Purgatory be damned

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery by Geoffrey Moorhouse
    Weidenfeld, 283 pp, £25.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 297 85089 2

The focus of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book is a great church with one of the most recognisable profiles in Europe: Durham Cathedral. The ‘last office’ – ‘office’ in its specialised meaning of a communal act of worship – was the last sung service of the Benedictine monks, which closed their life at Durham in the time of Henry VIII, on 31 December 1539. This is where Moorhouse starts, in a study of Durham that is more than just a study of Durham, and which is enriched by his usual stylish prose and eye for detail. The book would be a good place to begin if one wanted to understand the life of medieval English Benedictines and the brilliant bureaucratic and political skills that destroyed their world in the 1530s.

That New Year’s Eve was an end, but also a beginning, because Henry was planning something new for the vast Romanesque church on the loop of the River Wear. The cathedral was now his ‘New Foundation’, a freshly founded corporation of dean, prebendaries and ancillary staff created out of the cathedral priory in 1540; but it also remained the ancient church, with its penumbra of monastery buildings, complete enough to lend themselves for a scene or two in Harry Potter movies. Durham houses the tomb of early medieval Europe’s greatest historian, Bede, and that of another Anglo-Saxon monk, Cuthbert, probably a more effective bishop of Durham in death than in life. Cuthbert was also the name of the 16th-century bishop who did his best to steer the cathedral through the early Reformation: the thoughtfully traditionalist theologian and mathematical writer Cuthbert Tunstall (‘Dreaming Durham’, they called him at the time). It is through the prism of Durham, with its generous archive surviving from the Reformation and long before, that Moorhouse surveys Henry’s wider enterprise, which left England after 1540 with just one ghost of a monastery, out of around eight hundred corporate foundations standing in England and Wales eight years before. The story has often been told, but such an astonishing act of bureaucratic destruction bears revisiting, and there is no better vantage-point than the high peninsula above the Wear, looking south towards the sealing-wax and counting-houses of Westminster.

One of the oddities of the medieval Church in England was that more than half its cathedrals doubled as monasteries. This was very unusual elsewhere in Latin Catholic Europe, and occurred only in places with some English influence; the peculiarity dated from a reforming mood among kings and bishops in Anglo-Saxon times, when monasteries seemed the guarantors of best practice in the Church. The bishop was the nominal abbot of such a cathedral, even if he was not actually a monk: the real head, equivalent of a dean or provost in non-monastic cathedrals, was the prior, and so these exceptionally stately monastic houses were called ‘cathedral priories’. Henry VIII dissolved them all, but then refounded them all apart from Coventry, a spare cathedral in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield which was demolished, and Bath Cathedral Priory, a nominal cathedral in Bath and Wells, which looked more like, and became, a large parish church. Henry even elevated some former monasteries to be cathedrals for the first time: Westminster Abbey, Gloucester, Peterborough, Oxford, Bristol, Chester.

This was the most substantial change to the Church of England’s structure in the whole Reformation. Of the older cathedral priories, Durham was the most spectacular; its splendour signalled its bishop’s unique status in England as a prince-bishop like those in the Holy Roman Empire, with six gunners included among the episcopal staff in the 1530s. There cannot have been many churches in Christendom possessing a seven-branched candlestick 38 feet high, its paschal candle rearing up another 30 feet; not many cathedrals, either, which excluded women except in a small space at the west marked off by a marble line in the floor. Durham Priory ran its own college for monks in Oxford – now disguised as Trinity College. The monks in Durham did well for themselves; in their huge dormitory, they each had a little bedroom compartment, and for about eight weeks of the year, at four liturgical intervals, they decamped from these cosy quarters to an abbey manor-house sited in pleasant water-meadows to enjoy ludi, or games, sustained by a distinctly unmonastic diet – lamb, dates, rice, figs, salmon.

