Gaye Mack’s Blog

AUTHOR NANCY BILYEAU REVEALS HOW DARTFORD PRIORY ESCAPED HENRY VIII’S RAMPAGE

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Worth the Read, Writer's Work 1 Comment

While I’m  drawn more to England’s 12th & 13th centuries, it’s nearly impossible to ignore King Henry VIII’s murderous assault on  his kingdom’s religious houses.  His rampage was so vile and its impact on the course of history so indelible, it boggles the mind to remember that Henry’s zeal was sparked by the love for a scheming woman and let’s be frank, his greed for the booty held in the monastic treasuries!  One particularly brutal example is found in my post detailing  the brutal murder of wealthy Glastonbury Abbey’s last abbot, Richard Whiting in 1539.  

However this said, admittedly I’ve never given much thought about what happened to the Tudor nunneries!  Were the women as brutally treated?  Fortunately , Nancy Bilyeau, historical fiction author of The Crown and  newly released sequel, The Chalice, has.  In a recent article,  Nancy discusses how she came to create her books with particular attention to the historical fate of  Dartford Priory, England’s only Dominican house which was located in the county of Kent.  Thus, I’m happy to welcome Nancy as my guest by posting a portion of her fascinating article which can be read in its entirety as it appears in the Catholic Herald

I chose the sole house of Dominican Sisters in England, Dartford Priory, as the home of my protagonist, the fictional Sister Joanna Stafford. A priory of “strict discipline and plain living,” it was founded with great care by Edward III in the 1350s. The women who took vows at Dartford were from the gentry or nobility. There was even one princess: Bridget of York, the youngest daughter of Edward IV. Daily life was spent praying, singing, studying, gardening, sewing and teaching local girls to read. Twice a week the Sisters distributed alms to the local poor. The prioresses were learned and formidable women. Elizabeth Cressner, who died in 1537, oversaw her house of nuns with tremendous vigor for 50 years.

When the king’s commissioners visited Dartford Priory they did not find a house in decay. In 1535, the Valor Ecclesiasticus put the net annual revenue of the monastery at a robust £380 9s ½d. The number of nuns had not declined over the last century, but held at a steady number. I have not been able to find any contemporary reports finding fault with Dartford.

Yet in 1539 Prioress Joan Vane “surrendered” the priory to the king and it was demolished. Why? Most likely because closure was inevitable – by that time almost every other abbey had been dissolved – and those who resisted faced royal savagery. Abbot Richard Whiting, 81, refused to surrender Glastonbury in 1539. He was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London, convicted of treason and dragged on a hurdle to the top of Glastonbury Tor. There, he was hanged, drawn and quartered, his severed head nailed to the gate of the deserted abbey. You can certainly see why most of the monastics submitted to the will of the king.

After the nuns of Dartford were evicted from their home, they received small pensions. Although the stereotype of a medieval nun is someone who is pressured to take vows, some of the Dominican Sisters continued to live together in groups because they did not want to abandon their vocations.

When Henry VIII’s oldest daughter, Mary, took the throne, she granted the Dominican nuns’ request to re-establish their order in Dartford and seven nuns moved back in. But this restoration only lasted as long as Mary lived. Elizabeth’s officials ordered the nuns to leave. They did so, joining some of the last remaining Sisters of Syon Abbey. Mary’s widower, King Philip, quietly paid for the group to leave England for the Netherlands. They went from convent to convent, suffering poverty and ill health. In Paul Lee’s book, Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society, a letter from someone who saw the Dartford nuns in 1561 in a convent on the island of Zeeland says: “These are the most elderly of all the religious and the most infirm, and it seems that they are more than half dead.” But they hung on for quite a bit longer. The last of the Dartford nuns died in Bruges in 1585.

st. michaels

St. Michael’s Tower where Glastonbury’s last abbot, Richard Whiting, was murdered by Henry VIII’s Men  in 1539

Photography©Gaye F. Mack

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THE BRUTAL “EXECUTION” OF GLASTONBURY ABBEY’S LAST ABBOT, RICHARD WHITING UNDER “CROMWELL”

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work 4 Comments

By the fall of 1539, Thomas Cromwell’s  methodical eradication of England’s  abbeys and monasteries  on behalf of King Henry VIII  had well been  underway for a few years.  Beginning with the smaller houses  in 1537, the campaign eventually  found it’s way to Glastonbury, one of the wealthiest abbeys in the country.  The zealous motivations behind this fierce onslaught were complex, no question.  Political posturing, Henry’s break with Rome, the need for a male heir and frankly his desperation to get his hands on cold, hard cash… all of these were at the root.

