Sunday 16 August 2020

British Monasteries: Their rise and fall


                                                            THE INSPIRATION                                                   

The temptation of Christ, his 40 days and 40 nights in the Judaean desert is, in all probability, the seed that led to individual hermits imitating this life of isolation. The ideology being that if one could stay free of the temptation of sensual pleasures, and with a secluded prayer-focused life, they would be nourished by a deeper level of satisfaction and fulfilment leading eventually to a blissful union with God, in Heaven. The early Christian hermits seemed to have heeded the words of Jesus who had said, "if you want to be perfect, go,and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasures in Heaven, and come, follow me" These inspirational hermits, originally living in desert caves, excited the minds of numerous men and women and, during the course of time, many of these follows began to be organised into small communities.

It is probable that many of the Christian hermits did indeed, live their whole lives in solitude, striving in their own unique way to grow closer to God. They could have been sustained by gifts of food supplied by the generosity of curious visitors. Other hermits seemed to have become more like the disciples of Jesus and, through their teaching and personal charisma, a few became known as 'the fathers and founders of desert monasticism'.

Archaeology seems to suggest that in the desert of Jordan, on the plain to the east and south of Jericho, these early Christian desert dwellers constructed their own shelters, which were to be known as "cells" The concentration of clay in the local sediments formed hard layers that are evident in the landscape. These 'steps' prevent drift and this allowed the hermits to quarry the local stone from the natural layers of gypsum to construct their cells. The walls were bound together using a locally made mortar. The ceilings would have been constructed with the use of wood beams topped with rush mats coated with a chalky lime. The window frames and doors were strengthened by using the branches of poplar and tamarisk.

                                                           MONKS AND NUNS

The male hermits eventually became known as monks. The word 'monk' seems to have come from the ancient Greek and can be translated as meaning 'solitary'. In Greek the word relates to both men and women. Women hermits were also present in the desert as they looked to dedicate their lives to emulating Jesus Christ. These women tended to be virgins or widows and called themselves 'spouses of Christ' or 'brides of Christ'. Their veils symbolised their marriage to Jesus and today we know them as nuns. It is possible that the word 'nun' is from the latin 'nonna,' which is a term of endearment for a grandmother.

The early Christian monks would have adjusted to this austere way of life by becoming self-reliant. They would have survived by consuming dates, chicory leaves, desert herbs vegetables and water. By making ropes and baskets from palm leaves, it was possible that these were exchanged for bread from visitors. As the years tumbled away many more inquisitive human souls strode forth into the desert , searching for spiritual enlightenment and counsel from the desert fathers so they could pursue a path to everlasting life. Certain personalities of these fathers began to carve their names forever in the annuls of early Christian history.

                                                     THE EARLY SAINTS

From within this saturation of Christianity, arguably, three men led the way forward for the future of the desert hermits. All three eventually would be known as saints.

 Saint Anthony (b.271-d.356) was born at Koma, near Herakleopolis Magna in Lower Egypt, was possibly the inspiration, through his Christian teaching, for the minds of the hermits living the austere life in the desert. He did not organise or create a monastery, but a community grew around him based upon his example of living an ascetic and isolated life in search of spiritual enlightenment. 

Another saint, Pachomius (b.292-d.348) from Thebes, was converted to Christianity and baptised in the year 314, seems to have been responsible for organising both male and female Christian hermits into a formal organisation. His first monastery was established at Tabennisi, around the year 318, and sometime later another at Pabau. For forty years Pachomius was abbot to the Cenobites, and by the time of his death eight monasteries followed his guidance. 

The third saint, Amun (b.294-d.357) was born at Mariotis, in Egypt. He was responsible, in the Nitrian desert, for organising a semi-hermitic lifestyle where small groups of monks and nuns, with a common spiritual elder, joined together to worship on Saturdays and Sundays.

                                            THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES

Many Christian communities survived the Diocletianic  Persecution (303-311) as issued by the four Roman emperors of that era which included Diocletian, Constantius, Galerius and Maximian. Their edicts rescinded the legal rights of Christians, including the clergy, which ordered all to sacrifice to the Roman Gods.

But in 306 the Roman emperor Constantine the Great began a transition that would be responsible for Christianity becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Although Constantine himself, it seems, was not baptised until shortly before his death.

 Consequently the flow of Christian disciples ebbed forward into the wilderness and the shadows of Syria, North Africa and then into Western Europe.

The first reference to a monastery in Spain was, apparently, in a letter from St. Augustine of Hippo (b.354-d.430) to the abbot of the monastery at Cabrera, an island located in the Mediterranean off the southern coast of Majorca written in 398. Another saint, John Cassian (b.360-d.435) and possibly born in Dobruja, a region shared today by Bulgaria and Romania was responsible, around 415, for encouraging monastic life both for men and women in Marseille, on the Mediterranean coast of France.

Closer to England and protruding defiantly, in solitude and isolation, from within the pounding Atlantic Ocean, sits a small island, composed of Devonian sandstone, now known as Skellig Michael. This island is 12 kilometres south west of Valentia island in the County of Kerry, in Ireland. Skellig Michael has one of the best preserved early monasteries in Europe. It is constructed nearly 200 metres above sea level and faces southward, which helps to shelter it from the cold penetrating winds. The monastery has the remains of two boat-shaped oratories and six corbelled 'bee-hive' huts. Approximately 600 steps originally led up to the monastery. The 'bee-hives' were round on the outside with slates slanting downwards to keep out the rain. Inside 'bee-hives' were rectangular walls, curving inward, to form a corbelled roof. Sleeping platforms/shelves were built into the walls.

The community harvested water from the wells on site and would have survived on a diet of fish, roasted sea-birds and bird's eggs and perhaps even vegetables grown on sheltered terraces. From the monastery's cemetery some of the skeletal remains have been analysed. Some were of children and their remains indicate that to earn their keep they were used as 'beasts of burden'. Most of the monastery's hermit lives on earth seem to end when they were aged between 20 or 30 years old. One individual survived at least until his 50th year.

It has been suggested that this 6th century monastery was founded by Saint Fionan/Finnian (b. 470-d. 549) who was one of the early Irish saints and, therefore, one of the fathers of Irish monasticism. It is recorded that the monastery was eventually abandoned to the elements during the 13th century when the monks retreated to the monastery at Ballinskelligs. In later years the Skellig Michael became a place of pilgrimage.

I have not yet visited this historic early monastery but I feel, that when I do, I shall be surrounded and embraced by a unique atmosphere which has travelled over space and time, from the deserts of Jordan and Egypt and has been replicated here on this isolated island. ( Pictures of this island can be view via the internet).

                                                 MAINLAND OF IRELAND

On the mainland of Ireland there evolves a complication of how to seek a higher spiritual life by abandoning the world, for here there were 'landowners' who were the Celtic tribes, submissive to their tribal kings. Possibly all the tribes/clans were pagans, as the Romans never conquered Ireland.

