Henry VIII and the looting of the monasteries

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.

Little Dunmow Priory

Artist impression of the remains of Little Dunmow Priory in 1820 (now part of Little Dunmow’s church)

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.  [1]

Tilty Abbey in 1784

Artist impression of the remains of Tilty Abbey in 1784 (now part of Tilty church)

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.

Tilty Abbey

Great Dunmow churchwardens’ accounts folio 28r[2] – Tilty’s paving slabs

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.

St Mary the Virgin, Great Dunmow

St Mary the Virgin, Great Dunmow.
Does the church still contain 24 paving tiles from nearby Tilty Abbey?


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[3]. 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 [4]. 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.

Sudbury Priory's remains in 1748

Sudbury Priory’s remains in 1748

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.

Thomas Audley, 1st Baron Audley of Walden

Thomas Audley,1st Baron Audley of Walden,
Lord Chancellor of England 1533-1544


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.

St Mary's, Saffron Walden 1835

St Mary’s, Saffron Walden in the early 1800s
Did some of its 1530s’ roof come from Sudbury Priory?

[1] ‘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].

[2] Great Dunmow’s Churchwarden accounts (1526-1621), Essex Record Office, reference D/P/11/5/1.

[3] ‘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].

[4] Dominican Priory of Sudbury, Sudbury History Society (March 2010), http://www.sudburyhistorysociety.co.uk/DominicanPriory.htm [accessed April 2015]

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You may also be interested in the following
– Balancing your books in pounds, shillings and pennies
– Transcripts of Great Dunmow’s Churchwardens’ accounts – 1526-1621
– Medieval Catholic Ritual Year
– Tudor local history
– Building a medieval church steeple
– Henry VIII’s Lay Subsidy 1523-1524
– Images of Medieval Funerals
– The dialect of Medieval Essex
– A day on the River Blackwater, November 1891
– Kate J Cole – My books

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This entry was posted in Great Dunmow 1526-1621, Henry VIII, Local History, Saffron Walden, Sudbury, Lavenham, Melford, Tudor Local History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Henry VIII and the looting of the monasteries

  1. Liz Round says:

    As a reformation and local historian I found this entry really interesting. I found your idea that the local people were in absolutely no doubt that this was it, no going back, on the dissolution a key one. What I did think, however, was that motives for the removal of items from the monasteries could be complex. Eamon Duffy’s work on Morebath showed very clearly how people could and did purchase items from churches throughout the reformation, not with the intention of commercialisation and profit making, but to preserve holy items against the depredations of Protestantism and to keep them for the days when the old faith returned (a hope very different to your idea that people recognised that the game was up, so to speak). Duffy, of course, was working in Devon, an area that maintained an adherence to the old faith longer than in some other parts of the country, quite different to the area you’re working in (and of course, it is this difference that is so wonderful for a local historian!). In the case of the tiles and Richard Parker, you are undoubtedly right, that commercialism was the root of it – but the tabernacle? Could it be, that the churchwardens felt that if the monasteries had to close, and the tabernacle had to be sold, that it was better for it to go to a good home in a church, than being repurposed for profane use? If so, this could suggest very mixed feelings about the dissolution of hte monasteries – at least for the churchwardens. It is impossible to tell from the purchase of just one item, of course, but it raises an interesting question, I think!

    The differences between a hope that the old church may return, demonstrated by Duffy (and others), and your assertion that people recognised that the dissolution was final, are also interesting. Perhaps they do not reflect so much differences between a hope for religious changes, as a recognition that even if the old church returned, reconstruction of the monasteries would be too difficult – or some other emotion/hope for the future. But it raises yet another interesting question – thank you!

    • The Narrator says:

      Hi Liz

      Thank you for your very interesting comment – very thought provoking!

      Oh yes I would agree with you about the clear religious articles such as the tabernacle being bought partially to preserve a deeply religious object. But I also think there was an element of this town’s local people making good a bad situation to the benefit of their own local community and thus benefiting from the religious spoils of the dissolution of the monasteries. The monasteries had shut their doors, and the parish churches were taking advantage of their riches.

      At the time, no one of importance attempted to stop the dissolution of the monasteries. I would imagine that even in the very immediate aftermath of the dissolution, the people of England thought that this was it, and that the king would stop at the monasteries and not do anything else. In those key years of the late 1530s, once the monasteries had shut their doors, no one could have imagined that eventually Catholicism would be (more or less) destroyed in England. Hence each purchase from the abbey in the immediate years of its closure being totally above board and fully documented/itemised (it would be fascinating to know the name of the person who they purchased the tabernacle from). So, they’ve preserved them as religious items, but also benefitted from them for their own community.

