Open main menu

Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 10.djvu/510

This page needs to be proofread.




these accusations is driven back ultimately upon the worth of these visitors' words. It is easy, of course, to dismiss inconvenient witnesses as being iniworlliy of credit, but in tliis case a mere study of these letters and documents is quite sullicicnt to cast considerable doubt upon their testimony, whilst an exaniination into the subseciuent careers of these myal inquisitors will more than justify the rejection of their testimony as wholly unworthy of belief. (Gasquct, "Henry VIII and the Knulish Monasteries", I, xi.)

It is of course impossible to enter into the details of the visitation. We must, therefore, pass to the sec- ond step in the dissolution. Parliament met on 4 February, 153ti, and the chief business it was called upon to transact was the consideration and passing of the act suppressing the smaller religious houses. It may be well to state exactly what is known about this matter. We know for certain that the king's pro- posal to suppress the smaller religious houses gave rise to a long debate in the Lower House, and that Parliament passed the measure with great reluctance. It is more than remarkable, moreover, that in the preamble of the Act itself Parliament is careful to throw the entire responsibility for the measure upon the king, and to declare, if words mean anything at all, that they took the truth of the charges against the good name of the religious, solely upon the king's "declaration" that he knew the charges to be true. It must be remembered, too, that one simple fact proves that the actual accusations, or "Comperta" — whether in the form of the visitors' notes, or of the mythical "Black-book" — could never have been placed before Parliament for its consideration in de- tail, still less for its critical examination and judg- ment. We have the "Comperta" documents — the findings of the \'isitors, whatever they may be worth, whilst on their rounds, among the State papers — and it may be easily seen that no distinction whatever is made in them between the greater and lesser houses. All are, to use a common expression, "tarred with the same"; all, that is, are equally smirched by the filthy suggestions of Layton and Leigh, of London and Aprice. "The idea that the smaller monasteries rather than the larger were particular abodes of vice", writes Dr. Gairdner, the editor of the State papers of this period, "is not borne out by the 'Comperta'". Yet the preamble of the very Act, which suppressed the smaller monasteries because of their vicious liv- ing, declares positively that "in the great and solemn Monasteries of the realm" religion was well observed and God well served. Can it be imagined for a mo- ment that this assertion could have found its way into the Act of Parliament, had the reports, or "Com- perta", of the \'isitors been laid upon the table of the House of Commons for the inspection of the members? We are consequently compelled by this fact to accept as history the account of the matter given in the pre- amble of the first Act of dissolution: namely that the measure was passed on the strength of the king's "declaration" that the charges against the smaller houses were true, and on that alone.

In its final shape the first measure of suppression merely enacted that all religious houses not possessed of an income of more than £200 a year should be given to the Crown. The heads of such houses were to re- ceive pensions, and the religious, despite the alleged depravity of some, were to be admitted to the larger and more observant monasteries, or to be licensed to act as secular priests. The measure of turpitude fixed by the Act was thus a pecuniary one. All mo- nastic establishments which fell below the £200 a year standard of "goorl living" were to be given to the king to be dealt with at his "i)leasure, to the honour of God and the wealth of the realm".

This money limit at once rendered it necessary, as a first step in the direction of dissolution, to ascertain which houses came within the operation of the Act.

As early as April, 1536 (less than a month from the passing of the measure), we find mixed commissions of oflicials and country gentlemen ajipointed in conse- quence to make surveys of the religious houses, and instructions issued for their guidance. The returns made by these commissioners are of the highest im- portance in determining the moral state of the reli- gious houses at the time of their dissolution. It is now beyond dispute that the accusations of Crom- well's visitors were made prior to the passing of the Act of Suppression of 153G, and therefore prior to, not after (as most writers have erroneously supposed), the constitution of these mixed commissions of gentry and officials. The main purpose for which the commis- sioners were nominated was of course to find out what houses possessed an income of less than £200 a year; and to take over such in the king's name, as now by the late Act legally belonging to His Majesty. The gen- try and officials were however instructed to find out and report upon "the conversation of the lives" of the religious; or in other words they were specially di- rected to examine into the moral state of the houses visited. Unfortunately, comparatively few of the returns of these mixed commissions are now known to exist; although some have been discovered, which were unknown to Dr. Gairdner when he made his "Calendar" of the documents of 1536. Fortunately, however, the extant reports deal expressly with some of the very houses against which Layton and Leigh had made their pestilential suggestions. Now that the sujipression w;is resolved upon and made legal, it did not matter to Henry or Cromwell that the inmates should be described as "evil livers"; and so the new commissioners returned the religious of these same houses as being really "of good and virtuous conver- sation", and this, not in the case of one house or dis- trict only, but, as Gairdner says, "the characters given of the inmates are almost uniformly good".

To prepare for the reception of the expected spoils, what was known as the Augmentation Office was es- tablished, and Sir Thomas Pope was made its first treasurer, 24 April, 1536. On this same day instruc- tions were issued for the guidance of the mixed com- missions in the work of dissolving the monasteries. According to these directions, the commissioners, having interviewed the superior and shown him the "Act of Dissolution", were to make all the officials of the house swear to answer truthfully any questions put to them. They were then to examine into the moral and financial state of the establishment, and to report upon it, as well as upon the number of the re- ligious and "the conversation of their lives". After that, an inventory of all the goods, chattels, and plate was to be taken, and an "indenture" or counterpart of the same was to be left with the superior, dating from 1 March, 1536, because from that date all had passed into the possession of the king. Thencefor- ward the superior was to be held responsible for the safe custody of the king's property. At. the same time the commissioners were to issue t heir commands to the heads of the houses not to receive any more rents in the name of the convent, nor to spend any money, ex- cept for necessary expenses, until the king's pleasure should be known. They were, however, to be strictly enjoined to continue their care over the lands, and "to sow and cultivate" as before, until such time as some king's farmer should be appointed and relieve them of this duty. As for the monks, the ofllcer was told "to send those that will remain in religion to other houses with letters to the governors, and those that wish to go to the world to my lord of Canterbury and the lord chancellor for" their letters to receive some benefices or livings when such could be found for them.

One curious fact about the dissolution of the smaller monasteries deserves special notice. No sooner had the king obtained possession of these houses under the money value of £200 a year, than be commenced to