MonasteryQuest™ Pt 3: Map of all houses suppressed 1535-40

In lockdown 2020 (the first one), I came across a list of every monastery dissolved under the government of Henry VIII in 1535-40. My mission, which I chose to accept (because what else was I going to do) was to find the location and condition of every English monastery and its church. This. Is MonasteryQuest™.

Title page to the probable King’s presentation copy of the Valor Ecclesiasticus, made mid 1535, National Archives E344/22, f. 2r

The Valor Ecclesiasticus was the largest survey of the holdings of the English Church for over 200 years, made to assess its wealth after parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534 to make the monarch head of the Church in England. Oddly, there is no digital version of the Valor I am aware of: and that includes just scans of pages, never mind a geo-referenced database. And as I’ve been saying that for months now, it seems to be true. This list here seems to be the best source online, and I quickly bunged it into a spreadsheet, and then spent much longer (basically all of the first lockdown) locating, where possible, the location of the buildings and collect the lat/long of the monastery church crossing. You can see my spreadsheet data, most is self explanatory but “extant” means the buildings have largely survived, “partly extant” means at least some fabric is upstanding and legible, “plan” means we know location and at least basic layout, “lost” means we do currently not know precisely where it was. Ultimately, a Layers of London-style overlay system would be nice, but for now, have me fairly quickly putting it into Google My Maps.

Click the icon top left to have the layers pop out so you can play about with different orders! Where possible, the marker is always placed over the site of the crossing of the church.

update 5/2/2021: I did Wales, (unrolled Twitter thread here) which didn’t take long because relatively, there’s way less houses than England. Very interesting patterns of settlement and some surprisingly ambitious projects that had to be scaled back. I’d write another thing about it but I fear I lack knowledge of the politics of the principality to do so.

The map has layers for each of the monastic orders under the English Church in the 16th century. The vanilla monks, Benedictines, and the two major new orders that emerged from monastic reform movements of the 12th century: the austere Cistercians, and the ostentatious Cluniacs. Cistercians – having over three times as many houses – were far more successful in Britain than the Cluniacs, and their usually more remote churches survive a lot better too. The Tironensians were also an early, distinct reformed order of the Benedictine rule from France, but after the suppression of “alien priories” during the Hundred Years War with the French in the late 14th century, their small houses in England were converted to domestic rules. However, their initial British foundation of St Dogmaels, with two satellite priories also in south-west Wales (apparently) remained under the oversight of Tiron Abbey until their dissolution under the 1536 act.

Halesowen Premonstratensian abbey, near Birmingham. Overlay showing the outer precinct and network of fishponds.

Monasteries that followed the Benedictine rule, which includes the Cistercians and Cluniacs, were ideally completely cut off from the secular world. Hence they would have their own water supply, crops, fishponds and livestock within their precinct. However this Monastery Quest™ also includes Augustinian canons which follow the rule of St Augustine of Hippo. While Austin Canons did have dormitories and refectories and outer precincts with fishponds, they were allowed to interact with the laity and own worldly goods. Similarly canons rather than monks were Premonstratensians (named after the Latin name of their head house at Premontré) that were basically the slightly more austere counterpart to the regular canons, with even more minor and less distinct variants the Trinitarians, one Bethlemite (corrupted into Bedlam, the forerunner of the later hospitals at Moorfields and Southwark) and one Bonhommes (Edington, initially intended as a college) tagging along to make things slightly more confusing for anyone trying to make a Google Map of this 500 years later.

Pontefract Cluniac Priory, West Riding of Yorkshire, excavation plan of 1959 (white) and extrapolated plan of church and claustral buildings (red). Notice the large castle to the SW. The site was lucky not to be bisected by the railway, as at the prime English Cluniac house of Lewes.

You may notice that the Cistercian and Cluniac layers are not categorised – this is because all Cistercian houses were abbeys, logistically independent of Citeaux and the house they were colonised from (and always blandly dedicated to the Virgin Mary), and all Cluniac houses remained priories dependent on the mother house at Cluny in the Loire. The essential difference between an abbey and a priory is that one is headed by an abbot, who is only subjugate to his diocesan bishop (or, if he is a mitred abbot, to the pope in Rome), and the other by a prior, who is subjugate either to the abbot of the mother house, or to secular office such as a local lord. Abbeys tend to be richer and larger, but not always. Half of the English cathedrals were staffed by Benedictines (one Augustine) and here the the prior of the monastic community was subject to the bishop.

Sempringham Priory, Lincolnshire, begun 1139. An isolated position from the road round Pinchbeck Fen, now nothing to be seen of the buildings (the raised earthwork is from the Tudor mansion), but the unusual divided church (around 90 m long) with separate claustral ranges for the men and women has been excavated.