One might forgive Protestants in the Reformation for thinking that it was all a bit much – St Benedict himself might have agreed. But Henry VIII was not a Protestant. That is not necessarily confusing, because monarchs in mainland Europe who did not break with the pope as Henry did still closed down monasteries or confiscated Church lands – the most eminent was the Holy Roman Emperor. Indeed, Cardinal Wolsey, the pope’s representative in England, had dissolved a number of monasteries in the 1520s to produce a de luxe school and even more de luxe university college: the difference was that this round of closures was more or less a redistribution within the Church’s system, unlike Henry’s secular grabbing of monastic lands and property. What is confusing about the dissolutions of the 1530s is the crabwise way in which England’s monasteries were attacked: Henry even founded two new houses in 1537 (one for monks, one for nuns) to pray for his soul and that of his wife Jane Seymour, but within two years he decided that he had enough prayers elsewhere, and dissolved them too. The problem for monasteries was that many devout Catholic Christians took their cue from the failed monk Erasmus, whose reaction to his failure was to condemn the monastic life as useless. One of Henry’s leading courtiers and fixers was Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and he was up to his neck in dissolving monasteries, while being one of the crustiest traditionalists among the peerage. Such men could view what was happening as a structural adjustment in Church and Commonwealth, with the proceeds from dissolution giving the king money to do what good English kings were supposed to do, fight France. Equally, they might applaud the idea of returning lands to laypeople, who might find better uses for them after centuries in the dead hand of the Church.

Protestants (or evangelicals, as they were generally known in the 1530s) might accept such propositions, but they had different priorities: they despised the late medieval industry of prayer for the dead, and monasteries were above all prayer factories. So when, in 1536, Bishop Hugh Latimer wrote to Henry VIII just after the passage of a Parliamentary act dissolving smaller monasteries, he made a sharp political point, although with an inexact grasp of Church history: ‘The founding of monasteries argued purgatory to be; so the putting of them down argueth it not to be . . . Now it seemeth not convenient the Act of Parliament to preach one thing, and the pulpit another clean contrary.’ Thomas Cranmer too wanted purgatory cut down to size, and he was delighted to see monks dispersed, especially those at his own cathedral at Canterbury, but he was remarkably restrained in his personal pickings from the dissolutions.

Not so the king’s chief minister throughout the whole process, Thomas Cromwell, who, even aside from landed estates, did very well out of the anxiety of monks and nuns to keep him sweet: nuns’ cooking, game, money were all very acceptable. Yet, discreetly, Cromwell was an evangelical in a fairly radical mode, and he shared Cranmer’s relish in seeing the monasteries go; he also used one of his most reliable leading assistants (who was both a bishop and an ex-friar) to close all the friaries in 1538, removing at a stroke a host of mainly conservative pulpits. Closing monasteries may have been Cromwell’s downfall, because almost the last to go in 1540 (even later than Durham) was Thetford Cluniac Priory in Norfolk, mausoleum for the Howard family. It is clear that the Duke of Norfolk was battling to save Thetford and turn it into a secular college of priests to tend his family corpses. But there was no successor institution at the dissolution, and the duke’s realisation that there was nothing in the pipeline may have been the moment at which he decided that Cromwell must go. A month or two later, Norfolk personally ripped the Garter insignia from Cromwell’s clothing when the minister was arrested and sent to his death in the Tower.

It was probably the mix of motives among those involved that enabled Henry to get away with the most audacious act of vandalism in England in centuries. In particular, there was never any official condemnation of monastic life to alienate traditionalists in religion. The first Act of Suppression of 1536 actually praised ‘divers and great solemn monasteries of this realm wherein, thanks be to God, religion is right well kept and observed’, and it explained that to dissolve smaller monasteries would strengthen monastic life. It also contained offers of exemptions for small monasteries with a will to survive and ready cash or a powerful patron, and that must have taken the sting out of Parliamentary opposition. About this time, the king also first experimented with converting a monastic cathedral, Norwich, into a chapter with dean, prebendaries and canons; he made the abbot of St Benet’s Hulme the new bishop of Norwich, and St Benet’s lands became those of the cathedral, while the Crown got the bulk of the old cathedral estates (predictably, larger than those of the new bishop). After this curious transaction, no one ever remembered to dissolve St Benet’s, and to this day the bishop of Norwich remains the abbot of its melancholy ruined gatehouse amid the Broads.

Still, none of Henry’s devices proved enough to stop a great rebellion in the North, the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace for the Commonwealth’, the kernel of which was popular fury at monastic dissolutions. The pilgrims requisitioned Durham Cathedral’s ancient banner of St Cuthbert to perform its usual job of ensuring victory on campaign. Cuthbert delivered the goods (unlike his episcopal namesake, who was hiding out in one of his castles), but the king cheated both saint and pilgrims: having conceded most of the rebels’ demands and even entertained their leader at court over Christmas, Henry played for time until he could provoke them into renewed protest and then exercised military brutality in the North.

