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(September 1535 to 1536.)
The death of the late tutor and friend of the prince was to be followed by a measure less cruel but far more general. The pope who treated kings so rudely should not be surprised if kings treated the monks severely. Henry knew—had indeed been a close witness of their lazy and often irregular lives. One day, when he was hunting in the forest of Windsor, he lost his way, perhaps intentionally, and about the dinner hour knocked at the gate of Reading Abbey. As he represented himself to be one of his Majesty's guards, the abbot said:
'You will dine with me;' and the king sat down to a table covered with abundant and delicate dishes. After examining everything carefully: 'I will stick to this sirloin,' said he, pointing to a piece of beef of which he eat heartily.[161] The abbot looked on with admiration. 'I would give a hundred pounds,' he exclaimed, 'to eat with as much appetite as you; but alas! my weak and qualmish stomach can hardly digest the wing of a chicken.'—'I know how to bring back your appetite,' thought the king. A few days later some soldiers appeared at the convent, took away the abbot, and shut him up in the Tower, where he was put upon bread and water. 'What have I done,' he kept asking, 'to incur his Majesty's displeasure to such a degree?' After a few weeks, Henry went to the state prison, and concealing himself in an ante-room whence he could see the abbot, ordered a sirloin of beef to be set before him. The famished monk in his turn fell upon the joint, and (according to tradition) eat it all. The king now showed himself: 'Sir abbot,' he said, 'I have cured you of your qualms; now pay me my wages. It is a hundred pounds, you know.' The abbot paid and returned to Reading; but Henry never after forgot the monks' kitchen.
The state of the monasteries was an occasion of scandal: for many centuries all religious life had died out in most of those establishments. The monks lived, generally, in idleness, gluttony, and licentiousness, and the convents which should have been houses of saints had become in many cases mere sties of lazy gormandizers and impure sensualists. 'The only law they recognize,' said Luther, speaking of these cloisters, 'is that of the seven deadly sins.' History encounters here a twofold danger: one is that of keeping back what is essential, the scandalous facts that justify the suppression
of monasteries; the other is that of saying things that cannot be named. We must strive to steer between these two quicksands.
All classes of society had become disgusted with the monasteries: the common people would say to the monks: 'We labor painfully, while you lead easy and comfortable lives.' The nobility regarded them with looks of envy and irony which threatened their wealth. The lawyers considered them as parasitical plants, which drew away from others the nutriment they required. These things made the religious orders cry out with alarm: 'If we no longer have the pope to protect us, it is all over with us and our monasteries.' And they set to work to prevent Henry from separating from the pope: they circulated anonymous stories, seditious songs, trivial lampoons, frightful prophecies and biting satires against the king, Anne Boleyn, and the friends of the Reformation. They held mysterious interviews with the discontented, and took advantage of the confessional to alarm the weak-minded. 'The supremacy of the pope,' they said, 'is a fundamental article of the faith: none who reject it can be saved.' People began to fear a general revolt.
When Luther was informed that Henry VIII. had abolished the authority of the pope in his kingdom, but had suffered the religious orders to remain, he smiled at the blunder: 'The king of England,' he said, 'weakens the body of the papacy but at the same time strengthens the soul.'[162] That could not endure for long.
Cromwell had now attained high honors and was to mount higher still. He thought with Luther that the pope and the monks could not exist or fall one without the other. After having abolished the Roman pontiff, it became necessary to abolish the monasteries. It was he who had prevailed on the king to take the place of head
of the Church; and now he wished him to be so really. 'Sire,' he said to Henry, 'cleanse the Lord's field from all the weeds that stifle the good corn, and scatter everywhere the seeds of virtue.[163] In 1525, 1528, 1531 and 1534 the popes themselves lent you their help in the suppression of monasteries; now you no longer require their aid. Do not hesitate, Sire: the most fanatical enemies of your supreme authority are to be found in the convents. There is buried the wealth necessary to the prosperity of the nation. The revenues of the religious orders are far greater than those of all the nobility of England. The cloister schools have fallen into decay, and the wants of the age require better ones. To suppress the pope and to keep the monks is like deposing the general and delivering the fortresses of the country up to his army. Sire, imitate the example of the protestants and suppress the monasteries.'
