augustine would not be able to give us the detestable history of these abominations.’
The Council began to deliberate, and many of the members called for the secularization of a part of the monasteries. The partisans of the religious orders took up their defense, and acknowledged that there was room for reform. ‘But,’ they added, ‘will you deprive of all asylum the pious souls who desire to quit the world, and lead a devout life to the glory of their Maker?’ They tried even to invalidate in some points the testimony of the visitors; but the latter declared that, far from having recorded lightly those scandalous facts, they had excluded many. ‘We have not reported certain public scandals,’ they said, ‘because they seem opposed to the famous charter of the monks — Si non caste, tamen caute .’ Men of influence supported the Commissioners’ conclusions; a few members of the Council were inclined to indulgence; even Cromwell seemed disposed to attempt the reform of whatever was susceptible of improvement; but many believed that all amendment was impossible. ‘We must, above all things, diminish the wealth of the clergy,’ said Dr. Cox; ‘for so long as they do not imitate the poverty of Christ, the people will not follow their teaching. I have no doubt,’ he added, with a touch of irony, ‘that the bishops, priests, and monks will readily free themselves from the heavy burden of wealth of every kind, which renders the fulfillment of their spiritual duties impossible.’ Other reasons were alleged. ‘The income of the monasteries,’ said one of the privy-councillors, ‘amounts to 500,000 ducats, while that of all the nobility of England is only 380,000. This disproportion is intolerable, and must be put an end to. For the welfare of his subjects and of the Church, the King should increase the number of bishoprics, parishes, and hospitals. He must augment the forces of the State, and prepare to resist the Emperor, whose fleets and armies threaten us. Shall we ask the people for taxes, who have already so much trouble to get a living, while the monks continue to consume their wealth in laziness and debauchery? It would be monstrous injustice. The treasures which the convents derive from the nation ought no longer to be useless to the nation.’
In February 1536, this serious matter was laid before Parliament. It was Thomas Cromwell whose heavy hand struck these receptables of impurity, and whom men called ‘the hammer of the monks,’ who proposed this great reform, he laid on the table of the Commons that famous Black Book , in which were inscribed the misdeeds of the religious orders, and desired that it should be read to the House. The book is no longer in existence: it was destroyed, in the reign of Queen Mary, by those who had an interest in its suppression. But it was then opened before the Parliament of England. There had never before been such a reading in any assembly. The facts were clearly recorded — the most detestable enormities were not veiled: the horrible confessions of the monks, signed with their own hands. were exhibited to the members of the Commons.
The recital produced an extraordinary effect. Men had had no idea of such abominable scandals. The House was horror-stricken, and ‘Down with them — down with them!’ was shouted on every side.
The debate commenced. Personally, the members were generally interested in the preservation of the monasteries: most of them had some connection with one cloister or another; priors and other beads had relations and friends in Parliament. Nevertheless the condemnation was general, and men spoke of those monkish sanctuaries as, in former times, men had spoken of the priests of Jezebel — ‘Let us pull down their houses, and overturn their altars.’ There were, however, some objections. Twenty-six abbots, heads of the great monasteries, sat as barons in the Upper House: these were respected. Besides, the great, convents were less disorderly than the small ones. Cromwell restricted himself for the moment to the secularization of 376 cloisters, in each of which there were fewer than twelve persons. The abbots, flattered by the exception made in their favor, were silent, and even the bishops hardly cared to defend institutions which had long been withdrawn from their authority. ‘These monasteries,’ said Cromwell, ‘being the dishonor of religion, and all the attempts, repeated through more than two centuries, having shown that their reformation is impossible, the King, as supreme head of the Church under God, proposes to the Lords and Commons, and these agree, that the possessions of the said houses, shall cease to be wasted for the maintenance of sin, and shall be converted to better uses. There was immediately a great commotion throughout England. Some rejoiced, while others wept: superstirion became active, and weak minds believed everything that was told them. ‘The Virgin,’ they were assured, ‘had appeared to certain monks, and ordered them to serve her as they had hitherto done.’ ‘What! no more religious houses,’ exclaimed others, through their tears. ‘On the contrary,’ said Latimer; ‘look at that man and woman living together piously, tranquilly, in the fear of God, keeping His Word and active in the duties of their calling: they form a religious house, one that is truly acceptable to God. Pure religion consists not in wearing a hood, but in visiting the fatherless and the widows, and keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. What has hitherto been called a religious life was an irreligious life.’ ‘And yet,’ said the devout, ‘the monks had more holiness than those who live in the world.’ Latimer again went into the pulpit and said: ‘When St. Anthony, the father of monkery, lived in the desert, and thought himself the most holy of men, he asked God who should be his companion in heaven, if it were possible for him to have one. “Go to Alexandria,” said the Lord; “in such a street and house you will find him.” Anthony left the desert, sought, the house, and found a poor cobbler in a wretched shop mending old shoes. The saint took up his abode with him that he might learn by what mortifications the cobbler had made himself worthy of such great celestial honor. Every morning the poor man knelt down in prayer with his wife, and then went to work. When the dinner-hour arrived, he sat down at a table on which were bread and cheese; he gave thanks, ate his meal with joy, brought up his children in the fear of God, and faithfully discharged all his duties. At this sight, St. Anthony looked inwards, became contrite of heart, and put away his pride. Such is the new sort of religious houses ,’ added Latimer, ‘that we desire to have now.’
And yet, strange to say, Latimer was almost the only person among the Evangelicals who raised his voice in favor of the religious bodies. He feared that if the property of the convents passed into the greedy hands of Henry’s courtiers, the tenants, accustomed to the mild treatment of the abbots, would be oppressed by the lay landlords, desirous of realizing the fruits of their estate unto the very last drop. The Bishop of Worcester, being somewhat enthusiastic, was anxious that a few convents should be preserved as houses of study, prayer, hospitality, charity, and preaching. Cranmer, who had more discernment and a more practical spirit, had no hope of the monks. ‘Satan,’ he said, ‘lives in the monasteries; he is satisfied and at his ease, like a gentleman in his inn, and the monks and nuns are his very humble servants.’ The primate, however, took little part in this great measure. The Bill for the suppression of the monasteries passed the two Houses on the 4th of February, 1536. It gave to the king and his heirs all the convents whose annual income did not exceed £200 sterling. About ten thousand monks and nuns were secularized. This Act added to the revenue of the Crown a yearly rental of £32,000 sterling, besides the immediate receipt of £100,000 sterling in silver, jewels, and other articles. The possessions hitherto employed by a few to gratify their carnal appetites seemed destined to contribute to the prosperity of the whole nation.
Unhappily, the shameless cupidity of the monks Was replaced by a cupidity of a different nature. Petitions poured in to Cromwell from every quarter. The saying of Scripture was fulfilled, Wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together. Thomas Cobham, brother of Lord Cobham, represented that the Grey Friar monastery at Canterbury was in a convenient position for him; that it was the city where he was born, and where all his friends lived. He consequently asked that it should be given him, and Cranmer, whose niece he had married, supported the prayer. ‘My good Lord,’ said Lord-Chancellor Audley, ‘my only salary is that of the chancellorship; give me a few good convents; I will give you my friendship during my life, and twenty pounds sterling for your trouble.’ ‘My specially dear Lord,’ said Sir Thomas Eliot, ‘I have been the king’s ambassador at Rome; my services deserve some recompense. Pray his Majesty to grant me some of the suppressed convent lands. I will give your lordship the income of the first year.’
History has to record evils of another nature. Some of the finest libraries in England were destroyed, and works of great value sold for a trifle to the grocers. Friends of learning on the continent bought many of them, and carried away whole shiploads. One man changed his religion for the sake of a piece of abbey land. The king lost at play the treasures of which he had stripped the monastic orders, and used convents as stables for his horses.
