Saturday, May 22, 2021

Big Money: The 20 Richest British Monestaries At The Time Their Assets Were Expropriated By Henry VIII

As I and many, many others have pointed out, translating the value of money across great swaths of time is one of the most difficult chores of understanding history. It's not just inflation calculations and it's not just purchasing power parity that have to be accounted for. You also heed some understanding of the value the people of the time put on various things and salaries. For example the range of possible values of  £1 in 1540 according to the MeasuringWorth website (linked as an academic resource by the Economic History Association):

Your results

See the results in a table format.

In 2019, the relative value of £1   0s   0d from 1540 ranges from £588.90 to £321,000.00.

A simple Purchasing Power Calculator would say the relative value is £649.00. This answer is obtained by multiplying £1.00 by the percentage increase in the RPI from 1540 to 2019.

This may not be the best answer.

The best measure of the relative value over time depends on if you are interested in comparing the cost or value of a Commodity , Income or Wealth , or a Project . For more discussion on how to pick the best measure, consult the Tutorials.

If you want to compare the value of a £1 0s 0d Commodity in 1540 there are four choices. In 2019 the relative:
real price of that commodity is £649.00
labour value of that commodity is £6,108.00
income value of that commodity is £17,170.00
economic share of that commodity is £321,000.00

If you want to compare the value of a £1 0s 0d Income or Wealth , in 1540 there are four choices. In 2019 the relative:

real wage or real wealth value of that income or wealth is £649.00
labour earnings of that income or wealth is £6,108.00
relative income value of that income or wealth is £17,170.00
relative output value of that income or wealth is £321,000.00

If you want to compare the value of a £1 0s 0d Project in 1540 there are three choices. In 2019 the relative:

real cost of that project is £588.90
labour cost of that project is £6,108.00
economic cost of that project is £321,000.00

The short version of the story is that even as late as 1540 (vs.1140 or 1240) the monasteries were financial engines of their communities and in some cases very wealthy on either an asset or an income basis. 

And from Stained Glass Attitudes:

MonasteryQuest™ Pt 1: the twenty richest houses at the dissolution

James Alexander Cameron

In lockdown 2020, I came across a list of every monastery dissolved under the government of Henry VIII in 1535-40. My mission, which I chose to accept (because what else was I going to do) was to find the location and condition of every English monastery and its church. This. Is MonasteryQuest™.

This is first instalment of the write-up of my frankly silly partly performative live-tweet thread to find the archaeological knowledge for every monastic site in the 1534/5 survey of potential Crown revenue, the Valor Ecclesiasticus, after the Act of Supremacy was passed by parliament to make the English monarch head of the Church in his kingdom. The Valor is, incredibly, to my knowledge, not available complete online in any form (including scans), but I found a table of all the monasteries’ values, excluding mendicant friaries and obviously non-coventual granges (and mistakes on behalf of the original and the compiler which I corrected as I went through). After slamming it all into a spreadsheet, it seemed COVID-19 quarantine when I wasn’t going anywhere or earning much was a good time to discover a lot of monastic sites that were historically familiar to me but materially a mystery.

This first instalment is the twenty richest monasteries in the Valor, excluding cathedral priories (the Benedictine priories attached to the cathedrals of Worcester, Durham, Winchester and Canterbury, not surprisingly, have a higher income than some of the houses in the list, however I have included them on the map below for a total of 24 monasteries).

The ranking is by the gross general income: essentially the taxable annual return from the monasteries’ land holdings that were worked by tenant farmers. The more accurate net value is the reduction after the wages of the bailiffs and other clerks who managed the monastery’s estates on their behalf, but it is was not recorded for every house, hence my own discretion in ranking. A more detailed post on the economics and course of the dissolution should eventually follow along with the middle-rank, poor, and most interesting houses. But for now, on with the top dogs!

(content warning: this contains graphic descriptions of the executions of the abbots of Reading and Glastonbury. However, it’s what actually happened, and I think it’s important to represent them as fully as history recorded)

20. Priory of St Pancras, Lewes (Sussex)

£1091 gross / £921 net

Cluniac monks – founded 1077 – surrendered 16 Nov 1537 – 24 brethren at dissolution

lewes 3d overlay
Lewes Priory, indicative reconstruction (for instance, the campanile is a facsimile of West Walton in Norfolk, and otherwise Castle Acre is the main reference point) by Andy Gammon, overlaid onto Google Earth 3D

Lewes was the first daughter house in England of Cluny Abbey (Loire), the site of the largest church of the Middle Ages. Initially popular in the early 12th century with secular patrons as a revitalisation of Benedictine monasticism, famed for the high ceremony of their liturgy, Cluniac houses remained subordinate to Cluny rather than independent abbeys. This caused much trouble when England majorly fell out with France in the 14th century for a Hundred Years or so. In the long run, English Cluniac houses seem not to have been very successful financially unlike their rivals the Cistercians: Lewes was around double the wealth of the second richest Cluniac Priory in the Valor (Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire)

Lewes Priory precinct

A lot of Cluniac Priories have been rather unlucky since the dissolution. The chief English house was particularly so as it had the railway line to Brighton ploughed right over the middle of it in 1846. Still there are a few upstanding remains of the dormitory block down to the lavatories. The infirmary chapel, south of the church chevet, is very visible as low walls.

Lewes Priory plan

Lewes Priory, plan of 1884 excavations by St John Hope (before excavation of infirmary/first church)

lewes overlay

Lewes Priory. overlay of Brakspear’s excavation plan, 1904

Lewes Priory church

Imagination of the nave of Lewes Priory church by Andy Gammon (2008). The decoration draws on later 12thc monuments such as Wymondham Abbey (Norfolk).

Losing the church at Lewes is a major blow to the story of English architecture (but not the last in this list). The first church built at the site after the foundation in the 1070s was quite small, and later became the surviving infirmary chapel. This means the main abbey church would have been built in the early 12th century and would have surely utilised every single bell and whistle that had become popular in Anglo-Norman architecture by then.

Unlike Cistercian churches which were built with unaisled, bluntly squared (quicker and hence cheaper to build) east ends, Lewes had an apsidal east end with five radiating chapels similar to Cluny. The high-quality 12th-century wall painting in the parish churches of the so-called “Lewes Group” around the abbey in the parish churches of Clayton, Coombes, Hardham, Plumpton and Westmeston suggests it also had an unparalleled amount of mural art, perhaps of any English monastery.


Conjectural cross section of Lewes Priory church and dormitory range from the St John Hope plan, 1884


He put a lot of work into this project.