Four Years That Changed England

I’m reading a book that was just reviewed in the TLS, James Clark’s “The Dissolution of the Monasteries”. I’ve long been fascinated by the topic: people seem to have no clue what a radical upheaval Henry VIII’s appropriation of all ecclesiastical properties was. It doesn’t get as much attention as the anti-clericalism of 1789, f’rinstance. How many people compulsively watched “Downton Abbey” without wondering: “Hang on—why are these toffs living in an abbey? “
Anyway he’s talkin’ about 1536-1540, four brief but breathtaking years during which for the most part (although there were a few holdouts and rebellions) the great “princes of the church” surrendered their demesnes to the Mouldwarp. The King had his lieutenants and functionaries primarily now remembered, if at all, for their role in this project . A,special,tribunal, the Court of Augmentations, was established to handle the redistribution. But when the four years were over, that tribunal’s records were subsumed into those of another judicial division, pretty effectively buried. And the primary players in the transformation, gone—even Thomas Cromwell, beheaded in 1540.
(At this point, I just have to stop and recommend two fantastic fictional treatments of this period: CJ Sansom
Shardlake series, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. You’re welcome!)
The awful speed of demolition during the four year period in question makes me think of Biden’s first term, of which three more parlous years remain. I see in my mind’s eye those films of him on Day One, black-masked like an executioner, signing order after order as they were handed to him by Harris, like Robespierre or the Roman tribunal pricking out death warrants. A fundamental transformation of our society.
Of course, as today, Henry’s policy wouldn’t have been possible without what was going on on The Continent, as some quaint Anglos used to call Europe. Lutheran princes had been doing the same kinda thing since 1517. Really, just like today when the Dems for some reason want to emulate the “progressive” conditions of a little clot of polities—well, really just two of Charlemagne’s offspring: France and Germany— which spent the last century ripping each other apart , physically, economically, politically.

It’s the brevity and speed of Henry’s demolition which is striking to me. And when it was over, the erasure of the records and people by which it had been accomplished. Oh yes, four years is plenty of time.


Knowing history is a blessing, and a curse. Henry had plenty of accommodating lieutenants.


Thank you.


No really dear TW, knowing history is an unmitigated blessing! And one which, we have seen in the past year, we can’t take for granted

1 Like