Landholding in England/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X.—THE TAKING OF THE ABBEY LANDS


I HAVE shown that ever since the deposition of Richard II. circumstances had been favouring absolute government. These circumstances bore their full harvest in the reign of Henry VIII.

The resumption of the Church lands by Henry VIII. produced a total change in the land system—a change all the greater because it was more social than legal. About a fourth part of the lands of England actually changed hands; but this very inadequately describes what was done. And as it has ever since been the interest of the well-to-do classes to justify a resumption which enriched themselves, it is necessary to say something here about the persons who instigated the business, the manner in which they carried it out, and the immediate consequences of the change.

Henry VIII. united in his own person all the terrible and dangerous traits of his predecessors on both sides of his house—as unscrupulous and hypocritical as Henry IV., as wasteful and extravagant as Edward IV., as pitiless in sweeping away obstacles from his path as Richard III., as cunning and lawyer-like as Henry VII.; and to these qualities he added a temperament ready at any moment to kindle into fury, and once that fury was kindled, he spared neither man nor woman— neither Sir Thomas More nor the mother of his child. We must go back to the Roman Empire for his parallel. He began as a splendid, ostentatious prince, squandering on shows the vast sums his father had wrung out of the nation ; but after Wolsey's fall he reigned by sheer terror. His trembling Parliament resigned into his bloodstained hands their civil as well as their religious liberties. He beggared his people, and then hanged them for being beggars.[1] He made poverty in England a crime. Three hundred years after Magna Charta, an English King passed laws by proclamation! And an English Parliament assented! So much ground was lost in his time, that it was a hundred years before Parliament dared once more assert itself, and it cost us another half-century, civil war, and two revolutions, before constitutional government triumphed.

This is not the place to consider the foul accusations against the religious houses—we are concerned here with the conduct of the new, not of the old owners. It is enough to say that the preambles of the Acts of Suppression, and the King's Speech to the adjourned Parliament of 1525, are enough to throw the gravest suspicion on the good faith of the accusers. At first, it was only the small houses, under the number of twelve persons, which were given to "vicious and abominable practices," and to "consuming and wasting the Church's lands." Burnet says the reasons given were that these small houses being poor, "their poverty set them on to use many ill arts to grow rich." The preamble of the Act of 1536, for suppressing these smaller monasteries, gives another reason … "considering also that divers and great solemn monasteries of this realm, wherein, thanks be to God, religion is right well kept and observed, be destitute of such full numbers of religious persons as they ought and may keep," it is suggested that the smaller communities—now called nothing worse than "unthrifty"—may be reformed by entering the larger. The King declared that his information was obtained from the "visitors" he had sent, and "by sundry credible informations," so he knew "the premisses to be true." But next year he had discovered that all were bad alike. He took all, and in two years he had squandered all, was asking for subsidies, and debasing the coinage, until when, in his son's reign, it was necessary to pay the loan borrowed from the Antwerp merchants, a new coinage had to be struck before foreigners would accept our money!

Some historians and others speak as though the great wealth of the monasteries was an extenuation of Henry VIII.'s action. As he had for thirty years been squandering money as no king of England ever did before or has since, they seem to think he had a right to rob the Church and the poor, because it would be so well worth his while. But surely the greater the treasure he seized, the more land and goods he got into his power, the greater the crime if when he had got them he squandered them? What would these apologists say in another case? In 1893, not one-fourth, but half, the agricultural surface of England and Wales was held by 2250 persons. That is, 2250 persons owned between them 6000 of the 12,000 rural parishes of England and Wales. In our time those who say that these 2250 persons hold too much land are called robbers and revolutionaries. But the monks held in trust for the poor; and no one has ever yet had the courage to say that the great landowners hold their estates in trust for the poor. Far from that, they are allowed to forbid the erecting of houses, and to drive from their land persons objectionable to them. They could, if they pleased, clear them all off—they do effectually prevent villages from increasing.