Such language alarmed the friends of the papacy, who stoutly opposed a scheme which they believed to be sacrilegious. 'These foundations were consecrated to Almighty God,' they told the king; 'respect therefore those retreats where pious souls live in contemplation.'[164] 'Contemplation!' said Sir Henry Colt smiling; 'tomorrow, Sire, I undertake to produce proofs of the kind of contemplation in which these monks indulge.' Whereupon, says an historian, Colt, knowing that a certain number of the monks of Waltham Abbey had a fondness for the conversation of ladies, and used to pass the night with the nuns of Chesham Convent, went to a narrow path through which the monks would have to pass on their return, and stretched across it one of the stout nets used in stag-hunting. Towards daybreak, as the monks, lantern in hand, were making their way
through the wood, they suddenly heard a loud noise behind them—it was caused by men whom Colt had stationed for the purpose—and instantly blowing out their lights they were hurrying away, when they fell into the toils prepared for them.[165] The next morning, he presented them to the king, who laughed heartily at their piteous looks. 'I have often seen better game,' he said, 'but never fatter. Certainly,' he added, 'I can make a better use of the money which the monks waste in their debaucheries. The coast of England requires to be fortified, my fleet and army to be increased, and harbors to be built for the commerce which is extending every day.[166] All that is well worth the trouble of suppressing houses of impurity.'
The protectors of the religious orders were not discouraged, and maintained that it was not necessary to shut all the convents, because of a few guilty houses.
Dr. Leighton, a former officer of Wolsey's, proposed a middle course: 'Let the king order a general visitation of monasteries,' he said, 'and in this way he will learn whether he ought to secularize them or not. Perhaps the mere fear of this inspection will incline the monks to yield to his Majesty's desires.' Henry charged Cromwell with the execution of this measure, and for that purpose named him vicegerent and vicar-general, conferring on him all the ecclesiastical authority which belonged to the king.[167] 'You will visit all the churches,' he said, 'even the metropolitan, whether the see be vacant or not; all the monasteries both of men and women; and you will correct and punish whoever may be found guilty.' Henry gave to his vicar precedence over all the peers, and decided that the layman should preside over the assembly of the clergy instead of the
primate; overlook the administration not only of the bishops but also of the archbishops; confirm or annul the election of prelates, deprive or suspend them, and assemble synods. This was at the beginning of September 1535. The influence of the laity thus re-entered the Church, but not through the proper door. They came forward in the name of the king and his proclamations, whilst they ought to have appeared in the name of Christ and of His Word. The king informed the primate, and through him all the bishops and archdeacons, that as the general visitation was about to commence, they should no longer exercise their jurisdiction.[168] The astonished prelates made representations, but they were unavailing: they and their sees were to be inspected by laymen. Although the commission of the latter did not contain the required conditions, namely the delegation of the flocks, this act was a pretty evident sign that the restoration of the members of the Church to their functions was at that time foreseen and perhaps even regarded by many as one of the most essential parts of the Reformation of England.
The monks began to tremble. Faith in the convents no longer existed—not even in the convents themselves. Confidence in monastic practices, relics, and pilgrimages had grown weaker; the timbers of the monasteries were worm-eaten, their walls were just ready to fall, and the edifice of the Middle Ages, tottering on its foundations, was unable to withstand the hearty blows dealt against it. When an antiquary explores some ancient sepulchre, he comes upon a skeleton, apparently well preserved, but crumbling into dust at the slightest touch of the finger; in like manner the puissant hand of the sixteenth century had only to touch most of these monastic institutions to reduce them to powder. The real dissolver of the religious orders was neither Henry VIII.
nor Cromwell: it was the devouring worm which, for years and centuries, they had carried in their bosom.
