Dissolution of the London monasteries

The ruins of the Convent of St.Clare’s at Aldgate in a print published in 1797, more than two hundred and fifty years after its dissolution.

Throughout the medieval period a multitude of monastic organisations owned a large amount of property in and around London, consisting of both buildings and farming land. Almost all of it changed hands within the space of about a decade in what was probably the largest transfer of land in London’s long history.

In the latter 1520s Henry VIII, who had been a strong supporter of the Pope and the Catholic Church, sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Catherine was the niece of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain however so it was not an approval that the pontiff could easily give. In order to exert pressure Henry appointed reformists to key political and religious posts in England and began passing laws to curb the privileges of the Church. After Pope Clement wrote to Henry in 1531 to give his refusal the King took steps to separate the Church in England from Rome. The Act of Succession of 1534 declared Catherine’s daughter Mary a bastard and confirmed Anne’s daughter Elizabeth as Henry’s heir. A few months later the Act of Supremacy appointed Henry and his successors as the highest authority of the Church in England. Clergy and those in significant positions were required to swear an oath of allegiance, recognising Henry’s authority, with punishment by death for those who refused.

Henry surrounded himself with those who supported religious reform, most notably Thomas Cromwell who became the King’s chief minister from 1532. They were influenced by the evangelical Protestant philosophy arriving from Germany and Switzerland that was opposed to monasticism. All monarchs tended to require additional funds and the many wealthy religious institutions were an easy target for their new superior. From 1535 a valuation of Church property took place in order to levy taxes efficiently. The following year it was decreed that all institutions with a gross income of less than two hundred pounds would close and their property be taken by the Crown. In 1532 the priory of Holy Trinity, one of London’s famous monasteries, but which had large debts at the time, was forced to hand over its various lands around London. The site of the priory came into the hands of Sir Thomas Audley who, failing to sell the building, had it demolished.

In 1534 Cromwell settled in a house near Stepney church and devoted his energies to demolishing the religious houses. Richard Layton, former rector of Stepney, was dispatched around the country to investigate abuses and to require monks to swear allegiance to Henry as head of the Church. When they refused, the house was dissolved and their property seized. If they accepted, other means were found to dissolve their house.

The Franciscan Friars Observant, particularly those based at Sheen (modern-day Richmond) and Greenwich, had been critical of the King’s marriage to Anne. In 1534 Henry had the entire order closed throughout England and two hundred friars imprisoned until they died, probably of starvation. A revolt in the north of England against the religious changes by the King’s “low-born” councillors strengthened Henry’s resolve and the pace of closure of monasteries accelerated during 1536 until eventually five hundred and sixty English monasteries had been dissolved. Over fifteen thousand monks and nuns were ejected from their premises and more than two hundred thousand pounds seized.

Members of the religious orders who resisted the closures could find themselves tortured and in some cases brutally executed. Those who complied with the King’s wishes and departed their monastic communities were granted a pension by the Crown.

The first to close in the immediate area around London was Elsing Spital for the blind at Cripplegate. John Houghton, the prior of Charterhouse priory, along with two others visited Thomas Cromwell to debate Henry’s supremacy, for which the three Carthusian monks were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. The remaining members of the Charterhouse community refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy. Four others were executed and nine taken to Newgate prison in 1537 where they were chained upright until they died of starvation. The monastery closed and the building was later acquired by Lord North, a Privy Councillor.

The small and ancient Benedictine convent at Bromley stood where the road out of London crossed the River Lea. It dated back to Saxon times and was possibly contemporaneous with Westminster Abbey but was never an influential or wealthy institution. It was dissolved in 1535 and the land granted to Sir Ralph Sadler, who was later to become Henry’s Ambassador to Scotland.

Larger monasteries began to be closed from 1538, beginning with Bermondsey Abbey at the start of the year, followed by Blackfriars, Grey Friars in Newgate Street, Whitefriars at Fleet Street, St.Helen’s priory at Bishopsgate (the dormitory of which was acquired by the Leathersellers’ Company), St.Mary’s Priory at Merton, Austin Friars, St.Martin’s le Grand and Stratford Langthorne Abbey.

