The little tat that King Henry VIII is one of the most famous arguments in history, it not only pitted one of the most powerful men of all time the representative of God on Earth, or the Pope but it also led to the creation of a major world religion in the shape of Anglican Christianity.
It’s arguable whether King Henry VIII really planned to split from Rome at all, let alone as decisively as ended up being the case but there was no doubting the vigour with which he and his men carried out the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530’s which was largely somewhat of an excuse for the King to get his hands on the vast treasures of the Church.
It was during this time that King Henry VIII became outraged when he learned that in 1536 priests had stopped his men from closing down Norton Priory in Runcorn, Cheshire.
The king demanded that the abbot be hanged, disembowelled and then chopped into four pieces or Hung Drawn And Quartered with his body parts displayed ‘around the country’ in a warrant written under dictation from King Henry to a secretary.
It is not hard to imagine his outrage when he hears the news, perhaps throwing a royal goblet at the unfortunate messenger who gives him the bad news before he would calm himself somewhat to decide upon the most effective response to the news of events at Norton Priory.
Although ministers like Wolsey and Cromwell (a good case could be made for Cromwell being the first Prime Minister if not in name then in deed.) were famous for doing most of the bureaucratic moving and shaking on Henry’s behalf, the king was educated and intelligent enough to know when and how to bend the system to his will when necessary.
The closure of the monasteries was a time of significant political and religious upheaval, and London struggled to keep pace with regional developments.
By the 1530s monasteries were seen as corrupt and out of touch with the common people of England and Wales. It was also a time of increasing tensions between the Pope in Rome and King Henry VIII.
In 1531 Henry detached England, Wales and Ireland from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. His next step was to disband the monasteries. He did this partly to reform the church but also to strip the monasteries of their huge wealth.
The text of the Death Warrant can be seen below:
Trusty and well-beloved we greet you well / And have as well seen the Letters written from you Sir Piers of Dutton / to our right trusty and well-beloved Counsellor Sir Thomas Audley, knight, [and] our Chancellor of England, declaring the traitorous demeanour of the late Abbot and canons of the Monastery of Norton / used at the being there of our Commissioners for the suppression thereof / and your wisdom, policy, and good endeavours used for the apprehension of the same / for the which we give unto you our right hearty thanks, and shall undoubtedly consider your faithful service therein, to your singular rejoice and comfort hereafter / As other Letters written from you Sir William Brereton to our right trusty and well-beloved councillor, the Lord Cromwell, keeper of our Privy Seal , touching the same matter / For your good endeavours also, wherein we give unto you our right hearty thanks / For answer whereunto, you shall understand / that for as much as it appeareth that the said Late Abbot and canons have most traitotraitorously used themselves against us / and our realm / and moved insurrection against the common quiet of the same / Our pleasure and commandment is ^ that if this shall appear to ?? you ^ ??????esse? ^ [to be?] true that then ^ you shall immediately upon the sight hereof without any manner of ^ of further circust[ııı??ıs?] of law or^ delay cause them to be ^ ???d indicted and straight thereupon arraigned and so without further traet put all to execution hanged as most arrant traitors / ^ in such sundry places as ye shall think requisite ^ setting up their heads and quarters round abo[ut the] country for the terrible example of all others hereafter / And herein fail you not to travail with such dexterity as this matter may be finished with all possible diligence. [‘Given under our signet at our Castle of Windsor the xxth of October the xxviiith year of our reign, anno 1536′]
[‘To our trusty and well-beloved servant Sir Pearse Dutton and Sir William Brearton, Knights, and to every of them]
It is not known why King Henry changed his mind and crossed out the line relating to the Abbot being Hung Drawn and Quartered. Local magnates, like Lord Brereton and others with access to the King’s ear, may have helped to persuade Henry to order a relatively more benevolent punishment. However this would be of marginal comfort to the condemned Abbot.
The draft correspondence is one of a number of surviving letters that passed between Henry, Thomas Cromwell – his chief advisor during the period of the dissolution – and lords such as Piers Dutton in the North West.
Although it was popularly held that the abbot of Norton was executed, the historical records suggest that William Brereton cancelled the order, in light of the rebellions being quelled throughout the North, particularly the Pilgrimage of Grace in Yorkshire. Letters between Thomas Audley and Thomas Cromwell, and William Brereton to Cromwell suggest that the abbot was released in 1537.
Despite the change of fortune for the Abbot, Norton Priory itself was not so fortunate and it was ruined, the remains of which can be seen below.
If you want to read about an earlier English king and his run-in with the Church then why not read my post on the infamous martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. You can also see some of my photos from a visit to the ruin Binham Abbey or if you want to, you can visit an Abbey with me such as Lacock Abbey which has featured in Harry Potter, Wolf Hall and various other shows with Downton Abbey one of many productions in the adjoining village. Alternatively the beautiful Abbey Cathedral of St Albans which was partially destroyed by King Henry VIII.