Between 1485-1603 Britain was ruled by the Tudor kings. Of these, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are the most famous.
The population of the county doubled and there was an increase in agriculture and trade. Shrewsbury developed a large cattle market, with drover’s routes from North Shropshire, Montgomeryshire and North Wales. There were also horse fairs at Frankwell and Abbey Foregate. Merchants bought Welsh cloth from markets in Oswestry and Welshpool, selling them on to other parts of England at a profit. Several Guilds were created in Shrewsbury, the most important being the Drapers. Transport via the River Severn allowed trade to flourish with wool, cloth, ale, mead, cheese, honey, rope, hides, leather, pig iron and coal being exported from the county and wine, alum, teasel and malt being imported. During this period, the Court of the Marches was consolidated and the Council made a permanent institution by Henry VII, whose eldest son Arthur held court at Ludlow with his bride Katharine of Aragon.
1485 – Henry VII becomes king.
1509 – Henry VIII becomes king.
1526 – The Plague caused daily life to come to a virtual standstill as markets and fairs were cancelled for fear of spreading the disease. All imports were also stopped in case they were infected and travellers were prohibited from entering towns. Further outbreaks occurred in 1536, 1576, 1604, 1631 and 1650, the worst outbreak being in 1604 when ten per cent of the population died. More details of the effect on Shropshire can be seen in Deserted Villages.
1534 – Rowland Lee was appointed as President of the Council, as well as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. On his death at Shrewsbury in 1542, he was buried in St Chad's Church.
1535 - Act passed for the protection of Shropshire against the Welsh. Henry VIII sent inspectors to the monasteries to write reports on their wealth and moral conduct. He then set about closing the monasteries and seizing the property for the Crown. This process was known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The smaller monasteries were closed by 1536 with the larger ones following over the next four years.
1536 – The Earl of Shrewsbury raised forces from Shropshire to help defeat a rebellion in Yorkshire that became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
1543 – The Laws in Wales Act was passed and this defined the border with Wales. The hundreds of Oswestry, Pimhill (including Wem) and part of Chirbury had, prior to the Laws in Wales Act, formed various Lordships in the Welsh Marches but were now included in Shropshire.
1547 – Edward VI becomes king.
1553 – Mary becomes queen.
1556 – A harvest failure led to large increases in the prices of local grain and occasionally emergency imports had to be shipped in. Similar failures occurred in 1585-6, 1594-5 and 1596-7.
1558 – Elizabeth I becomes queen.
1559 - Sir Henry Sidney was appointed as President of the Court of the Marches and his son, Sir Philip Sidney, was one of the distinguished alumni of Shrewsbury School.
1603 – Elizabeth I dies.
Dissolution of the Abbeys
The most significant event in Shropshire during Tudor times was the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Henry VIII had inherited a considerable amount of money from his father but, by the mid-1530s, Henry had spent a great deal of this. At that time, most religious establishments in Britain were very rich through the leasing of bequeathed land and gifts from pilgrims. Henry began to think of ways of acquiring this wealth for himself. The closing down of monasteries was not new. Cardinal Wolsey had obtained permission from the Pope in 1518 to close some establishments where the lack of occupants stopped them being effective. When he closed them, Wolsey used the money raised for charitable purposes. The man who did the legal work for this was Thomas Cromwell and, when he became Henry’s chief minister in 1532, he suggested that a similar scheme could be used to divert funds to the Crown. Henry’s authority to do this started with the Act of Supremacy 1534 which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from Papal authority.
At that time there were more than 850 religious establishments in England and Wales. In actual fact, very few were monasteries but mostly abbeys, priories and friaries. The latter worked with the local community and any money raised was used for their good, so the friaries were not wealthy. However, the occupants of abbeys and priories kept themselves away from the community, although they relied on them to work for free. In this way, some religious orders grew spectacularly rich and came to own about one-third of all the land in England and Wales. The thirty richest religious establishments were richer than the wealthiest nobles in the land. Only a few monks and nuns lived in conspicuous luxury but most were very comfortably fed and housed by the standards of the time and few any longer set standards of ascetic piety or religious observance. Only a minority of houses could now support the twelve or thirteen persons regarded as the minimum necessary to maintain full activities. Even in houses with adequate numbers, the regular obligations of communal eating and shared living had not been fully enforced for centuries.
In 1535 the Valor Ecclesiasticus was introduced by Thomas Cromwell. This was a comprehensive survey to ascertain how much property was owned by the Church in England and Wales. The visits were carried out by hand-picked commissioners, chiefly Richard Layton, Thomas Legh, John ap Rice and John Tregonwell. As well as assessing wealth, they enquired about the quality of religious life being maintained, assessed any superstitious religious observances such as the veneration of relics and looked for evidence of moral laxity. They interviewed each member of the establishment and selected servants, prompting them to make confessions of wrongdoing and to inform on one another. By the autumn, the commissioners were sending written reports to Cromwell detailing all kinds of malpractices they claimed to have discovered, such as miraculous items of clothing that monks and nuns had been hiring out to the sick or mothers in labour. The commissioners were also instructing establishments to strictly enforce the practice of common dining and cloistered living,
The Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1535 (also referred to as the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries) was the beginning of the legal process by which King Henry VIII set about the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The act stated that any religious establishment with an income of less than £200 a year (as assessed by the Valor Ecclesiasticus) was to be dissolved and their property passed to the Crown. The heads of the houses were to be offered a pension while the other occupants were given the choice of transferring to another larger establishment or going to live in the community. If they chose the latter course, they would be free of any vows of poverty and obedience but still have to respect their vow of chastity. Of all the religious establishments, 320 had an income of less than £200 a year and 243 were closed down. However, 77 of them were given royal permission to remain open after agreeing to pay a year’s income to the Crown, thus earning the king about £15,500.
