History of England (Froude)/Chapter 10
THE VISITATION OF THE MONASTERIES.
MANY high interests in England had been injured by the Papal jurisdiction; but none had suffered more vitally than those of the monastic establishments. These establishments had been injured, not by fines and exactions—for oppression of this kind had been terminated by the statutes of provisors,—but because, except at rare and remote intervals, they had been left to themselves, without interference and without surveillance. They were deprived of those salutary checks which all human institutions require if they are to be saved from sliding into corruption. The religious houses, almost without exception, were not amenable to the authority of the bishops. The several societies acknowledged obedience only to the heads of their order, who resided abroad; or to the Pope, or to some Papal delegate. Thus any regularly conducted visitation was all but impossible. The foreign superiors, who were forbidden by statute to receive for their services more than certain limited and reasonable fees, would not undertake a gratuitous labour; and the visitations, attempted with perfect powers by the English archbishops, could be resisted successfully under pleas of exemption and obedience to the rules of the orders. Thus the abbeys had gone their own way, careless of the gathering indignation with which they were regarded by the people, and believing that in their position they held a sacred shield which would protect them for ever. In them, as throughout the Catholic system, the sadness of the condition into which they had fallen, was enhanced by the contrast between the theory and the degenerate reality. Originally, and for many hundred years after their foundation, the regular clergy were the finest body of men of which mankind in their chequered history can boast. They lived to illustrate, in systematic simplicity, the universal law of sacrifice. In their three chief vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they surrendered everything which makes life delightful. Their business on earth was to labour and to pray: to labour for other men's bodies, to pray for other men's souls. Wealth flowed in upon them; the world, in its instinctive loyalty to greatness, laid its lands and its possessions at their feet; and for a time was seen the notable spectacle of property administered as a trust, from which the owners reaped no benefit, except increase of toil. The genius of the age expended its highest efforts to provide fitting tabernacles for the divine spirit which they enshrined; and alike in village and city, the majestic houses of the Father of mankind and his especial servants towered up in sovereign beauty, symbols of the civil supremacy of the Church, and of the moral sublimity of life and character which had won the homage and the admiration of the Christian nations. Ever at the sacred gates sat Mercy, pouring out relief from a never-failing store to the poor and the suffering; ever within the sacred aisles the voices of holy men were pealing heavenwards, in intercession for the sins of mankind; and influences so blessed were thought to exhale around those mysterious precincts, that the outcasts of society—the debtor, the felon, and the outlaw—gathered round the walls, as the sick men sought the shadow of the apostle, and lay there sheltered from the avenging hand till their sins were washed from off their souls. Through the storms of war and conquest the abbeys of the middle ages floated, like the ark upon the waves of the flood, inviolate in the midst of violence, through the awful reverence which surrounded them.
The soul of 'religion,' however, had died out of it for many generations before the Reformation. At the close of the fourteenth century, Wyeliffe had cried that the rotting trunk cumbered the ground, and should be cut down. It had not been cut down; it had been allowed to stand for a hundred and fifty more years; and now it was indeed plain that it could remain no longer. The boughs were bare, the stem was withered, the veins were choked with corruption; the ancient life-tree of monasticism would blossom and bear fruit no more. Faith had sunk into superstition; duty had died into routine; and the monks, whose technical discipline was forgotten, and who were set free by their position from the discipline of ordinary duty, had travelled swiftly on the downhill road of human corruption.
Only light reference will be made in this place to the darker scandals by which the abbeys were dishonoured. Such things there really were, to an extent which it may be painful to believe, but which evidence too abundantly proves. It is better, however, to bury the recollection of the more odious forms of human depravity; and so soon as those who condemn the Reformation have ceased to deny what the pain fulness of the subject only has allowed to remain disputed, the sins of the last English monks will sleep with them in their tombs. Here, in spite of such denials, the most offensive pictures shall continue to be left in the shade; and persons who wish to gratify their curiosity, or satisfy their unbelief, may consult the authorities for themselves. I shall confine my own efforts rather to the explanation of the practical, and, in the highest sense of the word, political, abuses, which, on the whole, perhaps, told most weightily on the serious judgment, of the age.
The abbeys, then, as the State regarded them, existed for the benefit of the poor. The occupants for the time being were themselves under vows of poverty; they might appropriate to their personal use no portion of the revenues of their estates; they were to labour with their own hands, and administer their property for the public advantage. The surplus proceeds of the lands, when their own modest requirements had been supplied, were to be devoted to the maintenance of learning, to the exercise of a liberal hospitality, and to the relief of the aged, the impotent, and the helpless. The popular clamour of the day declared that these duties were systematically neglected; that two-thirds, at least, of the religious bodies abused their opportunities unfairly for their own advantage; and this at a time when the obligations of all property were defined as strictly as its rights, and negligent lay owners were promptly corrected by the State whenever occasion required. The monks, it was believed, lived in idleness, keeping vast retinues of servants to do the work which they ought to have done themselves. They were accused of sharing dividends by mutual connivance, although they were forbidden by their rule to possess any private property whatever, and of wandering about the country in the disguise of laymen in pursuit of forbidden indulgences. They were bound by their statutes to keep their houses full, and if their means were enlarged, to increase their numbers; they were supposed to have allowed their complement to fall to half, and sometimes to a third, of the original foundation, fraudulently reserving the enlarged profits to themselves. It was thought, too, that they had racked their estates; that having a life-interest only, they had encumbered them with debts, mortgages, and fines; that in some cases they had wholly alienated lands, of which they had less right to dispose than a modern rector of his glebe. In the mean time, it was said that the poor were not fed, that hospitality was neglected, that the buildings and houses were falling to waste, that fraud and simony prevailed among them from the highest to the lowest, that the abbots sold the presentations to the benefices which were in their gift, or dishonestly retained the cures of souls in their own hands, careless whether the duties of the parishes could or could not be discharged; and that, finally, the vast majority of the monks themselves were ignorant, self-indulgent, profligate, worthless, dissolute.
These, in addition to the heavier accusations, were the charges which the popular voice had for more than a century brought against the monasteries, which had led Wycliffe to denounce their existence as intolerable, the House of Commons to petition Henry IV. for the secularization of their property, and Henry V. to appease the outcry, by the suppression of more than a hundred, as an ineffectual warning to the rest. At length, in the year 1489, at the instigation of Cardinal Morton, then Archbishop of Canterbury, a commission was issued by Innocent VIII. for a general investigation throughout England into the behaviour of the regular clergy. The Pope said that he had heard, from persons worthy of credit, that abbots and monks in many places were systematically faithless to their vows; he conferred on the Archbishop a special power of visitation, and directed him to admonish, to correct, to punish, as might seem to him to be desirable. On the receipt of these instructions, Morton addressed the following letter to the superior of an abbey within a few miles of London—a peer of the realm, living in the full glare of notoriety—a person whose offences, such as they were, had been committed openly, palpably, and conspicuously in the face of the world:—
'John, by Divine permission, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England, Legate of the Apostolic See, to William, Abbot of the Monastery of St Alban's, greeting.
'We have received certain letters under lead, the copies whereof we herewith send you, from our most holy Lord and Father in Christ, Innocent, by Divine Providence Pope, the eighth of that name. We therefore, John, the Archbishop, the visitor, reformer, inquisitor, and judge therein mentioned, in reverence for the Apostolic See, have taken upon ourselves the burden of enforcing the said commission; and have determined that we will proceed by, and according to, the full force, tenour, and effect of the same.
'And it has come to our ears, being at once publicly notorious and brought before us upon the testimony of many witnesses worthy of credit, that you, the abbot aforementioned, have been of long time noted and diffamed, and do yet continue so noted, of simony, of usury, of dilapidation and waste of the goods, revenues, and possessions of the said monastery, and of certain other enormous crimes and excesses hereafter written. In the rule, custody, and administration of the goods, spiritual and temporal, of the said monastery, you are so remiss, so negligent, so prodigal, that whereas the said monastery was of old times founded and endowed by the pious devotion of illustrious princes of famous memory, heretofore kings of this land, the most noble progenitors of our most serene Lord and King that now is, in order that true religion might flourish there, that the name of the Most High, in whose honour and glory it was instituted, might be duly celebrated there;
'And whereas, in days heretofore the regular observance of the said rule was greatly regarded, and hospitality was diligently kept;
'Nevertheless, for no little time, during which you have presided in the same monastery, you and certain of your fellow monks and brethren (whose blood, it is feared, through your neglect, a severe Judge will require at your hand) have relaxed the measure and form of religious life; you have laid aside the pleasant yoke of contemplation, and all regular observances; hospitality, alms, and those other offices of piety which of old time were exercised and ministered therein have decreased, and by your faults, your carelessness, your neglect and deed, do daily decrease more and more, and cease to be regarded—the pious vows of the founders are defrauded of their just intent; the antient rule of your order is deserted; and not a few of your fellow monks and brethren, as we most deeply grieve to learn, giving themselves over to a reprobate mind, laying aside the fear of God, do lead only a life of lasciviousness—nay, as is horrible to relate, be not afraid to defile the holy places, even the very churches of God, by infamous intercourse with nuns.
'You yourself, moreover, among other grave enormities and abominable crimes whereof you are guilty, and for which you are noted and diffamed, have, in the first place, admitted a certain married woman, named Elena Germyn, who has separated herself without just cause from her husband, and for some time past has lived in adultery with another man, to be a nun or sister in the house or Priory of Pray, lying, as you pretend, within your jurisdiction. You have next appointed the same woman to be prioress of the said house, notwithstanding that her said husband was living at the time, and is still alive. And finally, Father Thomas Sudbury, one of your brother monks, publicly, notoriously, and without interference or punishment from you, has associated, and still associates, with this woman as an adulterer with his harlot.
'Moreover, divers other of your brethren and fellow monks have resorted, and do resort, continually to her and other women at the same place, as to a public brothel or receiving house, and have received no correction therefor.
'Nor is Pray the only house into which you have introduced disorder. At the nunnery of Sapwell, which you also contend to be under your jurisdiction, you change the prioresses and superiors again and again at your own will and caprice. Here, as well as at Pray, you depose those who are good and religious; you promote to the highest dignities the worthless and the vicious. The duties of the order are cast aside; virtue is neglected; and by these means so much cost and extravagance has been caused, that to provide means for your indulgence you have introduced certain of your brethren to preside in their houses under the name of guardians, when in fact they are no guardians, but thieves and notorious villains; and with their help you have caused and permitted the goods of the same priories to be dispensed, or to speak more truly to be dissipated, in the above-described corruptions and other enormous and accursed offences. Those places once religious are rendered and reputed as it were profane and impious; and by your own and your creatures' conduct are so impoverished as to be reduced to the verge of ruin.
'In like manner, also, you have dealt with certain other cells of monks, which you say are subject to you, even within the monastery of the glorious proto-martyr, Alban himself. You have dilapidated the common property; you have made away with the jewels; the copses, the woods, the underwood, almost all the oaks and other forest trees, to the value of eight thousand marks and more, you have made to be cut down without distinction, and they have by you been sold and alienated. The brethren of the abbey, some of whom, as is reported, are given over to all the evil things of the world, neglect the service of God altogether. They live with harlots and mistresses publicly and continuously, within the precincts of the monastery and without. Some of them, who are covetous of honour and promotion, and desirous therefore of pleasing your cupidity, have stolen and made away with the chalices and other jewels of the church. They have even sacrilegiously extracted the precious stones from the very shrine of St Alban; and you have not punished these men, but have rather knowingly supported and maintained them. If any of your brethren be living justly and religiously, if any be wise and virtuous, these you straightway depress and hold in hatred.… You.…'
But this overwhelming document need not be transcribed further. It pursues its way through mire and filth to its most lame and impotent conclusion. The abbot was not deposed; he was invited merely to reconsider his conduct, and, if possible, amend it.
Offences similar in kind and scarcely less gross were exposed at Waltham, at St Andrew's, Northampton, at Calais, and at other places. Again, a reprimand was considered to be an adequate punishment.
Evils so deep and so abominable would not yield to languid treatment; the visitation had been feeble in its execution and limited in extent. In 1511 a second was attempted by Archbishop Warham. This inquiry was more partial than the first, yet similar practices were brought to light: women introduced to religious houses; nuns and abbesses accusing one another of incontinency, the alms collected in the chapels squandered by the monks in licentiousness. Once more, no cure was attempted beyond a paternal admonition. A third effort was made by Wolsey twelve years later: again exposure followed, and again no remedy was found.
If the condition of the abbeys had appeared intolerable before investigation, still less could it be endured when the justice of the accusations against them had been ascertained. But the Church was unequal to the work of self-reformation. Parliament alone could decide on the measures which the emergency made necessary; and preparatory to legislation, the true circumstances and present character of the religious bodies throughout the whole country were to be ascertained accurately and completely.
Accordingly, in the summer of 1535, directly after Sir Thomas More's execution, Cromwell, now 'vicegerent of the King in all his ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the realm,' issued a commission for a general visitation of the religious houses, the Universities, and other spiritual corporations. The persons appointed to conduct the inquiry were Doctors Legh, Leyton, and Ap Rice, ecclesiastical lawyers in holy orders, with various subordinates. Legh and Leyton, the two principal commissioners, were young, impetuous men, likely to execute their work rather thoroughly than delicately; but, to judge by the surviving evidence, they were as upright and plain-dealing as they were assuredly able and efficient. It is pretended by some writers that the inquiry was set on foot with a preconceived purpose of spoliation; that the duty of the visitors was rather to defame roundly than to report truly; and that the object of the commission was merely to justify an act of appropriation which had been already determined. The commission of Pope Innocent, with the previous inquiries, puts to silence so gratuitous a supposition; while it is certain that antecedent to the presentation of the report, an extensive measure of suppression was not so much as contemplated. The directions to the visitors, the injunctions which they were to carry with them to the various houses, the private letters to the superiors, which were written by the King and by Cromwell, show plainly that the first object was to reform and not to destroy; and it was only when reformation was found to be conclusively hopeless, that the harder alternative was resolved upon. The report itself is no longer extant. Bonner was directed by Mary to destroy all discoverable copies of it, and his work was fatally well executed. We are able, however, to replace its contents to some extent, out of the despatches of the commissioners.
Their discretionary powers were unusually large, as appears from the first act with which the visitors commenced operations. On their own responsibility, they issued an inhibition against the bishops, forbidding them to exercise any portion of their jurisdiction while the visitation was in progress. The sees themselves were to be inspected; and they desired to make the ground clear before they moved. When the amazed bishops exclaimed against so unheard-of an innovation, Doctor Legh justified the order by saying, that it was well to compel the prelates to know and feel their new position; and in the fact of their suspension by a royal commission, to 'agnize' the King as the source of episcopal authority.
