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Reign of Henry the Eighth - (Concluded). page 10

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Cromwell, on this decision, sent down his commissioners in August to take possession of the property, who stripped the shrine of the gold and jewels which had been the wonder of people of all ranks, and from all parts of the world, who had visited it. They filled two immense chests with these precious spoils, so heavy, that they required eight strong men each to lift them.

The blood of this turbulent saint had been exhibited at his tomb, as that of Christ and St. Januarius at other shrines; and Cranmer had particularly requested permission for his commissioners to examine and expose the deception. So complete was the vengeance now taken on the so long glorified St. Thomas, that Henry put forth an express proclamation against him, declaring that it had been clearly proved on the trial that Becket had been killed in a riot occasioned by his own insolence and disloyal resistance to his sovereign; and that the Bishop of Rome, himself a foreign and usurping power, had canonised the disturber, because he was a champion and partisan of his; and he bade all his subjects take notice, that Becket was no saint at all, but a rebel and traitor; and that, therefore, all images and pictures of him should be destroyed, and that his disgraceful name should be erased from all books and calendars, under penalty of His Majesty's high displeasure, and imprisonment at his will. A jewel of remarkable beauty and value, which had been offered at the shrine by Louis VII. of France, Henry appropriated to his personal use, and wore upon his thumb.

The work of dissolution of the monasteries and convents now went on briskly, for, says Bishop Godwin, "the king continued much prone to reformation, especially if anything might be gotten by it." The Earl of Sussex and a body of commissioners were sent into the north, to inquire into the conduct of the religious houses there, and great stress was laid on the participation of the monks in the insurrection of the Pilgrimage of Grace. The abbeys of Furness and Whalley were particularly rich; and though little concern with the rebellion could be traced to the inmates, yet the commissioners never rested till, by persuasion and intimidation, they had induced the abbots to surrender their houses into the hands of the commissioners. The success of the Earl of Sussex and his associates led to similar commissions in the south, and for four years the process was going on without an Act of Parliament. The general system was this: - First, tempting offers of pensions were held out to the superiors and the monks or nuns-, and in proportion to the obstinacy in complying was the smallness of the pension. The pensions to superiors varied according to the wealth and rank of their houses, from £266 to £6 per annum. The priors of cells received generally £13. A few, whose services merited the distinction, £20. The monks received from £2 to £6 per annum, with a small sum in hand for immediate need. Nuns got about £4.

That was the first and persuasive process; but, if this failed, intimidation was resorted to. The superior and his monks, tenants, servants, and neighbours, were subjected to a rigorous and vexatious examination. The accounts of the house were called for, and were scrutinised minutely, and all moneys, plate, and jewels ordered to be produced. There was a severe inquiry into the morals of the members, and one was encouraged to accuse another. Obstinate and refractory members were thrown into prison, and many died there - amongst them, the monks of the Charter House, London. One Bedyl, a commissioner, writing to Cromwell, speaks of these monks lying in Newgate in this heartless style: - " It shall please your lordship to understand that the monks of the Charter House here at London, committed to Newgate for their treacherous behaviour continued against the king's grace, be almost dispatched by the hand of God, as it may appear to you by this bill enclosed. Wherefore, considering their behaviour, and the whole matter, I am not sorry, but would that all such as love not the king's highness, and his worldly honour, were in the like case. There be departed, Greenwood, Davye, Salte, Peerson, Greene. There be at the point of death, Scriven, Beading. There be sick, Jonson, Home. One is whole, Bird." The abbots of Colchester, Beading, and Glastonbury, were executed as felons or traitors.

In 1539 a bill was brought into Parliament, vesting in the Crown all the property, movable and immovable, of the monastic establishments which were already, or which should be hereafter, suppressed, abolished, or surrendered; and, by 1540, the whole of this branch of the ecclesiastical property was in the hands of the king, or of the courtiers and parasites who surrounded him, like vultures, gorging themselves with the fallen carcase. The total amount of such establishments suppressed from first to last by Henry was, 655 monasteries, of which 28 had abbots enjoying a seat in Parliament, 90 colleges, 2,374 chantries and free chapels, 110 hospitals. The whole of the revenue of this property, as paid to superiors of these houses, was £161,000. The whole income of the kingdom at that period was rated at £4,000,000, so that the monastic property was apparently one-twentieth of the national estate; but as the monastic lands were let on long leases, and at very low rents, in the hands of the new proprietors it would prove of vastly higher value.

