CHAPTER IX. HENRY VIII (v), 1533-40 - MALLEUS MONACHORUM

Now it is clear that in the time at their disposal, the commissioners could not possibly have sifted thoroughly the evidence brought before them. In many cases there was enough that was gross, palpable, obvious, to warrant condemnation at sight. But the scandalous levity and domineering insolence with which they carried out their task must have suggested to the ill-conditioned members of every community that slander and false-witness might lead to favour and profit, and were not likely to be too carefully tested: while it is easy to see how the insulting interrogatories would be angrily resented, and answers be refused, or given in the most injudicious manner, by perfectly innocent persons; while demands for inventories of valuables were met by prevarication and concealment, when the object of the commissioners was suspected of being spoliation. The letters of Leyton and Legh convey the impression that the fouler the scandals unearthed or retailed, the more enjoyment and humour they discovered in their occupation. There can be no doubt that the state of things they found was in general bad; but by their own statement it was by no means universally so; and it is also clear that they accepted adverse witness almost without examination and wilfully minimised all that was favourable.

[The Black Book]

Also, it is very doubtful whether the "black book" of monastic offences was ever laid before parliament. The preamble to the bill set forth, luridly enough, the conclusions arrived at by the King and the vicar-general, and summed up the grounds for them. But it seems by no means improbable that parliament simply accepted the statement thus laid before it. The black book itself disappeared. The Protestant historians of Elizabeth's reign said that Bonner destroyed it; the Roman Catholics affirm that it was the other party who took care that the evidence on which they acted should never be made known. The actual surviving evidence is to be found in the partial summaries known as the Comperta and in the letters of the commissioners to Cromwell. The examination of these can hardly fail to leave the reader with a conviction that the methods of the Commissioners were atrociously iniquitous, but that a strictly judicial investigation would still have revealed a state of things often appalling, not seldom vicious, and commonly reprehensible, without the elements which might have made effective reform possible: while it is beyond a doubt that especially among the younger monks and nuns, the desire to escape from the bonds of monastic rule was common.

[The Consequent Commission]

In favour of the monasteries however, it is to be noted that these 376 minor houses were suppressed not as having been individually condemned, but on the theory that the report pointed to the system of maintaining minor houses as bad. Mixed commissions were now appointed to continue the visitation, carry out the suppression, and recommend exemptions when it was desirable; and the reports of these commissions were of a far less unfavourable character, though (as we have seen) only 31 houses were actually reinstated. It is to be observed also, in a somewhat different connexion, that the further visitation was accompanied by the issuing of Injunctions for the conduct of monastic establishments which may have been designed solely with a view to enforcing a pure and pious manner of living, but are undoubtedly open to the suspicion of having been deliberately calculated to make the monastic life insupportable and so to encourage the religious houses to efface themselves by voluntary surrender - a course which was not infrequently adopted.

[The policy discussed]

There was sufficient precedent for laying the Church under heavy contributions to the exchequer. The idea of deliberately confiscating Church property had before now been seriously put forward. There had been previous suppressions of monastic establishments; but in these cases the funds, ostensibly at least, had been diverted to other purposes recognised as ecclesiastical, such as Wolsey's schools and colleges. The differentiating feature of Cromwell's confiscation was that the funds were for the most part withdrawn from any ecclesiastical purpose whatever. [Footnote: There was precedent for the proposal however in Parliamentary petitions of Richard II.'s reign; but these had not taken effect in legislation.] The monastic lands passed to lay owners by grant or purchase; they enriched the King or his friends or those whom Cromwell thought fit to enrich or to gratify. The evidence that in the public interest it was time for the religious houses to go is convincing; the method of proceeding against the smaller houses first was tactically shrewd, as evoking less opposition at the outset; but even if it be conceded that the Church had forfeited her property, it is impossible to find any excuse for the application of the spoils to other than public objects. The Church might simply be looked upon as a vast corporation, holding its wealth in trust for the nation, and rightly deprived of that wealth when it failed to fulfil the trust. But on that view, the wealth was bound to be handed over to another body, to administer as a trust for the nation. The fact that this was not done makes possible only one conclusion as to the motive of the suppression. The Church was both the wealthiest and the least dangerous victim available for bleeding, besides being open to the charge of deserving to be penalised.

[Sidenote 1: Anne Boleyn threatened] [Sidenote 2: Her condemnation and death]