Truly it was an altered world since the bishops sent in their answer to the complaints of the House of Commons. Sept. 12.The visitors, in this haughty style, having established their powers, began work with the University of Oxford. Their time was short, for Parliament was to meet early in the spring, when their report was to be submitted to it; and their business meanwhile was not only to observe and inquire, but any reforms which were plainly useful and good, they were themselves to execute. They had no time for hesitation, therefore; and they laid their hands to the task before them with a promptitude at which we can only wonder. The heads of houses, as may be supposed, saw little around them which was in need of reform. A few students of high genius and high purposes had been introduced into the University, as we have seen, by Wolsey; and these had been assiduously exiled or imprisoned. All suspected books had been hunted out. There had been fagot processions in High-street, and bonfires of New Testaments at Carfax. The daily chapels, we suppose, had gone forward as usual, and the drowsy lectures on the Schoolmen; while 'towardly young men' who were venturing stealthily into the perilous heresy of Greek, were eyed askance by the authorities, and taught to tremble at their temerity. All this we might have looked for; and among the authorities themselves, also, the world went forward in a very natural manner. There was comfortable living in the colleges; so comfortable, that many of the country clergy preferred Oxford and Cambridge to the monotony of their parishes, and took advantage of a clause in a late Act of Parliament, which recognized a residence at either of the Universities as an excuse for absence from tedious duties. 'Divers and many persons,' it was found, 'beneficed with cure of souls, and being not apt to study by reason of their age or otherwise, ne never intending before the making of the said Act to travel in study, but rather minding their own ease and pleasure, colourably to defraud the same good statute, did daily and commonly resort to the said Universities, where, under pretence of study, they continued and abode, living dissolutely; nothing profiting themselves in learning, but consumed the time in idleness and pastimes and insolent pleasures, giving occasion and evil example thereby to the young men and students within the Universities, and occupying such rooms and commodities as were instituted for the maintenance and relief of poor scholars.' These persons were not driven away by the heads of houses as the Christian Brothers had been; they were welcomed rather as pleasant companions. In comfortable conservatism they had no tendencies to heresy, but only to a reasonable indulgence of their five bodily senses. Doubtless, therefore, the visitors found Oxford a pleasant place, and cruelly they marred the enjoyments of it. Like a sudden storm of rain, they dropt down into its quiet precincts. Heedless of rights of fellows and founders' bequests, of sleepy dignities and established indolences, they re-established long-dormant leisures in the colleges. In a few little days (for so long only they remained) they poured new life into education. They founded fresh professorships—professorships of Polite Latin, Professorships of Philosophy, Divinity, Canon Law, Natural Sciences—above all of the dreaded Greek; confiscating funds to support them. For the old threadbare text-books, some real teaching was swiftly substituted. The idle residents were noted down, soon to be sent home by Parliament to their benefices, under pain of being compelled, like all other students, to attend lectures, and, in their proper persons 'keep sophisms, problems, disputations, and all other exercises of learning.'
The discipline was not neglected: 'We have enjoined the religious students,' Leyton wrote to Cromwell, 'that none of them, for no manner of cause, shall come within any tavern, inn, or alehouse, or any other house, whatsoever it be, within the town and suburbs; [each offender] once so taken, to be sent home to his cloyster. Without doubt, this act is greatly lamented of all honest women of the town; and especially of their laundresses, that may not now once enter within the gates, much less within the chambers, whereunto they were right well accustomed. I doubt not, but for this thing, only the honest matrons will sue to you for redress.' These were sharp measures; we lose our breath at their rapidity and violence. The saddest vicissitude was that which befell the famous Duns—Duns Scotus, the greatest of the Schoolmen, the constructor of the memoria technica of ignorance, the ancient text-book of à priori knowledge, established for centuries the supreme despot in the Oxford lecture-rooms. 'We have set Duns in Bocardo,' says Leyton. He was thrown down from his high estate, and from being lord of the Oxford intellect, was ' made the common servant of all men;' condemned by official sentence to the lowest degradation to which book can be submitted. Some copies escaped this worst fate; but for changed uses thenceforward. The second occasion on which the visitors came to New College, they 'found the great Quadrant Court full of the leaves of Duns, the wind blowing them into every corner; and one Mr Greenfield, a gentleman of Buckinghamshire, gathering up part of the same book leaves, as he said, to make him sewers of blawnsheres, to keep the deer within his wood, thereby to have the better cry with his hounds.'
To such base uses all things return at last; dust unto dust, when the life has died out of them, and the living world needs their companionship no longer.
On leaving Oxford, the visitors spread over England, north, south, east, and west. We trace Legh in rapid progress through Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Lincoln, Yorkshire, and Northumberland; Leyton through Middlesex, Kent, Sussex, Hants, Somersetshire, and Devon. They appeared at monastery after monastery, with prompt, decisive questions; and if the truth was concealed, with expedients for discovering it, in which practice soon made them skilful. All but everywhere the result was the same. At intervals a light breaks through, and symptoms appear of some efforts after decency; but in the vast majority of the smaller houses, the previous results were repeated, the popular suspicions were more than confirmed. Wolsey, when writing to the Pope of his intended reformation, had spoken of the animus improbus, and the frightful symptoms which existed of it. He was accused, in his attempted impeachment, of having defamed the character of the English clergy. Yet Wolsey had written no more than the truth, as was too plainly discovered. I do not knowwhat to say on this matter, or what to leave unsaid. If I am to relate the suppression of the monasteries, I should relate also why they were suppressed. If I wereto tell the truth, I should have first to warn all modest eyes to close the book, and read no further. It will perhaps be sufficient if I introduce a few superficial stories, suggestive rather than illustrative of the dark matter which remains in the shade.
I have spoken more than once of the monastery of Sion. It was the scene of the Nun of Kent's intrigues. It furnished more than one martyr for the Catholic cause; and the order was Carthusian—one of the strictest in England. There were two houses attached to the same establishment—one of monks, another of nuns. The confessors of the women were chosen from the friars, and they were found to have abused their opportunities in the most infamous manner. With a hateful mixture of sensuality and superstition, the offence and the absolution went hand-in-hand. One of these confessors, so zealous for the Pope that he professed himself ready to die for the Roman cause, was in the habit of using language so filthy to his penitents, that it was necessary to 'sequester him from hearing ladies' confessions.' The nuns petitioned the visitors, on the exposure of the seduction of a sister, that he and his companion might come to them no more; and the friar was told that his abominable conduct might be the occasion that 'shrift should be laid down in England.'
This is one instance of an evil found fatally prevalent.
Again, the clergy were suspected of obtaining dispensations from their superiors indulging them in a breach of their vows. The laxity of the Church courts in dealing with clerical delinquents had perhaps given rise to this belief; but the accusation was confirmed by a discovery at Maiden Bradley, in Wiltshire. The prior of this house had a family of illegitimate children, whom he brought up and provided for in a very comfortable manner; and the visitor wrote that 'the Pope, considering his fragility,' had granted him a license in this little matter; that he had, in fact, 'a good writing sub plumbo, to discharge his conscience.' I do not easily believe that authentic dispensations of such a kind were obtained from Rome, or were obtainable from it; but of forged dispensations, invented by reverend offenders or fraudulently issued by the local ecclesiastical authorities, to keep appearances smooth, there were probably enough, and too many.
The more ordinary experiences of the commissioners may be described by Leyton himself, Oct. 22.in an account which he wrote of his visit to Langden Abbey, near Dover. The style is graphic, and the picture of the scene one of the most complete which remains. The letter is to Cromwell.
'Please it your goodness to understand that on Friday, the 22nd of October, I rode back with speed to take an inventory of Folkstone, and from thence I went to Langden. Whereat immediately descending from my horse, I sent Bartlett, your servant, with all my servants, to circumspect the abbey, and surely to keep all back-doors and starting-holes. I myself went alone to the abbot's lodging, joining upon the fields and wood, even like a cony clapper, full of starting-holes. [I was] a good space knocking at the abbot's door; nec vox nec sensus apparuit, saving the abbot's little dog that within his door fast locked bayed and barked. I found a short poleaxe standing behind the door, and with it I dashed the abbot's door in pieces, ictu oculi, and set one of my men to keep that door; and about the house I go, with that poleaxe in my hand, ne forte, for the abbot is a dangerous desperate knave, and a hardy. But for a conclusion, his gentlewoman bestirred her stumps towards her starting-holes; and then Bartlett, watching the pursuit, took the tender damoisel; and, after I had examined her, [brought her] to Dover to the Mayor, to set her in some cage or prison for eight days; and I brought holy father abbot to Canterbury, and here in Christchurch I will leave him in prison. In this sudden doing ex tempore, to circumspect the house, and to search, your servant John Antony's men marvelled what fellow I was, and so did the rest of the abbey, for I was unknown there of all men. I found her apparel in the abbot's coffer. To tell you all this comedy (but for the abbot a tragedy), it were too long. Now it shall appear to gentlemen of this country, and other the commons, that ye shall not deprive or visit, but upon substantial grounds. The rest of all this knavery I shall defer till my coming unto you, which shall be with as much speed as I can possible.'
