Icon (Close Menu)

The Dissolution and the Transformation of the English Church

By Hannah W. Matis

In the flat landscape of East Anglia, the horizon is regularly punctuated by windmills and the square church towers which dominate the quiet countryside, often so immense as to border on the ludicrous. East Anglia was, and remains, some of the most agriculturally productive land in the country, enriched even further by the wool trade to the Low Countries, encouraged by the monasteries of late medieval England. Many medieval Norfolk churches are these so-called “wool churches,” built by fleecing their parishioners, as the old anti-clerical saw goes. But wool was a massive revenue stream, and the churches built on the backs of East Anglian sheep were gob-smackingly large even at the time they were built.

On a recent drive into Norfolk, the tiny, winding road led, without ceremony, past a parish church of such disproportionate magnificence that I stopped to investigate. The story of Ingham parish church reflects this economic history, but it is also more complicated, and far more interesting, than I anticipated.

Ingham parish church is all that remains of a former religious community of Trinitarian canons, established a generation after the Black Death wiped out somewhere between one-third and one-half of the population of Europe. The ostensible purpose of the Trinitarian order, contemporary with the Hospitallers and the Templars, was the ransoming of Christian captives, some of whom had gone on crusade to the Holy Land and found themselves in dire straits, others who were the victims of piracy. The Trinitarians were, therefore, an international order with an international humanitarian mission; in the 13th century, the heyday of French crusading zeal, its headquarters was located in Paris and it was occasionally patronized by the French king. The order survives to this day, its remit re-drawn to focus on the immigrant and the refugee.

When Ingham Priory was built, mostly through the gift of a single wealthy local family in the 30 years after the Black Death, the Trinitarians were not the most obvious choice of religious community on the market. Crusading fervor was all but spent, so perhaps it was the Trinitarians’ air of antique chivalry, even then, that was part of their appeal. The carved tombs of the knights that still lie in the church do have an air of determined and costly antiquarianism about them. Norfolk has no local stone to speak of, and the building materials  had to be shipped from France.

On first entering the church, one is struck, first, by the height of the ceiling and the sheer quantity of daylight flooding in the huge windows at the east and west ends. This was perpendicular with a vengeance; it is hard not to think that the Trinitarians were making a theological point in window glass. To whom, exactly, is a fair question; although recorded in the Domesday Book, by 2011 census, the entire village of Ingham had a population of less than 400 people, and today, the local congregation seems to meet, for the most part, in a tiny fraction of the immense nave.

I was delighted to see Ingham crop up again, wonderfully, in the exhaustive and authoritative recent monograph by James G. Clark, The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History, a companion piece to either Nicholas Orme’s Going to Church in Medieval England, or better still, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s equally massive 2018 biography of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chancellor and the mastermind who most orchestrated the Dissolution.

For the general American reader, one of the key strengths which all three books share may also pose the most significant challenge: their cross-regional synthesis, which brings with it a thick density of names and places which require basic geographical knowledge of England’s counties at the very least. Late medieval and early modern English society was nothing if not local, and politics worked, not yet through impersonal, centralized bureaucracy and developed infrastructure, but through “affinity,” the web of favors, clientage, and social give-and-take between local worthies. For those accustomed to thinking of Cromwell as Henry’s blunt instrument, the sheer chattiness of many letters written to him are a reminder that this was, at the same time, a court society, and the manners and gossip of the court continued to matter.

In The Dissolution, James Clark simultaneously seeks to describe what the Dissolution looked like from the religious communities’ point of view, through his meticulous piecing together of countless fragments of scattered sources. On the other hand, perhaps less explicitly, Clark seeks to downplay Romantic visions of a timeless monastic past. Religious communities, not only or even primarily of monks, but also including houses of ordained priests and canons, such as the community at Ingham, were established fixtures of the Tudor landscape.

By dint of sheer longevity, religious communities often had a hand in laying down the first principles in urban engineering for most medieval cities: playing key roles in water management in particular, but also building the first mills and markets, as well as possessing a host of land and property bequests rented out to local tenants. For this reason, Clark argues that the leadership of the most important religious communities in England inevitably shouldered significant administrative responsibilities and, in fact, were often of the same breed of Tudor civil servant as many of Cromwell’s own people.

