Abbeys and Priorys in Wales and England
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From the ruins of Basingwerk Abbey in Holywell to the remains of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, the Abbeys and Priories of Wales are proud monuments to the skills of medieval times. Although all that remain are the stone walls of these once proud buildings, the ruins are evocative of an early Christian age when men expressed their faith through their craft.| Henry VIII may have forced the dissolution (destruction) of the monasteries but he could not destroy the spirit of the men who built them and their skills are evident in the stone carvings and masonry of the ancient abbeys and priories.| King Henry VIII had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in England in February 1531, and in 1534 he had Parliament authorise Thomas Cromwell and his commissioners to "visit" all the monasteries, including the Cistercians who by 1536 held only 85 monks in the thirteen Cistercian houses in Wales.| The “visitors” were to report of misbehaviour within the monasteries and when the reports are checked against other sources they commonly appear to have been greatly exaggerated.| In Wales, for example, the commissioners found Robert Salisbury, the Abbot of Vale Crucis Abbey, guilty of leading a band of highwaymen in Oxfordshire - who had committed a number of robberies. The abbot was duly arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London! In September of that year (1535), the commissioners wrote to Cromwell explaining that it was their intention to deprive the abbot of office and proceed with the election of a new head.| In 1536 Parliament enacted the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act and many Abbots would surrender the Abbeys to the King, knowing that if they refused they would suffer the penalty for treason……and indeed some abbots were hung drawn and quartered for their refusal. | While visiting the old abbeys and priories it might be worth knowing that the most marketable fabric in monastic buildings was likely to be the lead on the roofs - gutters and plumbing. The buildings were often burned down as the easiest way to extract the precious metals (it might be said that metal thieves in the 21st Century are acting in a similar manner, but at least today the perpetrators simply steal the lead and don’t burn the building to the ground - and the desecration is not sponsored by the state).| Much of the stonework and the slate roofs were sold off to the highest bidder. Many monastic outbuildings were turned into granaries, barns and stables. In a few instances, wealthy urban parishes that were cramped for space purchased a complete former monastic church for their own purpose, and many others bought choir stalls and stained glass windows.| Cromwell had already instigated a campaign against "superstitions": pilgrimages and veneration of saints, in the course of which, ancient and precious valuables were grabbed and melted down; the tombs of saints and kings ransacked for whatever profit could be got from them, and their relics destroyed or dispersed.| However, the tradition that there was widespread mob action resulting in destruction and iconoclasm, that altars and windows were smashed, partly confuses the looting spree of the 1530s with the vandalism wrought by the Puritans in the next century against the Anglican privileges.
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