The political meaning of the "Royal Supremacy" was absolute monarchy. And it is undeniable that Henry made it include a real Spiritual Headship. Rather than acknowledge this Spiritual Headship of a temporal prince Sir Thomas More laid his head on the block. Henry asserted and exercised the right of the King to prescribe both the form of worship and the dogma. He was presently to put forth a new Book of Common Prayer, and to force it upon an unwilling people by the sword. Never was there a more glaring delusion than that which regards Henry as our deliverer from religious tyranny. He only abolished the jurisdiction of the Pope to set up a far worse jurisdiction of the temporal power. His own tyranny was worse than that of any Pope—the Pope was far off, the King was near. His "Supremacy" was the destruction of civil and religious liberty, not its establishment. He himself gave no religious liberty at all ; and such liberty as was granted afterwards was only liberty to follow the established religion. There is this sort of religious liberty even in Turkey.

The King could never have plundered the monasteries if he had not first made himself absolute. The murders of Fisher and More struck such terror that none dared to oppose his will. But he did not trust to intimidation alone: he packed his Parliaments, and he took particular pains to pack the Parliament which was to dissolve the religious orders. There are extant letters of Southampton and Sadler to Cromwell, narrating their success in journeys undertaken with this end. Other arguments were used. One of the greatest authorities on English law, in his greatest work gives them:

"On the King's Behalf, the Members of both Houses were informed in Parliament that no King or Kingdom were safe, but where the King had three Abilities; First, To live of his own, and able to defend his Kingdoms upon any sudden Invasion or Insurrection. Secondly, To aid his Confederates, otherwise they would never assist him. Thirdly, To reward his well-deserving Servants. Now the Project was, if the Parliament would give unto him all the Abbies, etc., that for ever, in Time then to come, he would take Order that the same should not be converted to private Use; but, first. That his Exchequer, for the Purposes aforesaid, should be enriched. Secondly, the Kingdom strengthened by the Maintenance of 40,000 well-trained Soldiers, with skilful Captains and Commanders. Thirdly, for the Benefit and Ease of the Subject, who never afterwards (as was pretended) in any Time to come, should be charged with Subsidies, Fifteenths, Loans, or other common Aids. … Now observe the Catastrophe. In the same Parliament of 32 Henry VIII., when the great and opulent Priory of St John's of Jerusalem was given to the King, he demanded, and had, a Subsidy both of the Laity and Clergy; and the like he had in 34 Henry VIII. and in 37 Henry VIII., he had another Subsidy. And since the Dissolution of the aforesaid Monasteries, he exacted great Loans, and against Law received the same" (Coke's Fourth Institute, folio 44).[2]

An astonishing change came over political opinion. Of course, a king who was Supreme Head of the Church, must be supreme in the State. John Bale, one of the most unscrupulous and violent partisans of the Reformation, wrote a historical play, entitled "Kynge Johan," in which John is represented as a pious and patriotic monarch, and all who withstood his tyranny as resisting God. One of the characters is called "Verity." "He is a vile traitor," says Verity, "that rebelleth against the Crown. In this the scripture is plain." Clergy says in excuse, "He speaketh not against the crown, but the man." To which Verity replies: "The crown of itself without the man is nothing. In his own realm a king is judge over all, and none may judge him again, but the Lord himself." The play concludes with denunciations of the Anabaptists. "We shall cut them short, if they do hither swarm," says Civil Order. After more of this. Clergy says to Imperial Majesty: "Your Grace shall be the supreme head of the church."

We have only to compare the sentiments of Verity with Fortescue's exaltation of the Common Law above the Civil Law, to see how the old English ideas of kingship had been transformed into the "Imperial majesty" of the Tudors.

This carefully packed Parliament met on 28th April 1539, and sat, with a week's interval till 28th June, when Henry prorogued it in person. No Parliament ever had such a record in its first session. It passed the Dissolution Bill, the Bill for giving Royal Proclamations the force of law and the Six Articles. Packed as it was, and despite the fair promises made to it, it was very loth to incur the guilt of sacrilege. Afterwards, when the spoils had been shared, and the heavens had not fallen—except on the Poor Commons—it was otherwise. But now the Bill "stuck long in the Commons, and could get no passage." At last, the King "commanded the Commons to attend him in the forenoon in his gallery, where he let them wait till late in the afternoon, and then coming out of his chamber, walking a turn or two amongst them, and looking angrily on them, first on the one side, then on the other, at last, 'I hear' (saith he) 'that my Bill will not pass; but I will have it pass, or I will have some of your heads': and without other rhetoric or persuasion returned to his chamber" (Spelman).

