Watching a TV show about England, I saw several ruined abbeys, but the narrator never mentioned why those buildings had been abandoned. The easy assumption is that they simply fell into disrepair throughout the centuries, but there’s a more definitive answer for most of them.

Henry VIII (1491-1547) became king of England in 1509. He is most famous, at least in the United States, for having six wives and for splitting with the Catholic Church. He separated from the Catholic Church because he wanted to trade in one wife for another and the Pope refused to allow him to divorce. The Pope didn’t seem to be sympathetic to the king’s need for a male heir. Or for a younger wife.

"Portrait of King Henry VIII. Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543). No. 1350.". Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK. Photo:  Mike Peel ( via Wikimedia Commons

“Portrait of King Henry VIII. Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543). No. 1350.”. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK. Photo: Mike Peel ( via Wikimedia Commons

By the Act of Supremacy in 1534, Henry VIII named himself as the head of the Church of England. This meant he was also in control of all of the religious houses, the wealthiest institutions in England and Wales. When he became king in 1509, there were 850 religious houses (which included monasteries, abbeys, priories, nunneries and friaries). They had been accumulating wealth over the course of centuries, much of it in the form of bequests from members of the church. They also owned up to one-third of all the land.

Coincidentally, Henry VIII had an extravagant lifestyle and some expensive wars to pay for and no desire to convene Parliament to raise taxes. With the religious houses in his power, he now had the means to raise some serious cash, and at the same time, remove those who may be more loyal to the Catholic Church than to him.

So began what we now call the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The 1536 Act of Suppression allowed Henry VIII to dissolve all religious houses with annual incomes of less than £200. He acted quickly to remove the wealth from those houses. Remember, this wasn’t cash in the bank to be accessed electronically, but actual metals, gems and coins. He didn’t want those riches to disappear.

There were some obstacles. The Catholic faith was especially strong in the North of England. In October of 1536, in what we call the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebel army of 20,000-40,000 marched to York to demand that the monasteries be reopened. Promises were made and broken by the king’s men, rebel leaders were arrested, and about 200 people were executed.

The second Act of Suppression was in 1539, and this allowed for the dissolution of the larger houses. Ownership was transferred to the Crown. Some of the properties were sold at pennies on the pound to landowners and gentry, who were suddenly very rich and suddenly very loyal to Henry VIII.

But many properties fell quickly to ruin. Monastic libraries, with their illustrated manuscripts, were destroyed.  People pulled bricks from the walls and lead from the roofs to use for their own building projects.

Whitby Abbey. Photo: Cathy Hanson

Whitby Abbey. Photo: Cathy Hanson

By 1540, in only four short years, over 800 religious houses had been dissolved. These places were home to more than 10,000 monks, nuns and friars. Some were given pensions, but that’s a lot of people to all be searching for jobs at the same time. But Henry VIII had a major infusion of wealth, a new class of loyal subjects and control over religion. It’s good to be king.

***I first heard this song in my formative years, and still can’t think of Henry VIII without hearing this in the background. “I’m Henry VIII I Am” by Herman’s Hermits. Give it a listen. You’re welcome.