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March 6, 1536 – Parliament Passes the Act for Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries

Fountains Abbey ruins
Fountains Abbey ruins….((c) Klaus with K via Wikimedia Commons)

This Act, which claimed to be the way to reform monastic life in England, was actually the first step in what was to become its end. Of course, it didn’t quite look that way at the time. First, because the closures were limited to the smaller houses (the ones with less than £200 per year in income): those that were typically were not as well run, that were more likely to cut religious corners – and that because of this, had been targets of reform for centuries. Also, because the affected monks and nuns were given the option to transfer to larger houses, which implied that those larger houses would not be touched.

No, this first step was comparatively innocuous. While about half of the country’s houses were potentially affected (419 of nearly 900), the Act gave the King full discretion to exempt any of them. More than a hundred petitioned the King, offering to pay substantial fines (typically a year’s income) for his mercy. As a result, only 243 houses were actually dissolved at this time. 

All their property reverted to the Crown. And Henry knew exactly how much that was because of the Valor Ecclesiasticus he had commissioned in 1535, to start asserting his rights as Supreme Head of the Church in England (he needed details about the monasteries’ worth and income in order to properly tax them…). Henry filled his coffers with this first round of closures – seizing the properties and renting or selling them, melting down their gold and silver plate and their copper and tin bells, even stripping the lead from the roofs.  And then he went back for more. But that’s a subject for another post. For now, here is the Preamble to the Act, the attempt to justify these closures…

FORASMUCH 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 persons, whereby the governors of such religious houses, and their convent, spoil, destroy, consume, and utterly waste, as well their churches, monasteries, priories, principal houses, farms, granges, lands, tenements, and hereditaments, as the ornaments of their churches, and their goods and chattels, to the high displeasure of Almighty God, slander of good religion, and to the great infamy of the king’s highness and 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 increases and augments, and by a cursed custom so rooted and infected, that a great multitude of the religious persons in such small houses do rather choose to rove abroad in apostasy, than to conform themselves to the observation of good religion; so that without such small houses be utterly suppressed, and the religious persons therein committed to great and honorable monasteries of religion in this realm, where they may be compelled to live religiously, for reformation of their lives, there can else be no redress nor reformation in that behalf.

Hardy’s Documents Illustrative of English Church history


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March 6, 1536 – Parliament Passes the Act for Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries
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