The vicar-general appointed his commissioners[169] and then assembled them as a commander-in-chief calls his generals together. In the front rank was Dr. Leighton, his old comrade in Wolsey's household, a skilful man who knew the ground well and did not forget his own interests. After him came Dr. Loudon, a man of unparalleled activity, but without character and a weathercock turning to every wind. With him was Sir Richard Cromwell, nephew of the vicar-general, an upright man, though desirous of making his way through his uncle's influence. He was the ancestor of another Cromwell, far more celebrated than Henry VIII.'s vicegerent. Other two were Thomas Legh and John Apprice, the most daring of the colleagues of the king's ministers; besides other individuals of well known ability. The vicegerent handed to them the instructions for their guidance, the questions they were to put to the monks, and the injunctions they were to impose on the abbots and priors; after which they separated on their mission.
The Universities, which sadly needed a reform, were not overlooked by Henry and his representative. Since the time when Garret, the priest of a London parish, circulated the New Testament at Oxford, the sacred volume had been banished from that city, as well as the Beggar's Petition and other evangelical writings. Slumber had followed the awakening. The members of the university, especially certain ecclesiastics who, forsaking their parishes, had come and settled at Oxford, to enjoy the delights of Capua,[170] passed their lives in idleness and sensuality. The royal commissioners aroused them from this torpor. They dethroned Duns Scotus, 'the subtle doctor,' who had reigned there for three hundred years, and the leaves of his books were scattered to the
winds. Scholasticism fell; new lectures were established; philosophical teaching, the natural sciences, Latin, Greek, and divinity were extended and developed. The students were forbidden to haunt taverns, and the priests who had come to Oxford to enjoy life, were sent back to their parishes.
The visitation of the monasteries began with those of Canterbury, the primatial church of England. In October 1535, shortly after Michaelmas, Dr. Leighton, the visitor, entered the cathedral, and Archbishop Cranmer went up into the pulpit. He had seen Rome: he had an intimate conviction that that city exerted a mischievous influence over all Christendom; he desired, as primate, to take advantage of this important opportunity to break publicly with her. 'No,' he said, 'the bishop of Rome is not God's vicar. In vain you will tell me that the See of Rome is called Sancta Sedes, and its bishop entitled Sanctissimus Papa: the pope's holiness is but a holiness in name.[171] Vain-glory, worldly pomp, unrestrained lust, and vices innumerable prevail in Rome. I have seen it with my own eyes. The pope claims by his ceremonies to forgive men their sins: it is a serious error. One work only blots them out, namely, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. So long as the See of Rome endures, there will be no remedy for the evils which overwhelm us. These many years I had daily prayed unto God that I might see the power of Rome destroyed.'[172] Language so frank necessarily displeased the adherents of the pope, and accordingly, when Cranmer alluded to his energetic daily prayer, the Superior of the Dominicans, trembling with excitement, exclaimed: 'What a want of charity!'
He was not the only person struck with indignation and fear. As soon as the sermon was over, the Dominicans assembled to prevent the archbishop from carrying out his intentions. 'We must support the
papacy,' they said, 'but do it prudently.' The prior was selected, as being the most eloquent of the brothers, to reply to Cranmer. Going into the pulpit, he said: 'The Church of Christ has never erred. The laws which it makes are equal in authority to the laws of God Himself. I do not know a single bishop of Rome who can be reproached with vice.'[173] Evidently the prior, however eloquent he might be, was not learned in the history of the Church.
