The ‘spin doctors’ of the Tudor era, wanted the people to believe that the dissolution of the monasteries was a matter of reforming zeal, however the reality was somewhat different.
Henry VIII having spent his inheritance, and depleted the exchequer, was short of money. Additionally, in his search for a male heir, he had divorced Katherine of Aragon and taken Anne Boleyn ‘the Protestant whore’ as his wife. For this the Pope excommunicated him and with the rest of Catholic Europe against him, he, and England, were effectively isolated at a time when the coffers were bare.
His Vicar-General, Thomas Cromwell, reported to the king that his agents or ‘Royal Visitors‘, had visited all of the religious houses in the country and found that ‘manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys’. He therefore suggested that, under the guise of reform, an act could be passed transferring all the lands and property of the religious houses to the Crown.
These could be sold at a profit to Henry’s supporters thus not only raising much needed cash for the Exchequer but at the same time, ensuring their loyalty to the King. That the prime purpose of the dissolution was to raise money for the King is borne out by the fact that any monastery earning less than £200 per annum was simply closed.
The terms of the Suppression Act of 1536, which transferred all the lands and property of the religious houses to the Crown, were scrupulously fair and ensured that all parties were provided for. This was politically necessary to guarantee that the Act passed through parliament successfully and to ensure that the abbots of some of the larger monasteries who sat in Parliament would give their assent to the Act.
The pace of closure was at first quite slow, however by October 1538 nearly 20 monasteries a month were being closed as a result of visits by Cromwell’s men who cajoled and bullied the monasteries into effectively signing their own death warrants. The dissolution was finally completed with the closure of Waltham Abbey in 1540.
Sir Richard Cromwell, acquired most of the Ramsey buildings and land in and around Ramsey, for a more in-depth list follow this link.
Other Notables who Benefited from the Closure of Ramsey Abbey
Others who benefited from the closing of the Abbey included Sir Edward Montagu who acquired the Ramsey Estates at Herington and Barnwell and the Queen (Katherine Howard) who was granted Therefield and Elton. Abbey estates at Holywell, Houghton, and St Ives were given to Princess Elizabeth.
Members of the Lawrence family had leased property from Abbey in the years leading up to the surrender. The Abbot’s nephew, John Lawrence bailiff of Warboys, had leased Caldecott in Warboys and Horleys in Broughton. The bailiffs son William had property in slepe and St Ives. The bailiffs son in law Gabriel Throckmorton, married to Emma Lawrence,had a cottage and tithes in Upwood. After 1539 William Lawrence acquired Ramsey properties in slepe, for which he paid £828. He also gained estates in Broughton, Hemmingford Abbots, Great Ravely, and Wood Walton. Gabriel became the King’s bailiff in St Ives and acquired property in Warboys and Ellington.
The revenues accruing to the Crown in 1541 from Ramsey, excluding Sir Richard Cromwell’s estates and those of Sir Edward Montagu and the Queen, amounted to £1547. The greatest contribution came from St Ives with £140, Houghton with its watermill provided £77. The estates of Huntingdonshire provided 47.5% of the total, those in Cambridgeshire 21.7%, in Bedfordshire 17.4%, in Norfolk 8.9%, in Suffolk 3.5% and those in Middlesex 0.9%. The Middlesex revenues were derived from rents Whitecross Street, Beechland, and Red Cross Street in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate and from properties in Honey Lane and bread Street in Cheapside.
Sir Richard Cromwell increased his estate in 1542 by acquiring the former Augustinian Priory of St Mary’s in Huntingdon and the Benedictine priory of St Neot. On his death in 1544 all his accumulated properties including the site of Ramsey Abbey passed to Henry, his seven-year-old son. (Ref 36)
“Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang”
The process of dissolving monasteries was much the same in every case and usually took six or seven weeks before it was finally dismantled and all of the monks were turned out.
The chief commissioners paid two official visits to the scene of operations during the progress of the work. On the first day they assembled the superior and his subjects in the Chapter House, announced to the community and its dependents their impending doom; called for and defaced the convent seal, the symbol of corporate existence, without which no business could be transacted; desecrated the church; took possession of the best plate and vestments “unto the King’s use”, measured the lead upon the roof and calculated its value when melted; counted the bells; and appraised the goods and chattels of the community.
Then they passed on to the scene of their next operations, leaving behind them certain subordinate officers and workmen to carry out the designed destruction by stripping the roofs and pulling down the gutters and rain pipes; melting the lead into pigs and fodders, throwing down the bells, breaking them with sledgehammers and packing the metal into barrels ready for the visit of the speculator and his bid for the spoils.
This was followed by the work of collecting the furniture and selling it, together with the window frames, shutters, and doors by public auction or private tender. When all this had been done, the commissioners returned to audit the accounts and to satisfy themselves generally that the work of devastation had been accomplished to the King’s contentment — that the nest had been destroyed and the birds scattered — that what had been a monument of architectural beauty in the past was now a “bare roofless choir” where late the sweet birds sang. (Ref 11)