King Henry was driven—by his compulsion to dominate, by his hunger for admiration and approval, and by the dangers into which his needs were drawing him—to become an early practitioner of the art of political propaganda. What he was demanding was obviously not going to be easily achieved, and the price of failure was potentially high. Discontent could turn into rebellion, and Henry’s new status as an outlaw in the eyes of the Roman church could become an encouragement for the continental powers to invade. His survival might very well depend on the acquiescence of his subjects, for whom he seems to have felt little except contempt.

Those subjects had to be won over. Where they could not be won, they had to be frightened into conformity. In the spring of 1534 Henry undertook to do both things: to convert his people and to terrify them. A national propaganda machine was erected for the purpose: instructions went out for churchmen, on Easter Sunday and thereafter, to preach the new truth—that the pope was an imposter and a usurper, and that in religious as in secular matters there was no authority higher than the king. Cranmer, free at last to give vent to the hatred of Rome that appears to have been boiling deep inside his otherwise placid nature nearly all his life, showed the way by telling his congregation at Canterbury Cathedral that the bishop of Rome was “the Antichrist of the Apocalypse.” Such words would have shocked and offended many of the clergy whose leader Cranmer now was, not to mention his conventionally Catholic lay listeners. That his example was not followed as widely as he wished is apparent in the fact that he soon resorted to the novel idea of requiring all the priests in his archdiocese to obtain licenses to preach, suspending the licenses for a year, and instructing all the bishops of the Southern Convocation to do the same. Everything possible was being done to silence a recalcitrant clergy, but resentment became almost palpable. A monk who laughed at Cranmer, calling him “a fool archbishop,” was thrown into prison; it was reported that guards were needed to ensure the archbishop’s safety when he was in Canterbury. Justices of the peace around England and Wales received instructions to arrest any preacher who spoke in favor of papal authority. Propaganda was reinforced with the police powers of the Crown.

In the days following Easter the royal hammer began to descend on anyone whose words, acts, or omissions might, in the opinion of the king or his ministers, serve to encourage disobedience. The Crown’s principal weapon was the oath prepared for use under the Act of Succession. In the form approved for general use, this oath acknowledged that the king was right about the divorce, his marriage to Anne, and his imperial authority—about everything. Agents fanned out across the kingdom, to the universities and to distant villages, seeing to it that the oath was taken everywhere. Some targets, however, had higher priority than others. Anyone in a position of authority, anyone whose decision was likely to become known to substantial numbers of other people, was automatically a prime target. Any such person likely to be perceived by the public as not in agreement with the king received an even higher priority. No one had higher priority than Thomas More, who had left the chancellorship rather than assent to the king’s supremacy and had since then maintained a silence that was obviously heavy with meaning, and John Fisher, who from the start had been anything but silent and was all the more dangerous because so widely admired.

Both Fisher and More received summonses to appear at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury, on Monday, April 13. They knew what to expect. More spent time with his family before leaving home that morning, telling them that he was likely bound for prison and might never return. Upon their arrival at Lambeth he and Fisher found themselves in a long procession of men being marched one by one into the presence of Cromwell, Cranmer, Thomas Audley (the nonentity who was More’s replacement as chancellor), and the abbot of Westminster. All were asked, when their turns came, to sign the succession oath. Almost all did so and were sent on their way. Fisher refused and was escorted to the Tower. More asked for time to read what he was being asked to sign and, having done so, observed that by signing he would be accepting not only the succession rights of Henry and Anne’s offspring but the ecclesiastical supremacy of the king in England. He too refused. When asked to explain himself, he declined to do that as well, saying only that in signing he would be violating his conscience and thereby endangering his soul. Clearly he had already offended the king, he said, and in giving his reasons he could only give further offense. Even when standing on principle, he remained the crafty lawyer.