Some persons had imagined that the suppression of the monasteries would lead to the abolition of taxes and subsidies; but it was not so, and the nation found itself burdened with a poor-law in addition to the ordinary taxes. There were, however, more worthy cases than those of the king and his courtiers. ‘Most dread, mighty, and noble prince,’ wrote the lordmayor of London to the king, ‘give orders that the three city hospitals shall henceforward subserve not the pleasures of those canons, priests, and monks, whose dirty and disgusting bodies encumber our streets; but be used for the comfort of the sick and blind, the aged and crippled.’
The Act of Parliament was immediately carried out. The earl of Sussex, Sir John St. Clair, Anthony Fitzherbert, Richard Cromwell, and several other commissioners, traveled through England and made known to the religious communities the statutory dissolution. The voice of truth was heard from a small number of monasteries. ‘Assuredly,’ said the Lincolnshire Franciscans, ‘the perfection of Christian life does not consist in wearing a gray frock, in disguising ourselves in strange fashion, in bending the body and nodding the head,’ and in wearing a girdle full of knots. The true Christian life has been divinely manifested to us in Christ; and for that reason we submit with one consent to the king’s orders.’ The monks of the convent of St. Andrew at Northampton acknowledged to the commissioners that they had taken the habit of the order to live in comfortable idleness and not by virtuous labor, and had indulged in continual drunkenness, and in carnal and voluptuous appetites. ‘We have covered the gospel of Christ with shame,’ they said. ‘Now, seeing the gulf of everlasting fire gaping to swallow us up, and impelled by the stings of our conscience, we humble ourselves with lowly repentance, and pray for pardon, giving up ourselves and our convent to our sovereign king and lord.’
But they did not all use the same language. It was the last hour for the convents. There was a ceaseless movement in the cloisters; bursts of sorrow and fear, of anger and despair. What! No more monasteries! no more religious pomps! no more gossip! no more refectory! Those halls, wherein their predecessors had paced for centuries; those chapels, in which they had worshipped kneeling on the pavement, were to be converted to vulgar uses. A few convents endeavored to bribe Cromwell: ‘If you save our house, said the abbot of Peterborough, ‘I will give the king two million five hundred marks, and yourself three hundred pounds sterling.’ But Cromwell had conceived a great national measure, and wished to carry it out. Neither the eloquence of the monks, their prayers, their promises, nor their money could move him.
Some of the abbots set themselves in open revolt against the king, but were forced to submit at last. The old halls the long galleries, the narrow cells of the convents, became emptier from day to day. The monks received a pension in proportion to their age. Those who desired to continue in the religious life were sent to the large monasteries, Many were dismissed with a few shillings for their journey and a new gown. ‘As for you,’ said the commissioners to the young monks under twenty-five, ‘you must earn a living by the work of your hands.’ The same rule was applied to the nuns.
There was great suffering at this period. The inhabitants of the cloisters were strangers in the world: England was to them an unknown land.
Monks and nuns might be seen wandering from door to door, seeking an asylum for the night. Many, who were young then, grew old in beggary.
Their sin had been great, and so was their chastisement. Some of the monks fell into a gloomy melancholy, even into frightful despair: the remembrance of their faults pursued them; God’s judgement terrified them; the sight of their miseries infuriated them. ‘I am like Esau,’ said one of them, ‘I shall be eternally damned.’ And he strangled himself with his collar Another stabbed himself with a penknife. Some compassionate people having deprived him of the power of injuring himself, he exclaimed with rage, ‘If I cannot die in this manner, I shall easily find another;’ and taking a piece of paper, he wrote on it: Rex tanquam tyrannus opprimit populum suum . This he placed in one of the church books, where it was found by a parishioner, who in great alarm called out to the persons around him. The monk, full of hope. that he would be brought to trial, drew near and said, ‘It was I who did it: here I am; let them put me to death.’