Towards the close of the year, Leyton went north to join Legh; and together they visited a nunnery at Lichfield. The religious orders were bound by oaths similar to those which have recently created difficulty in Oxford. They were sworn to divulge nothing which might prejudice the interests of the houses. The superior at Lichfield availed herself of this plea. When questioned as to the state of the convent, she and the sisterhood refused to allow that there was any disorder, or any irregularity, which could give occasion for inquiry. Her assertions were not implicitly credited; the inspection proceeded, and at length two of the sisters were discovered to be 'not barren;' a priest in one instance having been the occasion of the misfortune, and a serving-man in the other. No confession could be obtained either from the offenders themselves, or from the society. The secret was betrayed by an 'old beldame;' 'and when,' says Leyton, 'I objected against the prioresses, that if they could not show me a cause reasonable of their concealment, I must needs, and would, punish them for their manifest perjury,—their answer was, that they were bound by their religion never to confess the secret faults done amongst them, but only to a visitor of their own religion, and to that they were sworn, every one of them, on their first admission.'
A little later the commissioners were at Fountains Abbey; and tourists, who in their day-dreams amongst those fair ruins are inclined to complain of the sacrilege which wasted the houses of prayer, may study with advantage the following account of that house in the year which preceded its dissolution. The outward beautiful ruin was but the symbol and consequence of a moral ruin not so beautiful. 'The Abbot of Fountains,' we read in a joint letter of Legh and Leyton, had 'greatly dilapidated his house, [and] wasted the woods, notoriously keeping six women. [He is] defamed here,' they say, 'a toto populo, one day denying these articles, with many more, the next day confessing the same, thus manifestly incurring perjury.' Six days before the visitors' access to his monastery 'he committed theft and sacrilege, confessing the same. At midnight he caused his chaplain to seize the sexton's keys, and took out a jewel, a cross of gold with stones. One Warren, a goldsmith in the Chepe, was with him in his chamber at that hour, and there they stole out a great emerald, with a ruby. The said Warren made the abbot believe the ruby to be but a garnet, so that for this he paid nothing. For the emerald he paid but twenty pounds. He sold him also the plate without weight or ounces; how much the abbot was deceived therein he cannot tell, for he is a very fool and miserable idiot.'
Under an impression that frauds of this description were becoming frequent, the Government had instructed the commissioners to take inventories of the plate and jewels; and where they saw occasion for suspicion, to bring away whatever seemed superfluous, after leaving a supply sufficient for the services of the house and chapel. The misdemeanour of the Abbot of Fountains was not the only justification of these directions. Sometimes the plate was secreted. The Prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, was accused of having sent in a false return, keeping back gold and precious stones valued at a thousand pounds. Information was given by some of the brethren, who professed to fear that the prior would poison them in revenge.
Occasionally the monks ventured on rougher methods to defend themselves. Here is a small spark of English life while the investigation was in progress, lighted by a stray letter from an English gentleman of Cheshire. The lord chancellor was informed by Sir Piers Dutton, justice of the peace, that the visitors had been at Norton Abbey. They had concluded their inspection, had packed up such jewels and plate as they purposed to remove, and were going away; when, the day being late and the weather foul, they changed their minds, and resolved to spend the night where they were. In the evening, 'the abbot,' says Sir Piers, 'gathered together a great company, to the number of two or three hundred persons, so that the commissioners were in fear of their lives, and were fain to take a tower there; and therefrom sent a letter unto me, ascertaining me what danger they were in, and desiring me to come and assist them, or they were never likely to come thence. Which letter came to me about nine of the clock, and about two o'clock on the same night I came thither with such of my tenants as I had near about me, and found divers fires made, as well within the gates as without; and the said abbot had caused an ox to be killed, with other victuals, and prepared for such of his company as he had there. I used some policy, and came suddenly upon them. Some of them took to the pools and water, and it was so dark that I could not find them. Howbeit I took the abbot and three of his canons, and brought them to the King's castle of Hatton.'
If, however, the appropriation of the jewels led to occasional resistance, another duty which the commissioners were to discharge secured them as often a warm and eager welcome. It was believed that the monastic institutions had furnished an opportunity, in many quarters, for the disposal of inconvenient members of families. Children of both sexes, it was thought, had been forced into abbeys and convents, at an age too young to have allowed them a free choice in the sacrifice of their lives. To all such, therefore, the doors of their prison house were thrown open. On the day of visitation, when the brethren, or the sisterhood, were assembled, the visitors informed everywhere such monks as were under twenty-four, and such nuns as were under twenty-one, that they might go where they pleased. To those among them who preferred to return to the world, a secular dress was given, and forty shillings in money, and they were restored to the full privileges of the laity.
The opportunity so justly offered was passionately embraced. It was attended only with this misfortune, that the line was arbitrarily drawn, and many poor wretches who found themselves condemned by the accident of a few more days or months of life to perpetual imprisonment, made piteous entreaties for an extension of the terms of freedom. At Fordham, in Cambridgeshire, Dr Legh wrote to Cromwell, 'the religious persons kneeling on their knees, instantly with humble petition desire of God and the King and you, to be dismissed from their religion, saying they live in it contrary to God's law and their consciences; trusting that the King, of his gracious goodness, and you, will set them at liberty out of their bondage, which they are not able to endure, but should fall into desperation, or else run away.' 'It were a deed of charity,' he continued, fresh from the scene where he had witnessed the full misery of their condition, 'that they might live in that kind of living which might be most to the glory of God, the quietness of their consciences, and most to the commonwealth, whosoever hath informed you to the contrary.' Similar expressions of sympathy are frequent in the visitors' letters. Sometimes the poor monks sued directly to the vicar- general, and Cromwell must have received many petitions as strange, as helpless, and as graphic, as this which follows. The writer was a certain Brother Beerley, a Benedictine monk of Pershore, in Worcestershire. It is amusing to find him addressing the vicar-general as his 'most reverend lord in God.' I preserve the spelling, which, however, will with some difficulty be found intelligible.
'We do nothing seyrch,' says this good brother, 'for the doctryn of Chryst, but all fowloys owr owne sensyaly and plesure. Also most gracyus Lord, there is a secrett thynge in my conchons whych doth move mee to go owt of the relygyon, an yt were never so perfytt, whych no man may know but my gostly fader; the wych I supposs yf a man mothe guge [is] yn other yong persons as in me selfe. But Chryst saye nolite judicare et non judicabimini, therefore y wyll guge my nowne conschons fyrst—the wych fault ye shall know of me heyrafter more largyously—and many other fowll vycys done amonckst relygyus men—not relygyus men, as y thynck they owt not to be cald, but dyssemblars wyth God.
'Now, most gracyus Lord and most worthyst vycytar that ever cam amonckes us, help me owt of thys vayne relygyon, and macke me your servant handmayd and beydman, and save my sowlle, wych shold be lost yf ye helpe yt not—the wych ye may save wyth one word speking—and mayck me wych am nowe nawtt to cum unto grace and goodness.
'Now y wyll ynstrux your Grace sumwatt of relygyus men, and how the Kyng's Gracis commandment is keyp yn puttyng forth of bockys the Beyschatt of Rome's userpt pour. Monckes drynke an bowll after collatyon tyll ten or twelve of the clok, and cum to matyns as dronck as myss—and sum at cardys, sum at dycys, and at tabulles; sum cum to mattyns begenying at the mydes, and sum wen yt ys almost dun, and wold not cum there so only for boddly punyshment, nothyng for Goddis sayck. Also abbettes, nioiickes, prests, dun lyttyl or nothyng to put owtte of bockys the Beyschatt of Rome's name—for y myself do know yn dyvers bockys where ys name ys, and hys userpt powor upon us.'
In reply to these and similar evidences of the state of the monasteries, it will be easy to say, that in the best ages there were monks impatient of their vows, and abbots negligent of their duties; that human weakness and human wickedness may throw a stain over the noblest institutions; that nothing is proved by collecting instances which may be merely exceptions, and that no evidence is more fallacious than that which rests upon isolated facts.
It is true; and the difficulty is felt as keenly by the accuser who brings forward charges which it is discreditable to have urged, if they cannot be substantiated, as by those who would avail themselves of the easy opening to evade the weight of the indictment. I have to say only, that if the extracts which I have made lead persons disposed to differ with me to examine the documents which are extant upon the subject, they will learn what I have concealed as well as what I have alleged; and I believe that, if they begin the inquiry (as I began it myself) with believing that the religious orders had been over-hardly judged, they will close it with but one desire—that the subject shall never more be mentioned.
Leaving, then, the moral condition in which the visitors found these houses, we will now turn to the regulations which they were directed to enforce for the future. When the investigation at each of the houses had been completed, when the young monks and nuns had been dismissed, the accounts audited, the property examined, and the necessary inquiries had been made into the manners and habits of the establishment; the remaining fraternity were then assembled in the chapter-house, and the commissioners delivered to them their closing directions. No differences were made between the orders. The same language was used everywhere. The Statute of Supremacy was first touched upon; and the injunction was repeated for the detailed observance of it. Certain broad rules of moral obedience were then laid down, to which all 'religious' men without exception were expected to submit.
No monks, thenceforward, were to leave the precincts of the monastery to which they belonged, under any pretext; they were to confine themselves within the walls, to the house, the gardens, and the grounds.
No women were to come within the walls, without license from the King or the visitor; and, to prevent all unpermitted ingress or egress, private doors and posterns were to be walled up. There was, in future, to be but one entrance only, by the great foregate; and this was to be diligently watched by a porter. The 'brethren' were to take their meals decently in the common hall. They were not to clamour, as they had been in the habit of doing, 'for any certain, usual, or accustomed portion of meat;' but were to be content with what was set before them, giving thanks to God.
To ensure gravity and decency, one of the brethren, at every refection, was to read aloud a chapter of the Old or New Testament.
The abbot was 'to keep an honest and hospitable table;' and an almoner was to be appointed in each house, to collect the broken meats, and to distribute them among the deserving poor.
Special care was to be taken in this last article, and 'by no means should such alms be given to valiant, mighty, and idle beggars and vagabonds, such as commonly use to resort to such places; which rather as drove beasts and mychers should be driven away and compelled to labour, than in their idleness and lewdness be cherished and maintained, to the great hindrance and damage of the commonweal.'
All other alms and distributions, either prescribed by the statutes of the foundations, or established by the customs of the abbeys, were to be made and given as largely as at any past time.
The abbots were to make no waste of the woods or lands. They were to keep their accounts with an annual audit, faithfully and truly.
No fairs nor markets were any more to be held within the precincts.
Every monk was to have a separate bed, and not to have any child or boy lying with him, or otherwise haunting unto him.
The 'brethren' were to occupy themselves in daily reading or other honest and laudable exercises. Especially there was to be every day one general lesson in Holy Scripture, at which every member of the house was bound to be present.
Finally, that they might all understand the meaning of their position in the world, and the intention, which they had so miserably forgotten, of the foundations to which they belonged, the abbot, prior, or president, was every day to explain in English some portion of the rule which they had professed; 'applying the same always to the doctrine of Christ.' The language of the injunctions is either Cromwell's or the King's; and the passage upon this subject is exceedingly beautiful.
'The abbot shall teach them that the said rule, and other their principles of religion (so far as they be laudable), be taken out of Holy Scripture: and he shall shew them the places from whence they be derived: and that their ceremonies and other observances be none other things than as the first letters or principles, and certain introductions to true Christianity: and that true religion is not contained in apparel, manner of going, shaven heads, and such other marks; nor in silence fasting, uprising in the night, singing, and such other kind of ceremonies; but in cleanness of mind, pureness of living, Christ's faith not feigned, and brotherly charity, and true honouring of God in spirit and verity: and that those abovesaid things were instituted and begun, that they being first exercised in these, in process of time might ascend to those as by certain steps—that is to say, to the chief point and end of religion. And therefore, let them be exhorted that they do not continually stick and surcease in such ceremonies and observances, as though they had perfectly fulfilled the chief and outmost of the whole of true religion; but that when they have once passed such things, they should endeavour themselves after higher things, and convert their minds from such external matters to more inward and deeper considerations, as the law of God and Christian religion doth teach and shew: and that they assure not themselves of any reward or commodity by reason of such ceremonies and observances, except they refer all such to Christ, and for his sake observe them.'
Certainly, no Government which intended to make the irregularities of an institution an excuse for destroying it, ever laboured more assiduously to defeat its own objects. Those who most warmly disapprove of the treatment of the monasteries, have so far no reason to complain; and except in the one point of the Papal supremacy, under which, be it remembered, the religious orders had luxuriated in corruption, Becket or Hildebrand would scarcely have done less or more than what had as yet been attempted by Henry.
But the time had now arrived when the results of the investigation were to be submitted to the nation. The Parliament—the same old Parliament of 1529, which had commenced the struggle with the bishops—was now meeting for its last session, to deal with this its greatest and concluding difficulty. February, 1536.It assembled on the 4th of February, and the preliminaries of the great question being not yet completed, the Houses were first occupied with simplifying justice and abolishing the obsolete privileges of the Northern palatinates. Other minor matters were also disposed of. Certain questionable people, who were taking advantage of the confusion of the times to 'withhold tythes,' were animadverted upon. The treason law was further extended to comprehen4 the forging of the King's sign-manual, signet, and privy seal, 'divers light and evil-disposed persons having of late had the courage to commit such offences.' The scale of fees at the courts of law was fixed by statute; and felons having protection of sanctuary were no longer to be permitted to leave the precincts, and return at their pleasure. When they went abroad, they were to wear badges, declaring who and what they were; and they were to be within bounds after sunset. In these and similar regulations the earlv weeks of the session were consumed. At length the visitors had finished their work, and the famous Black Book of the monasteries was laid on the table of the House of Commons.
This book, I have said, unhappily no longer exists. Persons however who read it have left on record emphatic descriptions of its contents; and the preamble of the Act of Parliament of which it formed the foundation, dwells upon its character with much distinctness. I cannot discuss the insoluble question whether the stories which it contained were true. History is ill occupied with discussing probabilities on à priori grounds, when the scale of likelihood is graduated by antecedent prejudice. It is enough that the report was drawn up by men who had the means of knowing the truth, and who were apparently under no temptation to misrepresent what they had seen; that the description coincides with the authentic letters of the visitors; and that the account was generally accepted as true by the English Parliament.
It appeared, then, on this authority, that two-thirds of the monks in England were living in habits which may not be described. The facts were related in great detail. The confessions of parties implicated were produced, signed by their own hands. The vows were not observed. The lands were wasted, sold, and mortgaged. The foundations were incomplete. The houses were falling to waste; within and without, the monastic system was in ruins. In the smaller abbeys especially, where, from the limitation of numbers, the members were able to connive securely at each other's misdemeanours, they were saturated with profligacy, with simony, with drunkenness. The case against the monasteries was complete; and there is no occasion either to be surprised or peculiarly horrified at the discovery. The demoralization which was exposed was nothing less and nothing more than the condition into which men of average nature compelled to celibacy, and living as the exponents of a system which they disbelieved, were certain to fall.
