The Dissolution of the Monasteries: What happened at St Albans.

Most of the Benedictine monasteries offered little resistance to Henry VIII's religious 'reforms'.  Some were inclined to protest, but when they heard of the barbaric executions of the resistant Abbots of Reading, Colchester and Glastonbury, most Abbots and monks then changed their minds. When the King sent surrender documents to their monasteries, they signed.  However, at St Albans, there was great opposition.  Abbot Richard Boreman (also known as Richard Stevenage) and his monks openly condemned the royal divorce, the break with Rome and the early Dissolutions promoted by the Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell.  When they finally submitted to the surrender in 1539, many of the monks continued to uphold their traditions, living in close fellowship with one another and worshipped in St Andrew's Chapel, the former parish chapel attached to the north side of the Abbey nave.

To set the scene, before Albans Abbey was closed down, there were 40 monks resident, with 10 novices and 5 monk-students at Gloucester College, Oxford.   This number was similar to the other great houses, although there were more monks at Westminster, which would be expected in London.  The great library at St Albans was in excellent order, but the Abbey had been impoverished by Cardinal Wolsey plundering the treasury when he was Abbot in order to fund his building project at Cardinal College Oxford - now Oxford Cathedral.  Wolsey had no right at all to be Abbot: he wasn't even a monk and he was certainly never a resident Abbot.  He may never even have visited the Abbey.

After Wolsey's death the King appointed Robert Catton as Abbot, although the monks at St Albans had voted overwhelmingly for another candidate.   But Catton was a king's man, and at once gave Henry 5 properties that he demanded, including More, where he wanted to house poor Queen Catherine during the divorce proceedings.  Wolsey had been building a grand new house at More and this was just what Henry wanted. The monks were furious at Catton's compliance, especially Thomas King, the priest at St Andrew's, who was the Queen's chaplain. Several of the secular clergy at Hatfield spoke out against Henry's 1534 Act of Supremacy which made him head of the church. Soon St Albans became a refuge for monks from smaller houses, already closed.  After Henry married Anne Boleyn, one monk, Thomas Ashwell, spoke out against her 'heresies' (she was a convinced Protestant) and was 'reported' to the Vicar General.  But none of the monks could be persuaded to speak against him.  The monk Robert Boreman was clearly of the same opinion, and acted as figurehead against the hated Abbot Catton.  Boreman promoted anti-Protestant publications, but sought to muddy any opposition against him from the crown by also promoting many non-controversial books like John Lydgate's Glorious Lyfe of St Alban, illustrated with striking wood cuts.

Abbot Catton danced attendance on Henry at court, assisting in the baptism of the Princess Elizabeth; but after her mother's execution in 1536 he was soon paying attention to Queen Jane and attended her funeral after her untimely death from puerperal fever.   Back at St Albans there was great turmoil against Cromwell's toadying Prior at Tynemouth (a dependent monastery of St Albans), but nothing could prevent the reading before Parliament of the contents of the infamous Black Book, a largely fictional report of the decadence of most of the monasteries.  The Act of Suppression was passed in 1536.  Catton begged to be relieved of the Abbacy of St Albans, and scuttled off to a small benefice in Bedfordshire.  This was a poor reward from Cromwell for all Catton's loyalty.  Then Richard Boreman was installed as Abbot at St Albans, which must have appalled Henry.  But perhaps he was preoccupied with matrimonial matters and didn't much care as he was sure to have his way and close St Albans down, together with all the other monasteries.


On 6th December 1539 St Albans surrendered its ancient monastic seal.  39 monks signed the surrender document, including some very young men who had only just been admitted to the community.  Clearly vocations were still strong. Twelve days later the spoil was seized for the crown: 133oz of pure gold, 4,350 of parcel gilt and silver. Images of gold and silver were removed, ewers and candlesticks, chalices, censors, rich hangings, fine linens, altar cloths, brass, iron, lead and bells.  Within months many of its properties were in crown hands and were then sold to wealthy Tudor incomers like Nicholas Bacon.  A syndicate of 80 Londoners which included brewers, clothworkers, chandlers, bowyers, carpenters and doctors was formed to buy many of the monastic farms in the area.

In 1547 the young Protestant King Edward VI decreed that all religious images were to be removed from wall and window in churches, and the iconoclasm began.  A later Protestant mayor of St Albans, Robert Shrimpton, wrote in his memoirs that it was in 'impious sacrilege'.  The artistic losses of this period were dreadful, yet although their was much damage to the windows and wall paintings at the Abbey, all the chantries and many of the ecclesiastical brasses survived,  protected by local sympathisers.

There is strong evidence that many of the monks stayed close to the Abbey and nine were able to become priests in local churches, forming a network of supporters to the Abbot.  Boreman was now headmaster of St Albans School (the old building had been demolished in the rush to buy building materials from Sir Richard Lee, the King's commissioner). The school was housed in a chapel near St Peter's church.  When the Catholic Queen Mary succeeded to the throne after the death of her young half-brother Edward VI, seven more monks were appointed as local priests and it is clear that all hoped that the monastery at St Albans would be re-opened.  This happened at Westminster.  At St Albans there was also a sympathetic number of men in the lay community who supported the monks and their aims.  However, when a Protestant baker from Barnet, George Tankerfield, was burned at the stake in St Albans by Queen Mary in 1555, a large sympathetic crowd supported him.  He gave a brave speech before the fire was lit, and the crowd broke green branches from the trees, put them in the fire till they smoked, then suffocated him speedily by holding them close to his face.  This prevented a slower and much more painful death from the flames.

Richard Boreman's school near St Peter's church was too small, it seems, and he was moved into the Lady Chapel at the Abbey, (where the school was maintained until 1870, when the present school building was erected) probably expecting the monastery to soon be re-opened.  And then Queen Mary died, miserable, childless and alone at the age of 42, and her Protestant sister Elizabeth came to the throne.  Robert Shrimpton wrote 'when the news arrived at St Albans of Queen Mary's death in 1558, the Abbot, for  grief, took to his bed and died within a fortnight'.  It is extraordinary that he had hoped to revive the monastery, 19 years after is was closed, but perhaps even more so that Robert Shrimpton still wrote of him as 'The Abbot' at this time.

It seems that the monastic ideal died with Richard Boreman.  The former monks continued as priests in the local parishes, and none revolted against Elizabeth.  She wisely did not want to 'open a window on men's minds' but hoped for  peace throughout the country.  For celebration of the Eucharist, the Protestant church used Parker's Anglican Communion Service instead of the Latin mass, and English texts from Tyndale's Bible were written on the walls of parish churches, in place of altars and images.  The clear light of day fell through plain glass windows on to English prayer books held in the hands of the congregations, and no longer was the mystery of the Latin mass celebrated behind a screen by a priest in the chancel in a cloud of incense.

Academics now congregated in universities instead of monasteries, and in the impoverished towns like St Albans there was much unemployment as no crowds of pilgrims visited the Abbey and stayed at the great inns with huge kitchens and stables.  Local benefactors helped the poor as best they could in the absence of the Abbey Almoner, and several charities were founded to supply bread and board to the destitute.  Queen Elizabeth gave a charter to St Albans School, with the income from two inns to pay the schoolmaster's salary.  However poor people were, she reasoned that they would always spend money on beer and the profits would run the school.