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LEICESTER, United Kingdom – In 1535 there were around 850 monastic houses across England and Wales, by 1540 none remained.
Shortly after his break with Rome, Henry VIII moved on the monastic foundations in the country, which controlled vast amounts of property. Some of this land was used to support the country’s universities and other public works, but much was sold off to fund Henry’s various wars.
The around 12,000 religious that had lived and worked there were driven out of their homes: Some became secular clergy, others married or left Britain.
“It was the most dramatic and fast-paced upheaval of the social and architectural fabric in the history of this country,” explained Dr. Jane Whitaker, Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
“Monks and nuns were expelled, and orders went out for the deserted monasteries to be dismantled, their churches to be demolished, the lead from roofs to be melted down and sold and their sites transformed into architectural salvage yards,” she told Crux.
In her book, Raised from the Ruins, Whitaker looks at the aftermath for the buildings themselves: Some continued as houses of worship, or were used for other purposes, the ruins of others still dot the English landscape.
“Out of the scarred remains of these vast complexes there arose many magnificent new houses created by men who seized this brief opportunity. Some of these houses were adapted from the monastic buildings, while others were built afresh upon the sites of destruction,” she said.
She spoke to Crux about her work.
Crux: Could you tell us a little about your book, Raised from the Ruins?
Whitaker: In 1535 there were over 850 monastic houses owning extensive lands throughout England and Wales. Five years later there were none. The crisis over Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn led to the break with Rome and the declaration of the king as Supreme Head of the Church of England. To quell opposition and to reap its vast wealth for his own coffers, Henry set about the destruction of the monastic system. In these few short years his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, masterminded the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
It was the most dramatic and fast-paced upheaval of the social and architectural fabric in the history of this country. Monks and nuns were expelled, and orders went out for the deserted monasteries to be dismantled, their churches to be demolished, the lead from roofs to be melted down and sold and their sites transformed into architectural salvage yards.
Some surviving buildings became cathedrals, or colleges at the universities, while others were left to fall into ruin. Out of the scarred remains of these vast complexes there arose many magnificent new houses created by men who seized this brief opportunity. Some of these houses were adapted from the monastic buildings, while others were built afresh upon the sites of destruction.
My book, Raised from the Ruins, gives a wide-ranging insight into a fleeting moment in this country’s architectural history representing a period of great change and subsequent rebirth.
What brought you to study this period and the fate of these buildings?
Gardens of the Elizabethan period were the subject of my PhD at the University of Bristol. My PhD thesis then formed the basis of my earlier book, Gardens for Gloriana, published by Bloomsbury in 2018. From this research base I developed an interest in both the whole Tudor period and the wider aspects of the architectural and social history of the sixteenth century. I began to research and write Raised from the Ruins in 2019, which I found a fascinating experience.
What would you say was the main effect of the Dissolution of the Monasteries on the landscape of England?
I think that undoubtedly the main effect of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, visually rather than religiously or socially, was on the architectural fabric rather than on the landscape in a wider sense. Of the 850 monastic houses in England and Wales, less than a hundred were preserved, at least in part, and converted into houses and colleges – the subject of this book. Initially, after the Dissolution, the majority of monasteries would have been deserted and begun to fall to ruin.
Some of these ruins, such as at Tintern Abbey or Fountains Abbey, survive to this day. But some of the monasteries were reborn on a grand scale, true architectural statements, often at the center of large estates and gardens. Examples include Syon Abbey and Wilton Abbey. Others were more modest, such as Hailes Abbey and Wenlock Priory. A similar number of monastic churches and cathedrals also survived, most of which continue in use to the present day, such as Gloucester Cathedral. But the great majority were destroyed or left to fall to ruin, magnificent buildings lost forever.
How did the removal of the monastic communities affect local communities?
Probably the greatest effect of the loss of the monastic houses on local communities, all within a period of five years, was on their provision of hospitality and alms and support for the poor. A great number of monastic servants were also displaced – far exceeding the 11,000 monks and nuns they served – and unlike the monks and nuns, they received no pensions. But records do not show what happened to them.
However, beyond the very local community the impact was quite limited. Monastic property – often widely dispersed – was comprised largely of manors or collections of rents, most of them well organized and managed. This entire structure was taken over by the Crown, through the Court of Augmentations. Even when subsequently rented out or sold, most of the tenants and laborers on these properties would have seen little alteration in their daily lives as a result of a change of landlord.
What was the most exciting thing you saw or found out while researching for this book?
It was exciting to explore how many different and inventive approaches were taken by the men who converted these monastic buildings to secular use. Some preserved entire cloisters, as at Lacock Abbey. Others utilised the church itself, and incorporated it into new buildings, as at Titchfield Abbey. Some men, including the king himself, spent enormous sums of money on lavish re-building, while others simply adapted the abbot’s lodgings to residential use. It was also fascinating to re-discover buildings which no longer fully survive, from contemporary records and early drawings and paintings.