There were exceptions. In the great monasteries, or in many of them, there was decency and honourable management; but when all the establishments, large and small, had been examined, a third only could claim to be exempted from the darkest schedule. This was the burden of the report which was submitted to the legislature. So long as the extent of the evil was unknown, it could be tolerated; when it had been exposed to the world, honour and justice alike required a stronger remedy than an archiepiscopal remonstrance. A 'great debate' followed. March.The journals of the session are lost, and we cannot replace the various arguments; but there was not a member of either House who was not connected, either by personal interest, or by sacred associations, with one or other of the religious houses; there was not one whose own experience could not test in some degree the accuracy of the Black Book; and there was no disposition to trifle with institutions which were the cherished dependencies of the great English families.
The instincts of conservatism, association, sympathy respect for ancient bequests, and a sense of the sacredness of property set apart for holy uses, and guarded by anathemas, all must have been against a dissolution; yet, so far as we can supply the loss of the journals from other accounts of the feeling of the time, there seems to have been neither hope nor desire of preserving the old system—of preserving the houses, that is, collectively under their existing statutes as foundations in themselves inviolate. The visitation had been commenced with a hope that extremities might still be avoided. But all expectation of this kind vanished before the fatal evidence which had been produced. The House of Commons had for a century and a half been familiar with the thought of suppression as a possible necessity. The time was come when, if not suppression, yet some analogous measure had become imperative. The smaller establishments, at least, could not and might not continue. Yet while, so far, there was general agreement, it was no easy matter to resolve upon a satisfactory remedy. The representatives of the founders considered that, if houses were suppressed which had been established out of estates which had belonged to their forefathers, those estates should revert to their heirs; or at least, that the heirs should recover them upon moderate terms. In the Reforming party there was difference of opinion on the legality of secularizing property which had been given to God. Latimer, and partially Cromwell, inherited the designs of Wolsey; instead of taking away from the Church the lands of the abbeys, they were desirous of seeing those lands transferred to the high and true interests of religion. They wished to convert the houses into places of education, and to reform, wherever possible, the ecclesiastical bodies themselves. This, too, was the dream, the 'devout imagination,' as it was called, of Knox, in Scotland, as it has been since the dream of many other good men who have not rightly understood why the moment at which the Church was washed clean from its stains, and came out fresh robed in the wedding-garment of purity, should have been chosen to strip it of its resources, and depose it from power and pre-eminence. Cranmer, on the other hand, less imaginative but more practical, was reluctant that clerical corporations should be continued under any pretext—even under the mild form of cathedral chapters. Cranmer desired to see the secular system of the Church made as efficient as possible; the religious system, in its technical sense, he believed to have become a nursery of idleness, and believed that no measures of reform could restore the old tone to institutions which the world had outgrown. In the present age it will perhaps be considered that Cranmer's sagacity was more right than Latimer's enthusiasm, however at the moment men's warmer instincts might seem to have pleaded for the latter. The subsequent history both of the Scotch and English Church permits the belief that neither would have been benefited by the possession of larger wealth than was left to them. A purer doctrine has not corrected those careless and questionable habits in the management of property which were exposed by the visitors of 1535. Whether the cause of the phenomenon lies in an indifference to the things of the world, or in the more dubious palliation, that successive incumbents have only a life-interest in their incomes, the experience of three centuries has proved the singular unfitness of spiritual persons for the administration of secular trusts; and the friends of the establishment may be grateful that the judgment of the English laity ultimately guided them to this conclusion. They were influenced, it is likely, by a principle which they showed rather in their deeds than in their words. They would not recognize any longer the distinction on which the claims of the abbeys were rested. Property given to God, it was urged, might not be again taken from God, but must remain for ever in his service. It was replied in substance that God's service was not divided, but one; that all duties honestly done were religious duties; that the person of the layman was as sacred as the person of the priest; and the liturgy of obedience as acceptable as the liturgy of words.
Yet if, in the end, men found their way clearly, they moved towards it with slow steps; and the first resolution at which they arrived, embodied partially the schemes of each of the honest reformers. In touching institutions with which the feelings of the nation were deeply connected, prudence and principle alike dictated caution. However bitterly the people might exclaim against the abbeys while they continued to stand, their faults, if they were destroyed, would soon be forgotten. Institutions which had been rooted in the country for so many centuries, retained a hold too deep to be torn away without wounding a thousand associations; and a reaction of regret would inevitably follow among men so conservative as the English, so possessed with reverence for the old traditions of their fathers. This was to be considered; or rather the Parliament, the Crown, and the council felt as the people felt. Vast as the changes were which had been effected, there had been as yet no sweeping measures. At each successive step, Henry had never moved without reluctance. He hated anarchy; he hated change: in the true spirit of an Englishman, he never surrendered an institution or a doctrine till every means had been exhausted of retaining it, consistently with allegiance to truth. The larger monasteries, therefore, with many of the rest, had yet four years allowed them to demonstrate the hopelessness of their amendment, the impossibility of their renovation. The remainder were to reap the consequences of their iniquities; and the judicial sentence was pronounced at last in a spirit as rational as ever animated the English legislature
'Forasmuch,' says the preamble of the Act of Dissolution, 'as manifest sin, vicious, carnal, and abominable living, is daily used and committed among the little and small abbeys, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons, and nuns, where the congregation of such religious persons is under the number of twelve, whereby the governors of such religious houses and their convents, spoil, consume, destroy, and utterly waste their churches, monasteries, principal houses, farms, and granges, to the high displeasure of Almighty God, the slander of true religion, and to the great infamy of the King's Highness and of the realm, if redress should not be had thereof; and albeit that many continual visitations hath been heretofore had by the space of two hundred years and more, for an honest and charitable reformation of such unthrifty, carnal, and abominable living; yet, nevertheless, little or none amendment is hitherto had, but their vicious living shamelessly increaseth and augmenteth, and by a cursed custom is so rooted and infested, that a great multitude of the religious persons in such small houses do rather choose to rove abroad in apostacy than to conform them to the observation of true religion; so that without such small houses be utterly suppressed, and the religious persons therein committed to great and honourable monasteries of religion in this realm, where they may be compelled to live religiously for the reformation of their lives, there can be no reformation in this behalf: in consideration hereof the King's most royal Majesty, being supreme head on earth, under God, of the Church of England, daily finding and devising the increase, advancement, and exaltation of true doctrine and virtue in the said Church, to the only glory of God, and the total extirping and destruction of vice and sin; having knowledge that the premises be true, as well by accounts of his late visitation as by sundry credible informations; considering also that divers great monasteries of this realm, wherein, thanks be to God, religion is right well kept and observed, be destitute of such full number of religious persons as they ought and may keep; hath thought good that a plain declaration should be made of the premises, as well to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal as to other his loving subjects the Commons in this present Parliament assembled. Whereupon, the said Lords and Commons, by a great deliberation, finally be resolved that it is and shall be much more to the pleasure of Almighty God, and for the honour of this His realm, that the possessions of such spiritual houses, now spent, and spoiled, and wasted for increase and maintenance of sin, should be converted to better uses; and the unthrifty religious persons so spending the same be compelled to reform their lives.'
The Parliament went on to declare, that the lands of all monasteries the incomes of which were less than two hundred pounds a-year, should be 'given to the King.' The monks were either to be distributed in the great abbeys, 'or to be dismissed with a permission,' if they desired it, 'to live honestly and virtuously abroad.' 'Some convenient charity' was to be allowed them for their living; and the chief head or governor was to have 'such pension as should be commensurate with his degree or quality.' All debts, whether of the houses or of the brothers individually, were to be carefully paid; and finally, one more clause was added, sufficient in itself to show the temper in which the suppression had been resolved upon. The visitors had reported a few of the smaller abbeys as free from stain. The King was empowered, at his discretion, to permit them to survive; and under this permission thirty-two houses were refounded in perpetuam eleemosynam.