It is not to be supposed that so violent and wholesale a revolution could take place without much opposition and murmuring. The twenty-eight abbots and two priors of Coventry and of St. John of Jerusalem, who had seats in the House of Lords, were so awed by the brow-beating and execution of such superiors as made any resistance, that they did not dare to open their mouths; but there were not wanting great numbers amongst the people who declared that priors and monks were not the proprietors, but only trustees and tenants for life of this property, which had been bequeathed by pious people of substance for certain purposes, and that, therefore, they had no power to surrender voluntarily this property to the king. To silence these complaints, it was proclaimed everywhere that this property, becoming national, would henceforth put an end to pauperism and taxation; that the king would not have occasion to come to the people to demand any fresh supplies in case of war; that it would enable him to maintain earls, barons, and knights; and to found new institutions for the promotion of education, industry, and religion, more in keeping with the spirit of the age.

But so far was this from being the case, that Henry let the property go amongst his greedy courtiers as fast as it came, and never was so magnificent a property so speedily and astonishingly dissipated. What did not go amongst the Seymours, the Essexes, the Howards, the Russells, and the like, went in the most lavish manner on the king's pleasures and follies. He is said to have given a woman, who introduced a pudding to his liking, the revenue of a whole convent. Pauperism, instead of being extinguished, was increased in a manner which astonished every one. Such crowds had been supported by the monks and nuns, as the public had no adequate idea of, till they were thrown destitute and desperate into the streets and the highways. They had learned to dispense with labour. Such were the daily liberal alms of the monasteries, that they were neither supplied with employment nor anxious for it; and we shall find that they became such a national burden and nuisance as at length, in the reigns of Edward VI. and Elizabeth, to cause the introduction of our present poor-law system. The aristocracy, in fact, usurped the fund for the support of the poor, and threw them on the nation at large.

Education received an equal shock. The schools supported by the monasteries fell with them. The new race of aristocrats who got the funds did nothing to continue them; and other schools, and even the universities, felt the spirit of the times, which was one of spoliation, but of little inquiry in those ranks which profited by the change. Religion suffered likewise, for the wealth which might have founded efficient incomes for good preachers, was gone into private hands, and the most miserable stipends were paid to the working clergy, and none but poor and unlettered men would accept the miserable pittances.

Those who were become the patrons of country livings, put into them their menials, gardeners, inn-keepers, ignorant monks and friars who had been turned adrift, and many of whom could not read a syllable: or they let the glebes and parsonages, so that the incumbents had neither a roof over their heads nor land to live on. So scandalous, according to Latimer, was the greedy embezzlement by the new aristocracy of the funds for the parochial ministry, that the parish priest was often obliged to keep an ale-house; and we have ourselves seen such an ale-house in Derbyshire, still remaining under the same roof with the church, with a hole in the wall, through which pots of beer could be served even into the church itself during service. The king himself set the example of this odious desecration of the ministry of the church. There is a letter in the "State Papers," from Fitzwilliam to Secretary Cromwell, which gives a striking proof of it. "My lord, one thing there is, that the king's highness willed me to speak unto your lordship in. . . . . . . . His grace hath a priest that yearly maketh his hawks, and this year hath made him two which fly and kill their game very well, to his high-ness's singular pleasure and contentation. And for the pains which the said priest taketh about the same, His Majesty would that he should have one of Mr. Bedell's benefices, if there be any ungiven. And thus the blessed Trinity have your good lordship in his most blessed preservation!"

Such was the disgraceful seizure, and such the greedy grasp with which this fine public property was held by those who got it, that there was not left money enough to pay for the translation of Coverdale’s Bible: Coverdale and his coadjutors in the translation were left in poverty and difficulty, and this grand work of the age, and the fountain of much of the knowledge of the Reformation, was checked in its circulation by the high price which the printers were obliged to put upon it.

