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Monastic visitors in England and Wales (act. 1535–1536) were a group of royal administrators charged with the first nationwide visitation of the English and Welsh monasteries. Their activities formed part of Thomas Cromwell's strategy to enforce strictly the Acts of Succession and Supremacy of 1534 and other religious changes enacted by the Reformation Parliament. The visitation of the monasteries was initiated by Cromwell using his powers as Henry VIII's vicegerent in spirituals, and appears to have been ready to proceed in January 1535. It did not begin until late July 1535, however, initially giving way to the more pressing need to eliminate Carthusian opposition to the new laws, and to the massive task of undertaking a comprehensive valuation of the resources of the English church, which ultimately produced the valor ecclesiasticus.

The monastic visitors were mostly laymen with legal training in the service of Cromwell, and many of them later played leading roles in dissolving the monasteries that they visited in 1535–6. Richard Layton was the only priest among the English visitors, and seems to have assisted Cromwell in formulating the whole policy and procedure for the visitation. The other principal visitors in England were Thomas Legh, John Tregonwell and Thomas Bedyll. John Prise (Siôn ap Rhys) was also involved in the visitations. William Glynn, Ellis Price, Adam Becansaw, and John Vaughan were responsible for the visitation in Wales and Cheshire, while William Blitheman acted as the registrar and John Prise as the notary for the visitations. John London (1485/6–1543) was once thought to have been a visitor, but more recent research has shown that his involvement with the monasteries did not begin until 1538, when he was engaged in the task of dissolution.

Several groups of visitors were working their way around the kingdom at any given time from mid-1535 until early 1536. Richard Layton set out from Cirencester at the end of July 1535 and spent the following six months on the road, first sweeping through the south and south-east of England before joining Thomas Legh in Lichfield just after Christmas 1535. Either together or singly they managed to visit more than 120 monasteries in the northern counties before returning to London to make their final report to Cromwell in late February 1536. Thomas Legh and John Prise began their visitation circuit at Worcester in late July and visited numerous monasteries in the west country before commencing their visitation of the University of Cambridge on 21 October 1535. They then moved on through East Anglia in November and December. Thomas Bedyll was active in East Anglia early in 1536. John Tregonwell met Layton in Oxford for the formal visitation of the university in the second week of September 1535 before setting out for Devon and Cornwall, arriving in Exeter by late December. Adam Becansaw and John Vaughan began their visitation in Cheshire in early August, had completed their work in the diocese of St Asaph by 14 October, and during October moved through the dioceses of Llandaff and St David's. The activities of Ellis Price and William Glynn in Wales are not so well documented, but they appear to have concluded their work in mid-November 1535 after only a few weeks of travel on muddy roads. All the visitors had finished their work by the end of February 1536.

Once they had commenced their work the visitors moved quickly through their visitation circuits, reporting back to Cromwell regularly in a lengthy and candid correspondence that is still preserved among the state papers. There is much evidence of squabbling and disagreement between the visitors in the early weeks of the visitation, especially when their paths overlapped, as they did when Legh and Price revisited Bruton Abbey in Somerset, already visited by Richard Layton. Different standards were applied by the several visitors in evaluating the worth of the religious and in imposing the injunctions more or less strictly within the monastic communities. There were frequent appeals to Cromwell to adjudicate and establish a binding set of protocols, but he appears to have preferred to leave policy fluid so that he could make the most out of the confusion that such uncertainty produced.

While the visitation procedure was modelled on the episcopal visitations that occurred periodically within the English dioceses in the late middle ages, in 1535–6 the process was less thorough and only partly aimed at improving monastic observance. The monastic visitors carried with them a set of interrogatories that were to be put to every religious in the land, while the pre-prepared injunctions sought to enforce greater discipline within the cloister and strict observance of the new statutes regarding the succession and royal supremacy. Traditional monastic ceremonies and practices involving relics suspected as being manifestations of Romish ‘superstition’ were to some extent attacked; restrictions were imposed on the age of entrants; and perpetual enclosure was enforced even where it had never previously existed. Some under-age and dissatisfied religious were dismissed from their convents by the visitors, and many heads of monastic houses applied to Cromwell for dispensation from the full enforcement of the visitation injunctions. Yet despite this appearance of a reforming purpose to the visitation, most historians agree that the primary aim of the visitation was to collect as much evidence of irregularity and moral depravity among the religious as possible. These faults were summarized in the form of comperta or ‘comperts’, a term translatable as ‘findings’, that were prepared by the visitors to each monastery. Only four sets of original comperta are known to survive, but summaries were edited into a document known as the compendium compertorum. The latter, or a résumé of it, may have been the so-called ‘black book’ later said to have been used in parliament in early 1536 to secure the dissolution of the lesser monasteries. However, no trace of this second volume has ever been found.

Historians have been virtually unanimous in their criticism of the monastic visitors as individuals. David Knowles judged them to have been ‘grasping, worldly and without a trace of spiritual feeling’ (Knowles, 3.274), though he also felt that rather than simply condemning them as a group of ‘unusually odious and brutal persecutors and informers’, they should also be recognized as ‘men of intelligence who made for themselves careers of some distinction and considerable profit’ (ibid., 3.270). While research by Anthony N. Shaw has undermined many of Knowles's conclusions regarding the incompleteness of the visitations, he nevertheless reinforces Knowles's view of the monastic visitors as being efficient servants of the crown who during the winter of 1535–6 accomplished an enormous amount of work in a very short time, under far from ideal circumstances. Quite apart from their role in paving the way for the dissolution of all the English and Welsh monasteries, the work of the monastic visitors has had a lasting impact on British historical writing; historians are still debating whether the monastic houses were really as full of vice and indiscipline on the eve of their suppression as the visitors reported.

Peter Cunich

Sources  

LP Henry VIII, 8–10 · T. Wright, ed., Three chapters of letters relating to the suppression of monasteries, CS, 26 (1843) · D. Knowles [M. C. Knowles], The religious orders in England, 3 (1959), 268–90 · A. N. Shaw, ‘The northern visitation of 1535/6: some new observations’, Downside Review, 116 (1998), 279–99 · J. Youings, The dissolution of the monasteries (1971), 37–41, 149–53 · R. W. Hoyle, ‘The origins of the dissolution of the monasteries’, HJ, 38 (1995), 290–97 · F. D. Logan, ‘Departure from the religious life during the royal visitation of the monasteries, 1535–1536’, The religious orders in pre-reformation England, ed. J. G. Clark (2002), 213–26 · F. D. Logan, ‘The first royal visitation of the English universities, 1535’, EngHR, 106 (1991), 861–88 · DNB · private information (2008) [A. N. Shaw]