Chapter II

The Woodworker's Treasure Chest

Woodwork Projects

Get Instant Access

The Dissolution of Monasteries.

WO acts of oppression and greed on the part of Henry VIII stand out in history as remarkable, not only for the autocratic power on the part of the King which they exhibit, but also for the far-reaching effect which the\ had on the development of English furniture and woodwork. The first of these is the suppression of the monasteries, which began, in the case of the smaller establishments, as early as 1536; the other is the debasing of the coinage, a further description of which, together with some of its effects, will be given in the following chapter.

During the fifteenth century, the power and size of the Church and the monasteries had grown to an enormous extent. Figs. 1 and 2 give an idea of the number of buildings which clustered round St. Alban's Abbe}'. Trading on the love, but still more, the superstition of the people, the abbeys and convents had been so enriched by gifts either bequeathed at a donor's death or extorted under dire threats of spiritual punishment, that at the close of the century it has been calculated that they possessed one-third of the landed wealth of England. These establishments were, with few and notable exceptions, dens of gluttony and vice, but they included in their orders practically all the lawyers, architects, pli3*sicians, scribes, teachers and craftsmen of the Middle Ages. Knowledge ma}- be said to have been non-existent apart from the Church. As Thorold Rogers has stated so well in Chapter VI of his " Six Centuries of Work and liters " .• ' We know but few of the men who designed the great cathedrals, churches, and castles of the Middle Ages,— those buildings which are the wonder of our age for their vastness, their exquisite proportions, and their equally exquisite detail. But when we do know, as it were bv accident,who the builder was, he is almost always a clergyman. It seems as though skill in architecture, and intimate acquaintance with all which was necessary, not only for the design of the structure, but for good workmanship and endurance, were so common an accomplishment, that 110 one was at the pains to proclaim his

The illustrations of Bodiam Castle in this chapter are from photos by Messrs. Everett and Ashdown of Tenterden, Kent.

own reputation or to record the reputation of another. It is known that we owe the designs of Rochester Castle and the Tower to one ecclesiastic. It is recorded that William of Wykeham was Edward the Third's architect at Windsor, as well as his own at Winchester and Oxford, and of various handsome churches which were built during his long episcopate. It is probable that Wayneilete designed the beautiful buildings at Magdalen College ; and it is alleged that Wolsey, in his youth, planned the matchless tower, which has charmed even spectator for nearly four centuries. But no one knows who designed and carried out a thousand of those poems in stone which were the glory of the Middle Ages, and have been made the subjects of servile and stupid limitation in our own."

Henry, whose extravagance was boundless, had cast longing eyes on the wealth of the Church, and when he began his act of suppression, in 1536, on the plea of the Church's vice and mismanagement, he had no other idea than to capture these riches for his own private use. Like all thieves, he had to dispose of the produce of his robberies in the worst market ; in other words, to find receivers for the stolen goods, who were prepared to deal, if the terms were sufficiently attractive to the buyer, and ruinous to the seller. The result was that the proceeds of the rojTal thefts were dissipated in about four years, and the Ring had to turn his attention to the currency of the realm to replenish his exhausted treasury.

By these means the condition of the artisan was steadily deteriorated, both by Henri and afterwards by his son, Edward VI.1 \\ ith the suppression of the monastic establishments a horde of monkish vagrants was let loose on the highways and byways of England, men who possessed nearly all the skill in woodwork, in masonry, in carving, illuminating, writing and the other arts. They were turned aw ay " with fort}- shillings and a gown per man " as

1 See note at end of chapter.

Burnet pithily remarks, in his " History of the Reformation." The vagrancy laws were stringent ; a craftsman could not roam beyond his place of habitation or employment without the consent of his Guild and of the Lord of the Manor, without the gravest risk of being apprehended as a " masterless man," —a rogue and a vagabond, and the punishment for vagrancy was death, if not mutilation. There were over a hundred offences in the calendar for which a man, in the fifteenth century, could be put to death (stealing a sheep was one of them) and hanging was, perhaps, the kindest punishment in the penal code. Tortures and mutilation were man}* and ingenious.

