THE DISSOLUTION AND WESTMINSTER ABBEY
by Barbara Harvey
Somerville College, Oxford
by Barbara Harvey
Somerville College, Oxford
A PAPER GIVEN AT THE SPECIAL CENTENARY CONFERENCE
OF THE ENGLISH BENEDICTINE CONGREGATION
AT WESTMINSTER ABBEY
Thursday 22 November 2007
The author is grateful to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster for permission to use their muniments.
In January 1540, and in their chapter house, Abbot William Boston of Westminster and twenty-four monks, the remnant of a community that had normally been twice as large, executed a deed surrendering all their possessions, movable and immovable, to the king, his heirs and successors in perpetuity. I have rarely felt the past to be so near as when I read the deed, now among the National Archives at Kew, and the twenty-five idiosyncratic signatures that were, in effect, extinguishing six hundred years of Benedictine life at Westminster.
But the place of the deed of surrender in the dissolution of a monastery —if one exists or ever existed for the monastery in question —is comparable to that of a monastic foundation charter in the actual foundation. Quite a lot normally happened before the founder laid his charter on the altar: he had gathered endowments, and a core community of monks already existed. We may, I think, assume that the actual process of dissolution, for process it was, normally took place before the deed of surrender was sealed. How surprising the process could be in the individual case is brilliantly illustrated in Dr James Clark’s account of the dissolution at St Albans Abbey. Here the monks offered stout resistance to the proposed changes, and both before and after the dissolution that in the end they could not avert, they received sympathetic support from the townsmen of St Albans, with whom, at an earlier stage in their history, they had bitterly disagreed.
Events at Westminster Abbey were less exciting. And they were significantly different in another way, too , since, by January 1540, the Abbey had already been selected for ‘alteration’: it was to become one of the six cathedrals of the new foundation after the Dissolution. The abbot and convent of Westminster executed their deed of surrender on 16 January 1540. The new collegiate church was erected in the following December and received its endowments in August 1542. The former Abbot Boston, whose family name was Benson, now became Dean Benson, five former monks from the old foundation became canons in the new, and several others received lesser appointments there. For the events after 1540, and for the course of events during the life of the first collegiate church, ending with the Marian restoration of a Benedictine foundation, I need only refer you to Dr Charles Knighton’s authoritative account in Westminster Abbey Reformed, 1540-1640, which he and Dr Richard Mortimer published in 2003, and to Dr Knighton’s edition of the Chapter Act Book of the first collegiate foundation.
I shall discuss events extending from the visitation of the Abbey in 1535-6 by Thomas Cromwell as the king’s vicegerent, to the Abbey’s surrender in 1540. These, I suggest, constitute the actual dissolution process at Westminster. But it will, I think, be helpful if I first describe briefly the Dissolution more generally.
The Dissolution of the lesser monasteries — those with, in each case, an income of less than £200 a year, and not more than twelve monks or nuns— received statutory assent in parliament in March 1536. The statute followed too quickly on the completion of the Visitation of the Monasteries in February 1536 to be regarded as a considered response to the latter. But in the preamble to the act, much was made of the unsatisfactory condition of the lesser houses. In the 1520s, Cardinal Wolsey, then papal legate, had brought about the dissolution of a number of houses of this kind with royal as well as papal permission. His purpose in doing so, the endowment of Cardinal College, as it was to be, in Oxford, did not enjoy universal approbation, but the dissolutions themselves had many precedents and were not remarkable. A literal interpretation of the act of 1536 would make it hard to believe that anything other than a comprehensive dissolution of the lesser houses was intended by Henry VIII, now Supreme Head of the Church of England or his Vicegerent in Spiritualities. If so, it was no doubt principally the difficulties encountered when the operation was under way that persuaded the commissioners actually conducting the operation on the ground to allow, for the time being, a large number of exceptions. Without this breathing space, it would have been impossible to find places in the greater monasteries for the number of monks and nuns who were, at this point, determined to persevere. I should also mention that when, in the course of the Visitation of Monasteries, the religious in the Northern Province were offered the opportunity of departing with dispensations, only four to five per cent of a large sample examined by Professor Donald Logan actually left. In the course of the next two years, only c.200 houses, out of more than twice that number, were in fact dissolved.
