It is widely known that following Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1533, he went on to forcefully dissolve and destroy all the numerous religious monasteries across England. This he achieved by the end of the 1530s. Dissolved religious houses included priories, abbeys, and friaries from all the religious orders; the Augustinians, the Dominicans, the Cistercians, the Franciscans, the Carmelites. The monasteries were a massive medieval mechanism with houses and institutions all over England. From large and complex abbeys such as Furness Abbey in Cumbria, to smaller houses such as Little Dunmow Priory in Essex.
Whether the hundreds-years old medieval monastery-system was a corrupt and decaying hulk deserving to be destroyed, or a network of religious houses who gave much needed relief to the poor and sick, is still widely debated today.
What isn’t so widely known is that there was mass whole-scale looting of the religious houses as each shut its doors. During my research on Great Dunmow (Essex) and for my two new local history books on Sudbury (Suffolk) and Saffron Walden (Essex), I came across two instances of looting which had been carried out, quite openly, by parish churches from dissolved religious houses.
Great Dunmow’s parish church and Tilty Abbey
Tilty Abbey in North West Essex was surrendered to the king’s commissioners on 3 March 1536. It had been present in Essex since the middle of the twelfth century and was probably founded in September 1153. By the time of its surrender, it had a net yearly value of £167 2s 6d with a gross value of £177 9s 4d. This was considered to be a small house, so would have been forcefully dissolved under the First Suppression Act of 1536 if its abbot hadn’t voluntarily surrendered it. On the same day, an inventory was taken; the abbey had goods to the value of £19 19s 0½d, along with forty-three ounces of plate valued at £7 18s 8d. 
This was just the tangible goods which could be carried away and sold off. The abbey also had valuable building material in its very structure. In the churchwardens’ accounts for St Mary’s Great Dunmow, it can be determined that both the vicar and the churchwardens openly took advantage of the nearby dissolved abbey which was just four miles away. Sometime in the months between April 1537 and September 1538, Richard Parker sold 24 paving tiles from Tilty Abbey to Great Dunmow’s churchwardens for 2s 8d. He also sold lime sand for the tiles and charged the churchwardens 7d to bring them from Tilty Abbey to St Mary’s. Another person, Richard Barker, was paid 6d for laying the paving tiles in the church. To put this into context, at this time, the average day’s wage for a labourer was approximately 4d.Item payd for lyme sande & for fecchyng
24 pavyng tyle from Tyltey ——————————————————7d
Item payd to Rychard P[ar]ker for the sayd 24
pavying tyle———————————————————————————2s 8d
Item payd to Rychard Barker for laying the
[a]forsayd pavying tyle in the church ——————————————6d
The accounts are silent as to how and why the 24 paving tiles were in Richard Parker’s hands in the first place. However, between 1525 and 1533, Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts had documented several times that Richard Parker was a “tyler” living in Windmill Street (now Rosemary Lane). How many other paving tiles did Richard Parker, the tiler, sell off to nearby churches? Did he also sell paving tiles to Great Easton church? Little Easton church? Thaxted church? There were enough churches in the immediate area of Tilty Abbey for him to have furnished them all with fine tiles from Tilty Abbey. We will probably never know how many he did manage to sell, as the relevant records have not survived in other nearby parish churches. Also, we don’t know what type of tiles these were, but perhaps they were hard-wearing stone slabs worthy of 11d per dozen. I like to think that this is the first recorded instance of the Tudor equivalent of an Essex man in his white-van doing dodgy door-step trading.…
There is some excellent unwitting testimony about the paving tiles. Firstly, the churchwardens had very openly disclosed that they had bought the tiles by documenting them within their financial accounts for the church. Secondly, at this time, churchwardens’ accounts were open documents available to the scrutiny of not just the parish clerks, vicar and churchwardens, but also any king’s commissioners who just happened to be passing by (remember, this was the late 1530s – troubled times for parish churches within England). Finally, churchwardens’ accounts were read out in church to the entire parish after evening service at the end of each accounting year – probably by the vicar himself. Therefore the whole parish (from the local elite to the paupers) would have heard for themselves that 24 paving tiles from Tilty Abbey had been bought from Richard Parker. So this was not a hidden transaction but had been openly declared and was probably considered to be of good positive benefit for the church in Great Dunmow. This really was not “dodgy dealings”.