More was told that every member of the House of Commons had sworn the oath. He was shown the signatures and asked how he could oppose his conscience to those of so many others. He answered that he had no quarrel with those who elected to sign, but that he himself could not do so, and that he had on his side most Christians living and dead. After that the discussion had nowhere to go. More was put under arrest. He spent the next four days in the custody of the abbot and then joined Fisher in the Tower. The two were kept apart in fairly comfortable accommodations (More was allowed to keep his manservant), and in the days following both offered to swear to the succession. The king and Parliament had the right to decide such matters in whatever way they chose, More and Fisher said, and they could have no difficulty in acknowledging that right if they were not required at the same time to repudiate the authority of the pope and, by extension, the international community of Christians. Cranmer looked favorably on this offer. He urged the king to accept it, and to make much of the fact that More and Fisher had done as he required while ignoring their refusal to do everything required. Cromwell, however, was opposed, and Henry agreed with him.

Faced with the grim consequences of refusal, and receiving from Rome no word of guidance or encouragement and from Canterbury firm instructions to conform, most of the clergy subscribed. Where resistance appeared, it was generally hesitant, isolated, and susceptible to modest applications of pressure. The exceptions, those instances where resistance was bold and not quickly dissolved by threats, brought down the full wrath of the Crown. Those who resisted were seen as both a danger to the king and an opportunity for him and his henchmen to show that they would not be defied. From this followed, with a speed that might have surprised even Henry himself, the extinction of the Observant Franciscans, as respected a religious order as any in England.

The Observants, the reader will recall, were the order of William Peto, the priest who, from his pulpit at Greenwich, had dared to chastise King Henry on Easter Sunday 1532. Founded a century and a half earlier by a breakaway group that believed the Franciscans were becoming too lax, the Observants won recruits and admiration for the austerity of their lives and their dedication to their preaching mission. Invited into England in the early 1480s, they soon had six flourishing friaries. Henry VIII himself had been baptized in one of the friars’ churches, as were the short-lived son to whom Queen Catherine gave birth in 1511, Princess Mary, and—rather surprisingly, considering all that had transpired by the time she was born—Anne Boleyn’s infant daughter.

Not surprisingly, considering this background, the Observants’ refusal to accept the divorce became a major source of annoyance for Henry. The diatribe that Friar Peto directed at him, and Friar Elston’s withering treatment of the preacher sent to answer Peto, had been startling acts of defiance. Observants from the order’s house at Canterbury had been involved with Elizabeth Barton, too, and a pair of them died with her at Tyburn. The frequency with which Observants denounced the king’s innovations in their sermons, along with the writings being sent across the Channel by Peto and Elston from their place of exile, made it inevitable that the Crown would move against them.

By the spring of 1534 Henry and Cromwell had no reason to delay. A special version of the succession oath was prepared for the friars’ exclusive use. It was even more comprehensive, and from the conservative perspective even more objectionable, than the version that More and Fisher had been unable to accept. It required the Observants not only to swear allegiance to Henry and Anne and the offspring of their union (none of them disputed the king’s right to require that), not only to recognize the king as the supreme earthly authority under whom they followed the Franciscan rule, not only to deny that the bishop of Rome had more authority than any other bishop, but to pledge themselves to do everything possible to persuade others to do likewise. In demanding so much, the king was requiring that the friars actively repudiate much of what they had vowed in becoming Franciscans.

To humiliate the Observants and underscore his unhappiness with them, Henry ordered that the oath be delivered to their six houses by visitors selected from other, more cooperative orders of friars, the Augustinians and the Dominicans. This too was provocative. There being, inevitably, a degree of rivalry among the orders, sending representatives of one to make demands of another came close to being an insult, all the more so as the original encouragement of the Observants in England by Edward IV and Henry VII had implied dissatisfaction with the orders already established there, the Augustinians and Dominicans included. The results of the visits were, in any case, infuriatingly unsatisfactory from the king’s point of view. At the Canterbury friary, a house traumatized by the ghastly killing of two of its members with Elizabeth Barton, only two members of the community refused to take the oath. But at Richmond, though the prior was willing, almost all the friars refused. At Greenwich, the Observant establishment with the closest connection to the royal family, refusal was again almost unanimous. Overall the results were ambiguous; at some houses a solid majority was opposed but after much persuasion agreed to let four senior members decide for all. The one thing that would satisfy the king, unanimous acceptance, the Observants could not be induced to give him. And so Henry settled for second best: another chance to show just how high the price of refusal could go.

