King Henry VIII stole Westminster Abbey from the Benedictines on January 16, 1540

The official version of the Benedictine Monastic History of Westminster Abbey …



The monks at Westminster Abbey wore the black habit of the Order of St Benedict, who had originally established the Benedictine rules for the monks of his own abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy about 540 AD.  According to the Rule they were to take a vow of obedience, lead a simple and self-denying life, be celibate and own no property.  The simple celebration of the daily services in praise of God was their first duty, and work (often farm work) and reading took up the rest of their time.  At a time when very few people, even kings, could write, monasteries were the main source of education.  As they became richer and more monks were ordained priests the tradition of manual work ceased and they were more concerned with administration of their lands and possessions.

The first monks were brought to Westminster in about 960 AD by St Dunstan, then Bishop of London.  No trace of the building to which they came has been found as King Edward the Confessor built a new Abbey on the site, which was consecrated on 28 December 1065. It was built on a marshy area called Thorney Island, surrounded by tributaries of the Tyburn river. The numbers of monks at Westminster varied through the centuries from about 30 to 60, although only 24 were left when Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1540. But the community also included many lay servants, masons, and almsmen. Only the Pyx Chamber and the Undercroft (now the Museum) in the cloisters remain from Edward’s 11th century Abbey. In 1245 Henry III began rebuilding much of the Church in the new Gothic style of architecture. The monastic buildings from this period, like the magnificent octagonal Chapter House, still survive today, though some are incorporated into later structures.  The great dormitory is now divided into the Abbey Library and the Great Hall of Westminster School, and the Prior’s residence is now part of Ashburnham House.  The garden, where the monks took exercise and grew herbs, can still be visited.  Part of the Infirmary now forms the Little Cloister. It was here that the sick were cared for and where the elderly monks lived.  They were exempted from the ordinary regulations of the Abbey, and the Infirmary had its own chapel dedicated to St Catherine.

On 16 January 1540 monastic life at Westminster came to an end when Henry VIII dissolved the monastery and the deed of surrender was signed. Many of the monks retired or went into “civilian” life.  However, the Abbot became the first Dean of the new Cathedral Church founded by Henry and the Prior and several monks became clergy in the new church.  A bishop was appointed to the new see of Westminster but after ten short years the bishopric was surrendered and the Church became a Cathedral within the diocese of London.

The monks, however, were destined to return just for a short time when Queen Mary I, a Roman Catholic, restored the Benedictine Abbey under Abbot Feckenham in 1556.  Monks were brought together from former establishments and at least two monks from the previous Westminster community returned.  But Mary died in November 1558 and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I became Queen and the monks were removed.  Elizabeth established the present Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (the Abbey’s correct title) in 1560.


Reconstruction drawing of the Norman Abbey, with the Palace of Westminster, by Terry Ball.
Monks singing from the 14th century Litlyngton Missal.
Photos can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.

Further reading

Barbara Harvey: Living and Dying in England 1100-1540. The monastic experience.  (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993).

Barbara Harvey: The obedientiaries of Westminster Abbey and their financial records c.1275-1540. (Boydell Press, 2002).

Barbara Harvey: Westminster Abbey and its Estates in the Middle Ages(Clarendon Press, Oxford 1977).

E.H.Pearce: The Monks of Westminster. (Cambridge University Press, 1916).

C.S.Knighton & Richard Mortimer (editors): Westminster Abbey Reformed 1540-1640.  (Ashgate Publishing, 2003).

Emma Mason: Westminster Abbey and its people c.1050-c.1216. (Boydell Press, 1996).

H.F.Westlake: Westminster Abbey. The Church, Convent, Cathedral and College of St Peter Westminster” (London, 1923).

John Blair & Brian Golding (editors): The Cloister and the World (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996).

© Dean and Chapter of Westminster


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One Response to King Henry VIII stole Westminster Abbey from the Benedictines on January 16, 1540

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