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Changing Cityscape, Vanishing Monasteries

Large compounds owned by a number of religious orders dominated London’s medieval landscape. To their supporters, these monasteries were places of prayerful retreat and charitable giving. To their detractors, they were centers of greed and hypocrisy. Henry VIII’s decision to close (or “dissolve”) England’s monasteries revealed another view: monasteries harbored enemies to the state. His decision caused one of the greatest shifts in land ownership in London’s history. While the king and select courtiers enjoyed the spoils, the city adjusted to waves of repurposing and rebuilding.

England. Anno tricesimo primo Henrici octavi. London, 1539

St. Margaret’s Parish. Lease to Thomas Glover, waterman. Manuscript, 21 January 1537

Dugdale. Monasticon Anglicanum. London, 1661

Thomas Norton. Copy of letter from Thomas Norton to Francis Mylles. Manuscript, 31 August 1581

John Foxe. Actes and monuments. London, 1570

Henry VIII closed British monasteries in waves. The 1534 Act of Supremacy required each religious house to acknowledge the king as the Supreme Head of the English Church. With the First Act of Suppression in 1536, Henry VIII closed smaller monasteries and pensioned some of the monks. With the Second Act of Suppression (shown above), Henry stressed (improbably) that the surrender of monasteries had been voluntary, and he addressed the messy legalities of ownership, leases, liberties, and privileges. By 1540, over eight hundred monasteries were closed.


But these closures were confusing. A lease of three tenements and a wharf in St. Margaret's Parish, Southwark illustrates uncertainty over the impact of Henry’s new laws. The Fraternity of Our Blessed Lady had leased the properties to a waterman for fifty years on condition that he not use any of the properties as “common hostelries or brothel houses.” But on the back, someone has written: “These three leases are in question to be new made according to the words of the corporation of King Henry the VIII.” In other words, did the fraternity still control the properties?


Pictured in William Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum, St. John’s Priory in Clerkenwell had one of the more colorful histories of the major London monasteries. St. John’s was the English headquarters of the crusading order of the Knights Hospitallers. They had been founded to assist pilgrims to Jerusalem, and by the time of the dissolution, they were fighting the Ottomans from Malta. Like Blackfriars, St. John’s served the Office of Revels after the dissolution. Within a decade of its closure, some stones from this monastery were diverted to the Lord Protector Somerset’s new home on the Strand.


Fifty years after the dissolution, Thomas Norton responded to a request for first-hand information about Henry VIII’s intentions in closing the monasteries. His correspondent was employed by Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s master spy. With a long list of strategies and manipulations, Norton fingered Thomas Cromwell as the mastermind, “the man that by his zeale his wisdom

and his Courrige was godes instrument to carry all to good effect.” Norton concludes his letter by recommending others who may have relevant information, including the Recorder of London.


For a history of the English Reformation from the Protestant point of view, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as the Actes and Monuments was popularly known, is the seminal text. It went through multiple editions, with the text growing steadily. In the woodcut above, Henry VIII and his advisors Archbishop Cranmer and Chancellor Thomas Cromwell triumphantly vanquish Pope Clement with a bible and a sword. Among those looking on in horror in the pope’s party are Cardinal Pole, Bishop John Fisher, and Catholic monks, recognizable by their tonsured hair.




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