The Pilgrimage’s defeat spurred a change of direction in 1537: dissolution first of larger monasteries which had actively encouraged the rebels, with some abbots hanged, and then closure of a random scattering of other houses through much of the realm. Now the surrenders were outside the Act of Parliament and were supposed to be voluntary acts by each monastic community. Soon there was an extra incentive in the shape of pensions for all who co-operated in surrenders; additionally, a significant number of abbots who had not been hanged, drawn and quartered had been won over by being made assistant bishops. There was something of a lull in 1538 while the friaries were put down – no rich financial pickings in these homes of apostolic poverty – but then the king’s urgent need for cash to pay for his new coastal defences against France prompted a final deluge of closures, Durham and the other monastic cathedrals included, during 1539. The last to go was a favoured royal abbey at Waltham Holy Cross, from where the composer Thomas Tallis was forced to set out to find a new career in spring 1540. And still no official statement had said that monasteries were bad things. The preamble to a second Act of Parliament in 1539 merely noted without much comment that there did not seem to be many monasteries around any more (I paraphrase), and that it was therefore important to confirm that the title of former monastic land was the king’s. Because of this lack of official condemnation, it was legally possible to set up new monasteries and nunneries in the 19th century, though Anglican bishops at the time were deeply unenthusiastic about them.

The fact that there were still bishops around to begrudge the refounding of monasteries in Victorian England is an indirect tribute to Henry VIII’s work of remodelling cathedrals and creating some from scratch. If his successor and son Edward VI had lived, they might have suffered the fate of cathedrals in Scotland, and been ruined or turned into parish churches, their bishops eventually dispersed or rendered powerless. But Edward died young and when his half-sister Elizabeth brought back Protestantism in 1558-59, she was not inclined to go even as far as Edward in forcing change. So the Church of England, more by luck than judgment, preserved far more of the old life of secular and monastic cathedrals than any other Protestant Church in Europe. That continuing tradition of beautiful music and ceremonial goes a long way to explaining the oddly Janus-like theological stance of the later Church of England, never quite sure whether to be Catholic or Protestant.

At Durham, a good proportion of monks stayed on as prebendaries and canons, together with the prior as a dean, comfortably ensconced in his old house, now the deanery. Most of them would have welcomed Mary’s restoration of the old Latin rite (though she did not restore the monastic chapter), and during a failed Catholic rebellion in 1569, some of them welcomed back the Mass to the cathedral. But when, as late as 1579, the last prebendary who was an ex-monk resigned, he was married with a family. He had witnessed decades of tension between those who had known the old monastic world at the cathedral and incomers sent by Edward or Elizabeth to be new brooms (or hatchet-wielders or bonfire-stokers). Beginning with Dean Horne under Edward, the career Protestants also brought wives who delighted in taking no notice of the marble line in the cathedral floor.

Two dates seem askew in Moorhouse’s text. First, St Cuthbert’s shrine was not stripped of its jewels at the dissolution of the priory in 1539 but in late 1537 or 1538, when other great monastic shrines were similarly despoiled. This is a matter of some importance, as events were moving very quickly at that point, and the stripping of the shrines marked a moment when much of the power evaporated from the monasteries: to take away their shrines was to take away the reason some of them had been founded, which softened them up for surrender. A slightly later instance of destruction also appears wrongly attributed to Dean Horne (though he smashed plenty in the cathedral and its precincts): the elaborate Corpus Christi canopy stored in the parish church of St Nicholas was destroyed before he arrived in Durham, by roving royal commissioners from London in summer 1547, one of whom jumped up and down on the unfortunate object to destroy it.

It is likely that the present evangelical congregation of St Nicholas would think little more of Corpus Christi canopies than Edward’s commissioners, but to compensate for such losses, there are objects of beauty enough now in Durham Cathedral, witnesses to a continuous tradition of cherishing the fabric from the Restoration of Charles II to the present day. Geoffrey Moorhouse knows this building well and loves it, which makes for an engaging chronicle of how Reformation descended on one of England’s most triumphal houses of God.