The first week of November 1535 brought a flurry of letters to Thomas Cromwell’s door. His monastic visitors were in East Anglia and the South of the country at the time. The letters he received from his visitors, local gentry and from the clerics themselves are typical of the correspondence he received during the collection of information for the Valor Ecclesiaticus and the Comperta in 1535 and 1536. Visits would continue until 1540 when the last monastery was suppressed – Cromwell would himself be executed the very same year – who says Henry VIII didn’t have a sense of irony?
Thomas Legh (Leigh) wrote of the priory at Fordham near Norwich on November 1 1535. He painted a bleak picture of the aged Gilbertine prior and a monk “at death’s door,” who “begged to be released from a bondage they could no longer endure.” As chance would have it Thomas Cromwell’s own confessor was a Gilbertine monk called Roger Holgate. He was the master of Sempringham. Perhaps it was for this reason that the Gilbertines were excluded from the act that dissolved the lesser monastic houses in 1536. Fordham eventually surrendered in 1538. The surrender document reveals three canons and the prior suggesting that the priory wasn’t in such a grim state as Legh’s letter of November 1st 1535 suggests not least because someone else had written to Cromwell that very same week asking about the disposal of the ‘goodly’ farmhouse at Fordham.
The monks of Chertsey were clearly not at death’s door at the beginning of November 1535. They were busy complaining about their abbot who seemed to be selling off the plate and the abbey’s woods. They had much in common with the monks of Worcester who had already been visited. They sent several letters to Cromwell making accusations, justifying themselves and making counter accusations in a ‘it was his fault’ sort of way.
It must have come as a pleasant surprise, depending upon your point of view, at the end of the week when Cromwell received a letter from the Benedictine Abbot of Athelney, Robert Hamblyn, asking to be allowed to leave the precincts of the abbey in order to do the abbey’s business. He notes that the visitor there, one Tregonell, found the abbey in good order. Athelney’s clean bill of health would not save it from dissolution. It finally surrendered on Feb 8 1539 despite the pleas of the abbot.
Grist to Cromwell’s mill of anticlerical justification for the closure of monastic houses was provided when John Ap Rice wrote of another Benedictine establishment. The Abbot of Bury St Edmunds met with very little approval on account of his dodgy financial practices and gambling habits. Apparently “he lay much forth in his granges” and spent money at dice and cards and in building; also that he did not preach and had converted farms into copyholds. “He seems addict also to superstitious ceremonies.”
The superstitions were related to the abbey’s relics which included “the coals that Saint Lawrence was toasted withal, the paring of St. Edmund’s nails, S. Thomas of Canterbury penknife and his boots and divers skulls for the headache, pieces of the Holy Cross able to make a whole cross of, other relics for rain.” I must admit a degree of curiosity regarding the inventory. Ultimately all the relics would be sent to Cromwell – let’s hope that the “divers skulls for the headache” helped him as he worked late into the night accounting for all that monastic wealth. And further more – were the relics to cause rain or to prevent it? Occasionally it could be wished that Mr Ap Rice was slightly more detailed in his written accounts to Cromwell.
As with the monks of Athelney Ap Rice left an injunction that they were not to leave their precinct and as with Athelney the abbot immediately wrote to Cromwell asking permission to go out and about on abbey business. He also saw fit to give Cromwell an annual pension of ten pounds that was later increased – whilst it didn’t save the abbey it certainly made the abbot’s life much easier in the long term with regards to his pension and associated perks.
Ap Rice also noted in his letter that he’d dismissed a number of monks at Bury who hadn’t reached their twenty-fourth birthday. This confirms the rumours contained in Chapuys’ (the Imperial Ambassador) letters of that week which talk of rumours of youthful monks being dismissed from their monastic houses.
‘Houses of Gilbertine canons: Priory of Fordham’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 256-258. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp256-258 [accessed 30 October 2016].
‘Henry VIII: November 1535, 1-5’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 9, August-December 1535, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1886), pp. 248-262. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol9/pp248-262 [accessed 12 September 2016].