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 1184, Glastonbury 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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I am not an expert on Tudor politics (who is?) but this is a case when the most straightforward answer is probably the most likely. In 1538/9 there was a real fear of invasion, to the extent that Henry reviewed the fleet, built new coastal defences, and exhibited 15000 armed men in London. Rome had enacted the excommunication and named Britain as a target for a crusade. France and Spain were itching for it. So, likely that H’s motive was to root out powerful people who could be a focus for 5th Column(and fund the defences). Secondly, Rome’s championing Whiting after his death suggests, surely, that H was right in his judgement that W was for Rome rather than the Crown. Both these factors indicate that the motive behind the execution was defence of the realm. Thirdly, W was not the only Abbot executed but one of three that year (and one of four over two years) suggesting no individual motive. Now as regards evidence or due process (as distinct from motive), well, due process was a hazy concept in those days but it does seems that the execution was as lawful as any other. We are talking real and present dangers in this case, so rash action does not necessarily mean a personal vendetta. More likely, a renewed nation on the edge. (However, I do realise that it has survived as a cause celebre for some people for some centuries, so perhaps I wrong!!)
Thanks for the comments, Malcolm…I’d agree with you considering the ‘climate of the times’…I’m not a polished expert in this time frame either as my interests run 400 years earlier..(more or less). But, I am aware of the other 3’abbot executions’you mention and so as you say, Whiting’s demise was most likely more about business as usual rather than a specific ‘hit’…I have however, run across some references in my research that imply(and who knows the real truth!) Whiting had information about the legendary ‘Glastonbury Treasure and Joseph of Armithea’s grave, but that he refused to reveal it to Layton, et al.
Another ‘relevant book to explore’ is Dissolution by C.J.Sansom.
Thanks for the comment Jonathan…yes I’m very familiar with CJ Sansom…the chief editor for fiction at Viking turned down my historical fiction novel set in Glastonbury because they had Sansom’s newest in the pipeline…I seem to recall that actually it was Dissolution!