Remembering the Dissolution of the Monasteries

15 June 2023


Remembering the Dissolution of the Monasteries

Reported by Patrick McAlary, CSaP Policy Research Co-ordinator

CSaP’s Horn Fellows met with Dr Harriet Lyon, Lecturer in History and J. H. Plumb College Lecturer at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At the meeting held at Jesus College, Cambridge, Dr Lyon gave a talk entitled ‘Remembering the Dissolution of the Monasteries: Memory, History, Nostalgia’.

Dr Lyon started her talk with a question on transformations: why and when do we invest things with certain meanings? Relating the question to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (1536–40), Dr Lyon stated that this process utterly transformed English society and religion. She then pointed out that it was human agency and emotion that shaped the dissolution into a truly significant event, despite the fact that dissolutions had happened before, such as with the foundation of Jesus College in 1496.

Pruning Dead Leaves: The Dissolution of the Monasteries

Arguing that Henry VIII’s dissolution was total and this is why it is judged as significant, Dr Lyon emphasised that the process resulted in the appropriation of the lands held by the monasteries which accounted for approximately one-third of all land in England. She then expressed that Henry VIII, named defender of the faith in 1521 for his defence of the Catholic Church against the attacks of Martin Luther, had only changed his attitudes towards the Church by the 1530s as part of his attempts to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Dr Lyon stated that after declaring himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534, Henry VIII found himself on a collision course with the monasteries, which were the most visible bastions of Catholicism in the country and were rooted in a structure that Henry VIII had rejected.

As Dr Lyon explained, the process that we now know as the dissolution began with a common claim to root out corruption in the monasteries— the attack was not directed against monasticism itself. She continued her talk by emphasising that the result was that monasticism was never ‘officially’ abolished, it simply no longer existed.

Relics of the Past: Memory and the Dissolution

Dr Lyon pointed out that Henry VIII did not want the dissolution to be remembered as an ‘event’, but its critics, who included Catholics and Reformers alike, albeit for different reasons, did not allow this. The monasteries remained visible but unusable and Dr Lyon argued that the monasteries became relics through which an early modern present situated itself against a medieval past. She discussed that as objects that could be seen and touched, but had been demonstrably changed, the monasteries' continued existence fed into an historical anxiety about that past that became increasingly prominent in people’s minds. In this way, the dissolution came to accrue significance and crystallise into a defining event, a deliberate and irrevocable iconoclasm that created a rupture between the medieval and early modern periods. Dr Lyon suggested that the dissolution produced a new Protestant world that looked and felt demonstrably different from the world represented by the corpses of the old monasteries, even if people had not really signed up for Protestantism.

Dr Lyon’s seminar provoked a lively response from the Horn Fellows, with questions related to the logistics of the dissolution and concurrent appropriation of land to the fate of those monks, nuns, and monastic tenants who lived through the event. The subject of how people felt about the dissolution in the present was also brought up, and Dr Lyon discussed the role of the historian in interpreting such events. At the end of the seminar, Dr Lyon left the fellows with a thorny historiographical question: should the dissolution of the monasteries be laid squarely at the feet of Henry VIII or was he simply a figurehead?

Image by Lison Zhao on Unsplash.

Patrick McAlary

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge