Historical fiction set in the Tudor era, whether it’s a literary novel like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, or a mystery such as Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, commonly depicts a Catholic kingdom rotted by monastic corruption, a system dying out and pleading for reform.
In my years of research into the Dissolution of the Monasteries while writing my trilogy of novels, I came to different conclusions. Yes, there were cases of fraud, such as a phial said to contain Christ’s blood kept at an abbey in Gloucestershire. But overall, I discovered a rich, vibrant world of people deeply committed to a spiritual life, some of whom wanted to withdraw from society to devote themselves to prayer and study. I focused on the nunneries, since I’d decided on a protagonist who was a Dominican novice.
Approximately 1,800 nuns existed at the time of the destruction of the priories, out of 9,300 monastics total. We know of the fates of a handful of women, those considered of enough interest for the ambassadors or politicians to write about. The sisters left behind a few letters and wills, that’s it. The priories themselves are rubble or, at most, fragmented walls and spires of ghostly beauty. “In lone magnificence, a ruin stands,” sighs the poem by George Keate, “The Ruins of Netley Abbey.”
I selected the sole Dominican priory in England, in the town of Dartford, in Kent. I traveled to Dartford to deepen my research in 2011. A small museum devoted to the town’s history helped a great deal. Walking around, I found echoes of the past: signs for “Priory Road” and “Priory Shopping Centre.” On the site of the convent stands a gatehouse and garden built directly after the nuns’ time — it’s a popular place for wedding receptions, ironically.
All that physically remains of the grand priory buildings themselves is a stretch of low stone wall along a busy road. “What happened here?” I said out loud as I stood on the cracked sidewalk alongside those walls.
Of all of the victims in the struggle over religion, the nuns were, as a group, the most tragic. The displaced monks and friars could serve the new church as chantry priests or hold some other spiritual office. They could also become clerks or apothecaries or tutors.
But the displaced nuns had far fewer options. The abbeys fell in the mid to late 1530s. Many of the prioresses and nuns received pensions but they were small, and the inflation of the 1540s and 1550s diminished their value. There were no professions open to unmarried women of the period, apart from service at the royal court at one end of the spectrum and prostitution at the other.
However, these women could not marry. A law passed Parliament in 1539, the Act of Six Articles, forbidding those who had taken vows of chastity from ever marrying, on pain of death. Introduced by the Duke of Norfolk, the act had the support of the king, who for reasons unknown was intent on ex-monastics being celibate. During the reign of Edward VI, the law was repealed. But under Mary I, the marriages of ex-nuns was forbidden again — only to be permitted once more by Elizabeth. By that time some of the nuns were dead; the youngest ones at the Dissolution were then well into their forties. In all of my research I found only two references in the contemporary records of nuns’ marrying.
But in that same research, I learned some illuminating details of the stories of women who courageously faced destruction of their way of life in the 1530s. One of them is Florence Bonnewe. She does not appear in my books. But her fate haunts me all the same.
In demolishing the abbeys, these houses of distinctive architecture, some of them containing beautiful books and stained glass, we lost buildings that were centuries’ old. The Benedictine convent of Amesbury, in Wiltshire, had been founded before the arrival of William the Conqueror. The historians give the year as 979 and the motive of its creation as guilt over the murder of King Edward the Martyr the previous year.
The convent wasn’t large or particularly prestigious, but it kept going. More than five centuries after its founding, 34 nuns lived at Amesbury. The head of the house was Prioress Florence Bonnewe, of whom nothing is known before she leaps into history in 1539 as a woman who stood up to the king. She is a footnote to the Dissolution of the Monasteries because of the letters she wrote, and the letters that men wrote about her, finding her a source of deep frustration.
All of the smaller monasteries and a growing number of the larger ones — possessing vast tracts of land and valuables — had been dissolved already. In most cases the property and buildings were turned over to families loyal to Henry VIII. The valuables were pillaged. What the king’s commissioners tried to do was persuade the abbots and priors and prioresses to surrender their religious houses to the king. If so, the helpless and frightened monastics living there would receive those annual pensions. The grisly fate of those who refused to submit to the king and Thomas Cromwell — not only Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher but dozens of defiant monks and friars — was instructive. Few refused.
