Little Jack Horner sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie:
He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”
You may be familiar with old nursery rhyme, but you may not be familiar with the history of it. Jack Horner was actually John Horner, who received an enormous gift of lands and properties that was stolen from the Roman Catholic Nuns, Monks, and Friars of England. As the legend goes, he received a pie filled with deeds from the local religious official, and he pulled them out.
This stealing of the buildings and land happened under the Henry VIII of England, who had decided to split from Roman Catholicism by declaring himself as head of the Church in England. The event where he then went on to claim all of the lands of those that followed Roman is commonly called "The Dissolution Of The Monasteries."
While history would paint Thomas Cromwell, who was Henry's right hand man, as the culprit behind the Dissolution, in reality, many historians suspect that Henry may have been behind the scenes keeping an arms length away to allow for plausible deniability, which is our modern term, in case of a political blow up.
To understand how awful this was, you would need to understand the climate of the time. There was little charity from the government. People could easy starve. Life was rough, and most would never see any education. In this bleak educational and moral background was the structures of the Monasteries. As Diane Purkiss, Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford tells it on the radio program "In Our Time," most people in England were only half an hour walk from the local monastery.
However, the holdings of the Church was vast. Wikipedia states that 16% of all of England was held by these groups. This vast land holding was an obvious target for take over.
Now these monasteries weren't perfect, and some scandal had been published in many of them. However, by in large, they were place of heavy prayer, of education, and alms to the poor. As a rule, vast holdings of books were lost during this turbulent time. It is said that in many cases 1 out of thousand books were saved.
Henry claimed himself head of the Church in England, and said all of this land belonged to himself. He was not interested in learning or in spirituality. So, he sent his bulldog Thomas Cromwell to survey the holdings, and then steal them. While the bigger monasteries could work out a pension plan for their people, the smaller ones were simply taken over.
Over the course of 4 to 5 years, the monasteries were reduced to heaps of rubble, as the local people came to these abandoned buildings and found a local source of building material. It has been said that all houses that date from this time will find a beam from a local monastery.
Henry squandered this new found wealth in a series of meaningless wars with France. My favorite piece of spending by Henry is a series of castles on the coast of Britain to stop the French army from invading. When the French came, they simply sailed past these defense points making them useless.
For those of us in the Historical Protestant Christian faith, we might see this as a horrible tragedy. So we think to ourselves, "How horrible. Why did the Lord allow this to happen?"
To this we can only look to II Cor 12:7. Now if you turn to this section of scripture we will see nothing about the take over of Church property. Instead what we see is Paul talking about a thorn in the flesh. Yet if we look at this closely, we will see an important principle of scripture: God will send a a hindrance to buffet us for that we will depend on him, even if we are saintly in nature.
...there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Historians call out that the dissolution of the monasteries called the end of contemplative worship. What they mean is that the cloistering together of men and women to come out of society to pray to the saints came to an end. The life of the monk was one of prayer and the schedule. When the bell would ring, there was a prayer to one saints. When the bell would ring again, there was prayer to another saint.
After the monasteries were broken down, they never recovered. I personally believe this tragedy of the monasteries was a messenger of Satan to drive painful but a needed behavior change. For as many good things that the monasteries did, they drove acts that the Protestants for years would cry out as unacceptable in God's sight:
1 Prayer to the Saints is wrong. This habit drive a wedge between us and God. For there is only one mediator between us and God. He will jealously guard this relationship. Prayers to Mary are disturbing to Protestants, and if our reading of scripture is right, it is not allowed in the Kingdom.
2 Pulling out of society and celibacy will not be honored by God. We are to not allow ourselves to be pulled out of society. While a retreat from life is acceptable, God will force us to integrate with society even if if means pain and suffering along this path.
As Christians, we are not called to celebrate times of pain as times of pain. However, we need to recognize that God puts things our path to have us call on God. It was at this time that the Bible came out in the common tongue because Henry allowed it, although he later said that he regretted having the Bible talked in the common tongue at Ale houses.
Until the time of Henry, England was a Catholic stronghold. Even after Henry, the land swung back and forth as his children swung back and forth from Protestantism to Catholicism. In the end, it was the Protestant that prevailed, and England became a non-Catholic state.
It was a severe mercy.