King Henry VIII of England is infamous for his six wives - and for having some beheaded; for his break with the Roman Catholic Church over his divorce of Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn; and for setting up the Church of England with himself as its head. He is also famous for closing down almost all of the monasteries and convents in England and Wales from 1536 to 1539, with the help of Thomas Cromwell and his cronies who took the “wealth” of these monasteries and placed it into the treasury of King Henry, who was in great debt. Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book focuses on one monastery in particular and on the cathedral with which it was connected – Durham - to tell the story of the dissolution of the monasteries.
Monasteries, friaries, and convents provided help to the poor and served as hospitals and hotels for travelers. Many monasteries also provided employment to many people. Several monasteries owned many acres of land farmed by employees or tenant farmers and their families. With the dissolution of the monasteries, few agencies or institutions remained to help the poor and sick. Many monastery buildings and churches were razed, their materials sold off to raise money for the royal treasury and for the pockets of Cromwell’s cronies. Many shrines, like St. Cuthbert’s at Durham and St. Thomas Becket’s at Canterbury, were destroyed and looted. Burial places of royalty also were disturbed, like at Reading Abbey.
Many monasteries in England were connected with a cathedral and its bishop or archbishop. The monastery at Durham was headed by a prior instead of an abbot. This prior was addressed as “lord prior”; usually an abbot was called “lord.” This prior also wore a miter like an abbot or bishop and used a crozier. The Bishop of Durham ranked third in the English Church after the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York and was referred to as “Prince Bishop.” He was responsible for not only spiritual matters in his region but also the temporal, including defending northern England against the troublesome Scots.
Many monks and nuns saw the writing on the wall and prepared for the suppression of their communities. Some hid valuables such as statues and plates. Some distributed the monastery goods to its members for safekeeping. This ploy was not always successful; and offenders were imprisoned or executed. Some monks and nuns defied Henry VIII and stood up to him, giving their lives as martyrs like the Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting did. He joined the holy martyrs St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, some Carthusian monks, Abbot Hugh Cooke of Reading Abbey, Abbot Thomas Marshall of Colchester Abbey, and others. These would turn out to be only the first Catholic martyrs that the English monarchy created. Others include St. Edmund Arrowsmith, Margaret Pole, St. Edmund Campion, and many others.
Readers will need a dictionary to define some medieval monastic terms not used by today’s monks - terms like
quire, feretrar, and obedientiaries (some of these are explained in footnotes). Black-and-white illustrations, with floor plans of the priory and cathedral, as well as a map of the Diocese of Durham, are included at the front of the book. The bottom half of the front book jacket features a color image of Henry VIII from 1540 by Hans Holbein the Younger; a color image of Durham Cathedral by 18th-century artist Thomas Girtin graces the top portion. There are explanation footnotes, a bibliography, and an index. This book is highly recommended to those interested in monastic history, Church history, or English history.
Geoffrey Moorhouse is the author of nineteen books, including Great Harry’s Navy (2006), The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002), Sun Dancing: Vision of Medieval Ireland (1997), and others.