The Dissolution of the greater monasteries lacked a general sanction. In consequence, it was necessary to validate proceedings monastery by monastery by the surrender on the part of the monks in question of all their property to the king, his heirs and successors. This was normally achieved, or so it is believed, in a written deed of the kind that I have already mentioned. The monasteries whose abbots or priors were attainted of treason in the rebellions of 1536 in Lincolnshire and the North of England constitute a notable exception to this procedure: their property was confiscated as a corollary of the attainder, and there may have been other exceptions. Eventually, whatever defects existed in the king’s title to the possessions of all religious houses was remedied by statute.
The first of the greater monasteries to surrender using the procedure that I have just described, was Furness Abbey, a Cistercian house in Lancashire, in April 1537, and the last, Waltham Abbey, a house of Augustinian canons in Essex, in March 1540. At some point late in 1537 or early in1538, Henry, advised, no doubt, by a willing vicegerent, probably resolved on a comprehensive dissolution of the greater monasteries as he had done earlier of the lesser ones, although the speed at which this would take place remained uncertain for some time. A quickening in the pace of surrenders affecting greater houses and the introduction of pensions for all who should leave suggest that he most probably reached this decision in the autumn of 1537. Whatever the date, the Court of Augmentations, the new government department set up in April 1536, in the first instance to receive the possessions of the lesser monasteries, received those of most of the greater ones too, but did not have a monopoly until 1539. Between 1536 and1540, c. 650 houses of all orders, not counting those of the mendicant friars, had been dissolved. These had housed between 7,000 and 8,000 religious. A great displacement had taken place.
Behind the Dissolution in Henry VIII’s reign lay profound questions relating to ecclesiastical property, and since land was to an overwhelming extent the source of wealth at this time, they related to landed wealth. How much did the monasteries own ?Why had they been given it, and to what uses were they putting it ? These were questions heard in politically conscious circles long before the 1530s. They perhaps sound archaic. But their thrust can, I think, be summarised in the question, how much freedom may the generation in possession claim in administering ancient endowments in altered circumstances ? Today, we often meet this question in the context of educational endowments.
No medieval English king before Henry VIII could have answered the question, how much did the monasteries own? But the Valor Ecclesiasticus , compiled in 1534-5, provided an answer of a kind: at this date the monastic estates, including colleges and hospitals, were probably worth c.£200,000 per annum and the monasteries accounted for the lion’s share of this amount. I think it unlikely that the sum represents less than one quarter of the total landed wealth of England at the time. Monastic lands were unevenly distributed from county to county and region to region, and distribution was also very uneven from monastery to monastery. Between rich and poor houses the gap was enormous: in 1535, a handful of rich Benedictine monasteries had an income exceeding the total income of all Benedictine nunneries. But the major part of the entire monastic estate consisted of manors and was thus associated with the right and indeed the duty to hold a court for tenants and others. This is an important point in the context of the Dissolution, since a member of the late medieval gentry could not regard himself as securely established in that social class unless he held land with manorial rights — leases were not sufficient for this purpose — and for a long period before the 1530s, such land was often difficult to buy in the ordinary land market.
Much of the wealth possessed by monasteries in the early sixteenth century had been given to them in the tenth, eleventh or early twelfth centuries, the heroic age of foundation, in the belief that the prayers of monks would ease the path of the souls of founders and benefactors and their descendants through Purgatory, and this connection between endowment and intercessory prayers was especially strong in the case of Benedictine monks. Increasingly, however, from the thirteenth century onwards, the laity looked to their parish church for intercessory prayers and tended to found anniversaries and chantries there or, like the Cobhams, a gentry family of Cobham, near Rochester, they founded a college served by secular priests; and as a matter of fact any form of endowment for prayers in a parish church or by secular priests in a college tended to cost less than prayers in a monastery. The flight of so many new foundations to other kinds of churches and the failure of heirs in many aristocratic families in the fifteenth century meant that in the later Middle Ages monasteries might well have no contact with living representatives of the families for whom they were obliged to intercede. If asked, their monks would perhaps have replied in terms resembling those used by a monk of Worcester writing to Thomas Cromwell to explain the raison d’être of the monks of Worcester: they maintained the service of God, comforted its ministers, kept hospitality, and gave alms. But it is noticeable that the monk did not mention intercessory prayer.