It seems that the earliest monasteries in Ireland were small settlements where Anchorites lived permanently as individuals or in small groups. They lived in beehive-shaped cells, constructed of un-mortared slaps of stone. Nearby would have been a number of oratories. These simple oratories were constructed of oak and thatched with reeds. They would have been used separately by monks and nuns.

Irish history is vague concerning this early Christian period, although it is believed by some historians that Dathi was the last pagan king of Ireland. He could have reigned from 404 until 427. Whether he was a king of kings or just a local territorial king is unclear. Around 427 a king named Laeghaire, probably became the first Christian king of Ireland, converted by St Patrick? During 431 Pope Caelestinus the First, sent a bishop by the name of Palladius to encourage the Christian faith.

As Christianity was absorbed by more and more pagans the local royal families would have felt the need to organise control of these early expanding monasteries. This control was initially embraced by the island's Druids who were the Celtic priests/ministers. The Celtic peoples entrusted to the Druids ritual leadership, theology, philosophy and their system of law. Mostly the Druids were related to the High Chieftains/Kings. These Druids believed in immortality and therefore would have accepted Christianity as a valid form of worship. Through the influence of the Druids, many sacred pagan places were retained as Christian sites. Pagan temples became Celtic churches which were built on pagan places of worship, therefore items of tribute were perhaps accumulated in the church rather than being deposited, and even lost forever, within sacred lakes. (To the Celts the land was a living being). There are still places where the remnants of pagan tradition can be seen in the context of Celtic Christianity. These are high crosses of which some still remain. ( Some can be viewed via the internet ). The later monks within the monasteries would also be the siblings of the royal families. These monks would have been granted land on which to build monasteries so, consequently, the monasteries were entwined financially and politically with the ruling dynasties.

Ireland, in this early Christian period, was a country in transition, from a nature-based Celtic religious system to a monastic, Christian one. During this period a number of Christian disciples emerged, some having a significant impact in encouraging the local inhabitants to believe that their spiritual health was in need of enlightenment and development which could lead, eventually, to an everlasting life in Heaven. some of the more documented missionaries became revered as saints.

                                                      THE LATER SAINTS

Saint Patrick is perhaps the most well-known Irish saint and the 17th of March is celebrated as St Patrick's Day. He was a Romano-British Christian missionary, known as the " Apostle of Ireland" It seems that Patrick, when a youth, was snatched away from his home in England by Irish pirates to serve as a slave in Ireland. When he was about 22 years old he escaped, became a cleric and by the 7th century was recognised as the Patron Saint of Ireland. Perhaps those years when he was held in captivity were the platform for stimulating his spiritual development. On his return to Ireland around 432, he became an active missionary and is generally credited as being the first Bishop of Armagh. Un fortunately, the dates of his life cannot be fixed with certainty, although it has been suggested that he may have died around 461. There is a statue of him at Saul, county down, and a white oratory at the top of Croagh Patrick, County Mayo.( This can be view on the internet ).

Another charismatic, historical character of Celtic Christianity was St Columba ( St Colmcille ), he was born in 521 at Gartan,  County Donegal and died in 597 at Lona. He was responsible for the founding of the monasteries at Durrow and Derry. He was recognised as the Patron Saint of Derry, where his monastery was founded in 540. Interestingly, it appears that the Catholic church of St Columba's Long Tower stands upon the spot of this original settlement. In 563 the current of life sweeps Columba and a number of companions from mainland Ireland to the white beaches of the Island of Iona, where Columba founded a monastery. This being a small island in the Inner Hebrides, off  Ross of Mull, on the western coast of Scotland. The Inner Hebrides was part of the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, as the ruling family if the Irish Dalriada had crossed into Scottish Dalriada sometime during the 5th century and consequently, Dunadd and Dunolly/Dunollie  became their main strongholds.

 St Columba was of royal descent from an Irish king in the 5th century, Niall of the Nine Hostages, although it is unclear whether Columba was banished politically into exile or just went as a Celtic Christian missionary. St Columba and his fellow missionaries inaugurated Christianity around the area of Argyll and Bute. The influential St Columba, in 574, helped raise Aedan to the kingship of the Scottish Dalriada.

It seems then, that the Celtic church was essentially a missionary church and monastic in its organisation. Many communicable Christian disciples established, during the 6th century, numerous oratories ( chapels ), not only in Ireland but in Scotland, Gaul, Wales, Cornwall and in the north of England, where the monk Aidan of Iona preached with vigour between the Forth and the Humber. St Aidan was to become recognised as 'the apostle of Northumbria'.

The monastery at Lindisfarne/Holy Island, was the original headquarters/ Mother church, of the Celtic Christians in the north, here a see was attached, and at the request of the Northumbrian king Oswald, Aidan became their first bishop and he was consecrated in the year 635.

                                                  THE CHRISTIAN WOMEN

Within this time zone women were also proactive in their missionary ambitions and, arguably, two names still glow brightly within the recorded history of monasticism in Ireland and in County Durham, North East England. St Brigid, born about 451 at Faughat, in County Louth, and died in 523 in Kildare, Ireland, was one of  Ireland's patron saints. It seems that the king of Leinster, around 470-480, donated land to St Brigid upon which she founded a double monastery at Kildare,which housed both men and women. Brigid presided over both communities. These establishments of double monasteries, were not looked upon with favour by the Roman church.

St Hilda was another early Irish Celtic Christian nun who was from royal lineage. It is recorded that her elder sister, Hereswith, married Aethelhere the king of East Anglia. She also became a saint and died in France in 647. Bede tells us that Hilda was born in 614 and in 657 she became the founding Abbess of the new monastery at Whitby, North Yorkshire, it was then known as Streonshalh. She remained there until her death in 680. The main source of information about St Hilda is to be found in the 'Ecclesiastical History of the English' by the Venerable Bede, written in 731.


Bede, who died at the monastery at Jarrow in 735, also tells us about the Synod of Whitby in 664, which was  held at Hilda's double monastery at Streonshalh ( now known as Whitby). It was presided over by King Oswiu of Northumbria. This Synod was to debate the two differing liturgical traditions regarding the celebration of Easter by the Celtic and Roman Christians.

This thorn of disharmony had been penetrating Christianity for some period of time. History tells us that the 6th century Irish missionary St Columban ( b 540  d 615 in Italy ), who founded a monastery at Luxeuil in France, was criticized in 603 by a synod of French bishops for keeping Easter to the Celtic rather than the Roman ceremonial observance.

The Synod of Whitby had been instigated by the Northumbrian royal family as there had grown a visible disunity within their court. While one royal faction was celebrating Easter, the other would still be fasting during lent. The king had been converted through the ministry of Aidan, Celtic traditions and calendar, while his queen Enfleda followed the teaching of Paulinus who was connected with Augustine's Roman mission.