The visitation of the Canterbury monasteries began. The immorality of most of these houses was manifested by scandalous scenes, and gave rise to questions which we are forced to suppress. The abominable vices that prevailed in them are mentioned by St. Paul in his description of the pagan corruptions.[174] The commissioners having taken their seats in one of the halls of the Augustine monastery, all the monks came before them, some embarrassed, others bold, but most of them careless. Strange questions were then put to men who declared themselves consecrated to a devout and contemplative life: 'Are there any among you,' asked the commissioners, 'who disguising themselves, leave the convent and go vagabondizing about? Do you observe the vow of chastity, and has any one been convicted of incontinence? Do women enter the monastery,[175] or live in it habitually?' We omit the questions that followed. The result was scandalous: eight of the brothers were convicted of abominable vices. The black sheep having been set apart for punishment, Leighton called the other monks together, and said to them: 'True religion does not consist in shaving the head, silence, fasting, and other observances; but in uprightness of soul, purity of life, sincere faith in Christ, brotherly love, and
the worship of God in spirit and in truth. Do not rest content with ceremonies, but rise to sublimer things, and be converted from all these outward practices to inward and deep considerations.'[176]
One visitation still more distressing followed this. The Carthusian monastery at Canterbury, four monks of which had died piously, contained several rotten members. Some of them used to put on lay dresses, and leave the convent during the night. There was one house for monks and another for nuns, and the blacksmith of the monastery confessed that a monk had asked him to file away a bar of the window which separated the two cloisters. It was the duty of the monks to confess the nuns; but by one of those refinements of corruption which mark the lowest degree of vice, the sin and absolution often followed close upon each other. Some nuns begged the visitors not to permit certain monks to enter their house again.[177]
The visitation being continued through Kent, the visitors came on the 22nd of October to Langdon Abbey, near Dover. William Dyck, abbot of the monastery of the Holy Virgin, possessed a very bad reputation. Leighton, who was determined to surprise him, ordered his attendants to surround the abbey in such a manner that no one could leave it. He then went to the abbot's house, which looked upon the fields, and was full of doors and windows by which any one could escape.[178] Leighton began to knock loudly, but no one answered. Observing an axe, he took it up, dashed in the door with it, and entered. He found a woman with the monk, and the visitors discovered in a chest the men's clothes which she put on when she wished to pass for one of the younger brethren. She escaped, but one of Cromwell's servants caught her and took her before the mayor at
Dover, where she was placed in the cage. As for the holy father abbot, says Leighton, he was put in prison. A few of the monks signed an act by which they declared that their house being threatened with utter ruin, temporal and spiritual, the king alone could find a remedy, and they consequently surrendered it to his Majesty.[179]
The abbot of Fountains had ruined his abbey by publicly keeping six women. One night he took away the golden crosses and jewels belonging to the monastery, and sold them to a jeweller for a small sum.[180] At Mayden-Bradley, Leighton found another father prior, one Richard, who had five women, six sons, and a daughter pensioned on the property of the convent: his sons, tall, stout young men, lived with him and waited on him. Seeing that the Roman Church prohibited the clergy from obeying the commandment of Scripture, which says: A bishop must be the husband of one wife, these wretched men took five or six. The impositions of the monks to extort money injured them in public opinion far more then their debauchery. Leighton found in St. Anthony's convent at Bristol a tunic of our Lord, a petticoat of the Virgin, a part of the Last Supper, and a fragment of the stone upon which Jesus was born at Bethlehem.[181] All these brought in money.
Every religious and moral sentiment is disgusted at hearing of the disorders and frauds of the monks, and yet the truth of history requires that they should be made known. Here is one of the means—of the blasphemous means—they employed to deceive the people. At Hales in Gloucestershire, the monks pretended that
they had preserved some of Christ's blood in a bottle. The man whose deadly sins God had not yet pardoned could not see it, they said; while the absolved sinner saw it instantaneously. Thousands of penitents crowded thither from all parts. If a rich man confessed to the priest and laid his gift on the altar, he was conducted into the mysterious chapel, where the precious vessel stood in a magnificent case. The penitent knelt down and looked, but saw nothing. 'Your sin is not yet forgiven,' said the priest. Then came another confession, another offering, another introduction into the sanctuary; but the unfortunate man opened his eyes in vain, he could see nothing until his contribution satisfied the monks. The commissioners having sent for the vessel, found it to be a 'crystall very thick on one side and very transparent on the other.'[182] 'You see, my lords,' said a candid friar, 'when a rich penitent appears, we turn the vessel on the thick side; that, you know, opens his heart and his purse.'[183] The transparent side did not appear until he had placed a large donation on the altar.
