The Tudors, The Huguenots And The Dissolution Of The Monasteries…

It's the Huguenots, innit.

I have greatly enjoyed watching the television series, The Tudors. The casting is mostly excellent, as are the settings and costumes. As long as you keep in mind that you are watching a soap opera loosely based on historical characters and events, and not a documentary or reconstruction of historical events, you shall do well.

However, in the second season of the television series, The Tudors, episode 7, there is a short scene showing the despoiling of a monastery. The dialogue in this scene is gratuitous bunk, possibly influenced – consciously or unconsciously, I can’t say – by the last two decades of historical revisionism that has successfully undermined the old “Protestant triumphalist” view of the Reformation.

Monk: Father who are these men?

Abbot: Bretons, from France, Huguenots.

Monk: Protestants?

Abbot: Yes. Perhaps Mr Secretary Cromwell felt that he couldn’t trust Englishmen to destroy their own heritage and besmirch their own faith.


It would be interesting to find out how many “Huguenots” were in England during the reign of Henry VIII and what, if any, their role was in the dissolution of the monasteries. Whatever it was, it is completely untrue to suggest that the English were all so devoutly Catholic that they were not involved!

I recently read Ethan H. Shagan’s Popular Politics and the English Reformation, in which he clearly demonstrates not just the involvement of English Protestants (however you define who was and who wasn’t a “Protestant”), but also of English Catholics.

Shagan writes:

It would seem that such a massive and outragously sacrilegious project as the destruction of the abbeys could not have been undertaken without some degree of popular support… [and] … it is clear that greed often trumped spiritual conviction in the minds of the men and women who participated. (p. 163)

The assumption that the despoilers of the abbeys must have all been converts to Protestantism is untenable not only because the records tell another story, but also because, even in an “age of faith”, most people do not act for purely religious motives:

[W]hen we move beyond the question of religious conversion and examine the cultural and political impact of the English Reformation, popular participation in the dissolution of the monasteries looms large indeed. After all, once we accept the fact that conscientious Catholics could support the dissolution, that leaves us with the central question: what did it mean for ostensible followers of Eamon Duffy’s ‘traditional religion’ to participate in the wholesale destruction of a central pillar of Catholic religiosity? (p. 164)

Using the records of the dissolution of Hailes Abbey to point to a more general answer to that question, Shagan writes:

What we will find is a remarkable and unexpected series of interactions between Protestantising forces and the more nakedly political and economic aspects of the dissolution of the monasteries. This is not to argue that a significant percentage of the Gloucestershire population were evangelicals, nor that the destruction of Hailes was somehow a ‘Protestant’ event. What it does suggest, however, is that evangelicals were active in every step of the destructive process, that they were extremely successful in facilitating more radical interpretations of the dissolution than the government officially recognised, and that they were able to convince many of their ‘conservative’ neighbours to collaborate in activities that would have been unthinkable only a few years before. (p. 164)

This is a process that Shagan refers to as a “promiscuous seepage of ideas between peoples of rival faiths” such that,

While the people of Hailes may have remained ostensibly followers of the old faith, then, they none the less found themselves behaving in ways which their parents would have found appalling and which committed resistors could barely comprehend. (p. 196)

So, it wasn’t the Huguenots. Nor was it only committed English Protestants who were involved in the destruction. It was also a large body of tractable English Catholics who placed obedience to the Crown above obedience to the Pope, and who acted also on the impulse not to miss out on the spoils. In the words of one Catholic to his son, years later,

‘Might I not as well as others have some profit of the spoil of the abbey? For I did see all would away; and therefore I did as others did.’ (p. 163, J. J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Oxford, 1984), p. 70, citing the Elizabethan Yorkshire clergyman Michael Sherbrook. Sherbrook’s whole treatise is printed in A. G. Dickens (ed.), Tudor Treatises, Yorkshire Archeological Society Record Series, 125 (Wakefield, 1959).)

We did it ourselves.

1 Comment

  1. Dr. Shagan’s book is quite an excellent one and so glad to see that someone other than myself is reading it currently!

Comments are closed.