The Freelance History Writer is pleased to welcome Richard Taylor to the blog. He lives near Manchester, England and has a lifelong interest in monasteries, visiting many across the UK and Europe. Although his degree is in Aerospace Engineering, he has completed various Art History courses on-line through Oxford University Continuing Education. You can check out his blog here.
On 23rd March 1540, the Abbot of Waltham surrendered his monastery, the last one remaining in England. So ended a way of life that flourished for a thousand years. Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell completed the nationalization of monasticism but he was already out of favour with his fickle master and succumbed shortly after Waltham.
In just four years, over eight hundred religious houses had been closed with the monastic fortune liquidated and passed to the crown. We are left with echoes of a time dominated by an enclosed elite, their homes re-purposed or derelict or obliterated. Some of these foundations still thrive as churches, schools, houses, farms or tourist attractions. Others though have little physical trace, the casual viewer ignorant of their existence.
In the century following the dissolution, the majority of monastic sites became stately homes with the main house converted from the Head’s Lodgings. Many of these had been upgraded in the decades before dissolution and formed ready-made high-status accommodation spared from destruction to attract new secular owners. The rest of the complex was generally demolished as Cromwell was keen to prevent monastic revival.
Despite this prime directive there was a group of monasteries where the entire core, including the church and the attached claustral ranges, became new palaces. Perhaps significantly they were the creations of trusted courtiers who all rose to rank of Lord Chancellor – Richard Rich at Leez in Essex, William Paulet at Netley, Hampshire and Thomas Wriothesley at Titchfield also in Hampshire.
Loyal statesmen or self-serving hypocrites? Left to right: Thomas Wriothesley, Richard Rich and William Paulet. Unlike More, Fisher, Cromwell, Cranmer etc., these three managed to maintain the confidence of their capricious Tudor boss (mostly) and died in their beds.
Thomas Wriothesley took control of Titchfield Abbey with its five-thousand acre domain in December 1537 and soon began its transformation. By the time of John Leland’s visit in 1542 it was complete, the antiquarian noting ‘the ‘goodley gate’ to the ‘right stately house’. Wriothesley retained his Catholic faith but didn’t seem perturbed about the secularisation of a consecrated site. He vigorously persecuted Protestants, reputedly operating the rack with Richard Rich during the torture of Anne Askew who later died for her faith. Rich is probably the most notorious of Tudor courtiers playing a central role in the conviction of Thomas More, John Fisher and his former mentor, Thomas Cromwell. Meanwhile, he made a fortune out of the dissolution as Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, which oversaw the monastic acquisition for the state, hoovering up properties at below market value including Leez and St. Bartholomew’s, Smithfield which became his London base.
All the monastic conversions featured the main elements of contemporary palaces comprising an impressive Gatehouse, Courtyard, Great Hall, Long Gallery and Chapel. This was achieved through rework of existing buildings even though the means sometimes differed.
Common to all was the transformation of the Cloister, whose purpose had now radically changed. In monastic times it was the centre of prayer and study, echoing to the daily timbre of rituals. Entering the cloister was a metaphor for adopting the contemplative life. Now for the secular owners the newly converted courtyard was the frontispiece to their grand house. An impressive courtyard anticipated the magnificence of the interior. Cloister conversions were easily achieved with the demolition of the arcaded walkways which also enabled embellishment of the adjacent buildings.
The Great Hall is the centrepiece of stately homes. Paulet and Rich both exploited the grandeur of the former monastic Churches to provide Great Halls at Netley and Leez respectively. Paulet split the Nave – the western part became a vast kitchen whilst the eastern portion plus the crossing became the Hall. Rich used the central aisle of the Nave at Leez, re-clothed in red brick.
Long Galleries were de rigueur in renaissance houses. Dormitories at each of the monasteries provided ready-made elongated rooms atop the former East Range easily converted for this purpose. Here, the sub-priors had once dutifully carried out nocturnal inspections ensuring that their fellow monks were at rest. Now they were venues for indoor games, art collections, political scheming and idle chit-chat.