The Ionan  calculation of Easter was argued by Colman, then the Bishop of Northumbria, and the Roman practice was presented by Wilfrid. King Oswiu  presided over the synod and acted as the final judge, and would then give his royal authority in support of his final decision.

It transpires that after listening to much discussion, the king puts before the gathering a pivotal question: do both parties agree that Christ had given the 'keys to the kingdom of heaven' to Peter and pronounced that he would be "the rock" on which his church would be built? Both parties agreed. Consequently, the king bestowed his favour upon the Roman practice, and therefore the Northumbrian church entered into the mainstream of Roman culture.

 Consequently Colman and his supporters who did not wish to change their practices withdraw to Iona and the monk Cuthbert, later to be known as St Cuthbert, takes control of the monastery at Linisfarne where he tries to implement to the monks, The Rule of St Benedict.

 In time the episcopal seat of Northumbria is transferred from Lindisfarne to York as Colman resigns and the future Bishop in time would be Wilfrid. ( How the Celtic/Roman Christians calculated their differing dates for Easter can be studied in more detail on the internet ).

                                                THE LATER MISSIONARIES

In the later part of the 6th century as the Celtic missionaries begin to expand into continental Europe, Pope Gregory the Great, in Rome, cast's his eyes towards the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south of England.

 This Pope on the death of his father began to convert the family villa into a working monastery and such was his dedication to Christianity that he summoned a prior by the name of Augustine in 595, to lead a mission of monks to south east England, where they were apparently greeted, on their arrival, by the then pagan king, Aethelberht.  

This was a wise choice by the Pope as Aethelberht, although a pagan, had married Bertha a Frankish  princess in 580 on condition that she still be allowed to practice her Christian religion. Consequently a former Roman church was restored for her to be used as her private chapel. This church was dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours and the present St Martin's church continues on the same site, therefore Christian worship has taken place here since 580 A.D.

King Aethelberht, as well as converting to Christianity, grants land to the missionaries and outside the then city walls of Canterbury the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul is founded. During the course of time both Augustine and Bertha are consecrated as saints.

While Canterbury is established as the primatial see of England, Augustine engages with a congregation of Welsh bishops as he tries to unify the British ( Celtic ) churches of North Wales and the churches he is founding in Kent. His efforts fail. And it is more than 150 years on ( 768 A D ) that they conform to the Roman Easter. But, he is successful in establishing the episcopal sees of London (  East Saxon ) and of Rochester.

                               THE ORIGINS OF THE RULE OF ST BENEDICT

It seems that Benedict as a former hermit, became aware of the difficulties and spiritual dangers of living a life of solitude. His rule helped to guide the monks that were living within a community.

There was nothing austere or exacting within it, for it just encouraged the spirit of moderation and
reasonableness. The monks day was to be a balance of prayer, work, study and when required the education of the local boys.

The monasteries should be self sufficient and self contained so there would be no reason for the monks to venture outside its boundaries.

St Benedict himself was an Italian monk and he preached in the area of Cassino, which is between Rome and Naples. He was supported by his sister Scholastica, who was to become the head of a nunnery, while Benedict, in 529 founded a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Seemingly as monachism was derived from Ireland and Rome, these two independent Christian sources would developed certain customs and traditions insular to themselves. It was not just the dating of Easter that held back their unification as there where issues regarding baptism, the consecration of churches and bishops, the tonsure and the liturgy. Also many of the Celtic monasteries engaged both monks and nuns and were presided over by an abbess. All of these would not be resolved for many more generations to come.

                                                  THE QUEST CONTINUES

During the later part of the 7th century two aristocratic clerics engrave their names within the history of monachism in England. They are to become known as St. Benidict Biscop,  and St. Wilfrid.

St Wilfrid ( b 633 d 710 ) was, it seems, a controversial character but he's resilient and buoyant and a committed  missionary. He is responsible for founding Selsey Abbey ( 681 ) on land granted to him by Aethelwealh, king of the South Saxons. The see was moved to Chichester in 1075 and its possible that the original abbey was on the site of the old parish church of Church Norton.

He was educated at Lindisfarne and studied in Canterbury, in Gaul and Rome, and had quarrels with various secular figures including the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Theodore of Tarus. None the less he founded the monasteries at Ripon ( 658 ) and at Hexham ( 674 ). Uniquely, both were eventually to be built using stone, erected by stonemasons and glaziers from the continent. Monasteries were to be the first stone buildings in England since the Romans.

St Benidict Biscop ( b 628 d 690 ) was a contemporary of St Wilfrid and they had travelled together to Rome, and during his life, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, St Theodore appointed Biscop as the Abbot of the local monastery SS Peter and Paul's. This would have been around 669.

The then king of Northumberland, Ecgfrith, was sympathetic towards Biscop and granted him much land upon which to build, and in due course Biscop founded a 'double house' abbey. Built first was St Peter's at Monkwearmouth in 674. This was followed with the founding of St Paul's at Jarrow in 684.
Both were to be built using stone in the Pre-Romanesque style by skilled workmen from abroad. This abbey was to become a centre of Anglo-Saxon learning (Bede).

Part of this monastery, known as Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, held a scriptorium. Its most revered work was producing a copy of the Codex Amiatinus, a volume containing the whole of the bible. It was a Latin Vulgate (common ) 5th century version which was to become a gift for Pope Gregory 11 in 716.

Biscop was also responsible for encouraging the development of a small library at Jarrow, for many of the books that he had collected on his travels found a home here. Seemingly most would have been secular works, scriptures and books of a classical nature.

It seems then, as the years had tumbled by and evaporated into the heaven of the unremembered past, many monasteries had become part of the 'silk-road' of religious culture, which was supplemented by their art work.

It came to pass that numerous monasteries were, and had been producing magnificent illuminated manuscripts, of which some held interlaced decoration. Some have survived to the present day and arguably the most famous is the Lindisfarne Gospels which is now housed in the British Library. It was produced to honour God and St Cuthbert and instigated by Eadfrith the Bishop of Lindisfarne, until his death in 721. The manuscript relays, in 250 leaves, which are in latin the story of the four Gospels.


In the library of Trinity College in Dublin is the Book of Durrow. This work includes the Gospels of the four saints, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. and was possibly written in the mid 5th century. It is written in insular script which was developed in Ireland and then spread by the monks into Anglo-Saxon England and then on to the continent.

Another 'eye catching' and stunning manuscript is the Book of Kells, perhaps composed by the monks within the monastery on the island of Iona around the later part of the 8th century. This 'bible' is graced with the four Gospels of the New Testament. It is a work of extravagance and complexity. Celtic knots in interlacing patterns are seen, as are figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, and all are adorned in vibrant colours. In all there are 680 pages ( 340 leaves ) and it resides at Trinity College in Dublin.