The belief that, as needs changed, monastic property might be confiscated and used for other spiritual purposes, such as hospitals or for the endowment of under-endowed members of the gentry or higher aristocracy, was voiced from time to time in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In 1534 an anonymous scheme laid before parliament proposed that the church above the parish level should be disendowed and the higher secular clergy and all religious receive fixed stipends: £6, 13s. 4d. for a monk who was a priest or for a nun, and £5 for a novice, sums which were very like many given as pensions after the Dissolution.
These changes in early medieval attitudes to the monks as intercessors, and towards what had once been regarded as the inviolability of their property, provided, I suggest, the strong undertow without which English monasteries could scarcely have been carried along towards their dissolution in the early sixteenth century. It mattered, too, that many of the land-holding aristocracy were ambivalent in their attitude to the monasteries. Lutheran and Evangelical beliefs had few friends in high places in this decade and, crucially, lacked the king’s support. But with the underlying changes, and given the incongruous mixture of zeal for reform and cupidity that seems to have characterised both Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, his Vicegerent in Spiritualities, the monasteries were extinguished in a remarkably short time.
I shall preface a discussion of the dissolution at Westminster Abbey with a brief account of the way of life of the monks of this house in the early sixteenth century. With a net income of c. £3,000 per annum, derived from an estate of perhaps 45,000 to 50,000 acres, Westminster Abbey was one of the greatest of the greater monasteries, though several others exceeded its normal complement of forty-eight monks. It owed its wealth principally to the endowments given by St Edward the Confessor to the church which he chose as his mausoleum, but also in part to the resumption of royal burials here in the thirteenth century, for monarchs did not desert greater churches when their subjects began to endow intercessory prayers elsewhere. Among monarchs buried in the abbey church, Henry VII (1485-1509), the most recent, was also, after St Edward the Confessor, and Henry III who gave the Abbey its gothic church, the most munificent. The indulgence of the Scala Cœli, which Henry secured for the new Lady Chapel in the Abbey, provided a burst of new life for popular pilgrimage to the Abbey, which had never made a real recovery from a decline after the death of Edward III.
In the Middle Ages, the Benedictine life was not quite as rare a vocation as it has since become. At the beginning of the 1530s, before the dissolutions began to have an effect, there were c.1,500 Benedictine monks and c.900 nuns, in a population only four to five per cent of ours today. The average age at entry, an event followed within a few days by clothing and within a matter of months or even weeks by profession, was now probably eighteen, but the range was quite wide and at the lower end occasionally touched the minimum canonical age of fifteen. Down to the mid-1530s, new entrants, probably in many cases from the almonry school, were quickly found when deaths created vacancies in the normal complement of monks. A monk leaving after profession without a dispensation committed the sin of apostasy and might be brought back to his monastery by the civil arm, although this procedure was now rare. Differences in age and educational attainment meant that novices were under instruction or, to use the contemporary phrase, in custody for varying lengths of time, and might retain that status through a period of study at Oxford or Cambridge. On Henry VII’s insistence, his chantry was normally served by monks who had been educated at one or other university, and in this period it was not unusual for five or six monks of Westminster to be at the university in any one year.
But whether they were still in custody or had passed beyond that stage, monks were normally ordained at the minimum permissible age, and in this Westminster followed the wider Benedictine practice. The canonical age was twenty-four, but the Abbey possessed or claimed to possess a privilege from Sixtus IV allowing it to present four monks yearly for ordination at the age of twenty-two, and give or take a few months or even a year or two, this was what happened.
Wealth might serve to keep numbers high. But for a religious house it also had disadvantages, and among these not only the temptation to live too well , to which, as a matter of fact, the monks of Westminster succumbed long before the sixteenth century. The Abbey’s great estates were scattered in no fewer than nineteen counties, and it held property in London, too. About one third of the monks who were out of custody could expect to become so-called cloister-monks, and as such the mainstay of the Divine Office in choir and of the two community Masses every day. Among the two-thirds were many who performed these obligations intermittently, but most had business elsewhere in the monastery or outside. Moreover, when in the monastery, the more important among these enjoyed the privilege of living in private chambers, as apartments were sometimes called. But so too did the elderly and the university graduates, the latter being considered too distinguished to be held to the full obligations of the common life.
Amid all these distractions, the Abbey, in common with many other Benedictine houses of the period, maintained a fragile common life with the assistance of a legalistic interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict, and notably in the matter of diet. The Rule forbade the consumption of flesh-meat in the refectory (the only room set apart for meals that St Benedict knew of), and the monks of Westminster did not eat this item of diet there. Instead, on meat days, they divided the community into two and sent a proportion to the second refectory, called the misericord, where flesh-meat was served, and other monks to the refectory, to eat regular food. But the price of a literal adherence to the Rule was the loss of commensality. Then, again, St Benedict’s prohibition of the use of private property without the abbot’s permission was found perfectly compatible with enjoyment of a peculium, or wages, amounting to the very large sum of £8 to £10 per annum for every monk who was a priest. Any goods purchased by a monk with his wages — and these might include furnishings for a private chamber, or a better-than-usual habit — would belong to the monastery on the death of the monk; and the knowledge that this was so no doubt made it easier than it would otherwise have been for the abbot to give his permission for every such outlay. But many saved in order to give to the abbey church and the conventual buildings. The murals of the Apocalypse given to the chapter house by John Northampton, at a cost of £4, 10s. 0d., at the beginning of the fifteenth century can still be seen there.
In small numbers, monks sometimes left the precinct for reasons unconnected with its necessary business, although we have no reason to suppose that they did so without permission. Pilgrimage, in ones and twos, to Walsingham and Canterbury are recorded, and a number of the monks of this period responded to the popularity of urban gilds by joining the gild of the Assumption at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and the gild of the parish clerks of London.
Yet despite — or perhaps I should say on account of — the decline of the common life and all the demands it could make on individuals, there were very few apostates among the monks of Westminster in this period. I know of none in the early sixteenth century and only a handful in the fourteenth century or the early fifteenth. And although papal indulgences permitting a monk to occupy a parish benefice as a secular priest had been available since 1390, only six or seven monks of Westminster to our knowledge took advantage of this possibility of escape down to the breach with Rome in 1534. The appearance of, for example, a William Faith and a John Grace among the last generations of monks, betrays a response to current developments in the choice of names in religion, though ‘John Goodluck’ is harder to place.
It is unlikely that any of the half-private common life that I have tried to describe now seemed at all strange to the monks themselves. The heart-searching and controversy on these issues lay in the past. What Thomas Cromwell, who was not only the king’s vicegerent but also the Abbey’s high steward and keeper of its gatehouse and prison thought of their way of life, which he would certainly have noticed on his visits, we may perhaps glimpse in some of the Injunctions for the Visitation of the Monasteries, which I should now like to discuss.
