Geoffrey Moorhouse’s structure for The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries is quite clever. While he hints at the changes to come (and foreshadows some of the major figures), Part I is devoted entirely to portraying Church and monastic life at Durham on the river Wear in the 16th century up until December 31 in 1539. This would be worth reading for its own sake.
The monastery at Durham was not typical. As Moorhouse reveals towards the end of this section, it was one of top 4% of monastic communities in terms of income (there were 28 in this group) which, among this small number, accounted for more than half of all the income to monasteries anywhere in Britain. The Abbot of the monastery was also both bishop of the diocese and Prince of that area; he lived separately, was appointed separately, and spent much of his time at Court. Moorhouse paints a detailed picture of the intricate interweaving ties of family, finance, protection, and power that made up the world of 16th century England.
There are many parts of this picture that are surprising, at least to someone whose grasp of the history of Britain is fuzzy. The threat of raids, invasions and battles with the Scots brings home the reality that this was, in essence, a border region that was hotly contested. It’s also quite clear that, even as late at 1535, the social and cultural differences between the English and the Scots were significant. Durham Cathedral was a place of sanctuary, and its use is evidence too of the complexities that arise when a common code of law is not applied equally and identically across hundreds of jurisdictions .
The monastic community, at least at Durham, does not at all have the detached, contemplative nature that the medieval monastery brings to mind. Moorhouse traces a variety of career paths through the many positions of responsibility and authority, where skills in keeping records, managing various enterprises, scholarship (Durham maintained a college at Oxford for the training of monks who seemed to have an aptitude for study – preparing them for a variety of offices and to serve as priests), diplomacy and courtliness, and more were gained. Large numbers of lay people were employed to carry out much of the farming and other work in the monastic community.
The monastery also did not have the hundreds of monks I’ve often imagined. They numbered between 50 and 75, not a large number to manage their many properties, provide hospitality to the pilgrims who came to St. Cuthbert’s shrine, carry out the many ritual duties inherent in their vocations, and manage the needs of a large house. They were joined by a large number of lay people, some employed all the time, others required to donate time or money by their leases, in carrying out these tasks. This, of course, also increased the book-keeping and management chores of the community.
Moorhouse does not really provide any portrait of the spiritual nature of this or the other monastic communities. He hints at the reasons men would have for coming to such a place, and the glory of the architecture as a way to draw people’s minds to God. But the reader comes away much more with a picture of the bustling activity of a hub of activity, business, even political intrigue without the counterbalance of the spiritual dimension that must, at least for the monks who did not come from elite families, have been at the core of their reason for being there.
Those of us in 21st century monasteries sometimes think that all the work of sponsoring colleges, hospitals, even health care systems, is some modern accretion to the detached, contemplative Benedictine life of the past. Although St. Benedict certainly never intended for monastics to have so much administrative and political interaction in the secular world, Moorhouse’s portrait of the life at Durham shows that, at the very least, this kind of busy and harried activity is not a new development in Benedictine life.
The combination of the great wealth of these communities and the dispute with the Pope over Henry VIII’s marriage foreshadow the change that will, I expect, be portrayed with equal detail in Part II. Stay tuned!
- Durham, The Cathedral and River Wear (strollingplayer.com)
- Durham treasure trove found (guardian.co.uk)
- Saved from the sea, the secret Tudor hoard of the Mary Rose on display for the first time (dailymail.co.uk)