Did the idea for the 'Dissolution of the Monasteries' start in Sandwell Valley?

Hilary Mantel’s new novel, The Mirror and the Light, her third about Thomas Cromwell, is about to be published, all 970 pages of it, and I’ve got my copy ordered (you may have seen the recent TV adaptation- Wolf Hall)

Thomas Cromwell, for those of you who don’t know or need reminding, was Henry VIII’s chief fixer, the man who drove through the English reformation, the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, who revolutionised how English government worked and who in his spare time also served as matchmaker to the king.

Bromwich Hall – the Manor House – nothing really to do with the story but it is pretty and one of our museum buildings. It was however around when Cromwell visited and one of the best houses in the area so maybe Cromwell stayed there?

I was however disappointed that neither of the earlier novels featured what may have been some of Thomas Cromwell’s most memorable journeys. I refer of course to his two visits to Sandwell, in 1524 and 1530. 

In 1524 Cromwell was working for Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, chancellor of England, who had been granted permission by Henry VIII to build a grand new college, to be known as Cardinal College, at Oxford University. Wolsey had also been granted permission by the pope to close a score of small English monasteries to provide a foundation endowment for his new college. Sandwell Priory, at that time home to just two monks, was one of the religious establishments selected for closure. It was to arrange the closure, move the monks and set up a new management regime for the land that brought Cromwell to Sandwell in 1524. This visit is 10 years before the famous ‘dissolution of the monasteries’. Sandwell Priory was effectively closed by the Pope, not King Henry. 

The Priory owned most of the land we now see as Sandwell Valley Park, and had a few farming tenants and various other sources of income. The surplus had been the Prior’s to spend, but following the closure of the Priory an annual income of around £30.00 was delivered to Cardinal College every year. This at a time when an unskilled labourer might earn 2d (2 pence) per day. (This is old money with 240 pennies, not 100, to the pound!). Thomas was back in West Bromwich in 1530, this time working for king Henry. Wolsey had fallen from favour (he’d not been able to sort out Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon) and died, and Henry had decided to close Cardinal College and liquidate all of its assets for himself and his favourites. Over the course of 5 days, Cromwell arranged the sale of goods and chattels for £21.00, the priory bells for £31.00, and arranged for the lease of the priory estates to Lucy Clifford. He then left, and as far as I can tell, he was never to return.

Click the link to see a portrait of Thomas Cromwell https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw02128/Thomas-Cromwell-Earl-of-Essex?LinkID=mp01490&role=sit&rNo=1

Sadly for Cromwell, like many at the court of Henry VIII he eventually fell out of favour and was executed – rather brutally it seems as the executioner kept missing his neck! Although evidence suggests Henry later regretted the loss of his minister.

Frank – Business Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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