More closures took place the following year: the great St.Bartholomew’s Priory at Smithfield (much of it later coming into the ownership of Sir Richard Rich); Holywell Priory in Shoreditch; St.Mary Spital outside Bishopsgate; The Abbey of St.Clare’s at Minories; Crutched Friars, inside the city walls near Aldgate; St.Mary Graces near the Tower; Southwark Priory; St.Giles’s hospital; St.Mary’s nunnery at Clerkenwell; Syon Abbey; and Sheen Priory. Barking Abbey, in which William the Conqueror had lived almost five hundred years earlier during the construction of the Tower, was another victim. In 1541 all but its curfew tower was demolished and its stones used for repairs at Greenwich Palace.

The Order of the Knights of St.John, which could trace its ancestry back to the time of the Crusades, was dissolved in 1540, along with Kilburn Priory, and its premises of St.John’s Gate at Clerkenwell acquired by the King to be used for storage of his hunting tents. The beautiful tower was later blown up by the Earl of Somerset, Protector to Edward VI, to provide materials for his Somerset House.

Westminster – St.Peter’s Abbey – was dissolved gradually over a number of years. A new, compliant abbot was appointed by Thomas Cromwell in 1533. Three years later the monastery’s manors of Ebury, Hyde, Toddington, Neyte and Covent Garden were given to the King. Some of its lands were transferred to St.Paul’s Cathedral, hence the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. In 1540 the abbot and the remaining twenty four monks agreed to surrender the abbey and the authorities ransacked the building, taking everything of value.

St.Katharine’s, outside the City beyond the Tower, had for centuries enjoyed the patronage of the Queen Consort or Queen Dowager. Despite Henry’s annulment of his marriage Catherine continued as the priory’s patron. It was never dissolved and during the following decades became a Protestant establishment. It continues into modern times and is currently based in Stepney.

Various groups benefited from the seizures. Firstly there was Henry himself who was able to acquire certain properties that could be used to build new palaces, as well as parks to be used as hunting grounds. He also gained directly or indirectly from land and property that was auctioned, with proceeds going to the royal purse or the Exchequer. Secondly there were former tenants of the religious houses who were sold or granted use of the properties. Urban property was generally released on to the market or given away. A number of royal courtiers and officials who were in favour at the time were granted or were able to acquire properties, particularly those at the Court of Augmentations, which was responsible for the transfers. Sir Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Rolls, gained Blackfriars monastery; and the Lord Treasurer, Sir William Paulet acquired Austin Friars monastery. Bermondsey Abbey came into the ownership of Sir Thomas Pope, Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations. Thomas Audley, one of the King’s most loyal ministers, acquired the Augustinian priory of Holy Trinity at Aldgate, which he partly redeveloped into a row of houses.

Many properties simply remained empty for a time, falling into ruin and gradually finding new owners and uses over quite a long period. For example, much of Holy Trinity disintegrated until it was merely a shell. Over forty years later a survey recorded that the Romanesque arches remained but the roof was gone and within its shell a number of houses had been built. Others were simply demolished and built over, with the stonework used to create new buildings. Some properties had been rented out by the monasteries and probably continued with the same tenants but different landlords.

A number of the monastic churches were acquired by the local people as parish churches. Some monastic hospitals, such as those for lepers at St.Giles and St.James’s, closed for ever while others such as St.Bartholomew’s and St.Thomas’s continue as secular institutions to this day. St.Mary of Bethlehem near Bishopsgate was by the 16th century primarily a secular hospital for the insane – ‘Bedlam’ – and was therefore never dissolved.

The monasteries were liberties, areas outside the control of the City of London, and that privilege continued in some instances into the 19th century even though the ecclesiastic estates were no longer in existence. Many of those areas, such as the former Carmelite (or Whitefriars) Priory south of Fleet Street, became havens for debtors, prostitutes and refugees from the authorities. Several decades after its suppression Holywell was where James Burbage built his theatre at which Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. Norton Folgate, outside of Bishopsgate, later attracted religious dissenters such as Catholics and Quakers.

No doubt the price of land fell with so much of it coming on to the market so suddenly. During the 1560s a contemporary historian recorded that: “Fair houses in London are plenteous, and very easy to be had at low and small rents, and by reason of the late dissolution of religious houses many houses in London stood vacant…”.

Sources include: John Schofield ‘London 1100-1600’; John Richardson ‘The Annals of London’; Liza Picard ‘Elizabeth’s London’; Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith ‘The History of East London’. With thanks to Olwen Maynard for help with fact-checking, additional information and proof-reading.

< Go back to In Brief: Tudor London

Forward to St.Paul’s Cathedral during the Reformation >