Well then... from the austere unostentatious and unsophisticated world of worship, Christianity was under-going a metamorphosis of a varied transformation, until that is, of the unexpected arrival of the long-haired and murderous pagans.

                                                         THE VIKINGS

Sometime on the 8th of June in 793, the doors of the Mother church at Lindisfarne burst open, and for the monks inside it was apocalyptic and terrifying. Many were murdered and perhaps the younger and fitter looking monks were enslaved.

The Viking attacks on Christian churches and monasteries were easy targets for plunder, as they were undefended and many held much wealth. These brutal pursuits were just for monetary gain and had no religious agender. 

The abbey on Iona was subject to numerous barbaric raids over the next three decades, and after a most murderous attack during 806 many monks relocated to the abbey of Kells in Ireland. This site was about 40 miles north of Dublin, and was consecrated in 814, but sadly this abbey too was eventually soiled by the Vikings.

During 875, and due to the sporadic raids by the pagans, Eardwulf the then bishop of the Mother church at Lindisfarne, relocates with his congregation of monks to Cumbria, where Guthred the Danish king of York, grants land to this incoming community of St Cuthbert. Upon this land, at Chester-Le-Street a new church is built and it is here that St Cuthbert's body is interred. In all probability in time this was to become the site for the magnificent Durham cathedral.

The two important houses of Wearmouth and Jarrow were pillaged and its precious library destroyed and during the 9th century the abbey was abandoned to the elements. 

The Anglo-Saxon 7th century double monastery at Repton in Derbyshire, was also  abandoned in 873 when the 'Great Heathen Army' fell upon it. This army had landed in East Anglia in 865 and were determined to tear- apart Anglo- Saxon England. They were a coalition of Norse warriors from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, formed to occupy and conquer all of the Anglo-Saxon provinces.

London, York, Hexham, Whitby, all fell by the wayside and their cultural life and political unity was suffocated by the avalanche of pagan violence.

All but a few of the Anglo-Saxon buildings in the 7th/8th centuries were constructed using degradable materials, so those that were not destroyed by the invaders, just crumbled and disintegrated and were forgotten.

                                                       THE RESURRECTION

During second half of the 10th century the Phoenix of monachism begins to arise from its ashes and, with passion and belief the resurrection begins, fuelled with the will of the then king, affectionately known as Edgar the Peaceful ( b 943 d 975 ) who reigned from 959 until his death, as he looks to restore the spiritual guardship of the nation. The king is supported in his quest by the following three prominent individuals.

St Dunston ( b 909 d 988 ) the Archbishop of Canterbury, a noble by birth, and counsellor to the king, was the person responsible for reorganising the monastic way of life in England. He was assisted by Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and Bishop Oswald of Worcester. Because of their combined efforts a number of important religious houses were founded or re-established. Abingdon, Evesham, Pershore, Winchester and Worcester became outstanding centres of monastic resurrection.

All were required to adhere to the Rule of St Benedict which was written in 516 by the Italian abbot Benedict of Nursia. This was a fundamental but meaningful daily guide for individual and autonomous communities.

The disciples had spread the 'word' well and as the 10th century drew to a close over thirty monasteries and six nunneries bore the fruits of much labour, and these included Peterborough, Westminster and the two abbeys of Ely and Ramsey, both of which are situated in the Fens.

Many of the cathedrals also become monasteries as Anglo-Saxon aristocrats donate land and money to the monks, who would in return pray for the souls of their benefactors. This financial injection gave the monks a sense of power and prestige and a renewed perception of mission. Art is reawakened, scholarship is saved and music is revised. From just a single melody or chant the musical texture started to consist of two or more melodic voices. All of this rippled out across southern and central England during the 10th and 11th centuries as the monasteries became the religious, cultural and intellectual power-houses of the middle ages.

Sadly and unfortunately there was a setback when the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, accompanied by his pagan hordes invaded England early in the 11th century. It is not clear how much damage was inflicted upon the religious houses at the time, but Canterbury was sacked and badly damaged, and its Archbishop Aelfheah was taken hostage. But, unsurprisingly when the ransom money was not forthcoming he was brutality murdered. 

After some years of turmoil Sweyn gained, in December 1013, the throne of England only to die five weeks later. He was succeeded by his son Cnut the Great. We recognize him today as King Canute.

This new king had embraced the Christian faith and then bestowed monetary benefactions to many religious houses. Unfortunately he died in 1035 and his illegitimate son Harold 1 seized the throne of England.
                                                  THE NORMANS ARRIVE

On the death of Edward The Confessor, king of England from 1042 until the 4th of January 1066 the English throne was again fought over. But on the 14th of October, in that same year, and after the Battle of Hastings, William Duke of Normandy ascended to the throne of England.

This new king when he became more secure and firmly established, swept away most of  the Anglo - Saxon land-owners, and being intelligent, astute and perceptive, passed their land to his Norman barons and nobles. And they in turn bestowed much land to the church for the founding of religious 
houses and money for the restoration of others, which included the abbey of St Peter at Westminster.

As this expansive activity progressed abbots and ecclesiastics cascade across the channel bringing with them their sacramental practices and traditions from the Benedictine abbeys of Normandy.

In consequence in1070, the then Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, is replaced by Lanfranc the former abbot of Saint-Etienne, Caen. To this man, the Conqueror entrusted the responsibility of re-organising the English church.

All Saxon abbots and their superiors are ejected but not without opposition in some houses, and perhaps just to add to the mayhem, communication would have been conducted in French.

Lanfranc also made a bold decision, in the late 11th century, to convert several of the secular cathedrals into cathedral-priories. This union of a cathedral and monastery was commissioned at Bath, Canterbury, Coventry, Durham, Norwich and Rochester and at all of these sees the head of the monastery was the prior. Although it is recorded that on several occasions the bishop and the prior did not see 'eye to eye'.

It must be remembered that the king was not the head of the church, although this did change during  the 16th century when Henry the 8th broke its religious ties with Rome, but at this moment in time the Pope was head of the world wide church. Therefore the church leaders of the Conqueror's rein were vital to the kings resources, which included the legal and religious life of the country.

Lanfranc set out the following hierarchy; the bishops area was called a Diocese and each of these had an  Archdeacon  to support the said bishop. The diocese were divided into regions known as Deaneries. All had a member of the clergy known as a Dean as its head, and it was his responsibility to make sure that religious laws were kept and that the priests conducted themselves in the rightly manner.  

                                NORMAN ARCHITECTURAL DEVELOPMENT

As well as the influx of clergy there was also a tsunami of architects, accompanied with their stonemasons who arrived on the shores of England. They were armed with many years of work experience gained while working in Normandy, and in various lands under their influence during the 11th and 12th centuries. Much would be built, not just castles but abbeys, churches, cathedrals and monasteries, and all would be built using stone.

