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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


A convent or house built for the reception of religious; whether it be abbey, priory, nunnery, or the like. Monastery is only properly applied to the houses of monks, mendicant friars, and nuns: the rest are more properly called religious houses. For the origin of monasteries, see MONASTIC, and MONK. The houses belonging to the several religious orders which obtained in England and Wales, were catherdrals, colleges, abbeys, priories, preceptories, commandries, hospitals, friaries, hermitages, chantries, and free chapels.

These were under the direction and management of various officers. The dissolution of houses of this kind began so early as the year 1312, when the Templars were suppressed; and in 1323, their lands, churches, advowsons, and liberties, here in England, were given, by 17 Edw. II. stat. 3, to the prior and brethren of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. In the years 1390, 1437, 1441, 1459, 1497, 1505, 1508, and 1515, several other houses were dissolved, and their revenues settled on different colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. Soon after the last period, cardinal Wolsey, by licence of the king and pope, obtained a dissolution of above thirty religious houses for the founding and endowing his colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. About the same time a bull was granted by the same pope to cardinal Wolsey to suppress monasteries, where there were not above six monks, to the value of eight thousand ducats a year, for endowing. Windsor and King's College in Cambridge; and two other bulls were granted to cardinals Wolsey and Campeins, where there were less than twelve monks, and to annex them to the greater monasteries; and another bull to the same cardinals to inquire about abbeys to be suppressed in order to be made cathedrals.

Although nothing appears to have been done in consequence of these bulls, the motive which induced Wolsey and many others to suppress these houses was the desire of promoting learning; and arch-bishop Crammer engaged in it with a view of carrying on the reformation. There were other causes that concurred to bring on their ruin: many of the religious were loose and vicious; the monks were generally thought to be in their hearts attached to the pope's supremacy; their revenues were not employed according to the intent of the donors; many cheats in images, feigned miracles, and counterfeit relics, had been discovered, which brought the monks into disgrace; the observant friars had opposed the king's divorce from queen Catharine; and these circumstances operated, in concurrence with the king's want of a supply and the people's desire to save their money, to forward a motion in parliament, that, in order to support the king's state, and supply his wants, all the religious houses might be conferred upon the crown, which were not able to spend above 200 50: a year; and an act was passed for that purpose, 27 Hen. VIII. 100: 28. By this act about three hundred and eighty houses were dissolved, and a revenue of 30, 000 50: or 32, 000 50:a year came to the crown; besides about 100, 000 50: in plate and jewels.

The suppression of these houses occasioned discontent, and at length an open rebellion: when this was appeased, the king resolved to suppress the rest of the monasteries, and appointed a new visitation, which caused the greater abbeys to be surrendered apace: and it was enacted by 31 Henry VIII. 100: 13, that all monasteries which have been surrendered since the 4th of February, in the twenty-seventh year of his majesty's reign, and which hereafter shall be surrendered, shall be vested in the king. The knights of St. John of Jerusalem were also suppressed by the 32d Henry VIII. 100: 24. The suppression of these greater houses by these two acts produced a revenue to the king of above 100, 000 50: a year, besides a large sum in plate and jewels. The last act of dissolution in this king's reign was the act of 37 Hen. VIII. 100: 4, for dissolving, colleges, free chapels, chantries, &c. which act was farther enforced by I Edw. VI. 100: 14. By this act were suppressed 90 colleges, 110 hospitals, and 2374 chantries and free chapels. The number of houses and places suppressed from first to last, so far as any calculations appear to have been made, seems to be as follows:

Of lesser monasteries, of which we have the valuation

-374 Of greater monasteries

186 Belonging to the hospitallers

48 Colleges

-90 Hospitals

-110 Chantries and free chapels


Total 3182

Besides the friars' houses, and those suppressed by Wolsey, and many small houses of which we have no particular account. the sum total of the clear yearly revenue of the several houses at the time of their dissolution, of which we have any account, seems to be as follows:

Of the great monasteries

l. 104, 919 13 3 Of all those of the lesser monasteries of which we have the valuation 29, 702 1 10 Knights hospitallers, head house in London 2, 385 12 8 We have the valuation of only 28 of their houses in the country 26 9 5 Friars' houses of which we have the valuation 751 2 0 Total 50:140, 784 19 2

If proper allowances are made for the lesser monasteries and houses not included in this estimate, and for the plate, &c. which came into the hands of the king by the dissolution, and for the value of money at that time, which was at least six times, as much as at present, and also consider that the estimate of the lands was generally supposed to be much under the real worth, we must conclude their whole revenues to have been immense. It does not appear that any computation hath been of the number of persons contained in the religous houses.