The Visitation of monasteries and other religious houses, master-minded by Cromwell, began in late July 1535 and ended on 28 February 1536. Such intervention in monastic life by the lay power was not without precedent. The unknown factor was how the Vicegerent would act given the fact that religious houses hitherto exempt from episcopal authority and directly dependent on the see of Rome were now mentioned as particular subjects of his attention. The Visitation has become notorious for the allegations of misconduct freely made in the surviving reports, known as comperta, of the visitors who carried out the actual enquiries. These are now largely discredited. But Cromwell’s Injunctions, drawn up in advance of the Visitation, for communication by his visitors at the end, still have a teasing quality, as indeed they had at the time. Some were clear enough: by commanding that all monks should eat together in the misericord, whether the day was a day for meat or a day for abstention from this item of diet, Cromwell intended to restore full commensality. This Injunction, together with others relating to such matters as sleeping accommodation and movement outside the precinct, would, if obeyed, have gone far towards restoring the common life that had flown out of the window at Westminster, as at so many other monasteries, two centuries and more ago. But some were more puzzling. Clearly, the Injunction forbidding anyone under the age of twenty-four to wear the habit meant that no one under that age might, in future, make a religious profession. But, if so, what was to be the position of those already professed but still under the age of twenty-four and the position of those professed under the age of twenty-four but who were now over that age? After much consultation between the visitors and Cromwell, not only on these points but also on the desire of many monks over the age of twenty-four to leave, by the end of 1535 Cromwell’s ruling was that they might do so: that is to say, they might be dispensed to do so, if not by the existing means, then by the Vicegerent himself or by visitors to whom he delegated this power.
Westminster Abbey was visited early in the proceedings by Thomas Legh, a man described by David Knowles, as ‘conceited in behaviour and sharp to brutality in manner’, and by John ap Rice, whom Knowles describes as ‘a shrewd’, critical man, prejudiced against the religious’. We do not have the visitors’compertum or report on the Abbey, but we do know that on 16 October ap Rice reported to Cromwell that Legh had been ‘too insolent’ and ‘pompous’, and it is clear that his conduct at Westminster Abbey seemed to merit this verdict. We have circumstantial evidence of the response to the monks individually to the visitation in the number in the community at Michaelmas (29 September) 1535 compared with the number a year later. The evidence of wage-payments when combined with the chamberlain’s record of his yearly issue of habits shows that although there were probably forty-three monks in the community on 29 September 1535, there were only twenty-five a year later. Three, but no more, died in the course of the year. It therefore seems very likely that fifteen, representing about thirty-five per cent of the total number listed at the beginning of the year, departed before it was over.
The fifteen were a mixed bag. Four had probably been professed for more than thirty years, and four for only five years. As monks, they had varied careers, but most had probably been cloister-monks, holding only minor offices if any. Two had studied at Cambridge and two at Oxford, and this circumstance may be significant, as the former two had been at Cambridge together, and the latter two may have overlapped at Oxford. William Penne, who was probably aged abut twenty-three and had been a monk for five years when he left, obtained a royal pardon two or three years later for all felonies committed by himself and one Anthony Penne of Westminster. William Penne was evidently a local recruit when he entered the monastery in 1530, and he was perhaps always a misfit.
In interpreting this exodus of monks, we should have in mind the Injunction relating to age — no one to be clothed under the age of twenty-four — and the fact that from the beginning of the Visitation monks under the age of twenty were compelled to leave. But it is most unlikely, from what we know about each of the fifteen, that any was under age in this way and unlikely that any except Penne was under the age of twenty-four at the Visitation. With one possible exception, the fifteen were monks leaving, almost certainly, because they wished to leave. But how was it that in a monastery with such a high rate of perseverance before 1535, a third of the community now wished to leave? It seems likely that the fifteen were responding to the intimation in the Injunctions that the monastery was to become more strictly enclosed than previously, and the common life restored to an extent not experienced for a very long time. That is to say, those who left assumed that the Injunctions would be enforced. No pensions were offered at this point to those leaving the religious life, even if they had dispensations to do so. Some of the fifteen may have had savings. But all were priests and might hope to find employment, perhaps even in the Abbey itself, where the departure of one third of the community would leave a serious shortage of priests to serve all the altars. It is also possible that some in addition to Penne, had relatives in the town of Westminster who offered support: to this extent there may be some correspondence between events at Westminster and those at St Albans.
In July 1536, the Abbey received from Henry VIII additions and amendments to the previous Injunctions addressed specifically to the abbot. In several respects these clarified the former version, addressed generally, in a useful way, notably in making it clear that monks might go outside the cloister or precinct provided they had the abbot’s permission to do so. However, in one important respect they entered new ground by explicitly laying on the abbot responsibility for administering all the monastery’s property, and making him accountable to Thomas Cromwell in the latter’s capacity as Vicegerent . It would, I think, have been clear to the abbot and convent reading or listening to this Injunction that accountability to Thomas Cromwell, a man of extraordinary energy would not be easy, even if the agenda consisted only of accounts.
