Monasteries to Mansions

20 February 2024

In the medieval period, this country had numerous abbeys and priories, which were widely believed to make a vital contribution to society.  The prayers and contemp­lation by the monks and nuns supported the spiritual wellbeing of the whole population.  They also provided services such as education, accom­modation for travellers and charity for the poor or sick.  So why did these institutions disappear and how did some end up as grand stately homes like those at Newstead, Woburn or even Downton Abbey?  At our February meeting, our old friend Peter Liddle explained how the Dissolution of the Monasteries played out in our local area.

The Dissolution happened because of a combination of factors.  Henry VIII was desperate to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.  The pope would not give permission so in 1534 Henry took matters into his own hands and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.  This gave his chief minister Thomas Cromwell (of Wolf Hall fame) an opportunity to exercise his strongly Protestant views and start dismantling the system of Catholic monasteries.  Cromwell moved quickly: by the following year he had carried out a valuation of the assets of the Church and the first wave of suppression of the smaller religious houses took place in 1536.

The process usually began with a visit to look for examples of misconduct that would provide an excuse for closure.  Then commissioners would arrive with a document for members of the religious community to sign, which surrendered the property.  They were usually offered generous pensions to make it easy to comply, with a threat of violence for those who would not.  The commissioners would then sell off the contents, including any building materials of value.  The lead from the roof was often the most valuable asset: at Leicester Abbey it contri­buted £1000 to the total valuation of £1500.  Removing the roof had the further advantage of making the church unusable.  The land, including any wider estates, was also sold and the proceeds went to the Crown, largely to fund Henry’s wars against France.  Corruption was rife: there are several local examples where the commissioner who was responsible for closing the monastery ended up acquiring the land, while Thomas Cromwell kept Launde Abbey for himself.

There were 15 abbeys and priories in Leicestershire and Peter took us through what is known about each of them.  Leicester Abbey was by far the largest, owning a deer park and estate that extended almost out to Thurcaston.  It was probably considered for conver­sion into a cathedral to split up the enormous diocese of Lincoln.  Instead, that honour went to Peterborough; Leicester Abbey itself was demolished but its grand gatehouse was extended first by the Hastings then by the Cavendish family.  Ulverscroft Priory is the best local example that survives, though its ruins are now at risk.  At Breedon and Owston part of the original church was preserved to serve the parish, while other sites have disappeared completely.  In most cases, the church was destroyed but other buildings such as the dormitory or abbot’s lodging were incorporated into a new country house, which could take advantage of a site with a good water supply, drainage, firm foundations and available materials.  Such houses often have a tell-tale arrangement that follows the plan of the original cloister.  At Launde, Charley and Langley Priory, parts of the medieval fabric can still be found and the same was probably true at Garendon Hall until it was sadly demolished in the 1960s.  The rubble was used to provide hardcore for the building of the M1 motorway so you might be driving over it whenever you pass Junction 23!