The Dissolution of the Monasteries
Henry VIII and the background to the Dissolution
Henry VIII was desperate to have an heir, preferably a male. He was convinced that his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was not going to achieve this – hence the demand for a ‘divorce’ (actually an annulment). As a result, Henry VIII had fallen out with the Pope and Rome and in 1535 Henry was called to appear before the Pope and if he refused he would be excommunicated. This infuriated Henry and he decided to separate the English Church from Rome.
Meanwhile, it was felt by many that the “church” and indeed the monasteries had lost touch with the ordinary folk, and Luther and others were calling for major reform – with or without the Pope. Once Henry had declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England, the call for reform fitted rather well with his need for more funds – since the monasteries controlled much land and wealth. Henry appointed Thomas Cromwell, who was Secretary of State, as vicar-general and required him to ascertain the moral welfare (and wealth) of the monasteries. Cromwell appointed a team to carry out this work.
They found enough moral and religious problems and practices to enable the King to obtain Parliament’s permission to dissolve (close) some monasteries. To start with, the smaller houses -those with revenues less than £200 per annum - were suppressed in the year 1536. This caused a tremendous discontent throughout the kingdom in general and the clergy in particular, especially in the north of England. This discontent led to a rebellion in Lincolnshire, but this soon fizzled out without any bloodshed. However this was followed by a much more determined effort in Yorkshire in October 1536 when 40,000 men, led by Sir Robert Aske, called their uprising the “Pilgrimage of Grace”; they wanted to protect the monasteries, many of whom – including Bridlington Priory – actively supported the cause with money. They took possession of Hull and York and the castle at Pontefract. It was stopped when the Duke of Norfolk was sent north by the King with a small detachment and he persuaded the gathering to disperse, promising to look at their grievances. But the king did nothing – he just played for time!
By 1537 the rebels were outmanoeuvred. The leaders went to London expecting to negotiate but instead they were arrested. This included the Prior of Bridlington, William Wode. Most of the people involved in these rebellions were made an example of. Sir Robert Aske was executed and his body was hanged in chains at Clifford Tower in York. Many of the other ring leaders were hung, drawn and quartered and their remains hung on London Bridge. William Wode was taken to the Tower and interrogated. He was convicted of High Treason and later executed – hung drawn and quartered on 2 June at Knavesmire in York. Once the Prior had been executed, the Priory was ruled to be forfeit to the Crown and could therefore be closed and destroyed at will.
Meanwhile the rebellion strengthened the King’s determination to close all the monasteries. A second tour of the country followed and they found, or said they found, many discrepancies in conduct, morals etc and so they were all closed. This included 645 monasteries, 2374 chantries and free chapels, 110 hospitals and 90 colleges.
The Dissolution of Bridlington Priory
The Duke of Norfolk was sent to Bridlington since he knew the town and the amount of lead (one of the most valuable assets!) available from the Roof of the Priory and the Great Barn. The Priory was very wealthy and its yearly income was estimated to be £547, and owned land stretching from Blubberhouses in the north, and Askham Richard, down to Spurn Point. He arrived on the16th May 1537 and he informed Cromwell that ALL the goods had been removed and the best items sent to Sheriff Hutton. He was also told to demolish the shrine of St John of Bridlington; he did plead for its retention but he was ignored, the gold was stripped off and two boxes removed. The Priory was now deserted. The 27 canons, however, were allowed to take up posts as vicars of parishes in the area.
The Priory was reported as dissolved on the 23rd May 1537. When Pollard, the Kings Commissioner, arrived on the 12th June he did find some more silver and gold, sold the sheep and the remaining household stuff. However he later reported that a great part of the Priory had been, stolen by the poor people of Bridlington, prior to him getting there. What a surprise!!!
We don’t know how long it took to demolish all the buildings – probably a year or more. Often monastic buildings were set on fire, because this was the easiest way to get the lead from the roof. At the Priory, only the nave –the current church (where the ordinary people had sat or stood for services) - was left standing. The great tithe barn on High Green and all the buildings where the canons had lived were all destroyed – except for the Bayle which was kept as a kind of fortress. Drawings of the church from the 18C and 19C show it without the towers (added late 19C), and some suggest the church was in a poor state with plants growing out of the roof!
- Imagine you are a Priory servant who went with William Wode when he was taken to the Tower of London, and who followed him back to York and witnessed his execution; write a letter to one of the canons (monks) telling them the sad story of what happened.
- What did the Priory look like after the people had all gone?? Try to show this through a description, a poem or a picture,.
- Where had all the “stuff” gone – the Treasures of the Priory? See notes below. What do you think might have happened to all the other contents – both the valuables, the lead from the roof, the books from the canons’ library and all the furniture and things that were used everyday?
- Go to Flamborough church and take photos of the rood screen
Where some of the Priory treasures have appeared
Mrs Purvis, (mother of Canon J.S.Purvis, founder of the Borthwick Institute) had in the late 1920’s carried out her own researches and discovered the possibility of one of the bells from the Monastery residing in a Museum in Edinburgh, from the description that she provided, this appeared to be a small hand held bell, possibly for summoning the Canons to prayer.
- The de Gant bench ends have been seen at Leake Church – see picture
- The rood screen is now in Flamborough Church – see picture.
- Much Priory stone has been used in the buildings in High Street, Westgate and Market Place, particularly in the cellars.
- Also much stone was used in the repair of the harbour piers.
Notes taken from:
- “Historical Sketches of Bridlington” by J Thompson 1821
- “History of the Priory Church of Bridlington” by Marmaduke Prickett 1836 (available on the internet)
- “Port, Resort and Market Town” by David Neave 2000
See also 5 minute video for information about the Pilgimage of Grace.
It might be useful to get hold of David Neave’s book from the local library, for further reading and information.