Edward The Confessor had bought over, during 1042, stonemasons from Normandy to help build Westminster Abby in, what was then known, as the Romanesque style. These new arrivals would have initially built using the same technique, which was characterised by semi-circular arches with any decorative moulding, like zig-zag, confined only to a few small features. Most windows were small-scale and compact and held just a little stained glass. As the 12th century drew to a close this Romanesque form of architecture  was beginning to give way to the new Gothic design. Large pointed arches were the fashion with huge windows full of stunning and colourful stained glass, which also allowed more light to enter the building.


The Normans had an significant influence on architectural development within Britian and used much Caen stone, as its pale colour contrasted well with the dark column shafts of Purbeck marble. This Caen stone, a limestone, was also used at Canterbury, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London and in the cathedral at Norwich.

During the late 12th century as the popularity of the Romanesque style began to fade, Canterbury cathedral in1174 was badly damaged by fire, and William of Sens a French master mason and architect was commissioned with the responsibility of the rebuild. And it was his work that introduced the arrival of the Early Gothic style to the cathedrals and religious houses of England. 

This man's innovating structural designs of the arch buttress and the six part ribbed vault were key features in supporting the roof. This also helped to spread the weight downwards and outwards to the columns below and to the outside buttresses. He also built high arcades in the choir with the walls between the structural elements thinner. This would have made room for a number of larger stained glass windows which would have filled the church with much welcome light.

On William of Sens untimely death in 1180, an English architect and stonemason, William the English continued with the rebuild.


It is worth to remember that fourteen of the monasteries, after their Suppression, between 1536 and 1540, were 're-born' as cathedrals. And a prime example of this is St Peter's cathedral in Gloucestershire. Its cloister is dazzling, as the fan vaulting ceiling with its overhanging branches seem to shimmer in the sunlight. Within this cathedral is the shrine of king Edward11, who was in all probability murdered at Berkeley in 1327, and the ideology during this period of time, was that the king would have had a close association with God, and therefore Edward11 became a religious martyr. With this in mind pilgrims would have flocked to see his shrine, and this in turn would have enriched the cathedral's coffer.

The monastic precincts, now that they were being constructed with a more substantial material, allowed the sites to be more organized and the individual buildings became more recognizable. Therefore the monasteries and abbeys flowered within their boundary walls but the area which each was enclosed, varies considerably. The Benedictine abbey in Battle, East Sussex built on the site of the Battle of Hastings, is twenty acres in extent, while the Fountain abbey ( Cistercian ) in North Yorkshire sits within ninety acres.


The site of the monastery was determined on the local availability of a substantial water supply, perhaps from a river, a spring or a well which would then be supplemented by the gathering of rain water. Within the site there would have been a complex of buildings, with the most important one being the church. Here many services were held in the choir and numerous masses at the High Alter.


The cloister was the centre of the monks daily life and they were assigned duties by the abbot or by one of the obedientiaries. This covered walkway gave easy access from one apartment to another, including the living and sleeping areas of the brethren. Also a hall where they dined and a kitchen and domestic offices. Then there were the obedientiaries, who were responsible for the internal administration, including the clothing and feeding of the monks, who would have had their own storage departments and offices. In other apartments the monks would have read and studied and copied manuscripts in the scriptorium.

Numerous monasteries were fortified with high stone walls and a staffed gatehouse. Many of these gatehouses were large and imposing structures being two or more stories high and would have housed the gatehouse keeper. The main arch way was for wheeled carts and on one side of the arch was a smaller doorway for those on foot and these would have given entry to the outer courtyard only. And within this courtyard would be the stables, workshops and cemeteries, and was also the area where outside labour was employed.


A site in Durham has its own unique history for being a place of religious worship since the period of rule by the Anglo-Saxons. On this ground Durham priory ( Benedictine ) was founded in 1083 replacing the older Anglo-Saxon church. In turn this priory was dissolved in 1540 when the Church of England took on the responsibility of the cathedral. Over the course of time a whole community was established and prospered around this religious site.




Durham cathedral, along with Canterbury and York Minster are world famous, and has much stone-work in the Romanesque style while York is mostly Gothic. But they had one thing in common, that was how to keep the money flowing into their coffer's, especially from pilgrims with the shrines of saints, false relics and charms.

As well as the above, monasteries had an array of channels adapted for gathering in their coinage of

wealth. A popular one was the collecting of a tithe from the local population of which many were poor smallholders or agricultural labours The tithe was a levy of one tenth of their yearly earnings and was possibly settled with crops/grain/ milk and young animals. In return, as the population believed in God, heaven and hell it was a worthwhile investment for their salvation if the monks could smooth the path for their souls to ascend into heaven. Also dues had to paid for registering baptisms, marriages and deaths.


Purgatory ( to purge ) was the sapling that would grow to be a source of great wealth to the church and some monasteries, for when its fruits were harvested by the monks its seeds helped to hurry in the development of chantries. This was accelerated in 1311 A D when all religious personnel were required to take Holy Orders after their probationary period, and would have to recite a mass every morning before noon at the church altar. Where the brethren numbered thirty or more it made it impracticable to organise, without the aid of multiple altars, and the rapid rise of the chantry movement just added to the problem.

The catholic doctrine tells us that some souls are purified after death, and such souls would benefit from the prayers and pious duties that the living do for them. This was known as the Communion of Saints, which was for the atonement of their souls from sin, and make them ready to enter the kingdom of heaven. This search for atonement coupled with the believe that there was a heaven and a hell, encouraged monetary endowments for the recitation of specific masses for the spiritual protection of the benefactor during his life on earth. Some of the more wealthy benefactors stipulated that the altar was dedicated to a particular saint. The belief being, that the chosen saint was a powerful protector, and being a advocate with God, would guide him through life, so that his soul on his death would be more ready to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

During the fourteenth century the cult of soul-masses was the motive underlying chantry endowments. This now powerful Christian belief, captured the imagination of the nobility, Royalty and wealthy merchants, and the nature of the chantry depended upon the value of the endowment. The most lavish of endowments would have engaged the building of a perpetual chantry, a special chapel that was reserved solely for masses on behalf of its founder and his/her family. Some chanty altars were also endowed with gold furnishing, valuable vestments and liturgical garments and articles. 

It seems that all endowments were the responsibly of the "Chantry Priests" who were not ordinaries and did not offer public masses. Although they served their communities in other ways, like teaching and educating the urban poor and rural families, including all their children. Over the course of time some chantries were converted into schools of education. These chantries were beyond the feudal control of the Crown and therefore did not pay any taxes.

