Thursday Thoughts: The Dissolution of the Monasteries in Cornwall

My readers are intrigued that each of the three great houses where my story takes place (Port Eliot, Boconnoc and Lanhydrock) were originally priories. Each house has a church near by. We learned in our history lessons about the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England. The powerful Henry VIII and his cunning chancellors perpetrated the greatest real estate scam under the cover of the Reformation, while Henry satisfied his desire for Anne Boleyn. But what went on in Cornwall?

Cornish genes have always had traces of the rebel and many of the rebellions were about religion and clinging to the old ways. In Chapter 29 the Methodist preacher gently rebukes the mine captain’s wife. “My dear Mrs. Penwarden,” chided the Reverend, “I do believe you would have joined your fellow Cornish in the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549. You would rather keep the Latin than allow English to replace the Cornish language. I expect for two pins you’d still worship the moon goddess and dance on Midsummer Night’s Eve!”

Here is an account from the Cornwall Family History Society about the brutal treatment by the crown that sparked this rebellion, and in particular the destruction of an important center of Cornish worship and learning.


King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, between 1536 and 1545, signalled the end of the big Cornish priories, but as a chantry church Glasney survived until 1548, when it suffered the same fate.

The smashing and looting of the Cornish colleges at Glasney and Crantock brought an end to the formal scholarship that helped sustain the Cornish language and the Cornish cultural identity, and played a significant part in fomenting the opposition to cultural ‘reforms’ that led to the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.

Apart from being sorely missed centres of indigenous cultural excellence, many in Cornwall saw these institutions as bridges to the Celtic past, back even to the Christianised paganism of their forefathers.

In Cornwall, where the vast majority of the population spoke only Cornish, the new measures effectively took away the means of worship. When the Cornish protested, English forces responded with a series of massacres. During one notorious incident, 900 bound and gagged prisoners had their throats slit in ten minutes.

Over 11% of the people of Cornwall were brutally murdered by the forces of England in what has been described as the ‘Cornish Holocaust’.

When traditional religious processions and pilgrimages were banned in 1548, commissioners were sent out to destroy all symbols of Cornish Roman Catholicism. In Cornwall, this job fell to William Body, whose desecration of religious shrines angered many. Along with other assaults on Cornish legal rights, culture, language and religion, this led to his murder on 5 April 1548 at Helston.

The massacre of thousands during the vicious suppression of a Cornish rebellion more than 450 years ago was an “enormous mistake” which the Church should be ashamed of, the Bishop of Truro said.

In acknowledging the “brutality and stupidity” of the atrocities on behalf of the Church, Bishop Bill Ind tried to heal much of the hurt felt by many Cornish people, who believe the Church of England has long tried to ignore the events of 1549 Prayerbook Rebellion.

Glasney College

Glasney College

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