One day in June two carts loaded with friars were seen rumbling through the streets of London en route to the Tower. Others followed, and by the end of August every one of the order’s houses had been emptied out and some two hundred of its members were in prison. They did not get the gentle treatment accorded to Fisher and More. Many were chained to the walls of their cells, many were tortured, many were starved. Some fifty eventually died in confinement. After several years, the king’s attention having moved on to other things, those still alive would be permitted to slip away quietly to exile in France, Scotland, and Ireland. There has never been evidence that any of them had been involved in sedition, in attempting to overthrow the king, or in encouraging others to do anything of the kind. Not one was ever charged with any crime. The extermination of their order was simply an eloquent demonstration of the king’s power, and of his willingness to use it.

The lesson was not lost on the bishops, none of whom followed Fisher’s example. Several were clearly unhappy with what the king was doing, and some would eventually regret their failure to resist. The reason for that failure lies partly in the starkness of the choice that Henry laid out for them: they could do things his way and prosper, or they could be locked away. It also lies partly in the bishops themselves. They had been chosen for their positions not by the pope, not by other ecclesiastics or any other element of the clergy, but by Henry or (as was true of a few of the oldest of them) by Henry’s father. And most had been chosen because of their service to a Crown to which, in consequence of how they had been rewarded, they felt a heavy obligation. They were administrators and diplomats. They had political skill. They lived in a time increasingly dominated by the idea that princes ruled by the grace of God, and that to disobey one’s ruler was akin to disobeying God. Nothing in any of this had prepared them for martyrdom, and few of the decisions out of which they had shaped their careers had shown them to be inclined in that direction.

Even so, some of them had to be wrestled into submission, and some paid a price for resisting as much as they did. Cuthbert Tunstal appeared for a time to be destined to follow Fisher into the Tower. When at the start of 1534 he set out for London and the next session of Parliament, he received an order from the king to turn around and return home—not the first time his criticism of the king had made him unwelcome at Westminster. It was not until the parliamentary session had concluded, with its flood of statutes cutting off England from Rome, that Tunstal was summoned. He arrived in London to find Fisher in prison amid reports of the killing of Elizabeth Barton, and soon his London residence was invaded and ransacked by Cromwell’s agents. At this point Tunstal capitulated. He took the oath of succession, supposedly with reservations that have been lost to history. As usual the king wanted more. He made certain that Tunstal was not merely subdued but made to crawl, requiring him to visit Catherine of Aragon in company with the archbishop of York and explain that he no longer believed her marriage to be valid. Catherine of course was hurt and angry, all the more so because at about this same time she learned that her former confessor, the Observant friar John Forest, also had taken the oath. (He was in prison at the time.) For Tunstal the experience must have been excruciating. He was allowed to return to his ecclesiastical duties but was never again trusted by the king.

It was much the same with Stephen Gardiner. Though originally one of the most active supporters of the king’s campaign for a divorce, Gardiner was deeply conservative, and he had immense difficulty in leaping from a simple belief that the king’s marriage was invalid to the vastly bigger idea that the papacy had no right to the authority it had always exercised. After being passed over for the see of Canterbury in 1532, Gardiner got back into line and tried to show himself to be the king’s man first, but he did so too late. His expulsion from the court’s inner circle became official when Cromwell replaced him as secretary.

November brought news—accurate this time—of the death of Pope Clement. Surprisingly in light of the lengths to which he had already gone to put an end to papal jurisdiction in England, Henry ordered one of his agents in Italy, Gregory Casale, to go to Rome and do what he could to promote the election of a candidate likely to be friendly to his cause. He could not have been disappointed by the emergence of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as Pope Paul III; before his election Farnese had expressed his eagerness to bring the English monarch back into the fold, and soon afterward he was asking Casale for advice on how to make that happen. He was unable to grasp that Henry would no longer consider conceding anything—that though he would have been delighted by papal acknowledgment that his marriage to Catherine was null and his marriage to Anne valid, he had no intention of undoing any of his anti-Roman statutes. Thus the new pope, like Clement, continued to nurse empty hopes.