      But yes, you’re right maybe there was also their shock and horror that their nearby abbey had been destroyed. But that again raises another question because this particular abbey (Tiltey) had been in legal conflict throughout the 1520s/1530s with one of the local lord’s of the manor (Stourton) when the abbots tried to encroach on his right to the living/patronage of the local church. He probably would have been delighted that the abbey had been destroyed and plundered! Unfortunately the churchwardens’ accounts for his village haven’t survived – it would have been interesting to see what he and his village had plundered from the abbey!

      I do think that the plundering of the very fabric of the monasteries shows that, for the monasteries at the very least, there was absolutely no going back. With the likes of Chancellor Audley helping Sudbury’s roof to go to Saffron Walden’s church – well, this was coming from no less then (nearly) the very top. Again, all above board (although I’ve yet to trace any primary source evidence that Audley did help do this)

      But isn’t it is all part of the wider question of how each individual local community responded to Henry VIII’s demands? Right up until the mid 1530s Great Dunmow parish were having yearly whole-parish collections (or rather “local church taxes” as the entire town and their contributions were itemised in the churchwardens’ accounts) to buy traditional (i.e. Catholic) religious items. Thus showing that this town, at least, was still following traditional religion to the very end.

      But then in the final summer of Henry VIII’s reign, the entire town celebrated the death of Catholic Cardinal Beaton – an enemy of the king and the most senior Catholic man in Scotland (thus too close for comfort to Henry’s Reformation England) (I’ve written about this here http://www.essexvoicespast.com/thomas-bowyer-weaver-of-great-dunmow/ ).

      Conversely, my study of the town’s Tudor wills show that some of the town were, on paper, following each monarch’s state-enforced religion but unwittingly showing the majority were still following deeply-held traditional religion. (My post here http://www.essexvoicespast.com/medieval-wills-and-religious-bequests/)

      Also, as soon as Mary was on the throne, the church’s altar was hastily rebuilt and put back up in Great Dunmow’s church. Not quite hidden, as I believe altars had been in some communities, but certainly ready, willing and able to be rebuilt very quickly. (I’ve yet to write about that episode!).

      I think this Essex town was very compliant with the current monarch’s policies. But that compliance came from the elite of the town – who had very close connections to Cambridge elite (and who were, indeed, some of the elite of Corpus Christi College Cambridge), and later on, the town’s elite had close associations to the likes of Bishop Bonner, and Archbishop Matthew Parker.

      Great Dunmow, even then, had reasonable road connections to Cambridge and London. The churchwardens’ accounts are full of trips to Whitechapel (to purchase their bells) and other towns, such as Saffron Walden and Cambridge, to see what other churches were doing. There is definitely a couple of cases of “church envy” where Dunmow’s wardens have seen things in other churches and then raised a local church “donation” (tax!) to purchase them for their church (but this had all stopped by the end of the 1530s).

      This is probably a very different experience to Eamon Duffy’s Morebath. I think physical distance to the movers and shakers in London and Cambridge played a big part in Great Dunmow. I also get the feeling from Great Dunmow’s Reformation that they desperately wanted their “place in the sun” and wanted to be large and powerful like other nearby Essex towns and boroughs such as Saffron Walden and Maldon. And if that meant bowing down to the king’s religious policies, then so be it.

      Moreover, this must have been a very confusing time for the people. To the very core of their being, they knew that the king was their master and they had to do as they were told. But underlying this was their deep faith – which would put them into conflict with their master.

      But then again, one of Great Dunmow’s long standing families produced a Protestant martyr (written about here http://www.essexvoicespast.com/thomas-bowyer-weaver-of-great-dunmow/ ) and later on another family produced a Catholic female saint. I have yet to find another small community which produced both a Protestant martyr and a Catholic saint! Which again shows that there is no easy answer to any of this

      But that’s why it’s so fascinating. There’s arguments, at least in Great Dunmow, both for and against Eamon Duffy’s thesis that the people of England did not want a Reformation. In the case of Great Dunmow, the elite did as they were told and profited from it, whereas the majority of other townsfolk probably still held deep traditional religious views. But then the case of clearly Protestant local man/artisan Thomas Bowyer, throws that hypothesis into total doubt!

      And also with Lord Riche very nearby too – well his presence alone all adds into the mix of Great Dunmow’s Reformation! But that’s another story…

      It’s all good fun.


  2. Liz Round says:

    Kate –

    Many thanks for the very interesting reply! You’re absolutely right – it IS such good fun…! The Reformation one of the areas where being a local historian is almost a prerequsite, which is why I’m doing the MA that I am (English Local History at the University of Leicester). I suspect you’re right about the distance from London being a factor. Most of my own studies, thus far, have focused on the Welsh Marches, and as with Duffy’s Morebath, that distance will certainly be a factor. Am hoping to study it at PhD level so I guess I’ll find out!

    Thank you again –


  3. Interesting article and comments.

    Thank you both.

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