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  • Luke Morton Sharpe


On the 23rd March 1540, Robert Fuller, Abbot of Waltham surrendered the last medieval monastery in England & Wales thus ending a way of life that had flourished for a thousand years. Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell had completed the nationalization of monasticism but he was already out of favourwith his fickle master and lasted just a few months longer than Waltham.

Henry’s monastic windfall though substantial could have been more lucrative. In 1535 his survey ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ had revealed the vast revenues of the major abbeys. However, much was spent on the process of dissolution and most of the property he had acquired was sold off rapidly to fund national defence or given away to court cronies thus losing significant rental income. Also, pensions were handed out to most of the displaced monastic residents.

Once closed and the treasure claimed for the crown, the prime directive was to render the core of the monasteries unusable. They should ‘pull down to the ground all the walls of the churches, stepulls, cloysters, fraterys, dorters, chapter howsys’ which also yielded the valuable roof lead and bells.

Despite this diktat there are some magnificent survivors among the targeted buildings – a tantalizing glimpse of what was lost. For instance, over a hundred monastic churches are extant or part-extant through conversion to cathedrals or purchase by the local parishioners or very rarely adaptation to domestic or commercial use. There was no systematic approach to demolition or re-purposing. Its haphazard nature means that what endures is a function of many factors – e.g. monastic order, initial treatment, subsequent use, geography, scale, new owners’ fortunes.

The fallout amongst the historians and philosophers of the day was also varied. Some questioned the need for such destruction. Why couldn’t the monasteries have been adapted instead – the buildings and the libraries serving as religious retreats ‘not dependent on Rome’? Some believed that the desecration was sacrilegious and that those responsible had been punished by God. Many of them seemed to have suffered misfortune but probably no more than anyone else. On the other hand, there were those who saw the ruins as memorials to victory over the old religion – the brutality of their demise as divine retribution for their ‘superstition and ungodliness’.

In the century following the dissolution a high proportion of monastic sites became stately homes with the main house generally converted from the Head’s Lodgings. Many of these had been upgraded in the decades before dissolution and formed ready-made high-status accommodation spared from destruction to attract prospective new secular owners. Occasionally the East Range, Gatehouse, Guesthouse or even Church was used. Cloisters became courtyards and formal gardens were laid out probably incorporating ruins of the claustral range. Other precinct buildings would provide stabling or storage.

The subsequent history of these houses was tied into the fortunes of their owners much like any other stately home. In some cases, the owners had sufficient wealth for a comprehensive transformation eradicating virtually all traces of the medieval fabric retaining the name only. For a few, change was more subtle and many of the claustral buildings are still recognizable. A third fate was partition into farm buildings as the owners invested elsewhere or died out. Most, however, ended in ruin or obliteration. This ‘great house’ phase remains mysterious as, on ruined sites, early digs focused on recovering the medieval, destroying post-dissolution layers. Likewise, on developed sites, secular conversions from this period have largely vanished. Maybe the hybrid ‘Elizabethan’ style, peculiar to Britain, was influenced by these late medieval buildings embellished by their new owners with renaissance detailing.

By the seventeenth century the initial shock of the dissolution had passed and the ruins were becoming romanticised featuring in the works of Shakespeare, John Donne and John Webster. They also became part of the antiquarian pantheon together with prehistoric and ancient roman sites. The religious tumult of the sixteenth century had continued with further waves of iconoclasm and it was still treasonous to have any popish sympathies. So, antiquarians made clear that their interest was confined to the ‘majesty’ of the remains and preserving ‘some remembrance of these structures’. Monasteries were firmly part of the antiquarian topography alongside henges, castles and townscapes. In 1655 the first dedicated history was published in the ‘Monasticon Anglicanum’.

The eighteenth century was a period of contrasts for the remnants of the monasteries. Owners who had the wealth made spectacular conversions of their great houses from Gothic or Elizabethan into the fashionable classical style demolishing much of any remaining original structure. Others chose to subsume their ruined acquisitions into elaborate new garden schemes.

This was the Age of Reason – through scientific analysis hitherto historical norms were being debunked. The Antiquarians (now formed into a Society with a royal charter) strove to understand the origins of ancient sites and to catalogue their remains before further destruction took place.

Conversely, it was also the beginnings of the Gothic Revival a romantic reaction against the classical and the rational part-inspired by plethora of monastic ruins. Practicing Roman Catholicism remained illegal but it seeped into the romantic’s ideology almost as an aesthetic quality contrasting with the bland puritan world of whitewashed walls and plain glass. Perhaps for many puritanism imposed a prohibition on the spiritual and the mystical. The romantic movement was a response, the monasteries providing ‘melancholy inspiration’ in their often remote and derelict state. Poets contrasted the picturesque ruins they saw with the monastic heyday when kings and prelates paid homage. Painters sought to capture these remnants almost consumed by the surrounding undergrowth.

In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution cascaded the country into unprecedented change presenting new challenges to the dwindling monastic fabric. Thomas Telford bisected Shrewsbury Abbey with his London to Holyhead trunk road, a railway cut through Lewes Priory and Neath Abbey (Wales’ largest) was buried under seven thousand tons of industrial slag. It was in major towns though where commerce drove rampant re-development and much medieval heritage was lost including urban monasteries now mainly evident through the names of streets or districts alone.

The threat to reminders of a bucolic past both fuelled the already burgeoning Gothic Revival and created a greater determination to understand and preserve what was left. After parish churches, monasteries represented the largest stock of surviving medieval buildings and thus provided handy source material for contemporary architects. Gothic had been a derogatory term coined by the classical purists to highlight its ‘barbarous’ origins but it was now the house style of the British elite.

Excavation became more scientific focusing on identifying the ground plan of the monastery’s core with comprehensive descriptions and architectural standard illustrations. This helped lay the foundations of modern archaeology though a lot of detail from later phases was missed in the scramble to reveal the medieval layers alone. Although a good deal was lost in this era, the Victorians helped to preserve monuments as well. Much would simply not have survived without their restorations (however controversial) not only of ruins but also complete buildings – houses and churches.

Like the gothic style in which it had prospered, monasticism was also revived. There were new houses and the re-establishment of ancient foundations on their original sites.

The state regained large swathes of medieval monasticism in the early twentieth century. Government policy though had changed since Tudor times. There was a new royal commission formed to make an inventory of historic sites not to provide a pretext for plunder but to aid preservation. This time monastic sites (at least the ruined ones) were acquired to be repaired and displayed to the public, to maintain what was left for all to enjoy. Sir Charles Peers was appointed Inspector of Ancient Monuments and his job was to halt the process of destruction started by another civil servant so brutally nearly four hundred years earlier. Gradually his teams cleared heaps of overgrown rubble to present the pristine ruins now under the control of Cadw or English Heritage.

So, what do we see when we look at monasteries today? Some feature in the nation’s favourite views - Rievaulx from the terrace above; beyond Studley Royal’s ornamental lakes to Fountains; across the Wye Valley to Tintern. Others are not so famous or idyllic - Kirkstead with its defiant, solitary finger of masonry; Monk Bretton surrounded by urban South Yorkshire; the last archway of Oseney in an Oxford backstreet. Do we see the triumph of Henry VIII, defeating the bloated and corrupt monster that consumed the wealth of medieval England for its own glorification? Or are these the skeletons of a spiritual, contemplative past devoid of the evils of our materialistic culture?

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