The sterility of those hopes should have become obvious even as far away as Rome when Parliament reconvened in November and in short order passed three more momentous laws of Cromwell’s devising. The Act of Supremacy was, strictly speaking, nothing new. It summarized and put into statutory form much of what Henry had previously and successfully claimed for himself: supreme ecclesiastical jurisdiction including authority over convocations of the clergy; the power to issue injunctions to which the clergy were obliged to conform; and the power to declare, through Parliament, what his subjects should and should not believe. Like the statutes passed in the year’s first session, this one conferred no powers on the king; instead it acknowledged the powers presumably conferred on him by God. Its importance, Cromwell’s reason for drafting it and pushing it through to approval, lay in the simple fact that statutory expression of the king’s authority gave Parliament a basis for punishing anyone who denied that authority. Thus it became impossible—or less possible, at least—to accuse Henry and Cromwell and their agents of acting unlawfully when they killed or imprisoned the likes of Barton, Fisher, More, and the Observant friars. Such acts would henceforth be in accordance with the law.

The king’s powers having been thus laid out systematically and in some detail, all that remained was to establish what exactly the king’s subjects owed him in this connection and what kinds of behavior would put them in violation of the law. This was accomplished by a new measure that extended the state’s definition of treason into areas that even the Act of Succession had left untouched, fundamentally changing that definition for the first time in 182 years. If the Supremacy Act was little more than a codification and legitimization of things that Henry had previously done, the Treasons Act of 1534 was without precedent. Until it was passed, no English man or woman could be found guilty of high treason and therefore be made subject to a penalty of death except as a result of attempting to end the king’s life, making war against him, or allying with his enemies. And there had had to be at least two witnesses to the commission of treason. But now, and most ambiguously, it was made treasonous to deprive the king, the queen, or their heirs of “the dignity, title or name of their royal estates.” To be guilty of high treason, it was no longer necessary to try to do harm to the royal family but only to “wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine” such harm. Mere words, even mere thoughts, could now be punished with execution, and only one witness was required. Finally and absurdly, the new law made it a capital offense to call the king a tyrant (or for that matter a heretic, a schismatic, or an infidel).

Though records of the parliamentary proceedings of this period are sparse and often of questionable accuracy, these provisions appear to have shocked a good many members, and to have moved some to resistance. This probably explains the insertion into the bill, at two places, of the word “maliciously;” Cromwell is believed to have had to agree to this in order to get the bill passed. It meant, presumably, that one could wish to deprive Henry and his queen and children of the “dignity” of their “royal estates,” or even call the king a tyrant, so long as one did not do so with evil intent. It was another unfathomable ambiguity, and it would prove to be no check on the king as he went about bending the law to his purposes.

The third major statute passed by this session was a stone that killed two birds. It conclusively cut off the flow of money from England to Rome, not only diverting it to the Crown but increasing it substantially. It was called the Act of First Fruits and Tenths—first fruits because it required anyone appointed to an ecclesiastical office to give the king the year of income previously sent to the papal court; tenths because it gave the king, for the first time, ten percent of the income of every “archbishopric, bishopric, abbacy, monastery, priory, archdeaconry, deanery, hospital, college, house collegiate, prebend, cathedral church, collegiate church, conventual church, parsonage, vicarage, chantry, free chapel, or other benefice or promotion spiritual, of what name, nature or quality soever they be, within any diocese of this realm or in Wales.” By this single stroke the Crown’s income was majestically increased, and the supposedly unconscionable burden that Rome had long been imposing was abruptly made bigger. The numbers are impressive: the average amount sent to Rome annually between 1485 and 1534—£4,800—was replaced by payments to the Crown of £46,052 in 1535 and £51,770 the year after that.

In 1534, for the first time in a decade, Henry asked Parliament for taxation. He was given a traditional levy: two “fifteenths and tenths” (percentages of certain assets of different classes of subject) and also a subsidy. When everything was taken into account, therefore, the year brought the Crown a massive inflow of gold. It was not enough, however, to remove the financial difficulties that Cromwell now had the duty to manage. The king’s gambling, his many luxuries, the expansion and improvement of Hampton Court Palace and Whitehall and his other residences, the building of the new St. James’s Palace in London—taken together, these things were almost more than the treasury could bear.