Amongst the magnificent monastic buildings which were stripped and abandoned, were those of Canterbury, Battle Abbey, Merton in Surrey, Stratford in Essex, Lewes in Sussex, the Charter House, the Black, Grey, and White Friars in London, Furness and Whalley in Lancashire, Fountaines and Rievaux in Yorkshire, and many another noble pile, the ruins of which yet fill us with admiration. Many of the monastic houses had been the hospitals, dispensaries, and infirmaries of the poor, and not a penny of their proceeds was reserved by this strange royal reformer for the same purposes. Others, in wild and solitary districts, had supplied the want of inns and places of lodgings, and the doors being now closed by the inhospitable gentry who had been fortunate enough to get them from the improvident king, made the contrast severely felt by both rich and poor in their journeys. The Chancellor Audley, who was as ready as any of the rest of the royal servants to have his share of this spoil, was so struck with the want of some such resorts in lonely and unhealthy districts, that he endeavoured to persuade Cromwell to leave two in. Essex - the abbey of St. John's, near Colchester, and St. Osyth's. He says there had been twenty houses, great; and small, already dissolved in Essex, and that these stood in the end of the shire; St. John's, where water was very much wanted, and St. Osyth's, where it was so marshy that few would care to keep houses of entertainment. "These houses, like others in desolate and uncultivated neighbourhoods," says Blunt, "had been inns for the wayfaring man, who had heard from afar the sound of the vesper bell, at once inviting him to repose and devotion, and who might sing his matins with the morning star, and go on his way rejoicing." But Cromwell had an eye to St. Osyth's for himself, and would not listen to it.

But what every lover of literature and art must still lament over, was the ruthless destruction of so many superb specimens of the architecture and the paintings, the libraries and carved shrines, which were in them. The most beautiful and sublime specimens of architecture were stripped of their roofs, doors, and windows, and left exposed to the elements. Those glorious painted windows, of whose splendour and value we may form some idea by those of the same ages which remain on the Continent, were dashed to atoms by ignorant and brutal hands. The paintings were torn from the walls, or defaced where they could not be removed. The statues and carvings, many of them by great Italian masters, were demolished, thrown down, or mutilated. The mosaic pavements of the chapels were torn up. The bells were torn down, gambled for, and sold into Russia and other countries. The churches of the monasteries were turned into stables and cattle-stalls; horses were tethered to the high altar, and lewd vagabonds lodged in them as they tramped about the country. But most woful was it to see the noble libraries destroyed - those libraries in which the treasures of antiquity had been preserved trough many ages. "Some books," says Spelman, in his - "History of Sacrilege," "were reserved to scour their candlesticks, some to rub their boots, some sold to grocers and soap boilers, and some sent over sea to bookbinders, not in. small numbers, but at times whole ships full, to the wondering of foreign nations; a single merchant purchasing at forty shillings a-piece two noble libraries, to be used as grey paper, and such as having sufficed for ten years, were abundant enough for many years more."

It is only justice to Cranmer to say, that he saw this miserable waste of the public property with grief and concern, and would have had it appropriated to the promotion of education and religion, and a proper fund for the relief of the poor; but he was far too timid to dare to put the matter plainly before the Royal prodigal. Yet the murmurs of the public induced Henry to think of establishing a number of bishoprics, deaneries, and colleges, with a portion of the lands of the suppressed monasteries. He had an Act passed through Parliament for the establishment of eighteen bishoprics; but it was found that the property intended for these was cleverly grasped by some of his courtiers, and only six out of the eighteen could be erected, namely, Westminster, Oxford, Peterborough, Bristol, Chester, and Gloucester; and some of these were so meagrely endowed, that the new prelates had much ado for a considerable time to live. At the same time, Henry converted fourteen abbeys and priories into cathedral and collegiate churches, attaching to each a deanery and a certain number of prebendaries. These were Canterbury, Rochester, Westminster, Winchester, Bristol, Gloucester, Worcester, Chester, Burton-upon-Trent, Carlisle, Durham, Thornton, Peterborough, and Ely. But he retained a good slice of the property belonging to them, and, at the same time, imposed on the chapters the obligations of paying a considerable sum to the repair of the highways, and another sum. to the maintenance of the poor. Such was this wonderful revolution, produced, not by the love of a real reformation of religion, but by the selfish greediness of the king and his courtiers; yet most singularly, under the overruling hand of Providence, producing all the blessings for which these people took no care, establishing eventually the freedom of opinion, the diffusion of knowledge, and the recognition of the claims of the poor on the land.

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