The exclusively English Gilbertine order used the Augustinian Rule to revive the concept of the late-antique double monastery (men and women) at Sempringham in the late 12th century, although some of their later foundations were regular priories for male canons only. The Fontevraudian double houses in founded in England in the 13th century had all reverted to male houses by the time of the dissolutions, although the great abbey of Syon was a double-house on the continental model: the Swedish Bridgettines.

The Carthusians (from Chartreuse), perhaps the most peculiar of all, had two 13thc foundations, but then a surge of largely royal foundations from the mid 14thc onwards. Their inner ranges had a small church but a massive cloister with an individual cell for each brother. Such is their footprint, they’re generally well known archaeologically, although Hull and Witham are the exceptions among English Charterhouses for being completely lost.

The c.100 metre-long abbey church of Barking, east of London. The female Benedictine community had a higher gross income than the Benedictine male Selby Abbey or the Austin Canons at Smithfield in 1535.

I’ve only grouped all the female houses together because there’s a ten-layer limit to Google maps, but potentially they could be as powerful an institution as any male house. Their icon is a ring, from the limited set Google lets me choose from, because they were brides of Christ. Of 116 female convents in the Valor, only 16 were female convents headed by an abbess (Bridgettine Syon also had an abbess as its head), one of the most powerful positions a medieval woman could obtain outside of marriage. However abbesses still could not sit in parliament or be mitred to be exempt from episcopal oversight.

Delapré (of the fields) Abbey, founded by Simon de Senlis II in 1145 (top) and the Hardingstone Eleanor Cross of 1291-3 (bottom). There are bits of medieval masonry in the mansion, but the layout of the medieval house has not been ascertained.

This list does not include the mendicant houses that were suppressed at the same time. However, the mendicant friars – largely consisting of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, but also the Carmelites and others – were generally urban and very often, their houses have been totally destroyed by letter developments, so quite frankly, I wasn’t overly keen to try and fill that gap as it’s basically a project in itself. However, the only English Dominican womens’ convent of Dartford, held by the Crown to be converted into a royal palace is included because it was classed in the Valor as Augustinian (and indeed may have been running under that rule then). There were indeed only two Premonstratensian and two Cluniac nunneries (one being Delapré south of Northampton, where Queen Eleanor’s funeral procession stayed from Lincoln in 1290 and why the Hardingstone cross is there) founded in England.

There are also the Preceptories, or Commanderies of the Knights Hospitaller, which I think I can say were essentially were semi-conventual manors by this point. They were very lucrative property portfolios regardless. Many that had previously been Templar, which nobody cared about at this point and neither should you, but I separated them out anyway (London Temple did not become a separate preceptory, it came under the protection of Clerkenwell Priory, who rented the church out to barristers of the Inns of Court, so is not included as a house in the Valor).

Dissolution Blues

The dissolution of the monasteries was essentially the beginning of the long reformation of the English Church, which arguably wouldn’t be settled until about 1688. English monasteries had been dissolved before, most notably the “alien priories” funnelling money back to French houses during the Hundred Years War. Another instance was in the 1520s when Thomas Wolsey – as archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor and Papal legate – dissolved thirty decayed and struggling houses to finance his new collegiate foundations at Oxford (Christ Church) and Ipswich. 3 November 1534 parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which made the King head of the Church in his Kingdom, after the Submission of the Clergy act the previous April and allegedly every monastery signing in favour of it (though the Treasons Act passed around the same time made it difficult for them not to). It’s worth remembering at this point the Crown now had complete control over the entire Church in England and could have put a bill through to demolish every parish church and cathedral if it wanted to. And Henry had a majority of the worst, money-hungry crony MPs to get through whatever legislation he wished, or was coerced, into.

Netley Cistercian Abbey, presbytery, begun shortly after 1239. Although an impressive building thanks to its bankrolling from King Henry III, the community was not wealthy and at only £160 gross, was suppressed in 1536. The church was transformed, via the use of now removed brickwork, into the hall of the mansion of Sir William Paulet, former treasurer to the royal household, which at least preserved its outer shell.

The Suppression of Religious Houses Act was passed in the parliamentary session beginning February 1536 (which in the medieval calendar was still 1535, the year changed at the end of April, henceforth this troublesome part of the year is referred to as 1535/6), where every monastic house in England assessed as under £200 net income in the Valor (that is, their income after any administration fees by secular exchequers, rather than the profit after the expenditure on maintaining the community) was to be dissolved and all their property to come under the Crown. In some ways getting rid of the “lesser monasteries” was a Good Thing, as they could be considered on the most part as a turgid mess, tying up property in the dreaded “dead hand of the church” (mortmain), and staffed by only a handful of brethren, when a monastery ought to have had the apostolic twelve plus one for proper practice of religion. At this time, brothers and sisters from dissolved houses could choose to either return to the secular world or be transferred to another house, so it was clear the intent from the start was not to suppress every house. The act even refers explicitly to the “that divers and great solemn monasteries of this realm, wherein religion is right well kept and observed”. But it wasn’t to stay that way for long.