The revised Injunctions almost coincided in date with a humiliating experience for the Abbey of a different kind. This was the enforced surrender to the king of the manors of La Neyte, Ebury, Hyde, and Teddington, together with lands in Chelsea, in a disadvantageous exchange for the possessions of Hurley Priory, now dissolved. The first three manors had been carved out of the manor of Eye given to the Abbey by Geoffrey de Mandeville and his wife, before 1100. Although not part of the original ‘vill’ of Westminster, they were neighbouring properties, coveted by Henry VIII and destined to provide a royal hunting ground, with some tennis courts, and extending from his new Palace of Whitehall on the north as far as modern Oxford Street and on the west as far as Ebury Bridge. With these acquisitions and land in Petty Calais obtained in a similar way from Abbot Islip in 1531, the king, and no longer the Abbey, owned the greater part of the more extensive ‘Westminster’. And his possessions included what had hitherto been the principal way from, Charing Cross and London to Westminster, via King Street. All this, the king soon declared a part of his new Palace of Whitehall. Moreover, the loss of La Neyte, two or three miles down the road from the Abbey, in what is now Mayfair, would necessitate radical alteration of the abbot’s mode of life. It had long been a custom in large Benedictine houses that their abbots, who itinerated, should possess, among their several houses, one near the monastery. There, they could claim to be ‘at home’, though enjoying the freedom of being outside the precinct. It was also found convenient, if possible, to die there and thus do so in presence of their monks — exactly the circumstances of Abbot Islip’s death in 1532, as we see it in the famous Islip Roll. The deeds conveying these properties to the king and the properties of Hurley Priory to the abbot and convent of Westminster are dated 1July and 2 July 1536, the revised Injunctions, 30 July, four weeks later. In practice, the abbot and convent had probably been aware for almost a year of Henry’s intentions. But potentially both developments drastically diminished the importance of the Abbey in the town of Westminster and its control over its financial affairs.
The surrender of La Neyte opened the possibility of a desirable residence near the Abbey, for Thomas Cromwell, and by December 1537, to judge by his correspondence, he was, at least on occasion, resident there or using an office there. How, then, did he discharge his new responsibilities towards the abbot of Westminster and the management of the monastery’s financial affairs ?
Down to the 1530s, and in common with other large Benedictine monasteries, Westminster Abbey had a decentralised financial system and monitored it by a rather old-fashioned system of accounting. The abbot’s affairs were administered by two household officials, known as the receiver and the steward, who, between them, received the abbot’s income from his estates and provisioned and financed the several departments of his household. About fifty per cent of the convent’s revenues were administered by treasurers, who were responsible for major items of expenditure such as grain for bread and ale, and meat and fish for the convent’s kitchen, and about fifty per cent by a dozen or more lesser obedientiaries, each with his own revenues and a department to spend it on. The abbot’s supervision of a number of departments, and some pluralism in the case of others modified this system in practice but did not shake its fundamental features. Once a year, a separate account was rendered for each department, and this was designed to show, not how the enterprise as a whole stood, but what each obedientiary owed the monastery or the monastery owed him.