This is the history of the first suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII. We regret the depravity by which it was occasioned; but the measure itself, in the absence of any preferable alternative, was bravely and wisely resolved. In the general imperfection of human things, no measure affecting the interests of large bodies of men was ever yet devised which has not pressed unequally, and is not in some respects open to objection. We can but choose the best among many doubtful courses, when we would be gladly spared, if we might be spared, from choosing at all.
In this great transaction, it is well to observe that the laity alone saw their way clearly. The majority of the bishops, writhing under the inhibitions, looked on in sullen acquiescence, submitting in a forced conformity, and believing, not without cause, that a tide which flowed so hotly would before long turn and ebb back again. Among the Reforming clergy there was neither union nor prudence; and the Protestants, in the sudden sunshine, were becoming unmanageable and extravagant. On the bench there were but four prelates who were on the moving side—Cranmer, Latimer, Shaxton, and Barlow—and among these Cranmer only approved the policy of the Government. Shaxton was an arrogant braggart, and Barlow a feeble enthusiast. Shaxton, who had flinched from the stake when Bilney was burnt, Shaxton, who subsequently relapsed under Mary, and became himself a Romanist persecutor, was now strutting in his new authority, and punishing, suspending, and inhibiting in behalf of Protestant doctrines which were not yet tolerated by the law. Barlow had been openly preaching that purgatory was a delusion; that a layman might be a bishop; that where two or three, it might be, 'cobblers or weavers,' 'were in company in the name of God, there was the Church of God.' Such ill-judged precipitancy was of darker omen to the Reformation than Papal excommunications or Imperial menaces, and would soon be dearly paid for in fresh martyr-fires. Latimer, too, notwithstanding his clear perception and gallant heart, looked with bitterness on the confiscation of establishments which his mind had pictured to him as garrisoned with a Reforming army, as nurseries of apostles of the truth. Like most fiery-natured men, he was ill-pleased to see the stream flowing in a channel other than that which he had marked for it; and the state of his feeling, and the state of the English world, with all its confused imaginings, in these months, is described with some distinctness in a letter written by a London curate to the Mayor of Plymouth, on the 13th of March, 1535–6, while the bill for the suppression of the abbeys was in progress through Parliament.
'Right Worshipful,—On the morrow after that Master Hawkins departed from hence, I, having nothing to do, as an idler went to Lambeth to the Bishop's palace, to see what news; and I took a wherry at Paul's Wharf, wherein also was already a doctor named Crewkhorne, which was sent for to come to the Bishop of Canterbury. And he, before the three Bishops of Canterbury, Worcester, and Salisbury, confessed that he was rapt into heaven, where he saw the Trinity sitting in a pall or mantle or cope of blew colour; and from the middle upward they were three bodies, and from the middle downward were they closed all three into one body. And he spake with Our Lady, and she took him by the hand, and bade him serve her as he had done in time past; and bade him preach abroad that she would be honoured at Ipswich and Willesdon as she hath been in old times.
March 13.'On Tuesday in Ember week, the Bishop of Rochester came to Crutched Friars, and inhibited a doctor and three or four more to hear confession; and so in Cardmaker and other places. Then the Bishop of London's apparitor came and railed on the other bishops, and said that he, nor no such as he, should have jurisdiction within his Lord's precincts. Then was the Bishop of London sent for to make answer; but he was sick and might not come. On Friday, the clergy sat on it in Convocation House a long time, and left off till another day; and in the mean time, all men that have taken loss or wrong at his hands, must bring in their bills, and shall have recompense.
'On Sunday last, the Bishop of Worcester preached at Paul's Cross, and he said that bishops, abbots, priors, parsons, canons, resident priests, and all, were strongthieves; yea, dukes, lords, and all. The King, quoth he, made a marvellous good Act of Parliament, that certain men should sow every of them two acres of hemp; but it were all too little, even if so much more, to hang the thieves that be in England. Bishops, abbots, with such others, should not have so many servants, nor so many dishes; but to go to their first foundation; and keep hospitality to feed the needy people—not jolly fellows, with golden chains and velvet gowns; ne let these not once come into houses of religion for repast. Let them call knave bishop, knave abbot, knave prior, yet feed none of them all, nor their horses, nor their dogs. Also, to eat flesh and white meat in Lent, so it be done without hurting weak consciences, and without sedition; and likewise on Fridays and all days.
'The Bishop of Canterbury saith that the King's Grace is at full point for friars and cliauntry priests, that they shall away all, saving them that can preach. Then one said to the Bishop, that they had good trust that they should serve forth their life-times; and he said they should serve it out at a cart, then, for any other service they should have by that.'
The concluding paragraph of this letter is of still greater interest. It refers to the famous Vagrant Act, of which I have spoken in the first chapter of this work.
'On Saturday in the Ember week, the King's Grace came in among the burgesses of the Parliament, and delivered them a bill, and bade them look upon it, and weigh it in conscience; for he would not, he said, have them pass either it or any other thing because his Grace giveth in the bill; but they to see if it be for the commonweal of his subjects, and have an eye thitherwards; and on Wednesday next he will be there again to hear their minds. There shall be a proviso made for the poor people. The gaols shall be rid; the faulty shall die; and the others shall be rid by proclamation or by jury, and shall be set at liberty, and pay no fees. Sturdy beggars and such prisoners as cannot be set at work, shall be set at work at the King's charge; some at Dover, and some at places where the water hath broken over the lands. Then, if they fall to idleness, the idler shall be had before a justice of the peace, and his fault written. If he be taken idle again in another place, he shall be known where his dwelling is; and so at the second mention he shall be burned in the hand; and if he fail the third time, he shall die for it.'
The King, as it appeared, had now the means at his disposal to find work for the unemployed; and the lands bequeathed for the benefit of the poor were re-applied, under altered forms, to their real intention. The antithesis which we sometimes hear between the charity of the monasteries—which relieved poverty for the love of God—and the worldly harshness of a poor-law, will not endure inspection. The monasteries, which had been the support of 'valiant beggary,' had long before transferred to the nation the maintenance of the impotent and the deserving; and the resumption of an abused trust was no more than the natural consequence of their dishonesty. I have already discussed the penal clauses of this Act, and I need not enter again upon that much questioned subject. Never, however, at any period, were the labouring classes in England more generously protected than in the reign of Henry VIII.; never did any Government strain the power of legislation more resolutely in their favour; and, I suppose, they would not themselves object to the re-enactment of Henry's penalties against dishonesty, if they might have with them the shelter of Henry's laws.
The session was drawing to an end. At the close of it, the Government gave one more proof of their goodwill towards any portion of the Church establishment which showed signs of being alive. Duns Scotus being disposed of in Bocardo, the idle residents being driven away, or compelled to employ themselves, and the professors' lectures having recovered their energy, there were hopes of good from Oxford and Cambridge; and the King conceded for them what the Pope had never conceded, when the power rested with the See of Rome; he remitted formally by statute the tenths and first-fruits, which the colleges had paid in common, with all other Church corporations. 'His Majesty is conscious,' says the Act which was passed on this occasion, that the enforcing of the payment of first-fruits against the Universities 'may prejudice learning, and cause the students to give their minds to other things, which might not be acceptable to God;' and 'he has conceived such hearty love and tender affection to the continuance of honest and virtuous living, and of the arts and sciences (wherewith it hath pleased Almighty God abundantly to endow his Highness), as that his Grace cannot compare the same to any law, constitution, or statute; nor tolerate any such ordinance, though the commodity and benefit thereof should never so much redound to his own profit or pleasure, if it may hinder the advancement and setting forth of the lively word of God, wherewith his people must be fed; or if it may imperil the knowledge of such other good letters as in Christian realms is expedient to be learned. He has therefore—(for that the students should the more gladly bend their wits to the attaining of learning, and, before all things, the learning of the wholesome doctrines of Almighty God, and the three tongues, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, which be requisite for the understanding of Scripture)—thought it convenient' to exonerate the Universities from the payment of first-fruits for ever.
