The Protestant Reformation began in 1517, creating a major schism that divided Europe between mostly Protestant Northern Europe and Roman Catholic Southern Europe. The Church had been under sharp criticism by prospective reformers for some time, particularly due to the sale of indulgences, which implied that sins could be forgiven in exchange for payments of money rather than genuine repentance. The Reformation accelerated when Martin Luther published "The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," denouncing corruption in the Church. A number of bloody religious wars then took place between Catholics and Protestants until the middle of the 17th century.
The Protestant Reformation in England took a major turn against the Vatican in the 1530s, when Henry VIII abolished the Catholic Church and made himself the sole ruler of England. Henry was motivated in part by the Pope's prior refusal to grant him an annulment of his marriage, which he desired for political reasons. He was also heavily influenced by Thomas Cromwell, who desired an all-powerful Monarch and worked to persuade Henry that Popes of the past had usurped powers rightfully belonging the the Crown alone. Despite abolishing the Pope's authority, Henry had been Catholic himself and evidently remained so in terms of his own religious observances.
The break from the Church had major monetary implications. The huge amount of money and wealth held by former allies or institutions related to the Church were now an open target. Tax payments that had formerly gone directly to the Pope in Rome to the Pope were stopped, and any who rebelliously supported the Pope would have their property confiscated. Henry also began the infamous process now known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in which the King's men seized income streams and assets from monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries throughout Britain.
Many closed religious houses were extremely wealthy as a result of closing themselves off from the local communities, while at the same time enjoying free labor supplied by the local peasants. Over the centuries, many donors hoping to buy their way into the heavenly realm had bequeathed such religious houses large sums of money and substantial tracts of land. Rich monasteries were thought to own as much as a third of the land in England and Wales, and dozens of the monasteries had wealth equal to (or greater than) the wealthiest nobles in England.
In 1535 the "Valor Ecclesiasticus" was introduced to account for the wealth of all the religious houses, and Cromwell sent agents out to support this task. Many religious houses issued bitter complaints about the aggressive tactics of Cromwell's agents, particularly against Thomas Legh and Richard Layton, who were reputedly two of Cromwell's most loyal and ruthless henchmen. Those protesting Henry VIII's actions during Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 specifically called for the special punishment of these two men. At one point the Pilgrimage picked up steam in the north of England and gained popular support, but Henry had the dissenters ruthlessly crushed, and the dissolution of the monasteries continued.
The King's men proceeded to seize the income and assets of hundreds of religious houses, granting exemptions in some cases to those with the right political connections. Gold, silver, and other valuable metals were seized and melted down, other valuables were auctioned locally, and the land was rented out to bring a profit. The Crown began to target shrines as well. Pilgrimages to shrines containing religious relics had been taking place for hundreds of years, and wealthy pilgrims often gave jewels and other valuable treasures to the shrines, making them a desirable target. The destruction of St. Thomas Becket's Shrine in 1538 was one of the main incidents cited by the Pope during Henry's formal excommunication from the Catholic Church.
Some of the wealthier and more powerful clergymen attempted to resist, such as the Abbot of Glastonbury, who resided over one of the wealthiest monasteries in the land. The Abbot was not successful, however, and was executed for treason after being charged with hoarding gold and conspiring to hide assets from the King's men.
By 1540, over 800 monasteries had been dissolved. The land that had been seized was estimated to be worth more than three times as much as the Crown's former landholdings. The Crown also acquired the monastic right to collect tithes.
Altogether the Crown obtained the equivalent of around 150,000 pounds per year from the seizure of wealth— a sum estimated to be roughly equivalent to $95,000,000 in today's terms. About a third of that amount was committed to funding pensions for dispossessed clergy, but the remaining sum would still have been more than sufficient to solidify the Crown's financial independence.
Henry, however, ended up selling off large quantities of land in order to raise a huge sum to finance his foreign wars. Much of the land (as well as tithes) was sold to the gentry, greatly increasing their power and wealth and giving them a substantial vested interest in preventing the Roman Catholic Church from restoring its power in England.
A History of Money will continue in Part IX, continuing to follow Henry VIII's eventful reign, including his "Great Debasement" of the coinage, and his legalization of interest-based money-lending during the European Price Revolution...