In a similar manner, but less detailed in the churchwardens’ account, St Mary’s church in Great Dunmow bought a tabernacle from the recently dissolved Hatfield Regis Priory. The tabernacle was an ornate vessel which was used to hold the Eucharist when it was not in use during mass. Hatfield Regis’ tabernacle cost the churchwardens 20 shillings. This was a considerable amount of money. It is likely, therefore, that the priory’s tabernacle was very ornate and probably made of silver. Ironically, this “loot” was likely to have been given up to Henry VIII’s son, when church plate had to be handed over to the king’s commissioners during Edward VI’s reign.
Saffron Walden’s parish church and Sudbury Priory
There is a legend that when John Hodgkin became the vicar of St Mary’s in Saffron Walden in 1541, he brought with him the chancel roof of the recently dissolved Dominican priory in Sudbury. John Hodgkin, who was made suffragan bishop of Bedford in 1537, had previously been a friar at Sudbury. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley (c.1488-1544) is alleged to have helped Hodgkin with the task of bringing the roof to Saffron Walden’s church. Whether this is true or not is open to debate. I have not seen any primary source evidence that it happened, and in my research for my book on Saffron Walden, I could not find any secondary source evidence that referenced Thomas Audley’s help. However, whilst researching my other book on Sudbury, I did find secondary source supporting this theory . Of course, Thomas Audley himself was living at nearby dissolved Walden Abbey, which Henry VIII had granted to him in 1538 (now known as Audley End House). Therefore, if the roof from Sudbury’s priory had come to Saffron Walden’s church, then Thomas Audley would have been ideally placed to help.
Moreover, as we have seen in the case of Tilty Abbey, it is indisputable that looting by parish churches of former monastic buildings had happened. It is therefore possible that Hodgkin had taken the priory’s chancel’s roof with him. The involvement of someone as senior and influential as the Lord Chancellor in this “looting” and that Hodgkin was a suffragan bishop demonstrates that this was perfectly legitimate practise for the time.
Rich pickings from the monasteries
It has always been well known that extensive looting by locals for their own houses is the reason why former monastic buildings now stand in ruins. However, it is often thought that this looting was carried out some years – or even centuries – later. Townspeople taking stone for their buildings; eighteenth century gentleman touring Britain, taking home a little souvenir with them. However, the evidence at Great Dunmow/Tilty and Saffron Walden/Sudbury shows that this looting happened as the monasteries closed their doors. Moreover, this looting had occurred whilst Henry VIII was still alive and on the throne. The King’s will had been absolute. The monasteries had been closed by him. And there was no going back. The people were in no doubt that this was not a short lived whim of the king, but the new way of life and the new status quo. Furthermore, this was not “looting” but was a legitimate business transaction between interested parties. All open, and all above board. The firm evidence of Tilty Abbey’s paving tiles used in St Mary’s church in Great Dunmow, along with the more circumstantial evidence of Sudbury priory’s roof used in St Mary’s church in Saffron Walden, both suggest that dissolved former monastic buildings were, at least in north Essex, “rich pickings” for entrepreneurs and local parish churches in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of monasteries.
 ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: Abbey of Tilty’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2, ed. William Page and J Horace Round (London, 1907), pp. 134-136 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol2/pp134-136 [April 2015].
 Great Dunmow’s Churchwarden accounts (1526-1621), Essex Record Office, reference D/P/11/5/1.
 ‘Dominican friaries: Sudbury’, in A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1975), pp. 123-124 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/suff/vol2/pp123-124 [accessed April 2015].
 Dominican Priory of Sudbury, Sudbury History Society (March 2010), http://www.sudburyhistorysociety.co.uk/DominicanPriory.htm [accessed April 2015]
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