The year had brought astonishing things: proof of Henry’s ability to make Parliament deliver practically anything he demanded, the enshrinement of his ecclesiastical supremacy in the law of the land, the crushing of domestic opposition, a conclusive repudiation of Rome, and a great deal of badly needed money. But all of it seemed merely to whet the king’s appetite. He wanted more. He became more determined than ever that everyone in England was going to conform to his will and embrace his definition of the truth.

Queen Anne, tragically, was failing to conform: her second pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Henry was still hopeful, still trying, still sleeping with the queen for whom he had waited so long, but he was becoming weary of her tantrums and her jealousy and her failure to produce the expected heir. He began to wonder if something was wrong—not with himself, of course, but with Anne, or with their union. He began to suspect that his second marriage must be as displeasing to God as his first had been. Evidently he also—as Anne would be heard to complain—began to have difficulty performing sexually. A long time would pass before Anne became pregnant again.

Fisher and More were still refusing to conform. Maddeningly, they sat in their stone cells in the Tower and under the closest scrutiny said nothing and did nothing that could make it possible to have them put to death. Henry therefore resorted to what was becoming a favorite way of destroying those he saw as his enemies when they were not within reach of the law. He had them attainted for misprision of treason, and this time the penalty would be no mere fine. Attainder provided a basis for keeping them in prison for the rest of their lives if that was what the king wished, and for confiscating everything they owned. More’s Chelsea household, which included a large extended family, was reduced to destitution. More himself was no longer allowed visitors or access to the Tower gardens.

As one of his last acts of the year, Henry appointed Cromwell to serve as his vice-regent, empowered to administer the church on his behalf. Even the most reform-minded of the bishops, the ones most antagonistic toward Rome and most eager to cast off the old ways, found this hard to accept. Suddenly they were subordinate not only to their king but to a rough upstart commoner who had never taken holy orders at even the lowliest level and had no training in theology or canon law or anything of the kind.

Cromwell and Henry, of course, knew exactly what they were doing.

They were positioning themselves to use for their own purposes a power that traditionally, virtually from time immemorial, had belonged to the bishops and the heads of the religious orders. This was the power of visitation—the right and responsibility to enter the religious houses of England and Wales, examine their operations, and impose such corrective measures as might be found necessary.

For the first time in history, thanks to the parliamentary enactments of 1534, this power now resided in the king.

And the king had in his vice-regent a man who understood what kinds of opportunities this created, knew how to exploit them to the full, and would feel no hesitation in doing so.

Cromwell was now ready, as one of the most momentous years in the history of England came to its end, to begin using the king’s new powers in ways that the king himself may not yet have imagined.



FOR AT LEAST FOUR CENTURIES AFTER HENRY VIII’S DEATH, British conventional wisdom insisted confidently that his assault on the religious orders and their houses was not only justified but little short of imperative. The people of England were taught that by the 1530s monasticism was dying, was sunk in a moral decay too awful to be discussed in mixed company—fabricated stories about secret tunnels connecting the sleeping quarters of nuns and monks had become part of the national folklore—and needed to be put out of its misery.

About one thing, at least, this national mythology was right. Monasticism in England was dying when Henry decided to kill it—in fact, it had been dying for centuries. But that is only part of the story, and not the most interesting part. What is equally true, and more significant because so greatly at variance with what is commonly believed, is that England’s monasteries had also been reviving, reinventing, and renewing themselves all through the centuries of their decline. Which is simply to say that the institution of monasticism, in the sixteenth century no less than in the fourteenth or the twelfth or long before that, remained a living, multifaceted, endlessly changing thing—a dynamic thing. If in some ways it was not entirely healthy when Henry launched his attack on it—and it certainly was not—in others it had rarely been more robust. Some parts of it were withering even as others flourished, and up to the end it appears to have been changing for the better in at least as many ways as it was changing for the worse.

It had always been so. Recurrent, frequently radical reform had been one of the main threads in the history of European monasticism from its beginnings. Monasticism had arisen out of an urgent impulse to create something new—to find a way by which people in pursuit of the transcendental might organize themselves into supportive communities—and naturally it was the seekers themselves who did the creating. The waves of reform that followed one after another were almost without exception the work not of some disapproving outside authority but of the monks and nuns themselves. There should be nothing surprising in any of this. The monastic vocation being almost by definition a way of life for men and women wanting something not easily found in ordinary experience, it is only to be expected that some of the people who enter it will be dissatisfied with what they find and that some of those will insist upon going deeper. It has always been inevitable that the very success of different varieties of monasticism would spark a desire to experiment with other, newer (and sometimes older) forms.