At the end of March three royal commissioners — John Tregonwell, William Petre and John Smyth — arrived at Amesbury with the goal of securing “surrender.”
Florence Bonnewe had other ideas. She would go if ordered to do so, but she had no intention of surrendering. As Francis Aiden Gasquet wrote in his 1899 book Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, “The royal commissioners had received the surrenders of both Shaftesbury and Wilton, and no doubt expected to work their will at Amesbury without difficulty. But they were soon undeceived.”
The men wrote to Cromwell after meeting her:
“We yesterday came and communed with the abbess for the accomplishment of the king’s highness’ commission in like sort. And albeit we have used as many ways with her as our poor wits could attain, yet in the end we could not by any persuasions bring her to any conformity. At all times she resisted and so remaineth in these terms: ‘If the king’s highness command me to go from this house I will gladly go, though I beg my bread; and as for pension, I care for none.’ In these terms she was in all her conversation, praying for us many times to trouble her no further herein, for she had declared her full mind, in the which we might plainly gather of her words she was fully fixed before our coming.”
Months of pressure followed. Florence stood firm. She was aware that the directive to submit came from the King himself. But she would not agree. At some point the most senior commissioner in charge of dissolving nunneries, a priest named John London, entered the picture.
It is worth pausing in the story of Florence to consider “Dr. London.” Archbishop Matthew Parker would call Dr. London a “stout and filthy prebendary.” In his visitations to the nunneries he was charged with improper behavior toward the nuns at Chepstow in 1537 and Godstow in 1538. Dr. London was first dean of the Diocese of Oxford in the early 1540s and there forced to perform “open penance” after adultery with an Oxford mother and daughter. He was caught up in a failed conspiracy against Thomas Cranmer in 1543, sent to Fleet Prison and “died of shame and vexation.”
James Gardiner, the 19th century editor of the towering Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, wrote of Dr. London’s actions in 1539:
“When we think of the shame in which Dr. London ended his days, a few years later, committed to the Fleet for perjury, not to mention other stories against him; and when we consider that Cromwell himself, the year before this, had been obliged to pay some regard to the abbess of Godstow’s remonstrance against his conduct towards her and her companions, it might seem strange that the task of suppressing nunneries should have been more specially committed to him than to any other. But perhaps indelicacy was rather a recommendation for the kind of work that was to be done.”
Florence begged the men sent by the King to be “left in peace,” but the demands only increased. The royal commissioners secured letters from Cromwell and even Henry VIII insisting that yes, the surrender of the nunnery must take place.
In August 1539 Florence finally submitted the resignation of her position in the following letter to Thomas Cromwell:
“I humbly recommend me unto your good lordship and have received the king’s gracious letters and yours, touching the resignation of my poor office in the monastery of Amesbury….I have resigned my said office into the hands of the king’s noble grace, before the commissioners thereto appointed; trusting that the promises of said commissioners have made unto me for assurance of my living hereafter shall be performed.”
Florence was swiftly replaced by a nun named Joan Darrell who was “very conformable” to Cromwell’s wishes. Dr. London arrived to oversee the official surrender of the convent in 1540. Joan Darrell was awarded an annual pension of one-hundred pounds, the largest amount given to any prioress in the kingdom, even though she’d held the position for a few months. Clearly she was being rewarded.
And what of Florence? She received absolutely nothing. The commissioners broke their promises. Alternatively, Gasquet writes that “As for pension, she had said, ‘I care for none,” and none was received.”
One source writes that Prioress Florence Bonnewe died “almost immediately after.”
According to contemporary historian John Stowe, “10,000 people, masters and servants, had lost their livings by the putting down of these houses at that time.” A number of them — no one is sure how many — could find no employment and roamed the country, homeless. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote: “It is a lamentable thing to see a legion of monks and nuns who have been chased from their monasteries wandering miserably hither and thither seeking means to live.” Florence was spared that fate, at least.
Twenty-one Amesbury nuns were still receiving their pensions as of the year 1556 and one as late as 1605. As for the buildings and land of Amesbury, they were given to Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, brother of the king’s third wife. The church was preserved, but most of the buildings were ordered demolished, stripped of lead that could be sold.
A nearby grand country house, also called Amesbury Abbey, stood on 35 acres of parkland for centuries and was not part of the nunnery. After changing hands many times, it is now a nursing home.