By the spring of 1537, however, notable changes were under way, although the surviving accounts which reflect them are all too few in number: they comprise three accounts of John Moulton, the abbot’s receiver, and one of John Gemme, the steward of his household, all lying within the period 4 March 1537 to 10 June 1539. The receiver and steward of the abbot’s household now apparently received nearly the entire revenues of the monastery, and expenditure was arranged on rational lines: expenditure on the abbot’s kitchen and that of the convent on their kitchen now appear, for example, in the same account, that of the steward, and not in two distinct ones, and no longer does each royal anniversary have its own account: all except Henry VII’s appear in the same one, and again this is the steward’s. The abbot authorised payments made by each of the two officials, but was himself apparently on a fixed allowance, and by January 1539 this included, if it did not solely consist of, a so-called annuity, probably of £40 a month from the Court of Augmentations. John Moulton, the receiver, refers to the abbot as his lord but to his master ‘at Mr chauncelor’s of the laugmentacion’; the latter was no doubt to be found in the Palace of Westminster. Moulton’s master was, it seems clear, John Carleton who is referred to many times by name and whose signature was added to one of Moulton’s surviving accounts, presumably to validate it. If the abbot needed money in addition to his allowance, Carleton authorised the payment. He had, until quite recently, been one of the abbot’s receivers, probably a local receiver in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire; now he moved on a wider stage and was also a local receiver in the Court of Augmentations. No fee or stipend for him is mentioned, but perquisites are recorded here, and these included a coat and doublet sent to Anthony Carleton, John Carleton’s son, then at Cambridge and shoes for Anne and Kathryn Carleton, who may have been daughters.
In the later Middle Ages, monastic administration tended to change slowly and the speed of the change occurring in accounting practice at Westminster Abbey in the mid-1530s is very unusual. I suggest that it reflects the energies and talents of Thomas Cromwell when faced with the challenge, and opportunity, of overseeing the abbot of Westminster’s conduct of his monastery’s finances. With help from the Court of Augmentations, but cleverly using for the purpose an official who was already known to the abbot, and who himself knew something of the current system, he constrained the freedom of action of the abbot and the two monastic officials principally involved in financial administration and pressed on them some of the rationality for which the Court itself came to be well known. Cromwell would not, I think, have felt uneasy in associating an official of the Court of Augmentations, a department created to receive the revenues of dissolved religious houses, with the administration of the revenues of an abbey that had not been dissolved. On the contrary, the new arrangements can reasonably be taken as evidence that his thoughts had run ahead of his master’s, to an actual dissolution of the Abbey and his actions towards more than a little preparation for this event.
It is a remarkable feature of monastic history in the years preceding local dissolutions that new recruits often came forward in good numbers if needed. This happened, for example, at Glastonbury Abbey. As many as thirteen monks probably entered Westminster Abbey in the two or three years after the Visitation, either as novices or sent from other houses now dissolved. But four of these are known only from their appearance in the infirmarer’s account for 1536-7 and it seems likely that they died in the year of their entry — victims perhaps of the so-called plague said, at the end of September 1536, to be rife in the town of Westminster and even in the Abbey itself. It is not known how many of the remaining nine had come from other monasteries. Two of those who did, both doctors of Divinity of Cambridge University, quite soon obtained dispensations to live in the world as secular priests, and John Clerke, one of the two left in the latter part of 1538 in order to do so. By that time, the momentum in building up numbers that is discernible in 1537 had been lost, almost certainly through departures that have left no trace in any surviving records relating to formal dispensations to depart. At Christmas 1538 only twenty-two priests and three novices, making twenty-five in all, received the wages distributed on this occasion, and in June 1539, only eleven received the so-called pittance of 1s. 8d. per monk, but double for the prior and fourfold for the abbot, distributed by the almoner on the anniversary of Richard Harwden (abbot 1420-40). If we add four to the eleven, to take account of the monks at Oxford who were probably not eligible, we are left with a total number identical with the number of monks who, some eighteen months later, entered the first collegiate foundation at Westminster or accepted minor office there. But I hasten to say that numbers that fit neatly together in a medieval context are often to be regarded with scepticism because the raw material itself is so often imperfect.
Nevertheless, the possibility of a significant number of departures from Westminster in the year 1538-9 receives support from the account of the treasurer of the Court of Augmentations for this period, which records a large expenditure on ‘rewards’ for ‘former’ monks, servants, and ‘orators of the king’ at Westminster. It was perhaps by a slip of the pen that the treasurer’s scribe refers to the monastery itself as ‘recently a monastery ‘(‘nuper monasterium’). But the almoner’s number is much lower (fifteen compared to twenty-five) than the number signing the deed of surrender in January 1540, and in accepting it we should, I think, be committing ourselves to the view that a significant proportion of the signatories on the latter occasion had already left the community. Left the community, but not necessarily abbey premises: it is perfectly possible that any who left were still on the premises or nearby, helping unofficially, as stipendiary priests, to sustain the full liturgical observance that was in fact maintained between the dissolution of the monastery and the erection of the collegiate foundation.