Private chapels were another key feature. The former Chapter Houses at Leez and Titchfield were easily adapted to this purpose whilst, at Netley, Paulet had more ambition and converted the former Presbytery at the east end of the Church. Paulet stayed at the top of English politics for over forty years navigating the treacherous reefs of the Tudor court serving four monarchs. This longevity required a flexible approach to religion and he shifted from ardent Catholic to zealous Protestant in tune with the contemporary regime. His chapel at Netley was the last extant Cistercian chancel on this scale in England. It is interesting to speculate on its decoration and the rituals performed there. Was any monastic furniture was retained? Did it become more austere in-line with Edward VI’s reforms? Were masses celebrated following Queen Mary’s return to Roman Catholicism?
All three great houses fell out of fashion in the eighteenth century. Most of Leez was pulled down in 1753. Titchfield was pillaged to extend the Palladian house of nearby Cams Hall. By 1700 Paulet’s palace at Netley had been abandoned and demolition began. Legend has it that the speculator hired for the job (Walter Taylor) was killed when part of the former church fell on him apparently as a consequence of his sacrilegious act.
Surrounded today by the urban sprawl of Southampton, it is hard to imagine that Netley’s neatly trimmed remains were a major inspiration for the Romantic Movement in art. In the eighteenth century the ruins became almost organic, the once functional buildings barely distinguishable from the unplanned sylvan growth around them. They were infused with a supernatural quality through purple poetry, lurid novels and moonlit paintings. Here, the monks had striven to achieve ‘divine grace’ now the Romantics sought ‘pleasing melancholy’. Since the real history of medieval Netley lacked thrills, hackneyed fictional tales filled the void – hidden treasure guarded by the ghost of ‘Blind Peter’, the moral story of a walled-up nun, plus of course some secret subterranean passages. Much was made of Walter Taylor’s demise clearly the revenge of those ghoulish monks.
In the mid-eighteenth century Southampton was a noted spa town ‘as genteel as Tunbridge’. Guidebooks proliferated which included descriptions of the monastic ruins at Netley, now a tourist attraction. One guidebook included George Keate’s Elegy to enable a personal recital in the ruins themselves.
Netley Abbey by Moonlight by John Constable
The list of famous visitors to the Abbey reads like a who’s who of the Romantic Movement. Alexander Pope picnicked there on a fallen pillar hoping to avoid snakes. Horace Walpole went into raptures ‘they are not the ruins of Netley, but of Paradise!’. His friend Thomas Gray wrote ‘There may be richer and greater houses of religion, but the abbot is content with his situation’. William Gilpin thought the church almost the ‘only part that was picturesque’ but it was now ‘so choaked with ruin, and overgrown with thickets and ivy-bushes, that the greatest part of the building is invisible’. George Keate in his Elegy contrasted the Abbey’s former life ‘When votive Monks these sacred Pavements trod’ with its current state ‘Low on the Ground their loftiest Spires are thrown, And ev’ry Stone points out a moral Tale’. The clichéd potboiler ‘Netley Abbey: A Gothic Story’ by Richard Warner was a best seller and increased interest in visiting the Abbey.
Meanwhile on the London stage ‘Netley Abbey: an operatic farce in two acts’ was being performed which unsubtly lampooned the Gothic novel. Jane Austen probably visited the Abbey and the attendant literature may have influenced her own satire on the Gothic novel ‘Northanger Abbey’, published posthumously in 1818. The central character Catherine Morland is invited to stay at Northanger and has visions of herself as a heroine uncovering all sorts of skulduggery. None of this transpires and her fantasies are debunked. Miss Morland is rebuked by her host General Tilney ‘Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians’. Perhaps Austen was delivering a message to all her contemporary Gothic fantasists.
Today, what remains of Leez is an award-winning wedding venue. Netley and Titchfield are maintained by English Heritage in their trademark pristine fashion and access to both is free. Titchfield’s Gatehouse still stands albeit a shell. Anyone can wander around the site of royal progresses and promenade plays produced by Shakespeare.
Further reading: “Jane Austen’s Worlds, Southhampton University: Netley and the Gothic”, English Heritage: Netley Abbey and Titchfield Abbey sites, British History Online: Articles on Richard Rich, Thomas Wriothesely and William Paulet, Historic England: Details of Leez Priory, Netley Abbey and Titchfield Abbey