One of the fundamental characteristics of government is an insatiable appetite for cash — and religious institutions have often been seen as important sources of funds. Renaissance princes constantly sought means of “revenue enhancements” for their military, to buy friends, and to support lifestyles appropriate to the “divine right of kings.” Not surprisingly, they viewed the Renaissance Church with greedy eyes.
Accordingly, in the early 16th century, King Francis I wrested authority from Pope Leo X to name virtually all of the abbots and priors in France, using it to appoint laymen from the royal court, thus diverting much of the vast income of the French monasteries directly into either the crown's treasury or the hands of his closest supporters. In 1532, King James V of Scotland obtained similar authority and proceeded to assign rich abbeys to each of his nine illegitimate sons as soon as they arrived.
Similar confiscations of church lands occurred in Protestant Scandinavia. Even relatively democratic Switzerland took part. In 1524, for example, the city-state of Zurich, having already pressured nuns to leave their convents for marriage, dissolved the monasteries under its rule, promising to help the poor and fund schools with the proceeds.
The most notorious confiscations of church wealth occurred in England under King Henry VIII. The English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534, rejecting the authority of Rome and establishing Henry as the supreme head of the Church of England. From that time onwards, Henry and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, continually sought to divert ecclesiastical funds to the crown. Initially, they said they were merely “reforming” church institutions, but this policy — perhaps never more than pretense — was soon abandoned.
Between 1536 and 1541, Henry undertook what is commonly called the dissolution of the monasteries. Before that time, monasteries and similar institutions owned roughly 16 percent of England, and Henry found such wealth irresistible. So, he disbanded the country’s monasteries and convents, disposing of their assets and incomes for himself and his allies.
The more subtle royal thieves of France and Scotland had received permission from a perhaps intimidated pope for their land-grab. In Scandinavia and Switzerland, the population was devoutly Protestant and happy to see the proud old institutions humbled.
But Henry’s dissolution effort didn’t result from popular anger or zeal; it was orchestrated from the top. Pilgrimages to monastic shrines, for instance, were still widely popular until Henry forcibly suppressed them in 1538. In fact, there was widespread opposition and, sometimes, active resistance — particularly in the north, in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and, later, in Norfolk. Henry was furious. Since he was both monarch and head of the church, he regarded opposition to his acquisitiveness as simultaneously treason and a violation of a monk’s or a nun’s vow of obedience. Thus, in 1539, the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury and Reading were convicted as traitors, hanged, drawn, and quartered. Henry defused the popular revolts in the north with solemn promises, none of which he kept, and he summarily executed their leaders.
Venerable buildings were burned down in order to extract lead from their roofs, gutters, and plumbing. Gold and silver liturgical objects were seized and melted down. Construction stone and roofing slate were auctioned off. Great abbeys and priories such as Bury St. Edmunds, Glastonbury, Shaftesbury and Walsingham, which had been destinations of pilgrimage for centuries, were left in ruins. The homes of abbots and, sometimes, even monasteries themselves were turned into impressive mansions when they survived— or, in many cases, into granaries, barns, and stables.
Reliable estimates suggest that Henry’s royal income increased by approximately $96 million (in 2013 dollars) per year as a result of the dissolution. Others, however, weren’t so fortunate. The loss of more than 800 monastic institutions, almost overnight, ended their charitable efforts on behalf of the old, the sick, and the poor. Thousands of handwritten manuscripts were lost forever when the great monastic libraries were scattered or burned. Hospitals and monastic schools closed. King Henry promised that his newly acquired wealth would go to new religious, charitable, and educational institutions, but, as a matter of fact, only about 15 percent of it was used for such purposes.
Writing in McCullough v. Maryland in 1819, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall famously declared that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.” King Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries graphically illustrates the truth of that dictum and offers a striking example of what can happen, absent firm legal restraints, when a government’s voracious appetite for money is directed against its chosen enemies.
Professor Daniel C. Peterson is editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and a blogger for Patheos. Professor William Hamblin is co-author of “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” Their views aren't necessarily those of BYU.