Erelong those gloomy clouds, which seemed to announce a day of storms, appeared to break. There were tempests afterwards, but, speaking generally, England found in this energetic act one of the sources of her greatness, instead of the misfortunes with which she was threatened. At the moment when greedy eyes began to covet the revenues of Cambridge and Oxford, a recollection of the pleasant days of his youth was awakened in Henry’s mind. ‘I will not permit the wolves around me,’ he said, ‘to fall upon the universities.’ Indeed, the incomes of a few convents were employed in the foundation of new schools, and particularly of Trinity College, Cambridge; and these institutions helped to spread throughout England the lights of the Renaissance and of the Reformation. An eloquent voice was heard from those antique halls, saying: ‘O most invincible prince, great is the work that you have begun. Christ had laid the foundation; the apostles raised the building. But alas! barren weeds had overrun it; the papal tyranny had bowed all heads beneath its yoke. Now, you have rejected the pope; you have banished the race of monks. What more can we ask for? We pray that those houses of cenobites, where an ignorant swarm of drones was wont to buzz, should behold in their academic halls a generous youth, eager to be taught, and learned men to teach them. Let the light which has been restored to us spread its rays through all the universe and kindle other torches, so that the darkness should flee all over the world before the dawn of a new day.’
It was not learning alone that gained by the suppression of the monasteries. The revenues of the crown, which were about seven hundred thousand ducats, increased by those of the convents which were about nine hundred thousand, were more than doubled. This wealth, hitherto useless, served to fortify England and Ireland, build fortresses along the coasts, repair the harbors, and create an imposing fleet. The kingdom took a step in the career of power. By the reformation of the convents the moral force of the nation gained still more than the material force. The abolition of the papacy restored to the people that national unity which Rome had taken away; and England, freed from subjection to a foreign power, could oppose her enemies with a sword of might and a front of iron.
Political economy, rural economy, all that concerns the collection and distribution of wealth, then took a start that nothing has been able to check. The estates, taken from the easy-going monks, produced riches.
The king and the nobility, desirous of deriving the greatest gain possible from the domains that had fallen to them, endeavored to improve agriculture. Many men, until that time useless, electrified by the movement of minds, sought the means of existence. The Reformation, from which the nation expected only purity of doctrine, helped to increase the general prosperity, industry, commerce, and navigation. The poor remembered that God had commanded man to eat his bread, not in the shade of the monasteries, but in the sweat of his brow. To this epoch we must ascribe the origin of those mercantile enterprises, of those long and distant voyages which were to be one day the strength of Great Britain.
Henry VIII. was truly the father of Elizabeth.
Moral, social, and political development was no less a gainer by the order that was established. At the first moment, no doubt, England presented the appearance of a vast chaos: but from that chaos there sprang a new world. Forces which had hitherto been lost in obscure cells, were employed for the good of society. The men who had been dwelling carelessly within or without the cloister walls, and had expended all their activity in listlessly giving or listlessly receiving alms, were violently shaken by the blows from the Malleus monachorum, the hammer of the monks: they aroused themselves, and made exertions which turned to the public good. Their children, and especially their grandchildren, became useful citizens. The third estate appeared. The population of the cloisters was transformed into an active and intelligent middle class. The very wealth, acquired, it is true, greedily by the nobility, secured them an independence, which enabled them to oppose a salutary counterpoise to the pretensions of the crown. The Upper House, where the ecclesiastical element had predominated, became essentially a lay house by the absence of the abbots and priors. A public grew up. A new life animated antique institutions that had remained almost useless. It was not, in truth, until later that mighty England, having become decidedly evangelical and constitutional, sat down victoriously on the two great ruins of feudalism and popery; but an important step was taken under Henry VIII. That great transformation extended its influence even beyond the shores of Great Britain. The blow aimed at the system Of the Middle Ages reechoed throughout Europe, and everywhere shook the artificial scaffolding.
Spain and Italy alone remained almost motionless in the midst of their ancient darkness.
The suppression of the monasteries, begun in 1535, was continued in 1538, and brought to a conclusion in 1539 by an Act of Parliament.
A voice was heard from these ruined convents, exclaiming: ‘Praise and thanksgiving to God! For other foundation can no man lay than Jesus Christ. Whoever believes that Jesus Christ is the pacifier who turneth away from our heads the strokes of God’s wrath, lays the true foundation; and on that firm base he shall raise a better building than that which had the monks for its pillars!’ This prophecy of Sir William Overbury’s did not fail to be accomplished.