Britain’s first great experience of monastic reform came as early as the tenth century, the time of the Anglo-Saxons, when the perhaps two hundred small monasteries then functioning on the island agreed to organize themselves in a new way and subject themselves to a new system of discipline. Throughout the preceding four centuries, during what later times have named the Dark Ages (they were distinctly less dark north of the English Channel than on the European mainland), the monasteries of England and Wales and even more so those of Ireland had been very nearly the only institutions in all of Western Christendom to preserve the cultural and intellectual heritage that had collapsed with the Roman Empire. Many of these earliest monasteries were, in addition to unique centers of learning, bases from which parties of monks set out to carry the gospel, and with it literacy, to barbarian tribes on the continent. Each was organized and governed according to whatever system it had worked out for itself or borrowed from some convenient source. Each adopted whatever practices and purposes it chose, and the differences between houses could be extreme and controversial. Through many generations there was no widely accepted answer to the question of how religious communities might best manage their affairs, and the extent of dissatisfaction with this situation can be inferred from the readiness with which a remedy was embraced as soon as a potentially workable one became available.

What crossed to England in the tenth century was the so-called Rule of St. Benedict, a system of monastic governance that had been drawn up by an obscure abbot in Italy fully four hundred years before. This set of regulations, rigorous but not fanatically severe, proved to be the most workable of many early efforts to show people wanting the religious life how to form communities that would not fall apart under the strain of human interaction. Benedict of Nursia’s plan met so many needs so well that it was adopted throughout Italy and from there spread north. Eventually it became so universal a standard that, for a time, nearly every monastery in Europe was “Benedictine.” In 970, at a church synod at Winchester, the abbots and abbesses and priors and prioresses of England accepted Benedict’s system as their “one uniform observance.” A form of monasticism that would remain familiar across the island for the next five and a half centuries began to take shape. It was a simple system and not easily abused. Men and women were strictly segregated. The members of each community elected their superiors, who exercised absolute authority but could be removed for unsatisfactory performance and were adjured in Benedict’s writings to consult with the members before making decisions. The monastic day began at two A.M. (three A.M. in summer, when darkness fell later) and was divided into periods of prayer, labor, and study. The schedule varied only with the seasons and the demands of the liturgical calendar of “feast days” and fasts. There were two meals a day in summer, when more daylight hours were available for work, but only one in winter, and only the sick were allowed meat. All visitors were to be offered food and shelter, and providing for the local poor and sick became a primary responsibility of every house. This was not a life likely to attract anyone without a serious commitment to spiritual pursuits. A system of periodic visitations by authorities from the outside helped to ensure fidelity to the rule, and in the centuries following its adoption there were strikingly few grave or systemic failures of discipline. Problems did not go unaddressed. A typical problem, one characteristic of the time, was the practice, carried forward from pre-Benedictine days, by which wealthy families not wishing to divide property among multiple heirs would deposit their surplus children at the abbeys, presumably for life. The worst consequences of this were removed by a rule forbidding anyone to take monastic vows before reaching the age of consent, which was usually eighteen.

Success bred prosperity and complexity. Some of the houses grew large and rich: forty-five (eight of them communities of women) were important enough to figure in the public records of 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, and the Normans in their turn endowed new establishments on a sometimes lavish scale. The Benedictines—now formally an international order—grew increasingly sophisticated. The abbots of the greatest houses sat in the House of Lords. It came to be the norm for the monks to be ordained as priests, whereas Benedict himself had not regarded monks as being clergy in the strict sense, and when the first universities were founded one of their primary purposes was to educate young men sent from the monasteries. The religious observances of the houses became so elaborate that little time was left for work or solitude. A growing perception that all this marked an unacceptable departure from the spirit of the rule led first to discontent and then to the establishment, in France initially, of the breakaway order of Cistercians, whose garments of unbleached wool caused them to be called the “white monks” in contrast to the black-robed Benedictines. (The “black monks,” not pleased with this implicit criticism of their presumably more comfortable attire, accused the Cistercians of making an ostentatious display of humility and austerity. Members of different religious orders were not above jealousy and resentment.)