Once the Act was passed, the commissioners quickly shut down the appropriate establishments before they could remove any treasure or wealth. Their gold, silver, bronze and lead was taken by the government to be melted down. The land was rented out and all other items not required by the government were auctioned off locally. What the government did not require from the actual buildings was taken by the local population, so much of the wood and stone was removed. Cromwell established a new government agency, the Court of Augmentations to manage all of this new income.
It was found that several religious establishments had actively supported the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536. Henry showed no mercy and the head of each establishment involved was declared a traitor and executed. He then declared that the houses of the executed religious leaders were their property and, under the auspices of the Treason Act 1535, confiscated them for the Crown. He did this with an act of attainder (an act declaring a person or group of persons guilty of some crime and punishing them without privilege of a judicial trial). This removed the person’s civil rights, including the right to own property. Any monks left from these houses were forced out. Furness Abbey had been implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace and the abbot, fearful of a treason charge, petitioned to be allowed to make a voluntary surrender of his establishment, which Cromwell gladly approved. From then on, all dissolutions that were not a consequence of convictions for treason were legally "voluntary". The monks were not accorded the option of transfer to another establishment but were offered life pensions if they co-operated.
Cromwell then sent his commissioners to each of the remaining establishments to try to persuade them to voluntarily surrender their establishment. Abbots and Priors came under internal pressure from their occupants to petition for voluntary surrender if they could obtain pensions. They also realised that if they refused to surrender, they might be executed for treason and their establishment dissolved anyway. By 1538 Cromwell was still targeting the remaining establishments, even though the official stance of the government was that the better-run houses could still expect to survive. Cromwell even sent out a circular letter condemning “false rumours” of a general policy of dissolution. He also warned against asset-stripping or concealment of valuables, which could be construed as treasonable action.
Applications for surrender began to flood in. Cromwell appointed a local commissioner to each establishment to supervise the sale of goods and buildings, dispose of endowments and to ensure that the former monks and nuns were provided with pensions, cash gratuities and clothing. Existing tenants would have their tenancies continued and lay office holders would continue to receive their incomes and fees. Monks or nuns who were aged, handicapped or infirm were marked out for more generous pensions and care was taken that nobody was thrown out without being provided for. The endowments, landed property and appropriated parish tithes and glebe land were transferred to the Court of Augmentations, who would pay out pensions and fees at the agreed rate. These were subject to a fee of 4d in the pound, plus a 10% tax deduction on clergy incomes. Pensions averaged around £5 per annum before tax for monks, with those for superiors assessed at 10% of the net annual income of the house. The pensions were not reduced if the pensioner obtained other employment but if the pensioner accepted a royal appointment or benefice of greater annual value than their pension, the pension would be extinguished. In 1538, £5 compared with the annual wages of a skilled worker and it was a significant sum.
Pensions granted to nuns were less generous, averaging around £3 per annum. Since former nuns were forbidden to marry, great hardship resulted. Where nuns came from well-born families, as the majority did, they usually returned to live with their relatives. Otherwise, former nuns often clubbed together in a shared household. There were no retrospective pensions for those monks or nuns who had already moved from a smaller closed establishment, nor for those whose establishments were closed due to the conviction for treason of their superior.
Up to then, the poorer friaries had been left alone and their buildings were often ruinous or leased out commercially. Almost all friars (in contravention of their rules) were now living in rented lodgings outside their friaries and only gathering together for divine service in the friary church. Many supported themselves through paid employment and held personal property. By early 1538 suppression of the friaries was widely being anticipated. In some friaries, everyone except the prior had already left and assets such as timber, chalices and vestments were being sold off. Cromwell appointed Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover, to close the friaries, which he easily did by drafting new injunctions that enforced each order's rules and required friars to resume a strict life within their walls. Knowing that this was impossible, the friaries voluntarily agreed to close. There were very few saleable assets so friars did not receive a pension, only a gratuity of 40 shillings. The friary churches were rapidly disposed of by the Court of Augmentations.
The Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1539 (also referred to as the Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries) provided for the dissolution of the remaining 552 monasteries and houses. It also provided for retrospective legalisation of those establishments that had been closed “voluntarily”. Cromwell’s commissioners went to work and the threat of being regarded as treasonable led to many heads of religious establishments handing over their land and wealth. However, there were some who would not be bullied and they had to face the full force of the law. One such was the Abbot of Glastonbury, a very wealthy monastery, and he was charged with secretly hoarding gold and items from the commissioners. He was executed and the buildings were all but destroyed, the land passing to the king.
By 1540, over 800 religious establishments had been dissolved. The last two abbeys to be dissolved were Waltham Abbey and Shap Abbey in January 1540. As a result of the action, the Crown became richer to the extent of around £150,000 (£81m in modern money) per year, although around £50,000 of this was initially committed to fund monastic pensions. Cromwell had intended that the bulk of this wealth should serve as regular income of government but in 1540 Henry needed money quickly to fund his military ambitions in France and Scotland so monastic property was sold off. This quick sale realised a total of £90,000.
The establishments closed in Shropshire were :-
Bridgnorth Franciscan Friary (Greyfriars)
Ludlow Augustinian Friary (Whitefriars)
Shrewsbury Augustinian Friary (Whitefriars)
Shrewsbury Franciscan Friary (Greyfriars)
White Ladies Priory
Woodhouse Augustinian Friary (Whitefriars)
Church Preen Priory
Shrewsbury Dominican Friary (Blackfriars)