Suppression of monasteries

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The suppression of monasteries refers to various events at different times and places when monastic foundations were abolished and their possessions were appropriated by the state.

Monasteries, being a land owner who never died and whose property was therefore never divided among inheritors (as happened to the land of neighboring secular land owners), tended to accumulate and keep considerable lands and properties - which aroused resentment and made them vulnerable to governments confiscating their properties at times of religious or political upheaval. Monasteries are most likely to undergo such a fate when coming under a Protestant or Secularist regime. However, also Catholic monarchs and governments are known to have taken such steps at some times and places.

The Reformation[edit]

In 1521, Martin Luther published 'De votis monasticis' ('On the monastic vows'),[1] a treatise which declared that the monastic life had no scriptural basis, was pointless and also actively immoral in that it was not compatible with the true spirit of Christianity. Luther also declared that monastic vows were meaningless and that no one should feel bound by them. Luther, a one-time Augustinian friar, found some comfort when these views had a dramatic effect: a special meeting of the German province of his order held the same year accepted them and voted that henceforth every member of the regular clergy should be free to renounce their vows, resign their offices and get married. At Luther's home monastery in Wittenberg all the friars, save one, did so.


News of these events did not take long to spread among Protestant-minded (and acquisitive) rulers across Europe, and some, particularly in Scandinavia, moved very quickly. In Sweden in 1527 King Gustavus Vasa secured an edict of the Diet allowing him to confiscate any monastic lands he deemed necessary to increase royal revenues; and to force the return of donated properties to the descendants of those who had donated them. In one fell swoop, Gustav gained large estates and a company of diehard supporters. The Swedish monasteries and convents were simultaneously deprived of their livelihoods, with the result that some collapsed immediately, while others lingered on for a few decades before persecution and further confiscations finally caused them all to disappear by 1580.


In Denmark, King Frederick I of Denmark made his grab in 1528, confiscating 15 of the houses of the wealthiest monasteries and convents. Further laws under his successor over the course of the 1530s banned the friars, and forced monks and nuns to transfer title to their houses to the Crown, which passed them out to supportive nobles, who were soon found enjoying the fruits of former monastic lands. Danish monastic life was to vanish in a way identical to that of Sweden.


In Switzerland, too, monasteries came under threat. In 1523 the government of the city-state of Zurich pressured nuns to leave their monasteries and marry, and followed up the next year by dissolving all monasteries in its territory, under the pretext of using their revenues to fund education and help the poor. The city of Basel followed suit in 1529 and Geneva adopted the same policy in 1530. An attempt was also made in 1530 to dissolve the famous Abbey of St. Gall, which was a state of the Holy Roman Empire in its own right, but this failed, and St. Gall has survived.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England[edit]

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was the administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland; appropriated their income, disposed of their assets and provided for their former members. He was given the authority to do this in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from Papal authority; and by the First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539). Although some monastic foundations dated back to Anglo-Saxon England, the overwhelming majority of the 825 religious communities dissolved by Henry VIII owed their existence to the wave of monastic enthusiasm that had swept England and Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries; in consequence of which religious houses in the 16th century controlled appointment to about a third of all parish benefices, and disposed of about half of all ecclesiastical income. The dissolution still represents the largest legally enforced transfer of property in English history since the Norman Conquest.

The French Revolution[edit]

Main article: French Revolution

In an attempt to address the financial crisis, the Assembly declared, on 2 November 1789, that the property of the Church was “at the disposal of the nation.”[2] They used this property to back a new currency, the assignats. The nation had now thus also taken on the responsibility of the Church, which included paying the clergy, caring for the poor, the sick and the orphaned.[3] In December, the Assembly began to sell the lands to the highest bidder to raise revenue, effectively decreasing the value of the assignats by 25 percent in two years.[4] In autumn of 1789, legislation abolished monastic vows and on 13 February 1790 all religious orders were dissolved.[5] Monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life and a small percentage did eventually marry.[6]


The law on the secularization of monastery estates in Romania was proposed in December 1863 by Domnitor Alexandru Ioan Cuza and approved by the Parliament of Romania. By its terms, the Romanian state confiscated the large estates owned by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romania


After Mexico gained independence from Spain, there was in the 1830s a move to secularize the monastic Spanish missions in California, then part of Mexico. As with other such cases, the missions were considered to have gained too much land and power, and had been very dominant in the society of Spanish-ruled California.


In 845 the Chinese Emperor Wuzong of Tang suppressed thousands of Buddhist monasteries and confiscated their considerable properties. The Emperor's combined economic and religious motives for this act have many similarities to those of Western rulers taking a similar step towards Catholic or Orthodox Monasteries.

Further suppression[edit]

There were other examples of suppression in Catholic and formerly Catholic countries, including:


  1. ^ Lutherus, Martinus (1521). On Monastic Vows - De votis monasticis. Melchior Lotter d.J. / World Digital Library. Retrieved 2014-03-01. 
  2. ^ National Assembly legislation cited in John McManners, The French Revolution and the Church, 27.
  3. ^ John McManners, The French Revolution and the Church, 27.
  4. ^ Censer and Hunt, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, 61.
  5. ^ Emmet Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution, 148.
  6. ^ Censer and Hunt, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, 92.
  7. ^ a b c d Wikisource-logo.svg "Suppression of Monasteries in Continental Europe". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.