But how far does the Abbey’s deed of surrender stand up to scrutiny ? The twenty-five signatures are certainly genuine signatures, if to be in each case idiosyncratic is to be genuine. On looking at it recently, I formed the conclusion that two or three had been inserted after the rest and that spaces had been left towards the end; if so, a possible explanation is that there were absentees from the sealing of the charter who might, it was believed, appear later but who did not. None of these possibilities means that the charter itself must be regarded with suspicion: some undoubtedly genuine charters have features that are themselves problematic. I am not enough of a palaeographer to press any points of the kind I have just made. But I feel myself to be on firmer ground in saying that for the community at Westminster, the entire period from 1535 onwards was one of increasing constraint, and in pointing to 1537 as the last year in which, with hindsight, we can speak of recovery after the Visitation two years previously. By the latter part of that year it was, I suggest, known that Henry VIII was now resolved —as his vicegerent had almost certainly been for a considerably longer period —to dissolve the monastic foundation at Westminster. Hence the excess of departures over new entries into the monastic community that we now seem to witness.
At this point I will identify myself with an arresting remark in Westminster Abbey Reformed. ‘There is not the smallest doubt’, writes Dr Knighton here,’ that, had [Henry VIII] willed it, England’s finest Gothic church would have been knocked down and carried away in trucks. ’ For several reasons, however, it was necessary to provide the Abbey with an afterlife in which it would remain in its active role as well as in its architecture a great church, and this meant that in practice it must become a collegiate foundation though a secular one. I will briefly mention three reasons. The first needs no elaboration. The Abbey was the coronation church of the monarchs of England and the guardian of a rite of coronation unaltered since the beginning of the fourteenth century and originating in a much earlier period; and at this date it still kept the regalia between coronations.
The importance to Henry VIII of the Abbey, and in particular of the Lady Chapel, as the burial place of his father may need a little more discussion, not least because Henry VIII himself was buried at Windsor. Henry VII’s burial in the Abbey associated him with the Lancastrian dynasty through which the Tudor dynasty traced its claim to the throne, and in particular with Katherine Valois, the wife of Henry V and, through her second marriage to Owen Tudor, Henry VII’s grandmother. It is safe to assume that it was on Henry VIII’s insistence that plans for the erection of the first collegiate church include a provision of £60 for his father’s ‘obit’; and, clearly, this need was communicated to Dean Benson, as Abbot Benson now was, and the newly appointed canons, for at one of their earliest chapter meetings, they resolved to spend £40, in addition to the cost of wax, on this anniversary. The sum points to a notable event: at this date a canon of Westminster received only £28, 5s. 0d. a year, including his daily commons of 1s. No other royal anniversary received from Henry the attention he paid to that of his father.
But the Abbey was needed on other occasions beside coronations and anniversaries, as anyone will know who is familiar with Thomas Wriothesley’s vivid description of the ceremony when the king and the lords of parliament came from his new Palace of Whitehall to the Abbey on 8 June 1536, for a High Mass of the Holy Ghost, an invariable feature of the opening of any parliament. In the town of Westminster, as newly conceived by Henry VIII, there was no place for a still powerful Benedictine Abbey: the town, soon to be called a city, was to be marked with the king’s mark and no other. But surely in no circumstances would Henry have relinquished the Abbey as the theatre of royal ceremony and devotion. Nor did any of his successors. The latest monks to participate in the ceremony at the beginning of a parliament were Abbot Feckenham and his monks, in 1559. Elizabeth responded rudely to the torches carried by the monks, but not to the pontificals worn by Feckenham. And there, a long way, I fear, from 1607, I must end.