This Parliament seems to have made a feeble attempt to grant the Church lands conditionally—the King was to have "as ample a title" as the former owners. He received them, therefore, charged with the relief of the poor, and in trust for the poor. This purpose was always expressly stated in donations to the Church.

The Bill for giving Proclamations the authority of Acts of Parliament punished offenders with fine and imprisonment, and made it high treason if they tried to fly the realm. The "Act for abolishing Diversity of Opinion in Religion" was known as the "Bloody Six Articles," "the Lash with Six Strings." Under it. Catholics and Protestants were burned at the same stake. Catholics for denying the Royal Supremacy, Protestants for denying Transubstantiation. It was death by hanging to say that the Communion ought to be in both kinds, or that private Masses are unlawful, or that auricular confession is not expedient and necessary, or that monks and nuns may marry. It was under this Act that religion was changed in the reign of Edward VI. As the sole reason why Henry VIII. has ever been regarded with anything but horror is the idea that he meant to establish Protestantism, it is well that we should understand the Protestant character of the monarch who seized a third of the lands of England, and put them to private uses.

This amazing spoliation did not stop at abbeys and priories. Every kind of charitable foundation—schools, hospitals, colleges, gilds, benefit societies, were swallowed up, till the poor were robbed of all. The spoilers behaved like foreign conquerors looting a city taken by storm. The sequestrators tore the jewels from the shrines, and bundled the rich sacerdotal garments, the jewelled pyxes and chalices, the splendid illuminated Bibles and Psalters, the priceless Manuscripts, into waggons, while the frightened people looked on aghast. In 1541 he took all the monasteries of Ireland. Such rapine had never been seen since the Huns and Goths overran the Roman Empire. It scandalised all Europe. And because Henry burnt in the same fire Catholics who denied his supremacy and reformers who denied Transubstantiation, his enemies declared that he had no religion at all. In the last eleven years of Henry there were six rebellions—one in Lincolnshire, one in Somerset and Devon, and four in Yorkshire. But the King had a goodly number of foreign mercenaries in his pay— Germans, Spaniards, and Italians; and with these he butchered the people who demanded the old Prayer Book and the restoration of the monasteries.

In the last year of Henry, the Act for the Dissolution of Colleges vested all their possessions in the King. He even intended to suppress the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge—they were given to understand that they were at the King's disposal, but Dr Cox, Prince Edward's tutor, persuaded Henry to spare them. If they had been suppressed, there would not have been a single university in all England and Wales![3] The first Parliament of Edward VI. extended the confiscation to "all moneys devoted by any manner of corporations, gilds, fraternities, companies, or fellowships, or mysteries or crafts" to the support of any religious use now forbidden by law, and also to "all fraternities, brotherhoods, and gilds," and in England and Wales, other than the corporations, etc., just mentioned. Power was given to commissioners to survey "all lay corporations, gilds, fraternities, companies and fellowships or mysteries or crafts incorporate," and to dispose of their property. The Act of Henry had said this was to pay for the wars. The Act of Edward hinted at grammar schools to be established—or rather, re-established, since so many had been suppressed. In the case of gilds, the keeping of a lamp burning was held to prove "superstitious use," and to authorise confiscation. Every one of these gilds was a benefit society, which looked after its own sick or "decayed" members, and did what it could for the poor outside.

