Dissolving the Dissolute? Henry VIII and the end of English Monasticism

R. E. Foster puts the dissolution of the monasteries into historical context.

The Monastic Scene

Glastonbury, the Somerset town best known today for its Festival, once enjoyed far greater wealth and celebrity as a religious centre. In 1191, graves purporting to be those of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were discovered within the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. Edward I was present when the remains were re-interred in a new shrine in 1278. Henry VII’s visit in 1494 seemingly confirmed the Abbey’s prestige and importance. A generation later, however, Glastonbury Abbey shared the fate of all English monasteries when it was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII.

Glastonbury was a Benedictine foundation. Other orders that flourished after 1066 included the Gilbertines, Augustinians and Cistercians. English monasticism peaked in the mid-fourteenth century when there were nearly 1,000 religious houses. The Black Death provided a check, but there were still 825 when Henry VIII ascended the throne. They were home to approximately 7,500 men and 1,800 women.

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