Even Fox News reported on the letter Henry VIII dictated in October 1536, demanding the most horrific punishment of an abbot of a small monastery in the northwest of England: he wanted him to be hanged, drawn, and quartered and the quarters displayed prominently as warnings to any who would oppose the will of Henry VIII. Then he changed his mind: the abbot should just be hanged. The secretary who took the king’s dictation crossed out the first punishment and then must have copied the letter and sent it.

The letter, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is on display at the Norton Priory Museum and Gardens in Cheshire. The museum, which opened in 2016, features “the most excavated monastic site in Europe. Boasting the ruins of an Abbey, 12th century undercroft and an 18th century Walled Garden, it is located within an oasis of tranquil woodland and wildflower meadows. The new museum displays thousands of artefacts (sic) from Norton’s 900 year history including the internationally significant 14th century statue of St Christopher.”

Norton Priory was a house of Augustinian Canons Regular, following the Rule of St. Augustine of Hippo, living in community and observing the evangelical counsels of obedience, chastity and common property. The Canons Regular first came to in England during the twelfth century and established many houses, more than the Benedictines. Because St. Augustine had written his Rule for a community of priests with active ministries, the Augustinian Canons Regular throughout England served the spiritual needs of their neighbors, developing close relationships with them.

What had the Abbot of St. Mary’s Priory in Norton done to make Henry VIII so vindictively angry?

 

The Dissolution of the Minor Houses

After Parliament declared King Henry to be the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England, the king took his new role seriously. It was a new source of power and authority since now he ruled both the Church and the State. It was also a new source of income because the Church managed great tracts of land, pilgrimage sites, and other treasures, artistic and liturgical. Henry and Thomas Cromwell, whom he named his Vicar General and Vice Regent in Spirituals in 1536, saw the opportunity to take control of the monasteries, friaries, and convents in England, starting with the smaller monasteries.

Cromwell defined small monasteries as those with an annual income of less than 200 pounds. Henry had instructed Cromwell to organize a government visitation of the smaller monasteries in 1535; Cromwell sent teams of men out to determine how well the monasteries were keeping their Rules (Benedictine, Augustinian, etc) and how much income they had. Historians now generally recognize that we cannot expect that these Visitations were performed objectively: Henry and Cromwell wanted to find problems and the Visitors looked for them until they found them.

The title of the Act of Parliament set out its purpose clearly: “An Act whereby all Religious Houses of Monks, Canons and Nuns which may not dispend Manors, Lands, Tenants, & Inheritances above the clear yearly Value of 200 pounds are given to the King’s Highness, his Heirs and Successors forever” (modernized spelling). This Act of Parliament proclaimed that these smaller houses were in bad shape:

"FORASMUCH as manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed among the little and small abbeys, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons, and nuns, where the congregation of such religious persons is under the number of twelve persons . . . to the high displeasure of Almighty God, slander of good religion, and to the great infamy of the king's highness and the realm, if redress should not be had thereof."

There was only one solution: these smaller houses must be “be utterly suppressed, and the religious persons therein committed to great and honorable monasteries of religion in this realm, where they may be compelled to live religiously, for reformation of their lives, there can else be no redress nor reformation in that behalf.”

Cromwell’s Visitors determined that Norton Priory’s income was less than 200 pounds a year—give or take 60 pounds or so—and noted other problems. Two of the priory’s employees were accused of coining (counterfeiting) and the abbot had been arrested in summer of 1535. He was then released because the charges weren’t proven.

 

Unexpected Resistance

The Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Shaxton, who generally favored Reformer or what we now call Protestant views, pleaded with Henry and Cromwell to leave Norton Priory alone, so it must not been all bad. Nevertheless, in October of 1536, the King’s Visitors came to Norton Priory to dissolve it, send the canons to larger houses or grant them stipends, and to collect the valuable religious objects, which would not go to a larger house but to the government. Everything seemed under control until they tried to leave.

According to British History Online:

The sheriff, Sir Piers Dutton, was informed on 8 October that the commissioners, who had packed up the jewels and other valuables and were preparing to leave, had been attacked by the abbot with a force of 200 or 300 supporters and forced to barricade themselves in a tower. Dutton arrived in the middle of the night with a hastily assembled collection of tenants and clients and found the abbot holding a celebratory ox-roasting.

Sheriff Dutton arrested the abbot and four canons and then wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell explaining what had happened.

Cromwell and Thomas Audley, who had succeeded Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of England, communicated the news to Henry VIII, and he wanted action. The abbot and his canons should be dealt with immediately and brutally: there was no need of a trial. They were traitors and should suffer the penalty of all traitors. But Henry then changed his mind—perhaps that was too extreme. It could lead to greater unrest in the area and contribute to the reaction to the closing of the smaller monasteries in the north of England, the Pilgrimage of Grace, where thousands of his subjects were on the march, demanding the end of the dissolution.

 

A Surprise Ending

After being so threatened by Henry VIII, it’s amazing that the last abbot of Norton Priory, Thomas Birkenhead, survived. Sheriff Dutton wanted to proceed with the hangings immediately, but Sir William Brereton, another county official in Chester and the steward of Norton Priory, made him wait. Brereton argued that executing them would arouse the same kind of unrest that was occurring in the north. Both Dutton and Brereton wanted to obtain the lands and buildings of Norton, and Brereton succeeded in first delaying and then canceling the executions, arguing that that Abbot Birkenhead and the canons, one of whom was a kinsman, should receive the same amnesty that other rebels had been granted.

Birkenhead received a dispensation to become a secular (non-order) priest. He also received a pension of 24 pounds per annum. Neither Dutton nor Brereton received any of the holdings of Norton, since Henry kept him for himself but Brereton did manage the lands for the Crown.

What Abbot Birkenhead and other priors and abbots may not have envisioned was another surprise ending: those “great and honorable monasteries of religion in this realm” would soon be the targets of Henry VIII’s next act of Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. All the monasteries, friaries, and convents in England—and in those parts of Ireland Henry controlled—would be closed and become the property of Henry VIII, his heirs and successors.