The lesser monasteries, suppressed in 1536, possessed goods to the value of £100,000, and their rents were valued at £32,000 ; but it is agreed that they were worth ten times as much, even according to the value of money at that time. Ten thousand persons had been turned out into the world "with 40s. and a gown." It was after seeing this that the people rose in insurrection. In 1539-1540 the great monasteries were suppressed. There were in all 645 monasteries and nunneries. The real value of their lands is set by Eachard, a strongly Protestant historian, at "above £1,500,000 per annum." Besides this, there were the rich shrines, to which emperors and kings had made gifts, especially the two great shrines of Alban, first Christian martyr of Britain, and of Thomas of Canterbury, who died for having prevented another king of England from making himself absolute. There was treasure enough here, one would think, to carry on the government, relieve the people of taxes, and amply endow institutions for the common good. And indeed at the beginning the King had said that if the monastery lands changed hands he would not be obliged to ask his loving subjects for money. But the very next year, he asked and obtained a tenth, a fifteenth, and 4s. in the £ from the clergy. Next year—being by that time at war with France and Scotland—he had a very large subsidy—assessed at 4d. in the £ from everybody worth in goods from £1 to £5; 8d. up to £10; 1s. 4d. up to £20; and 2s. in the £ after that. And on the lands, 8d. in the £ from 20s. to £5; is. 4d. from £5 to £10; 2s. from £10 to £20 ; and 3s. above that on their rents. The clergy gave 6s. in the £. Next year, 1544, having now 30,000 men at Calais, he issued a Commission for raising money by a Benevolence.[4] Henry VIII. must have had a magic purse, the reverse of Fortunatus', which was never empty ; his was never full, however much he might put into it. He was in such straits, within four years of getting hold of rents worth £1,500,000 a year, and all the jewels from the shrines, and the embroidered vestments and Bibles in jewelled bindings, that he was compelled to resort to the disagreeable expedient of issuing base coin. He did this once, twice, thrice, until the shilling was only worth threepence. And at the end of the year he sent in a Bill for another subsidy, and next day another for the dissolution of all chantries, hospitals, colleges—in short, of everything. This subsidy was 2s. 8d. in the £ on goods, and 4s. in the £ on land—to be paid in two years. And the clergy gave 6s. in the £. After which he made a beautiful speech to his Parliament, exhorting them to love one another, and not read the Scriptures to get hard names to call each other by, such as heretic, and Anabaptist, and Papist—this, he told them, was not "fraternal love." It was Christmas Eve ; and on 28th January he died, having "expedited" the execution of Surrey, whose death-warrant he signed on the 27th.

It must now be obvious that the country was not the better for the abbey lands; though the Russells, Seymours, Cavendishes, Pagets, Howards, Wriothesleys, Stanhopes, and the crowd of smaller courtiers and gentry who founded families and fortunes on the abbey lands no doubt were. Let us see what Protestants said all the time. I will take three witnesses—all Reformers.


  1. By the 27 Henry VIII. c. 25 (1535), a sturdy vagabond was to be whipped the first time he was taken begging; "if he continue his roguish life," to have the upper part of the gristle of his right ear cut off. If after that "taken wandering in idleness, or doth not apply to his labour, or is not in service with any master, he shall be adjudged and executed as a felon." From this it would appear that the mere fact of his having been thrice out of work constituted felony. This is the earliest Act for the hanging of vagrants or beggars.—Compare p. 100.
  2. "To make it pass the better, a Prospect of vast Advantage was opened to the Subject. The Nobility were promised large Shares in the Spoils, as one Author (Dugdale) terms it … the Gentry were promised a very considerable Rise both in Honour and Estate: nor were they disappointed."

    Cromwell "told the King that the parcelling these Lands out to a great many Proprietors, was the only Way to clinch the Business, and make the Settlement irrevocable. And such it has hitherto proved; for it may even now be observed, that most of those Famines who are, at present, possessed of the greatest Share of Abbey Lands, show the greatest Aversion to Popery, or any Thing that may in the least tend towards a Restitution of them."—"Parliamentary History of England," vol. iii., 146-147. 1762.

  3. The universities were not then what they became later, schools for the rich; they were full of "poor scholars," and had been so throughout the Middle Ages.
  4. "This Benevolence was very 'grudgingly' raised, and only produced £70,723, 18s. 10d. in all An alderman of London, who refused to pay his share, was sent to serve in Scotland, and was slain next spring at the Battle of Ancram."—"Parl. Hist.," etc.