Your cheeky guide to the dynasty

I Never Really Loved You Anyway

Ely Cathedral

Image by stevecadman via Flickr

Remember middle school? When you’d have a crush on someone and, because preteens have wacky hormones, that someone might adore you one day and ignore you the next? Finally, this someone would make you so furious that you took it to that shrine of school memories, the yearbook. You may have scratched the face off their picture, or possibly have drawn devil horns and a goatee on it.

There! That showed ’em. Didn’t you feel better? Well, probably not.

It was this kind of hurt and rage that spurred Henry VIII on to the four-year tirade known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. From 1536-1540, over 800 holy houses in England were destroyed, Henry VIII’s version of drawing goofy glasses and demon eyebrows on the Pope’s picture to show him he didn’t need no stinkin’ sacrament.  

For those of us who love the link to the past that historical sites offer, the destruction of these buildings is heartbreaking. My home in England was five minutes down the road from gorgeous, massive Ely Cathedral, which dates from the 11th century. Sweet, right? Especially for an American like me. If we have any buildings that go back even 300 years, that’s a stretch.  I grew up in a house that was built in 1898 and I always thought that was really old! Anyhoo, I was overwhelmed to be so close to this medieval treasure. Cueing the new-world nerd in me, I’d press my hand to the stone walls and marvel at how much history they’d seen.

Inside Ely Cathedral is a small wing called the Lady Chapel, a common feature of medieval churches in England and mainland Europe. The “lady” is, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary. For those of you who aren’t Catholic, let me clarify that Catholics do not worship Mary over Christ (a common misconception)! We just greatly respect her as His mother. And in the medieval church, these chapels were built in her honor. The one in Ely Cathedral is peaceful and lovely, although with some interesting omissions if you are paying attention.

Heads. Of the statues carved into the walls. There are no heads.

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, many statues of saints in religious houses were defaced, removed, or just smashed there on the spot. In the case of Ely’s Lady Chapel, the figures on the wall had their noggins crushed into oblivion. That in itself carries history with it, but at the same time I feel pretty resentful about the loss of the past that this event created. Ely Cathedral still has its walls, but some places were not so lucky. Reading Abbey, for instance, was reduced to ruins. Fortunately, it’s finally on the mend but the original structure is of course lost forever.

Why all the destruction, Hal? Well, parts of buildings and their decorative elements could be sold to finance the government instead of Rome. Besides that, the physical act of treating statues like The Who or Nirvana treated their guitars was a way of saying “no thanks” to icon worship.

Even today, there are people who believe that the Church worships actual statues and paintings, another myth I’d like to dispel. Afer all, do you think photographs of loved ones in your home are really those people? Or just a reminder of those people? Right. That’s how we approach our icons. Like the middle schooler who destroys the yearbook pic, Henry found satisfaction in ordering the destruction of statues because it got rid of the visual reminder. But it was also a symbolic gesture: We don’t need your idol worship — It’s forbidden by God. We’ve got the right idea and here’s what we think of yours. 

Henry’s über-tantrum was not the only one of its kind. Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland, for example, also expressed their anger by wiping out the Church’s influence in their own countries. In any case, there’s no way to recover those stones and statues that witnessed so many centuries of history. Although Henry eventually came back to his original beliefs in all but name, his switcharoo can never bring back what he ultimately trashed.

(There’s a nice two-minute clip here from BBC’s “History of Britain” with some before/after visuals at Holy Trinity Church in Suffolk.)



  Robert Parry wrote @

Yes, this was one of our most shameful of acts as a nation. Though not entirely anti-Reformation, I know that so much that was destroyed then – and it can never be regained, no matter how many surveys and reconstructions are thrown at it. So many wonderful paintings, carvings, sculpture – so many elegant Gothic buildings, all lost. Some people, afterwards, realised that a middle way was needed – some kind of reconciliation between the two Churches, including I am convinced Elizabeth Tudor herself. But that’s a whole new subject. Good article.

  Anne Barnhill wrote @

It is heartbreaking to think of those losses. And strange to think about Henry’s complete destruction. I think Cromwell was surely an influence here and the other Protestant faction members. Maybe Henry was angry over what he had done to Anne Boleyn and then to have Jane Seymore die….It is sad for those of us who love history–I completely understand touching the walls–once, a student brought me an arrow head he had found and I cried (in private!), thinking about the effort to carve and shape it, the lifestyle that is no more. How many treasures were lost thanks to Henry? Sad indeed.

  Daphne wrote @

My husband and I just returned from a 10 day trip to England and although we had hoped to make it to Ely, we didn’t (we did get to Canturbury, Lincoln and Salisbury though). The cathedrals there are just so beautiful – they took my breath away every time I stepped into one. As we were looking around it was always sad to read about things that were lost or destroyed during this time – I wanted to whack Henry upside the head for it! But at least he didn’t go so far as to tear the big cathedrals down.

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