We tend to think of Thomas Cromwell as the man who did for England’s monasteries but before he became Henry VIII’s Vicar General, Cardinal Wolsey had already demonstrated various ways and means of milking the cloisters.
Most famously between 1524 and 1527 he arranged the suppression of 29 monastic foundations in order to finance his school in Ipswich and Cardinal’s College Oxford. One of Wolsey’s men of business at the time was Thomas Cromwell. In 1530 after the fall and death of the Cardinal, Cromwell spent five days in Canwell and Sandwell (Staffs) seeing to the winding up of the two priories there which had been closed to finance Wolsey’s educational enterprises.
It should be added that Wolsey was not doing something new when he suppressed the 29 monasteries. He was copying William Waynflete of Winchester who had suppressed foundations in Hampshire in order to fund Magdalen College in 1458. Wolsey studied there so it is not hard to see where he might have got his inspiration from.
Nor for that matter was he simply suppressing English monasteries because he could do so – when he became papal legate in 1518 he also received a mandate from Pope Clement VII to reform the monastic establishment as he saw fit. The papal bull for these suppressions also identified Cardinal Campeggio. It is evident from the State papers that Wolsey was careful to keep his royal master informed of events. Here is an extract of a letter dating from 1528 sent to Campeggio.
Sir [Gregory] Casale….where he received letters from the King and the cardinal of York, with orders to obtain certain favors from the Pope. Not being in a fit state to ride, he has caused his brother, the elect of Bellun, to repair hither. You will have learned what the King and Cardinal desire, namely, the union of certain monasteries to the value of 8,000 [ducats?], for the two colleges established by the grandfathers of his Majesty. As the Pope was able to grant this sine consilio fratrum, the bull will be expedited. … We have letters from the King and Cardinal to the Pope, to which an answer shall be sent when the “expeditions” shall have been made.
This was all well and good whilst Wolsey had Henry VIII’s favour but as every English churchman was aware – if they fell from favour the charge they would face was one of praemunire i.e. maintaining papal authority above that of the monarch. The pope did not simply give Wolsey carte blanche to close what he wanted. Each of the foundations was required to close with the consent of its patron or founder. Consequently the charge of closing the monasteries was a bit of a mean one as Wolsey had in many cases required the intervention or consent of the king (Butler and Given-Wilson).
Wolsey started his suppressions with St Frideswide in Oxford with its fifteen canons and an income of approximately £20 p.a.. The canons were transferred to other foundations. The properties and their estates and churches were either sold or leased. Most of the other monasteries he suppressed also only had a handful of clerics and a limited income. In Ipswich where he founded his school he suppressed the local priory and used its land as the site for the school. Ten more monasteries in Suffolk closed to finance the Ipswich venture.
There were various ways of interfering in the monasteries aside from closing them down. As readers might expect Henry VII and his tax advisors Empson and Dudley had a few wheezes of their own. The Crown often interfered in the election of abbots and priors. St Mary’s Abbey in York paid the Crown £100 so that it might have free elections as did Great Malvern Abbey. The Cistercians coughed up £5000 to cover all their foundations. The practice continued in the reign of Henry VIII. In 1514 Evesham paid £160 for a free election and further £100 was added to the bill for a certain cleric called Wolsey. Later in his career he took to charging for appointment to office. The abbot of Gloucester was supposed to have paid Wolsey £100 for the job as did the abbots of Chester and Peterborough.
Of course, 1514 was the year the Wolsey became Bishop of York. The office was followed by the title of cardinal the following year. As a bishop Wolsey had the right to carry out visitations within his diocese. Effectively bishops could demand to see an abbey or priory’s accounts and make enquiries into the moral solvency of a foundation. Wolsey could not only to pry into the corners of Yorkshire’s monastic soul but also the dioceses of Winchester, Durham and Bath and Wells. In 1518 he became a Papal Legate and his rights to stick his nose into abbey habits became nationwide. The following year Wolsey sent three Augustinians off to visit all Augustinian foundations and it would certainly appear that he had it in for the Augustinians if the list of suppressed monasteries in this post is anything to go by. Supporters of Wolsey identify his reforming vigour. Opponents are more likely to comment on the visitation as a strategy for extortion.