No discovery produced a greater sensation in England than that of the practices employed at Boxley in Kent. It possessed a famous crucifix, the image on which, carved in wood, gave an affirmative nod with the head, if the offering was accepted, winked the eyes and bent the body. If the offering was too small, the indignant figure turned away its head and made a sign of disapproval.[184] One of the Commissioners took down the crucifix from the wall, and discovered the pipes which carried the wires that the priestly conjuror was wont to pull.[185] Having put the machine in motion, he
said: 'You see what little account the monks have made of us and our forefathers.' The friars trembled with shame and alarm, while the spectators, says the record, roared with laughter, like Ajax.[186] The king sent for the machine, and had it worked in the presence of the court. The figure rolled its eyes, opened its mouth, turned up its nose, let its head fall, and bent its back. 'Upon my word,' said the king, 'I do not know whether I ought not to weep rather than laugh, on seeing how the poor people of England have been fooled for so many centuries.'
These vile tricks were the least of the sins of those wretches. In several convents the visitors found implements for coining base money.[187] In others they discovered traces of the horrible cruelties practised by the monks of one faction against those of another. Descending into the gloomy dungeons, they perceived, by the help of their torches, the bones of a great number of wretched people, some of whom had died of hunger and others had been crucified.[188] But debauchery was the most frequent case. Those pretended priests of a God who has said: Be ye holy, for I the Lord am holy, covered themselves with the hypocritical mantle of their priesthood, and indulged in infamous impurities. They discovered one monk, who, turning auricular confession to an abominable purpose, had carried adultery into two or three hundred families. The list was exhibited, and some of the Commissioners, to their great astonishment, says a contemporary writer, found the names of their own wives upon it.[189]
There were sometimes riots, sieges, and battles. The
Royal Commissioners arrived at Norton Abbey in Cheshire, the abbots of which were notorious for having carried on a scandalous traffic with the convent plate. On the last day of their visit, the abbot sent out his monks to muster his supporters, and collected a band of two or three hundred men, who surrounded the monastery, to prevent the commissioners from carrying anything away. The latter took refuge in a tower, which they barricaded. It was two hours past midnight: the abbot had ordered an ox to be killed to feed his rabble, seated round the fires in front of the convent, and even in the courtyard. On a sudden Sir Piers Dulton, a justice of the peace, arrived, and fell with his posse upon the monks and their defenders. The besiegers were struck with terror, and ran off as fast as they could, hiding themselves in the fish-ponds and out-houses. The abbot and three canons, the instigators of the riot, were imprisoned in Halton Castle.[190]
Fortunately, the king's Commissioners met with convents of another character. When George Gifford was visiting the monasteries of Lincolnshire, he came to a lonely district, abounding in water but very poor,[191] where the abbey of Woolstrop was situated. The inhabitants of the neighborhood, notwithstanding their destitution, praised the charity of the recluses. Entering the convent, Gifford found an honest prior and some pious monks, who copied books, made their own clothes, and practised the arts of embroidering, carving, painting, and engraving. The visitor petitioned the king for the preservation of this monastery.
The Commissioners had particular instructions for the women's convents. 'Is your house perfectly closed?' they asked the abbess and the nuns. 'Can a man get into it?[192] Are you in the habit of writing love-letters?'[193]
At Litchfield the nuns declared that there was no disorder in the convent; but one good old woman told everything, and when Leighton reproached ............
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