Furness Cistercian Abbey church, Cumbria, the nave looking E to the crossing and transepts. The abbey was founded as a Sauvignac community in 1123, an order which was amalgamated with the Cistercians in 1147. The frame in the presbytery is a long-term stablisation project and has been there since 2009.

The whole concept soon snowballed into total annihilation. As this is history, so it’s much debated what exactly what caused the change, what with insidious reformers like Thomas Cromwell pulling strings, but a big turning point is when mighty Furness Abbey, gross income just under £1k, voluntarily surrendered to the Crown 9 April 1536/7, following the uprisings in the Pilgrimage of Grace over the previous winter. As heads of houses started worrying about the gathering storm, in order to collect their pensions, many more followed Furness, and commissioners started badgering, and very often, blackmailing them to give in so their own royal grifting could continue, along with their eventual secular rewards. But if a monastic house had passed the £200 threshold and could prove good behaviour to any royal commissioner, they could legally soldier on.

Rievaulx Cistercian Abbey church, North Yorkshire, looking E towards the crossing and transepts.
Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland employed bailiffs to dispose of the chattel assets of the house (for which extensive documentation survives) and salvage all lead on behalf of the Crown. Removal of lead joinings in the crossing tower masonry caused it to collapse onto the nave and domino it into oblivion.

Endgame comes when parliament passed the Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries in its sitting from 28 April 1538/9. Every single monastic house in the country was then automatically the property of the Crown, and the worst people were despatched to get them to surrender. As all these houses had all signed up to the Act of Supremacy in 1534 there wasn’t much they could do, but it would seem the abbots of Colchester, Reading and Glastonbury put up a bit of fight, even if the legal judgement why the heads of these abbeys were executed is exceedingly murky. By 23 March of the next year, the surrender of Waltham Abbey marked the end of monasticism in England for centuries.

Byland Cistercian Abbey, North Yorkshire, view of the S transept, 1170s. After stripping of the lead and demolition of the arcades, the shell of the church was slowly used as source of worked stone until the late 18thc, notice the progressive removal of the ashlar

Initially most houses were stripped on the behalf of the Crown for raw materials (mainly lead, but occasionally stone ashlar cladding where it was sought-after) to maximise the profit. Subsequently, many, with their land holdings, were gifted to friends of the King, who often converted part of the buildings into their secular dwelling, demolishing the rest. In stone-rich areas like Yorkshire the unprofitable skeletons of these denuded great churches were left to the elements by their new custodians, but building stone was never “looted” on a large scale, instead continued to be sold by the landowners.

Cartmel Augustinian Priory (Cumbria, formerly Lancashire), f. 1190. As the only church in the town, petitions to the Crown to spare its demolition were honoured, and all other than the the parochial south aisle that the parishioners were entitled to was purchased for (as far as I can tell) an undisclosed sum in 1540 from unashamed monastic property profiteer Thomas Holcroft, after several canons and townspeople were executed in early 1537/8 for their part in the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Some parishes, particularly those of Austin Priories, laid claim to their part of a dissolved church to save a portion from the usual destructive salvage, others, such as Tewkesbury, had to buy the whole church off the Crown (in installments!). The takings of monastic land boosted the warchest for King Henry’s last military campaign in the Italian Wars of the 1540s. It also set a huge precedent for the reformation of the wider English Church, and the destruction of images, under Henry’s wretched spawn King Edward VI, and the insidious machinations of his vainglorious regents Edward Seymour (First Duke Somerset) and John Dudley (First Duke Northumberland). May they rot in their own foul personal hells for how they tore apart popular religious devotion across the Kingdom for their own personal gain.

If you use the map in research or teaching, a donation would be appreciated. All of my collection of plans and overlays of this project can be found by ctrl-fing this unroll of the Twitter thread, although I intend to catalogue them at some point.

7 comments

  1. Something seems terribly wrong here, unless you have some strange way of your own for dealing with county boundaries! Abbotsbury, Cerne and Milton – I haven’t looked at other nearby establishments – are and always have been in Dorset, not Devon. Stephen Coombs, on Twitter @stephanuscoombs

    • yes I should put the Welsh houses in, there’s only a few dozen after all, I should be able to get hold of the valuations.

      this was initially supposed to be a quick spreadsheet to compare Abbey Dore to a bigger picture, but this year made it go a bit nuclear

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