Those of the lesser monasteries dissolved by 27 Hen. VIIi. were reckoned at about 10, 000 If we suppose the colleges and hospitals to have contained a proportionable number, these will make about 5, 347 If we reckon the number in the greater monasteries according to the proportion of their revenues, they will be about 35, 000; but as probably they had larger allowances in proportion to their number than those of the lesser monasteries, if we abate upon that account 5, 000, they will then be 30, 000 One for each chantry and free chapel 2, 374

Total 47, 721

But as there were probably more than one person to officiate in several of the free chapels, and there were other houses which are not included within this calculation, perhaps they may be computed in one general estimate at about 50, 000. As there were pensions paid to almost all those of the greater monasteries, the king did not immediately come into the full enjoyment of their whole revenues; however, by means of what he did receive, he founded six new bishoprics, viz. those of Westminster, (which was changed by queen Elizabeth into a deanery, with twelve prebends and a school, ) Peterborough, Chester, Gloucester, Bristol, and Oxford. And in eight other sees he founded deaneries and chapters, by converting the priors and monks into deans and prebendaries, viz. Canterbury, Winchester, Durham, Worcester, Rochester, Norwich, Ely, and Carlisle. He founded also the colleges of Christ Church in Oxford, and Trinity in Cambridge, and finished King's College there. He likewise founded professorships of divinity, law, physic, and of the Hebrew and Greek tongues in both the said Universities.

He gave the house of Grey Friars and St. Bartholomew's Hospital to the city of London, and a perpetual pension to the poor knights of Windsor, and laid out great sums in building and fortifying many ports in the channel. It is observable, upon the whole, that the dissolution of these houses was not an act of the church, but of the state, in the period preceding the reformation, by a king and parliament of the Roman Catholic commission in all points, except the king's supremacy; to which the pope himself, by his bulls and licences, had led the way. As to the merits of these institutions, authors are much divided. While some have considered them as beneficial to learning, piety, and benevolence, others have thought them very injurious. We may form some idea of them from the following remarks of Mr. Gilpin. He is speaking of Glastonbury Abbey, which possessed the amplest revenues of any religious house in England. "Its fraternity, " says he, "is said to have consisted of five hundred established monks, besides nearly as many retainers on the abbey. Above four hundred children were not only educated in it, but entirely maintained. Strangers from all parts of Europe were liberally received, classed according to their sex and nation, and might consider the hospitable roof under which they lodged as their own. Five hundred travellers, with their horses, have been lodged at once within its walls; while the poor from every side of the country, waiting the ringing of the alms bell; when they flocked in crowds, young and old, to the gate of the monastery, where they received, every morning, a plentiful pro-vision for themselves and their families:

all this appears great and noble. "On the other hand, when we consider five hundred persons bred up in indolence and lost to the commonwealth; when we consider that these houses were the great nurseries of superstition, bigotry, and ignorance; the stews of sloth, stupidity, and perhaps intemperance; when we consider that the education received in them had not the least tincture of useful learning, good manners, or true religion, but tended rather to vilify and disgrace the human mind; when we consider that the pilgrims and strangers who resorted thither were idle vagabonds, who got nothing abroad that was equivalent to the occupations they left at home; and when we consider, lastly, that indiscriminate alms-giving is not real charity, but an avocation from labour and industry, checking every idea of exertion, and filling the mind with abject notions, we are led to acquiesce in the fate of these foundations, and view their ruins, not only with a picturesque eye, but with moral and religious satisfaction."Gilpin's Observations on the Western Parts of England, p. 138, 139; Bigland's Letters on Hist. p. 313.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Monastery'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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