Popular Politics and the English Reformation

By Ethan H. Shagan | Go to book overview

7
Resistance and collaboration in
the dissolution of the chantries

In February 1539, Archbishop Cranmer's client John Marshall wrote to Thomas Cromwell describing the progress of the Reformation in the East Midlands. Marshall's report was at times unabashedly biased, but he also was not afraid to deliver bad news, for instance regarding people's fears of new taxes and unwillingness to work on abrogated feast days. In particular, he was concerned to describe the social repercussions of the dissolution of the monasteries, and in the process he left us a fascinating, if all too brief, analysis:

Abbeys be now nothing esteemed or pitied, for the commons say they now perceive more commonwealth to grow to them by their suppressing than was afore. For they say many good farms and other benefits come thereby daily abroad, which they [the monks] heretofore kept and had accumulated in great number to their own singular profits and advantages, saying they [the monks] were but the bellymonds and gluttons of the world, and the most vicious persons of the world, saving they [the commons] think there is much and great losses of their prayers.1

The last clause in Marshall's analysis belies the easy confidence of his initial observations. The commons may have been pleased with the material benefits gained from the dissolution of the monasteries, but the great tragedy they perceived in the downfall of the religious orders was the elimination of so many prayers. These prayers, particularly prayers for the dead, were the raison d'être of medieval monasticism and one of the principal outlets for lay religiosity in the early sixteenth century. Vast numbers of lay people left provisions in their wills for prayers to speed their souls through purgatory. Fraternities provided masses for the souls of their members, while perpetual endowments ensured masses for the souls of their wealthy founders. If people were pleased with the dissolution of the monasteries but uncomfortable

____________________
1
PRO SP 1/143, fol. 81r–v [LP XIV, i, 295]. On Marshall's correspondence, see Geoffrey Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 329–31; on his possible kinship to Cranmer and attachment to Welbeck Abbey, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven, Conn., 1996), p. 12. 235

-235-

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