The emergence of the Cistercians was a real revolution, and from their arrival in England in the twelfth century they attracted astonishing numbers of recruits. They settled in wild and unpopulated districts, set out to support themselves by draining marshland and converting it to pastures for sheep, and gradually grew rich by doing so. Within a generation the order had almost a dozen English houses. Its growth was only part of what is called the twelfth century’s Monastic Renaissance, during which more than 250 new houses for men were opened in England along with more than 100 for women. Among them were the first English houses of the so-called canons regular and also of the Carthusians, a hybrid order of hermits-in-community that would grow to nine houses, only to be singled out for early destruction by Henry VIII and Cromwell. These and other orders—Norbertines, Bridgettines, the English Order of Sempringham, Knights Templar, and Knights Hospitalers—adhered to orthodox doctrine (though disputes about how well they did so were common) while pursuing their different missions in their distinctive ways.

The thirteenth century brought yet another revolution: the arrival of the friars, new mendicant (the word means “begging”) orders that had started on the continent, spread with startling speed, and were focused not on maintaining houses of prayer and seclusion but on outreach to the laity—especially the growing and increasingly sophisticated urban laity, an emerging social force that had received much attention at the Lateran Council of 1215. The Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, first appeared in England in 1221, the year that its founder, the Spaniard Dominic, died. When the Friars Minor or Franciscans followed three years later, their founder Francis of Assisi was still alive. Both orders emphasized poverty and simplicity of life along with helping ordinary people to live Christian lives in a world of towns and cities. They proved popular wherever they settled, though in doing so they often attracted the unfriendly attention of the secular clergy—the diocesan and parish priests who belonged to no order.

Soon there were Dominican and Franciscan houses for women, and still other orders of friars, Augustinians and Carmelites, also arrived from the continent. Both within the oldest Benedictine houses and among the more recent arrivals, the old struggle over how best to live the religious life went on as ever. The problem was perhaps most acute among the Franciscans. We have already encountered the Friars Observant, especially favored by the royal family until they refused to accept Henry VIII’s annulment suit and his claims to be supreme head. They called themselves “observant” to distinguish themselves from those Franciscans who, in their opinion, were no longer sufficiently faithful to the precepts of their founder. Such splinterings were far from unusual, and they were hardly evidence of decay. They were evidence, rather, that the monastic impulse had not grown cold—that people drawn to the religious life still regarded themselves as on a quest that had to be taken seriously.

The English church that Henry inherited was, at least in part because of its monastic element, scarcely less diverse than the broader society of which it was part. Monasticism reached across the whole culture, from humanist scholars at Oxford and Cambridge to Charterhouse hermits growing vegetables outside their cells, from abbots in the House of Lords to friars ministering to the poor in the filthy streets of London and solitary Cistercians tending sheep on the windswept moors of Yorkshire. Vitality was probably lowest where monasticism was oldest, in some of the hundreds of Benedictine houses that dotted the landscape. All the religious orders had lost devastatingly large numbers of their members in the Black Death of the fourteenth century, but the ranks of the Benedictines were especially slow to refill. Because new kinds of opportunities were emerging in the lay world, and also because the most adventurous spiritual seekers now had so many other options, their appeal was not what it once had been. Increasing amounts of Benedictine land were being worked by tenant farmers, who generally found monks to be better landlords than their counterparts among the nobility if only because they were less desperate for cash, and the monasteries were showing an increasing tendency to allow their tenants to become freeholders. Some sort of adjustment of the place of the Benedictines in the life of the nation was obviously advisable and becoming increasingly likely.

But it would be claiming too much to say that even the Benedictine rule had arrived at the point of exhaustion. That was proved by the willingness of some of the leading Benedictine abbots to die rather than surrender to Henry’s demands. It is proved in the twenty-first century by the fact that Benedictine houses are again prospering in England and have been doing so since they ceased to be illegal.

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