All this changed when the Abolition of the Chantries Acts of 1547 and 1549 were implemented, which stated that chantries were deemed to be misapplied funds and misappropriated lands, and all chantries and their properties would now belong to the King. The current King at this time was Henry's young son Edward V1. It is recorded that 2374 chantries and guild chapels were seized with their assets. Most were sold and others were converted into private dwellings, although some of the funds raised were allocated to education.

There were a dozen or more different religious orders and arguably the first Cistercian order at Rievaulx Abbey built in North Yorkshire, was one of the most captivating and diverse regarding its design and its gathering of wealth. During the year 1132 twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey, which was situated in north eastern France arrived in York. They were recognized by their sartorial white habits, which indicated and reflected their spiritual pure intentions and their rejection of any personal possessions, rather than the accepted black habits, which were then worn by the monks in England. These monks were seeking out a secluded and peaceful place where they could construct and establish a new Cistercian monastery. 

Rievaulx Monastery ( wikipedia )


They settled for a remote location in a wooded dale close to the river Rye, which would have guaranteed a regular water supply. The technical ingenuity of these entrepreneurial monks included mining lead and iron. They also spent time rearing sheep and selling wool to buyers from all over Europe. In due course their monastery became one of the wealthiest in England. They were well supported by an 'army' of Lay Brothers of which many were skilled in agriculture and worked the land for free. Others had skills in handicraft and all were distinguished from their brethren as they wore a simple in style brown tunic. This abbey thrived with grants of land from Archbishop Thurstan, possibly about 5,000 acres. Another 1,000 acres came from Walter Espec, a distinguished military figure, who in later life became himself a Cistercian monk.

Another very successful Cistercian monastery (1135) was Fountains Abbey. The monks here were also avid sheep farmers and wool producers. This Abbey also was in Yorkshire and its substantial remains can be viewed 3 miles south-west of Ripon.

The Fountains Abbey its self covered 70 acres and was protected by a 3.4 meter high wall. The abbey was founded when Archbishop Thurstan granted the community around 460 acres of land, although these lands were not his own, but were part of the Diocesan estate. When the abbey was sold by the Crown in 1540 it had grown to over 500 acres. It was purchased by Sir Richard Gresham who was at the time a member of Parliament. This gentleman's wealth also paid for the tapestries in Cardinal Wolsey's Hampton Court.

Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey began a demise in the early 14th century as Northern England was invaded by the Scots and this was compounded by the ravages of the Black Death of 1348-1349.

                                              THE EXPANDING TOWNS

By 1300 A D it is estimated that there existed more than 500 monasteries which were staffed by at least 10,000 people. This growth was stimulated by the expansion of the population to between 4/5 million souls and to the popularity of living in the prosperous towns. It seems that Oxford with a population of 7,000 had 17 varying religious orders within it, or close by, to choose from.

It is possible that the traveling Friars related to the religious orders of the Carmelites, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans, unknowingly sowed a seed of doubt into the subconscious of the town folk, which would eventually cause some to question the religious morals of the Monastic monks.

These Friars lived on the charity of the people, unlike the monks who lived from the land, and preached in open places. Their spiritual message to the town folk was that they should look after their own spiritual salvation and their motivation was the example of Jesus.

A spiritual life of solitary communion with God was also pursued by the Anchorites. A male was known as a anchorite and the females were addressed as anchoress. These religious recluses lived alone in rooms which were usually adjoined the west end of a church. Many of these devoted persons were at the very centre of their community for they offered spiritual guidance to visitors and they could observe mass and partake of the Eucharist. 

The Anchorites basic needs were managed by possibly two servants, and the Anchorites themselves would never be allowed to be free of their encased environment.

As the monks began to expand their religious time to the call of the growing population, some monasteries started to employ lay scribes and illuminators, who were instrumental for the relocation of many monks into more priestly duties.

                                              THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Very few religious houses came into existence during the fourteenth century for benefactions, which in the past had fallen mainly to the monastic establishments, were now swallowed up by chantries and to the founding of schools and eventually to the expanding colleges. But it was the invention of the printing press by Johan Gutenberg during the 1400s that had an immense and negative impact on the monasteries. Before this invention writing was always done by hand and was seemingly a privilege reserved by educated monks and scribes, for all would have been done in the Holy language of Latin, but Gutenberg's printing press effectively democratized access to the written word.

This was used with vigour around 1517 by the German monk and Theologian of Christianity Martin Luther, who called for mayor revamps within the church. Luther proposed an academic discussion regarding his Ninety-five theses. But when he refused to renounce these writings during 1521, he was excommunicated by the then Pope Leo X and was condemned as an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor, who was at this time in history, perceived to rule by "Divine Right".

This now moves us on to William Tyndale, a gifted linguist, which included Greek, Hebrew, Latin and German. Tyndale translated the New Testament, possibly with the aid of Luther's German translation,
into a vernacular language which made it available to the common English speaking people in 1525. He then began translating the Old Testament. Also, he unwisely promoted himself as an advocate against Henry V111's planned annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and sadly during 1536 he was found guilty of heresy and executed. Tyndale's translation of the Bible was eventually completed by Miles Coverdale. But within four years of Tyndale's death four English translations of the Bible were published in England at the king's behest.

In time the Bible became readily and accessible to all people which would usher in a chasm within Christianity, pitting the Protestants against the Catholics. The Protestants did not believe in the supremacy of the Pope and rejected purgatory, for they believed only in the scripture of the Bible.

Arguably the suppression of the religious houses began during England's war with France, when the question of national security arose regarding all the "alien" priories in England. Although many were merely just manors or a single estate, but owned by foreign abbeys. Around 1414, during the reign of Henry V, all of the remaining alien priories had their houses, property and possessions confiscated by the Crown. And the bulk of this was used for the endowment of religious houses and colleges of royal foundation.

In reality the greatest tribulation that befell the monasteries, which ultimately caused them to be vulnerable to the Dissolution, was the heavy mortality rate of the monks due to the pestilence known as the Black Death (bubonic plague) during 1349. The nunneries also suffered in the same way, and, no doubt with the loss of many experienced clergy the regular discipline and function of the religious houses fell into decline.

Further outbreaks of the plague in 1361 and 1368 rendered the plight of the monasteries more desperate, which was made worse in 1410 when a Bill was set before Parliament requesting that all the non-spiritual lands that had been bequeathed to the Church should be transferred to the ownership of the Crown. This caused much dismay and alarm and opposition amongst the various religious orders.

There can be no doubt that the religious establishments as a whole never managed to recover from the bubonic plague, for there were not enough recruits from those who wished to embrace the monastic life from outside, to compensate for the enormous and sudden decrease in their numbers. This decline inevitably caused the extinction of a number of the small and poor houses, although some did manage to become amalgamated with larger foundations.

