Henry, working through his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, decided to cut England's ties with the papacy in Rome and introduce the Reformation into the kingdom. Historians have argued that the dissolution of England's monasteries was a social and economic revolution.
It was the biggest change in the ownership of land in the kingdom since the Norman Conquest. In the 16th century, England needed more land because of a rise in the kingdom's population and improvements in agriculture, allowing previously uncultivated lands to be opened up. The Dissolution also allowed people outside the Church to take advantage of the monasteries' property, and nobles and the gentry bought much of it. A large part of England's wealth was thus taken out of the hands of the Church; this allowed the gentry to take a more important part in the kingdom's affairs because they could afford to attend university and sit as Members of Parliament.
Many of the dismantled monasteries and friaries were sold for nominal amounts (often to the local aristocrats and merchants), and some of the lands the King gave to his supporters; there were also pensions to be paid to some of the dispossessed clerics. Many others continued to serve the parishes. Although the total value of the confiscated property has been calculated to be 200,000 at the time, the actual amount of income King Henry received from it from 1536 through 1547 averaged only 37,000 per year, about one fifth of what the monks had derived from it. Money from the monasteries helped to ensure that Henry would have no difficulty financing the Crown.
Consequences of the Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries:
Prior to 1536, Henry had ordered that Thomas Cromwell, his Vicar-General, carry out an audit of the monasteries, which he did with four men in just six months, resulting in some wrong decisions. Cromwell reported 'Manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys'. The reports of Cromwell often differed with the reports of the relevant Bishops and he tended to brand all houses as corrupt.
It was in this spirit of reform that the Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries, 1536 was passed. The Act clearly pointed out the worthiness of 'great and honorable monasteries right well kept', contrasting these with the smaller houses that were 'sunk irredeemably in iniquity' and had 'resisted all attempts at reform for 200 years or more', and it was these that should be closed down. The Act also stated that 'The idle and dissolute monks and nuns who live in these little dens of vice should be dispersed amongst the greater abbeys where they will, by discipline and example, be brought to mend their ways. The properties and endowments thus vacated can then be transferred to the King, to put to such better uses as he may think fit'. Henry used the money to finance the building of forts around the English coast, hardly a better use.
According to the Act, all the land and property of a religious house that had an income of less than 200 a year was transferred to the Crown. The Act allowed for the abbots, priors, abbesses and prioresses to be compensated with generous pensions and other monks and nuns could be transferred to another house or return to the secular way of life. The new owners of the lands were encouraged