In 1523 he was voted a monastic subsidy – think of it as a clerical tax headed for the chubby paws of the cardinal. It should also be noted that monasteries made an incredibly generous number of financial gifts to England’s spiritual leader. Whalley Abbey sent him £22 for example.
Later when Wolsey fell from favour and the charges against him were drawn up the suppression of the twenty-nine monasteries featured on the list as did his habit of sending his employees to influence monastic elections not only of abbots and priors but also of high stewards. The charges of praemunire include one of “crafty persuasions.”
But back to Wolsey’s suppressions. There is a note in Henry VIII’s letters and state papers sent to Master Doctor Higden the first dean and former fellow of Magdalen College on the 21 June 1527: Of the late monasteries of St. Frideswide, Liesnes, Poghley, Sandwell, Begham, Tykforde, Thobye, Stanesgat, Dodneshe, Snape, Tiptre, Canwell, Bradwell, Daventrie, Ravenston; of lands in cos. of Essex and Suffolk; Calceto, Wykes, Snape; of monasteries suppressed in cos. Stafford, Northampton, Bucks, Oxford and Berks; Tonbridge, in Kent; and in Sussex.
List of monastic foundations suppressed by Cardinal Wolsey
- St Frideswide, Oxford. (Augustinian)
- St Peter and St Paul Priory, Ipswich. (Augustinian)
- Bayham Abbey (Premonstratsensian)
- Begham Priory
- Blythburgh Priory (Augustinian)
- Bradwell Priory (Benedictine)
- Bromehill Priory (Augustinian) – Suppressed in 1528 by Dr Legh.
- Canwell Priory (Benedictine)
- Daventry Priory (Cluniac)
- Dodnash Priory (Augustinian)
- Farewell Priory (Benedictine nuns)
- Felixstowe Priory (Benedictine)
- Horkesley Priory (Cluniac)
- Lesnes Abbey (Augustinian)
- Medmenham Priory (Augustinian) Medmenham would later be the site of the notorious eighteenth century Hellfire Club.
- Mountjoy Priory (Augustinian)
- Poughley Priory (Augustinian) – Thomas Cromwell valued it at £10
- Pynham Priory (known as Calceto) (Augustinian)
- Ravenstone Priory (Augustinian)
- Rumburgh Priory (Benedictine)
- Sandwell Priory (Benedictine)
- Snape Priory (Benedictine)
- Stanesgate Priory (Cluniac) – Visited by Dr Layton.
- Thoby Priory (Augustinian)
- Tiptree Priory (Augustinian)
- Tickford Priory (Augustinian)
- Tonbridge Priory (Augustinian)
- Wallingford Priory (Benedictine)
- Wix Priory (Benedictine nuns)
The value of the monasteries that Wolsey closed came to £1800 – or one decent sized manor. He used his administrative team to evaluate and suppress the monasteries. Thomas Cromwell would use the same men on a far grander scale from 1535 onwards.
Butler, Lionel and Given-Wilson, Chris. (1979) Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain. London: Michael Joseph
Heale, Martin. (2016) The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hutchinson, Robert (2007) Thomas Cromwell: The Rise And Fall Of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister London: Orion
‘Henry VIII: November 1528, 11-20’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4, 1524-1530, ed. J S Brewer (London, 1875), pp. 2134-2150. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol4/pp2134-2150 [accessed 24 April 2018].
‘Houses of Cluniac monks: Priory of Stanesgate’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2, ed. William Page and J Horace Round (London, 1907), pp. 141-142. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol2/pp141-142 [accessed 24 April 2018].