 Long before his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the brutal execution of Richard Whiting,  Henry’s ability to manage his money was out of control.  He was known to be a lavish spender so much so that by the time he married Anne he’d gone through all of the money left to him by his father, some £1,800,000!  Once he broke with Rome, Henry had all but alienated most of Europe, making his realm a target for wolves on his doorstep.  At the very least, he needed money to supply a military and to keep Anne in the manner to which she’d become accustomed.

 For its part,  the Church was rife with greed and a variety of non-spiritual improprieties that  ran rampant among the religious houses prior to the dissolution.  However, at the end of the day, Henry’s object was to get his hands on salable land and possessions. Since The Great Fire of 1184Glastonbury  had miraculously risen from its ashes like the mythical phoenix. Only the  shrines at Canterbury and Walsingham attracted more pilgrims.  This was a house that despite its own internal disorder between factions of monks, was rich in material goods and property.

 In September of 1539 Richard Layton along with two other of Cromwell’s commissioners made a ‘visit’ to Glastonbury for the purpose of interrogating its abbot, Richard Whiting.  Whiting was an old man by this time and by all accounts had so far gone to great lengths to stay out of trouble by not rocking the ecclesiastical boat regarding Henry’s petition to divorce Katherine of Aragon.   However, when Layton and his colleagues searched Whiting’s study, they discovered a book arguing against the divorce along with various papers considered to be traitorous.  Further interrogation of Whiting proved to be unfruitful as evidently the abbot was stubborn and uncooperative.  As a result he was removed to London’s Tower to await interrogation by Cromwell himself. 

Meanwhile back in Glastonbury, Layton, Thomas Moyle and Richard Pollard thoroughly discharged the abbey’s community and then proceeded with a systematic sweep that revealed hidden wealth in the form of plate, gold and ‘other articles.’  One can only imagine  details of the resulting inventory totaling (not including land and cattle holdings) 11,000 oz in plate plus gold, furniture and £1,100 in money.  Nevertheless, despite Layton and his associate’s discoveries, the myth remains alive to this day that ‘much of the Glastonbury treasure’ including the Holy Grail, escaped Cromwell’s commissioners. 

Whiting was arraigned on November 6th, 1539 resulting in the order,  ‘put to execution.’    At some point he was transferred back to Glastonbury according to Sir John Russell, who was  charged with the abbot’s ‘disposal.’  Details of Whiting’s gruesome execution are fairly well-known. Feeble and ill, the Abbot was dragged on a hurdle to Tor Hill where he was hung, (some resources claim from St. Michael’s tower) drawn, quartered and beheaded.  His four body parts were sent to Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgewater for public display; his head was stuck on Glastonbury’s abbey gate. 

The question remains, was Whiting truly a traitor or was his execution simply vindictive retaliation for his obstinacy and Henry’s need to get his hands on the great abbey’s extensive wealth?  Unfortunately it’s doubtful we’ll ever know as the  records of Whiting’s trial along with Cromwell’s justification for execution have never been found.

 So, what do you think?  Was Whiting’s execution justified or simply an example of  bullying, power that ordered terminal  punishment for defiance?

 

St. Michael’s Tower-The Tor, Glastonbury

Photography©Gaye F. Mack, Inc.

Relevant books to explore:

  • The Tudors-G.J. Meyer
  • The Last Divine Office-Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries-Geoffrey Moorhouse
  • Wolf Hall-Hilary Mantel
  • Bringing up the Bodies-Hilary Mantel

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