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The British landscape is dotted with the ruins of abbies, priories, convents and churches. The crumbling stone structures, half-standing, long abandoned, serve as desolate reminders of the Catholic lives that once inhabited these religious houses, where the Holy Sacrifice was offered daily by priests and monks dedicated to Our Lord's service.
At the time known as "the great standing army of Rome," the Church's faithful sons and daughters in England lived out their vocations largely in peace, praying, working and studying — until King Henry VIII's agents appeared at their doors to inform them of the new order of things.
From 1536–40, one by one their vocations came to an end, as the ruthless Thomas Cromwell and his men conducted a systematic visitation of nearly a thousand religious houses throughout the British Isles. Raising spurious charges against them, including false claims that the priories and convents were being run as brothels, this slander was used to justify seizure of these lands and their goods for the Crown.
As Fr. John Vidmar, O.P. writes in his book "English Catholic Historians and the English Reformation, 1585–1954," Cromwell had no use for the truth where it got in the way of his ambition. For instance, a visitation to Glastonbury Abbey shows records that the abbot himself was a holy and excellent man — but Cromwell ordered the agent to visit again and offer a different report. The agent complied, this time reporting the opposite of his original comments, claiming the abbot was instead faithless and negligent.
This slander of the faithful throughout the realm was compiled by Cromwell in the "Comperta Monastica," which Parliament relied on (no hearings were ever held for those charged to defend themselves) to pass the Act of Dissolution in 1536, giving ownership of the smaller houses to the Crown. A later act of Parliament in 1539 would make the seizure complete, handing over the larger monasteries as well.
Countless manuscripts, works of art, sacred vessels and beautiful vestments were taken by the government, and the monasteries themselves destroyed, shut down or given away as favors to the king's political allies.
As Cromwell persuaded him, there were two great advantages: money and power. The monasteries held land and great treasuries. By appropriating both, Henry could raise money without additional taxation. As to power — the monasteries and the friaries were great supporters of the pope in Rome. Closing them would remove a great obstacle from Henry's path to supremacy.
Speaking with ChurchMilitant.com in an interview published Friday, Mann talked of the sufferings of the faithful under Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I.
"Catholics wanted to remain true to their faith," she explained, "and they suffered for many years under what William Cobbett calls 'terrible injustice.'"
This brutal top-down suppression of the Faith was nowhere more evident than in the dissolution of the monasteries. All told, more than 800 religious houses throughout Britain were seized, the nuns and monks themselves driven out to make their way in the world with meager pensions, many being forced to give up their vocation, while others continued to meet secretly in groups to pray. Some who defied the king were arrested, tortured and even executed.
"It was a blow on every level," said author Nancy Bilyeau, who also spoke with ChurchMilitant.com. "In the north of England ... there was a huge rebellion called the Pilgrimage of Grace. [T]housands of people rose up against this, because the monasteries up there were a source of charity."
"The monasteries were very important in England, but they were especially important in the north," Bilyeau explained. "So these people took up arms to restore their way of life — and they failed. And the leaders were actually hung in chains."
"You wonder why did all of these abbots and prioresses, why did they just give up and walk out? Well, look at the alternative," she commented. "The best thing that could happen to you is that you'd be poor. A lot of people were executed, tortured. It's quite appalling."
Learn more about the the plight of Catholics in Reformation England by watching "Mic'd Up—The English Deformation."