As MacCulloch once argued — and reiterated in a recent review of Clark’s book for the London Review of Books — Cromwell’s former master, Cardinal Wolsey, had embarked upon his own version of monastic reform, by which smaller and more fragile religious communities would be amalgamated to support colleges of canons, such as Wolsey’s great foundation at Christ Church, Oxford. Clark agrees that Cromwell, far from intending to strip the monastic landscape bare, seems to have wanted to pursue a policy where some important foundations might well have continued under royal management, particularly cathedral communities. But Cromwell himself barely outlived the process he initiated: one of the reasons the Dissolution has not been as thoroughly studied as one might expect is the paucity of documents surviving Cromwell’s attainder and execution. Because of the very vagueness of the administrative process, religious communities throughout the Dissolution never knew definitively that they were doomed; many, indeed, welcomed what they saw as the beginnings of reform along Wolseyan lines. It is easy to forget that most medieval religious communities, after all, already had a long history of institutional independence from Rome, and by 1536 had already sworn oaths of loyalty to Henry VIII and to Anne Boleyn.

Whatever Cromwell personally intended, what Clark uncovers is a disorganized process which caused a slow blood-letting: repeated visitations and evaluations by Cromwell’s agents, efforts by religious communities to bribe, borrow, and work with the process in the hope of controlling it, others’ slow and stubborn resistance, and entrepreneurial local people seizing local resources vulnerable religious communities could not protect. Before Cromwell’s agents arrived at Ingham, the Trinitarians quietly distributed all the livestock the community possessed among the local people, such that there was nothing for the crown to seize; they then pointed out to the commissioners that, as part of an international order, they were not subject to the crown’s jurisdiction, a temporary poser for the king’s agents.

The scope of the crown’s ambition far outstripped its actual administrative capacity: Cromwell’s agents complained constantly of their own exhaustion and of the size of their task. The most valuable resource any monastic house possessed, famously, was the lead in the roof: but could agents find the labor and the wood necessary to melt the lead down into massive ingots, the lead pigs, and could they move the dead weight of a pig of lead over a rutted 16th-century Norfolk road in foul weather?

Clark argues, in fact, that most religious communities were left standing, eerily empty, through Henry’s reign, while their unfortunate inhabitants frequently had nowhere else to go, claiming a pittance of a pension from the crown and living alongside their former homes. Precisely because the religious houses were so involved with the local Tudor economy, what Henry gained in the short term from seizing their assets, he lost in the long term in tax revenue and in overall disruption to the local economy, so it’s difficult to say even that the Dissolution was as hugely profitable to the crown as is often argued. Clark argues that one of the great, if not the greatest, legacies of the ruined monasteries was to provide a shared identity and historical vocabulary for a divided English church.

Meanwhile, I take the story of Ingham as a humbling reminder of how little we can truly know the future, of society or the Church, generally, and the future of a church in particular. The priory was built in the wake of unimaginable catastrophe, arguably following a form of life that was already out of date, was dissolved a century and a half later, yet has remained as a parish church for the next five centuries, even as its people moved around it. Meanwhile, the Trinitarians, God bless them, have reinvented themselves over the centuries and have survived into the present, outliving the Templars, the Hospitallers, and countless well-intentioned initiatives from churches past and present. In the course of our work for social justice many of us have an often-laudable desire to anticipate what we think will be the course of history in the future, and thereby not to find ourselves on its wrong side. But if we are not careful, this can easily create in us a kind of reactive posture that is anxious and self-protective, which like most worry, as the Lord taught us, is pretty ineffective in actually predicting the future, and is hopelessly counter-productive in the present. We simply do not know which of our institutions will remain or find uses in a changed new world, and which of our pet projects will become incomprehensible to the next generation. We do not know, and we do not have to. Doing good for the present day should be sufficient.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Church Camp, Ministry Conferences, & VBS 100 Years Ago

July 1924 brought the Diocese of Georgia’s first summer camp, a vocations conference for 200 boys in New Hampshire, and 47,000 children in New York City’s vacation Bible schools.

Preaching the Transfiguration with Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Episode 128 • 18th July 2024 • The Living Church Podcast • The Living Church Ever run out of preaching...

CEEC Commissions Overseers, Not Bishops

Just as the Church of England has created blessings for same-sex couples that are not wedding rites, the Church of England Evangelical Council has created “spiritual overseers.”

Sean Rowe: ‘I See Significant Changes’

The Presiding Bishop-Elect brings a deep reservoir of Episcopal experience to his coming role.