Seemingly and in spite of their wealth,  even the richest houses were beset by money difficulties, for much was spent on hospitality and the daily almsgiving. This, with the upkeep of their property and the financing of pensions and corrodies was a serious drain on their income. Many of the monasteries would have been heavy in debt and with insufficient assets were reduced to a state of bankruptcy.

Also within the history books, there were rumblings of discontent regarding the internal capabilities of the abbot and his brethren. There were issues of grave moral offences, costly living and the expensive choice of food. 

As the end of the fifteenth century approached, many of the smaller monasteries and nunneries were in poverty and their clergy struggled to survive within the crumbling decay of their houses. Consequently the Crown and the ecclesiastics who held high office within the church deemed that the revenues of these houses could be more proficiently used elsewhere. When the required and essential preliminaries were completed, which included Papal sanction, the patron's permission and gaining a royal licence, the said religious house could then be suppressed and its revenues and properties confiscated.

Many of the Alien buildings and possessions of these suppressed houses helped to enrich the growing colleges of Eton and Kings college in Cambridge, and more was to follow when the suppression of the smaller English houses was complete. 

Wolsey, now Henry V111 Almoner ( Keeper of the Privy Purse), founded Christ Church at Oxford in place of the priory of St Frideswide, and also obtained the suppression of a number of the smaller monasteries for the endowment of his colleges at Ipswich and Oxford. And then during 1519 Wolsey was engaged as the Cardinal Legate, and Pope Leo X issued a bull, which empowered him to to reform the monasteries of this country. Wolsey's measures at this period in time, no doubt had genuine reform for their end, but the later acts of suppression were prompted by far different causes.

Cardinal Wolsey, now empowered by the Papal Bull of 1524, and assisted by Thomas Cromwell, dissolved 22 monasteries and 3 nunneries in which the number of "inmates" was fewer than 12. Wolsey then died in Leicester during November 1530 and by 1532 Cromwell was Chief Minister to the king and was enthusiastic towards Henry's claim to be head of the church of England, and in time he became the King's Vicar General and would organise the general Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.

Two unique happenings, one in 1529 and the other during 1536 highlighted how Christianity had fallen into the abyss of disunity within the realm. In 1529 Simon Fish a protestant reformer published in a 16 page pamphlet the "Supplication for the Beggars" which was condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church in 1530. Its content was, it could be said, dedicated to King Henry V111 to remind him that the Roman Catholic Church owned 1/3rd of his realm and consequently held half of England's wealth. Also within it were the social and economic concerns of his people which perhaps could be helped if the clergy were made to pay taxes.

Then in 1534, the Acts of Supremacy made Henry V111 "Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England" as the Pope had in 1533 excommunicated Henry from the Roman Catholic Church in response to the King's marriage with Catherine of Aragon. The protestants, at this time in history, were only a small portion of the population and suffered much persecution, so the rift between the King and the Papacy in Rome was something to celebrate.

Sadly, at the back end of 1536 a serious uprising engulfed the North of England which was lead by the lawyer Robert Aske. History gave it the name the Pilgrimage of Grace, which ultimately failed for its leaders were "out foxed" by the King's diplomacy. Insecurity and instability would have swamped many of the populous within the northern counties at this time. There had been a poor harvest in 1535 plus many of the smaller religious houses, which would have perhaps helped to feed the very poor, had already fallen to the policies of Thomas Cromwell. The northern nobility had called for the re-establishment of the Catholic Church and the Pope as their religious leader. 

The King's retribution was severe and many paid with their lives, also the Pilgrimage of Grace brought disaster upon the abbeys which had supported it, while others made terms with Henry by surrendering their possessions to the Crown. Sadly many monks from the Augustinian Hexham Priory were executed.

                 LOST TO POSTERITY IN AN ORGY OF DESTRUCTION  (1536-1540)

The Anti Papal legislation of 1532-1533 was the beginning of the end of the monastic system in England and in 1534 more legislation denied all financial payments to Rome, which would now be paid instead to the Crown, while the Pope also lost his authority to appoint bishops to vacant sees in England. The languid pace by the Crown of the earlier suppressions now began to accelerate and confiscations were pursued on a much larger scale, and during 1535 commissioners were appointed by the Crown to evaluate the wealth of the church and their monasteries. 

Thomas Cromwell, having absolute authority regarding the Suppression, employed as commissioners notoriously evil men who were void of sympathy but had their hearts full only of self advancement and greed.

By 1540 the deed was done. 900 religious houses and 625 monastic communities had fallen. The abbots, monks and nuns of the houses that had voluntarily "surrendered" were granted pensions of varying amounts, but of the houses that had resisted those in authority were confronted by the penalty of death.

All of the dissolved establishments were subject to unannounced visits by Royal agents appointed by the Court of Augmentations. These agents formulated an inventory of all the contents within and outside the property, which included any livestock that the house was responsible for. Some historians from the distant past suggest that within these agents was a hard-core criminal element and fraudulent practices was rife. Many items of value may have consequently ended up embellishing their own private dwellings or sold for their own financial gain. The King was affectively being robbed.

Much plunder was taken from the apartments of the monasteries which included all furniture and fittings, until all that was left was the bare carcase of the building. Altars were destroyed, images yanked away from their niches, lamps, wall hangings, screens, choir stalls, all were auctioned off. Any choir stalls and screens that remained unsold in some of the religious houses were just burnt.

Treasures of gold and silver were collected as were sacred vessels, crucifixes, plate, pewter, rings and jewelled gloves. Also shrines were targeted, and jewels and precious stones were torn from Becket's shrine at Canterbury. Much lead was exported while the bell metal was used for the making of the King's guns. Henry, now fearful that his break from Rome could result in a large scale invasion by the French and Spanish, utilized material from some of the fallen monasteries to build a chain of defences along Britain's southern and eastern coast, from Kent to Cornwall. Also many existing coastal defences were strengthened, which included Dover castle.

The King's "representatives" now fuelled with the energy of power, ransacked the monastic libraries. All of the priceless manuscripts of which many were enriched with exquisite illuminations but not recognized by the illiterate commissioners as items of historical value, were sold for a pittance. Thousands of books were purchased just for their vellum ( a fine parchment made from the skin of a calf ) which could be used in alternative ways, perhaps for wrapping fresh fruit and vegetables. Any unsold books were burnt. Fortunately many were rescued before they were sacrificed, by a gentleman named Matthew Parker ( b 1504 d 1575 ) who was the Archbishop of Canterbury for the last sixteen years of his life. I believe now the Parker Library is on the web, and may have digital images of all his rescued manuscripts available to view on line.

