Ghosts of a Catholic Age

The Haunted Ruins of England


They were great favorites of the Victorians. The Romantic Age poets sighed over them; painters silhouetted them against blazing sunsets. Today, towns plant flower gardens in them, and keep the lawns carefully tended for tourists.

In reality, these romantic ruins were once scenes of a ferocious  government attack on a centuries-old way of life.  Modern historians agree that King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 to ruthlessly suppress any political opposition – and grab the Church’s property.

Henry had willing accomplices. While many of his great nobles avoided committing such sacrilege, the King found ample minor nobility eager for the generous percentage of loot promised them.

And so it began. The ‘King’s men’ descended on 850 monasteries, intent on looting the unarmed religious houses that had been the great centers of learning, agriculture and medicine  for the English peasantry since time immemorial.

Monks and nuns were evicted,  church treasure stolen and the very stones carted away to build the estates of Henry’s supporters. Any resistance was met with vicious cruelty, and many a grave old abbot was hung from the towers of their monastery, then drawn and quartered, disemboweled and forced to watch as their entrails were burnt before their eyes.

In the North, brave nobles and peasants joined forces in the name of the Faith in the ill-fated ‘Pilgrimage of Grace.’ When Henry’s soldiers were victorious, the king was merciless. The head of every religious house involved was executed, and Henry’s troops then took their terrible revenge on the hapless people in what has been called ‘the Harrying of the North.’

But this is not commonly known. In fact, for centuries English schoolchildren have been taught that the monasteries were ‘rich’ and that they kept the peasantry ignorant with their ‘superstitions.’ Only recently have revisionist historians such as Yale’s Eamon Duffy done the careful scholarship that proves this to be a myth, invented by the victors to conceal the true origins of the wealth of England’s upper classes.

Today, these gaunt bones of stone still vault into English skies, stark reminders of the Catholic roots of the English culture. And many a ‘stately home’ bears the name of the religious house it supplanted. Think ‘Downton Abbey.’


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