The dissolution of Furness Abbey

English Heritage uncovers blueprint for dissolving the monasteries by trusted advisor to Henry VIII

  • Previously unseen document details the dissolution of Furness Abbey, the first large monastery to be destroyed during the English Reformation 
  • Financial accounts show monks paid to leave quietly 
  • Speculators travel from the south to ‘cash in’ on dispersal 

A previously unseen historic document giving vital insight into the Dissolution of the Monasteries has been uncovered by English Heritage. Overlooked for almost 500 years, the document details the process of suppressing Furness Abbey, the first of England’s “greater” monasteries* to be destroyed, and was unearthed by English Heritage Senior Properties Historian, Dr Michael Carter, at the National Archives.

Submitted by Robert Southwell, commissioner for the dissolution of Furness Abbey and a key figure in Henry VIII’s court, to the newly established Court of Augmentations in late 1537, the detailed financial accounts contain clear evidence that, rather than fleeing for their lives, the monks held out for a better deal. The document imparts a nervousness about the area’s lack of loyalty to Henry VIII, whose religious reforms were far from popular locally, and remarkably the monks were allowed to remain at the abbey for several months before the work of destroying the buildings started. They were eventually given a generous cash handout to leave quietly.

The profits to be made from the suppression are also apparent in the document, with several speculators listed as descending on the monastery from southern England, keen to make easy money. Nonetheless, many of the assets were sold locally: the ‘men of Kendal’, for instance, bought the abbey’s bells for the enormous sum of £80. A suspiciously small amount of precious-metal altar plate was seized from the monastery, raising the question of whether the monks had already disposed of some of it before the arrival of the royal commissioners.

In total, almost £800 was grossed from the abbey’s suppression, but only £367 remained after all the associated costs were dispersed. As well as the monks’ handout, this included paying off the monastery’s debts, which came to £98, the stripping, smelting and casting of the lead (£70) and the commissioners’ own expenses (£102). It is telling that there was such a glut of monastic lead on the market that the commissioners couldn't immediately find a buyer.

The physical work of pulling down the building, described in the text, can also clearly still be seen today. Southwell explains how the recently built bell-tower was left 'clear dissolved', the destruction accomplished through the use of 'ropes and other engynes’.

Dr Michael Carter, Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage, said:

“Packed full of information about the mechanics of the dissolution, the record is of real historic importance since the skills learned during the suppression of Furness Abbey, the largest and richest monastery in north west England, were to prove invaluable at other monasteries. The dissolution gathered pace in the months following the end of Furness, and Richard Southwell went on to occupy key positions within Henry VIII’s court.

“A major focus of religious, social and economic life in the Middle Ages, Furness Abbey remains a spectacular site and a source of local pride and identity. The ruins are every bit as impressive as those of more famous abbeys such as Rievaulx and Fountains, and they stand as vivid witness to the dramatic days outlined in the document and newly brought to light.”

Carter’s research completes the hunt for this elusive document which was long thought to have existed but had never previously been explored. It was searched for, but not found, 200 years ago by Thomas Alcock Beck, the antiquary whose research into the abbey remains an essential source for scholars to this day.

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