As the dust began to settle after this apocalypse of religious persecution and destruction, there appeared, dotted here and there across England's green and pleasant land, a number of relatively unscathed small parish churches. It seems that a few of these churches were saved by the collective purse of the parishioners. Meanwhile a number of the monastic churches were also "bought back" by the local townspeople and the nunnery church of Romsey was purchased for £100, and the deed of sale is preserved in its vestry. Other monastic churches survived due to the prescriptive rights of worship ( 20 years or more ) long enjoyed by the laity, usually in the nave and aisles. Fortunately the Court of Augmentation had instructed its Commissioners to respect parochial rights in such churches. Sadly the parishioners at other priory churches had, seemingly, to content themselves with just the nave and aisles as the rest of the church was demolished around them.

                                                       THE AFTERMATH

The Valor Ecclesiasticus, which was a survey of the finances of the church, tells us that the total net income from the dissolution of the monasteries was £136.000. This was more than three times the income from all of the Crown estates in the year 1536. But from this £136,000 pensions and annuities would have been due to the dispossessed clergy and many monks and nuns. Interestingly Eustace Chapuys the imperial ambassador to England for Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor and the current King of Spain, tells us that Cromwell unsuccessfully tried to encourage Henry to use the monastic lands as an endowment off which the monarchy could continuous feed.

By 1547 around two-thirds of all the monastic estates had been sold or leased, but not before the King had gifted much land and properties to those who had rendered him valuable support and service. Cromwell was granted a number of properties which included the Cluniac priory of Lewes. Other significant beneficiaries were the Dukes of Norfolk, Suffolk and Northumberland and the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, Sir Richard Rich. The sale of these monastic lands principally increased the acreage of the landed estates which were already in existence and were  purchased predominantly by noblemen and courtiers.

The church buildings, except some of the abbey churches that were to be reconstituted as cathedrals and others which had to be preserved wholly or partially for parochial worship, were sold, either in one lot or, more often, were disposed of piecemeal, it was an orgy of total destruction. ( a comprehensive list of the monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII, with pictures and information, can be viewed on line from wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ).  

The new proprietors of these monastic estates managed their acquisitions in a number of different and defining ways. Some felt the need to incorporate parts of the old conventual buildings to help enhance parts of their new "modern" mansions, although most of the churches were habitually just pulled down, with the masonry being reused for constructing roads. Numerous monastic churches now roofless and derelict became stone quarries, and only had fungi and invertebrates to accompany them on their final journey.

    KING HENRY V111 ( b 1492 - d 1547 ) REIGNED FROM 1509 - 1547 AND HIS FINANCES
Henry the 8th inherited an estimated £1,250,000 but by the time of the dissolution much of this inheritance was spent.

The King's father, Henry the 7th, who reigned from August 1485 until his death in April 1509 had seemed to be-able to maintain a certain level of peace with the use of treaties and alliances. He succeeded in ending the Wars of the Roses which was fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York and founded the Tudor dynasty. He also managed to create economic prosperity through trade and by improving the mechanisms of tax collection, although history tells us that it was the nobles who "suffered" the most from increased taxes, but this prudent monarch restored the fortunes of an effectively bankrupt exchequer.

Unfortunately his son was still in his late teens when he ascended the throne. He was charismatic, confident, but was also extravagant. Henry the 8th "raided" the kingdom's coffers for  maintaining his court and for building and restoration works at his Royal Palaces, while having a passion for tapestries of which many were woven using gold and silver thread. Over 2450 tapestries were listed in the inventory taken after his death. Many would have been used to create a majestic atmosphere suited to his royal activities. 

Arguably two of the most magnificent reside at Hampton Court Palace. The Field of Cloth of Gold depicts, in the Pale of Calais, the meeting in June 1520 of Henry V111 and King Francis 1 of France. It is an flamboyant display of power, wealth and status. The other is the outstanding Story of Abraham, a set of tapestries made in Brussels for Henry V111.
Field of the Cloth of Gold ( British School )

In January 1547 Henry died and was succeeded by his son Edward V1, who was just 9 years old. Because of his young age he was denied direct rule so consequently Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford and the new Kings uncle, was installed as Lord Protector of the Realm. Edward V1was England's first Protestant Monarch but he died aged 15 on 6th July 1553. But during his reign the confiscation of church property continued, notably with the dissolution of the chantries and by the end of his short reign the church had been financially ruined.

                                                     THE CONCLUSION

Between 1536 and 1540 more than 650 religious houses were suppressed, all caught within the teeth of an cataclysmic never ending turbulent and tempestuous storm. This storm began to brew during the 14th Century as the number of people willing to follow a monastic life decreased. The Black Death compounded the problem and by the Century's end many of the monastic houses were half empty. Henry the 8th administered the Coup de grace in his quest to finance the forthcoming war with Scotland and his alliance with Charles V against France. This was, I believe, a distressing and a sad demise for a foundation that established, and were the pioneers, of introducing learning and culture to their local population.

They also facilitated the prosperousness of this country in agriculture, farming and in the wool industry and were the forerunners of universities and hospitals including St Bart's in London. The monks preserved many of the classical works from Antiquity by Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Homer and Sophocles. 

Also the still standing remains of the monastic churches and buildings have given us a glimpse of the wealth of mediaeval architecture that has been lost to posterity, although much is to be seen in a warehouse in Yorkshire, which is under the supervision of English Heritage. They hold many stone sculptures that adorned the ruins of many northern sites, including Whitby and Byland abbeys and Kirkham priory.

The nunneries also played a role in society by giving spiritual guidance to the  "un-marriageable "and unwanted daughters of the Nouveau Riche. Apparently a natural daughter of Cardinal Wolsey was a unprofessed nun at Shaftesbury abbey in Dorset. 

The passing of the monasteries was inevitable, for their functionality was being slowly diminished by the printing press and by self employed illuminators who worked duplicating and decorating the medieval manuscripts. Also some of their wealthy patrons were beginning to finance the growing schools, colleges and universities instead, and with the Protestant Reformation gaining pace in continental Europe their leading role on the peoples spiritual life continued to be eroded.

I feel it is worth remembering that some of these religious houses had accommodation fit for royalty, for kings and nobles were entertained at the expense of the abbot and convent. In 1314 Queen Isabella stayed at Christ Church Priory in Canterbury, while Richard 11 in 1378 held a seven week Parliament at the abbey's of Gloucester and Tewkesbury. Also Henry V1 spent Christmas at Bury St Edmunds abbey in1453, while Henry V111 and Jane Seymour also stayed at Thornton abbey for several days.

Sadly the austere way of life of the monks, in some monasteries, became corrupted by wealth which resulted in a more lavish life style, and many became fat, as seen in an illustration of a overweight monk riding a donkey, relating to a Geoffrey Chaucer tale. While others fell foul to the embroidered charms of sexual desire.

As the end neared it seems that the Anchoresses were the only living souls left who were mirroring the life of Christ, a heavenly representative for her community and the public flocked to these holy women, the true inheritors of the monastic tradition.

                                    DERRICK A NAPIER,