April 4.So closed the first great Parliament of the Reformation, which was now dissolved. The Lower House is known to us only as an abstraction. The debates are lost; and the details of its proceedings are visible only in faint transient gleams. We have an epitome of two sessions in the Lords' journals; but even this partial assistance fails us with the Commons; and the Lords in this matter were a body of secondary moment. The Lords had ceased to be the leaders of the English people; they existed as an ornament rather than a power; and under the direction of the council they followed as the stream drew them, when individually, if they had so dared, they would have chosen a far other course. The work was done by the Commons; by them the first move was made; by them and the King the campaign was carried through to victory. And this one body of men, dim as they now seem to us, who assembled on the wreck of the administration of Wolsey, had commenced and had concluded a revolution which had reversed the foundations of the State. They found England in dependency upon a foreign power; they left it a free nation. They found it under the despotism of a Church establishment saturated with disease; and they had bound the hands of that establishment; they had laid it down under the knife, and carved away its putrid members; and stripping off its Nessus robe of splendour and power, they had awakened in it some forced remembrance of its higher calling. The elements of a far deeper change were seething; a change, not in the disposition of outward authority, but in the beliefs and convictions which touched the life of the soul. This was yet to come; and the work so far was but the initial step or prelude leading up to the more solemn struggle. Yet where the enemy who is to be conquered is strong, not in vital force, but in the prestige of authority, and in the enchanted defences of superstition, those truly win the battle who strike the first blow, who deprive the idol of its terrors by daring to defy it.
- The English archbishops were embarrassed by the statutes of provisors in applying for plenary powers to Rome. If they accepted commissions they accepted them at their peril, and were compelled to caution in their manner of proceeding.
- 27 Hen. VIII. cap. 28. The statute says that many visitations had been made in the two hundred years preceding the Reformation, but had failed wholly of success.
- To enter 'religion' was the technical expression for taking the vows.
- A summary of the condition of the Religious Houses, in the Cotton Library, Cleopatra, E 4; MS. Letters of the Visitors, in the same collection; three volumes of the correspondence of Richard Leyton with Cromwell, in the State Paper Office; and the reports of the Visitations of 1489 and 1511, in the Registers of Archbishops Morton and "Warham. For printed authorities, see Suppression of the Monasteries, published by the Camden Society; Strype's Memorials, vol. i., Appendix; Fuller's Ecclesiastical History; and Wilkins's Concilia, vol. iii.
- At Tewkesbury, where there was an abbot and thirty-two monks, I find payment made to a hundred and forty-four servants in livery, who were wholly engaged in the service of the abbey.—Particulars relating to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, section 5: Burnet's Collectanea, p. 86.
- See the Directions to the Visitors: Burnet's Collectanea, p. 74.
- See, for instance, Suppression of the Monasteries p. 86.
- 'In a Parliament held at Leicester, in 1414, the priories alien in England were given to the King; all their possessions to remain to the King and to his heirs for ever. And these priories were suppressed, to the numher of more than a hundred houses.'—Stow's Chronicle, p. 345.
- The commission is in Morton's Register, MS., Lambeth Library.
- Morton's Register, MS., Lambeth.
- Warham's Register, MS., Lambeth.
- See Injunctions to the Clergy: Foxe, vol. v. p. 165.
- Burnet's Collectanea, p. 74.
- Strype's Ecclesiastical Memorials, vol. i. Appendix, p. 214.
- Legh to Cromwell, Sept. 24th: Strype's Ecclesiastical Memorials, vol. i. Appendix, p. 216.—Cotton. MS. Cleopatra, E 4, fol. 225.
- 28 Hen. VIII. cap. 13.
- 28 Hen. VIII. cap. 13.
- That is, the exhibitioners sent up to the University from the monasteries.
- Strype, Memorials, vol. i. p. 323. Leyton to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 71 et seq.
- Id quod meis oculis vidi, Leyton writes: Ibid.
- Leyton to Cromwell; Ib. p. 71 et seq.
- Leyton to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 48. Let it not be thought that the Papal party were worse than the other. The second confessor, if anything the more profligate of the two, gave his services to the King.
- The prior is an holy man, and hath but six children; and but one daughter married yet of the goods of the monastery. His sons be tall men, waiting upon him.—Leyton to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 58.
- I leave this passage as it stands. The acquittal of the Papal courts of actual complicity becomes, however, increasingly difficult to me. I discovered among the MSS. in the Rolls House a list of eighteen clergy and laymen in one diocese who had, or professed to have, dispensations to keep concubines.—Note to Second Edition.
- Leyton to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, pp. 75–6.
- Leyton to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 91.
- Leyton and Legh to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 100.
- Christopher Levyns to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 90. But in this instance I doubt the truth of the charge.
- Sir Piers Dutton to the Lord Chancellor: Ellis, third series, vol. iii. p. 42.
- Legh to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 82. The last words are curious, as implying that Cromwell, who is always supposed to have urged upon the King the dissolution of the abbeys and the marriage of the clergy, at this time inclined the other way.
- Richard Beerley to Cromwell: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 132.
- These rules must be remembered. The impossibility of enforcing obedience to them was the cause of the ultimate resolution to break up the system.
- At one time fairs and markets were held in churchyards.—Stat. Wynton, 13 Ed. I. cap. 6.
- General Injunctions to be given on the King's Highness's behalf, in all Monasteries and other houses of whatsoever order or religion they be: Burnet's Collectanea, p. 77.
- 27–8 Hen. VIII. cap. 24.
- Ibid. cap. 20.
- Ibid. cap. 9.
- Strype's Memorials, vol. i. p. 387; Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 114.
- When their enormities were first read in the Parliament house, they were so great and abominable, that there was nothing but 'Down with them!'—Latimer's Sermons, p. 123.
- 27 Hen. VIII. cap. 28.
- Many letters from country gentlemen to this effect are in the collection made by Sir Henry Ellis.
- Latimer at first even objected to monks leaving their profession. Speaking of racking Scripture, he says, 'I myself have been one of them that hath racked it; and the text, 'He that putteth his hand to the plough, and looketh back,' I have believed and expounded against religious persons that would forsake their order, and would go out of their cloyster.'—Sermons, p. 60. We find him entreating Cromwell to prevent the suppression of Great Malvern, and begging that it may be allowed to remain—'Not in monkery, but any other ways as should seem good to the King's Majesty, as to maintain teaching, preaching, study, with praying and good housekeeping.'—Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 149. Late in his life, under Edw. VI., he alluded bitterly to the decay of education, and the misuse of the appropriated abbey lands.—Sermons, p. 291.
- 'This is my consideration; for having experience, both in times past and also in our days, how the sect of prebendaries have not only spent their time in much idleness, and their substance in superfluous belly cheer, I think it not to be a convenient state or degree to be maintained and established: considering that commonly a prebendary is neither a learner nor teacher, but a good viander.'—Cranmer to Cromwell, on the New Foundation at Canterbury: Burnet's Collectanea, p. 498.
- 27 Hen. VIII. cap. 28.
- Either to be held under the Crown itself for purposes of State, or to be granted out as fiefs among the nobles and gentlemen of England, under such conditions as should secure the discharge of those duties which by the laws were attached to landed tenures.
- The monks generally were allowed from four to eight pounds a-year, being the income of an ordinary parish priest. The principals in many cases had from seventy to eighty pounds a-year.
- Burnet's Collect., p. 80.
- In the autumn of 1535 Latimer had been made Bishop of Worcester, Shaxton of Salisbury, and Barlow of St David's.
- Strype's Memorials, vol. i. Appendix, p. 222; Burnet's Collectanea, p. 92.
- Strype's Memorials, vol. Appendix, p. 273.
- John Hilsey
- 27 Hen. VIII. cap. 25.
- Letter of Thomas Dorset to the Mayor of Plymouth: Suppression of the Monasteries, p. 36.
- Vol. i. chap. 1.
- 27 Hen. VIII. cap. 42.