The Dissolution
of the Monasteries 1535-1539

Dissolution of the Monasteries 1535 1539

Wetheral Priory

You will see references to The Dissolution scattered around this site and you may have wondered what this was. Here is a short explanation of its effects in Cumbria and why it happened.

The Dissolution occurred in the reign of King Henry VIII (famous for his six wives). Its aim was to expel the clergy from the Priories, Abbeys, Convents and Monasteries, and sell them. There were well over 500 of them, home to 7,000 monks, 2,000 nuns, and about 50,000 lay workers. Many of them had become notoriously perverted from their religious purposes.

When the Pope refused to agree to Henry's divorce of his Queen Catharine of Aragon, Henry assumed in 1535 the title of Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England; and he appointed his Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, as his Vicar-General. Strapped for cash as ever, they valued the revenues of every religious house in England, and showed that the Church had a net income of about 300,000 a year. The Government itself had a revenue of only 100,000 a year. Also, the religious houses owned about one-third of the total land area of England - about two million acres.

Henry and Cromwell saw that seizure of this wealth would clear their current financial difficulties. And so all the Religious Houses were visited and indictments drawn up to support ejection of the resident clergy. In some cases violence was used, but usually the clergy left with reasonable pensions. The lands and buildings were then sold. Very little was given to favourites, although the king's Secretary, a Northumbrian called Sir Ralph Sadler, became the richest commoner in England.

Generally, none of this disturbed the continuing tenancies of the local people. But in the north of England dissension arose. The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 was the most serious revolt Henry ever faced; and on a smaller scale the peasantry of Cumberland rebelled under their leader 'Captain Poverty'. Savage reprisals were taken, and every rebel area, including Cumberland, saw horrible displays of the consequences of rebellion.

Sadly, the main reminders we have of the Dissolution are the skeletons of once fine examples of medieval architecture; and only occasionally amongst them, as in the cloister terraces at Lanercost or in the roofless nave at Shap, can the faint presence of an ancient peace and quietude be felt.



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Copyright EDGE 1997