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The Dissolution: the end of monastic life at Roche


The opening folio of the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, © Public Record Office
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Valor Ecclesiasticus © Public Record Office

The Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII (1509-47), spelt the end of monasticism in England and Wales. The king, declaring himself the head of the Church in England, embarked on a thorough assessment of religious life in the country, allegedly to uncover and suppress dissolute conditions; it was, however, the need for money that underpinned these pious claims. Henry first ordered an evaluation of all the property pertaining to the church in England and Wales, a survey known as the Valor Ecclesiasticus. Thereafter, he instructed that each religious house should be visited and a report compiled of misconduct therein. The commissioners sent to the North of England were Doctors Layton and Legh, an infamous twosome renowned for their surprise tactics, their pompous manner and rigorous questioning.

The commissioners probably arrived at Roche near the end of 1535, and subjected the monks to a gruelling session of questioning, quizzing them about their food and clothing, the observance of the Rule of St Benedict, attendance at Divine Services, the administration of hospitality and charity, and if boys or women lay with them. The commissioners accused five monks of Roche of sodomy and one, John Robinson, of treason. John denied having spoken either in support of the pope or against the king, but was imprisoned at York 1535-6; he is likely to have been the monk from Roche whom Sir Francis Bigod saw in fetters at York Castle in 1536.(1) John was eventually released and was present at the surrender of his abbey in June 1538. On their departure Layton and Legh would have left the monks a set of injunctions and updated their notes with details of the visit.

The surrender deed for Roche Abbey; the monks' signatures can be seen on the left © Public Record Office
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Surrender deed for Roche Abbey © Public Record Office

The results of these first visitations, which were read out at parliament in 1536, instigated the first Act of Suppression, that ordered the surrender of those houses whose annual income was under £200. Roche was at this time valued at £222 and escaped suppression. The following year Layton and Legh visited the North once more and were particularly concerned this time to discover evidence of what they called superstition, namely, relics miracles and cults that, they claimed, duped the people to bring the abbeys financial gain. They accused the abbot and convent of Roche of having a pilgrimage to venerate an image of the crucified Christ.

The second wave of suppression followed, and commissioners were sent to obtain the ‘voluntary surrender’ of each house using persuasion, coercion, or if need be, force. Abbot Henry Cundall of Roche and his seventeen monks gathered in the chapter-house at Roche for the last time on 23 June 1538, and signed the surrender deed, sealing the fate of their abbey.(2) The keys of Roche were then handed over to the commissioners and an exhaustive inventory was taken of all the monks’ possessions and livestock, which were then claimed as Crown property.(3) Each monk was granted a pension, the precise amount depending on his standing within the abbey. Every member of the community also received a ‘reward’. Abbot Henry was given an additional £30, as well as his books, a quarter of the abbey’s plate, cattle, household items, a chalice, vestment and a portion of corn, which was to be taken at his discretion. The other monks each received half a year’s allowance, and every servant of the abbey was given half a year’s wages.

Following the dispersal of the monks, the abbey buildings were destroyed to ensure that the community would not attempt to reconvene. The monks’ goods were either plundered by the locals or sold - a number of vestments and furnishings were bought by local church wardens; it was said that the local carters used the monks’ service-books to patch up coverings on their wagons.(4) The sheer speed with which the surrender and destruction of the abbey was effected was quite remarkable, and a later commentator showed incredulity that those who had only two days previously condoned the monks’ spiritual work could now pilfer their site.

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