With these unfrocked monks departed the skill in building and woodwork, which had made the fifteenth century the Golden Age. Forbidden to work, denied an}- rights of citizenship, these monks deteriorated into thieves and outlaws, where they did not escape beyond the seas, to follow their crafts in other, and more tolerant, countries.

To quote Thorold Rogers again : " We have been able to trace the process by which the condition of English labour has been continuously deteriorated by the acts of government. It was first impoverished by the issue of base money. Next it was robbed of its guild capital by the land thieves of Edward's regency. It was next brought in contact u ith a new and more needy set of employers— the sheep-masters who succeeded the monks. It was then, with a pretence, and perhaps with the intention, of kindness, subjected to the quarter sessions assessment, merciless!}- used in the first half of the seventeenth century, the agricultural labourer being still further impoverished by being made the residuum of all labour. The agricultural labourer was then further mulcted by enclosures, and the extinction of those immemorial rights of pasture and fuel which he had enjoyed so long. The poor law professed to find him work, but was so administered that the reduction of his wages to a bare subsistence became an easy process and an economical expedient. When the monarchy was restored, his employers, who fixed his wages by their own authority, relieved their own estates from their ancient dues at the expense of his poor luxuries by the excise, tied him to the soil by the Law of Settlement, and starved him by a prohibitive corn law. The freedom of the few was bought by the servitude of the many. Fletcher of Saltoun, an ardent republican for a narrow class, suggested hopeless slaver}- as the proper doom of the labourers, argued that the people exiled only to

work I and that philosophical politicians should have the power to limit their existence by labour. Throughout the eighteenth century the most enlightened men gave the poor their pity, occasionally their patronage, sometimes would assist them at the cost of other workers ; but beyond a bare existence, never imagined that they had rights or remembered that they had suffered wrongs. The weight of taxation fell on them in every direction, and with searching severity. To crown the whole, the penalties of felony and conspiracy were denounced against all labourers who associated together to better their lot by endeavouring to sell their labour in concert, while the desperation which poverty and misery induce, and the crime they suggest, were met by a code more sanguinary and brutal than any which a civilised nation had ever heretofore devised or a high-spirited one submitted to."1

In these religious houses of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries neither time, nor expense, were of moment in the production of their works of art, whether for the grandest cathedrals, or tin} churches. " The wealth of the Church was immense, for

1 The Vet by which any combination of workmen, for their own protection or betterment, could be punished with tine, imprisonment or mutilation, was only repealed after 1S20. Geo. IV, Cap. 129.

1 The Vet by which any combination of workmen, for their own protection or betterment, could be punished with tine, imprisonment or mutilation, was only repealed after 1S20. Geo. IV, Cap. 129.



This illustration gives some idea of the number of monastic buildings which clustered round an Abbey. From an original drawing by Charles H. Ashdown, Esq., E.R.G.S.

she drew at will upon the fear and superstition of the earth ; and her spirit was as great as her power. For centuries her treasures were for the most part wisely and munificently expended, and the noble buildings she erected and the good deeds she performed cannot be contemplated, even now, without admiration. She opened her gates to the poor, spread a table to the hungry, gave lodging to the houseless, welcomed the wanderer ; and high and low -learned and illiterate -alike received shelter and hospitality. Under her roof the scholar completed his education, the chronicler sought and found materials for history, the minstrel chaunted lays of piety and chivalry for his loaf and his raiment, the sculptor carved in wood or cast in silver some popular saint, and the painter conferred on some new legend what was at least meant to be the immortality of his colours. To institutions so charitable and useful, the rich and the powerful devised both money and lands abundantly ; an opulent sinner was glad to pacify the clamours of the Church and the whisperings of his own conscience, by bequeathing wealth which he could no longer enjoy ; and chantries were added to churches, and hospitals erected and endowed, where the saints were solicited in favour of the departed donor's soul, and the poor and hungry were clothed and fed."

Was this article helpful?

0 0
A Course In Wood Turning

A Course In Wood Turning

Ever wondered what wood turning is all about? Here are some invaluable information on how to make beautiful items out of wood! That one little strategy from A Course In Wood Turning that I implemented not only worked, but the results were completely astonishing. I had never seen anything like it! Now, keep in mind that I had tried a lot of other products up until this point. You name it, I probably tried it! That’s how desperate I was to improve my skills with wood turning.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment