• The Dissolution of the Monasteries in Midsomer Murders

    (Caution: Contains spoilers for Episode: 04×01: Garden of Death, 07×06: The Straw Woman, and 11×07: Talking to the Dead)

    Tom Barnaby and Ben Jones are in Monks Barton with the Reverend Wallace Stone in his drawing room. The clergyman is standing in front of a mirror in a cassock, getting ready for the next service, while he tells the two detectives what he thinks of the legend of Monkbarton Wood: It’s about the monks of Monks Barton Abbey, slaughtered in the nearby forest by mounted men in the name of Cromwell and his Dissolution of the Monasteries. A horrific event and their screams and moans of their ghosts can still be heard in the woods, the locals say.

    A legend or a true story? For the clergyman, the matter is clear and he detests the many ghost hunters and others, whom he calls fanatics and freaks.


    A cunning move for the Royal Treasure Chests

    Henry VIII
    King Henry VIII. Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, after 1537 and during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Public Domain.

    The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a cunning move by Thomas Cromwell to fill the bankrupt royal coffers richly.

    Cromwell’s idea was by no means new, only unparalleled in its scale. During the Hundred Years’ War, Henry V had already ordered the closure of all monasteries with French mother monasteries and thus filled the state coffers in order to be able to continue financing the war against France. Even shortly before the dissolution, Cardinal Wolsey received royal permission to close 40 small monasteries in order to raise enough funds to open Christ Church College in Oxford.

    Now, in the mid-1530s, King Henry VIII had declared himself head of the Anglican Church and renounced the Pope. Furthermore, he had enacted the Act of Restraint of Appeals, which allowed the Catholic clergy to appeal to foreign tribunals (means: Rome). Any resistance was treated as treason and church property confiscated. But King Henry feared war coming from Catholic continental Europe: He was completely bankrupt and on the other side were the richest in the land, namely the monasteries. Through this cunning move, Cromwell was able to ensure that the royal coffers were filled at the expense of the richest: Through a large-scale secularisation of the monasteries, which always had a reputation of partiality against the English king anyway.

    In 1535 the visitations began, the results of which were compiled in the Valor Ecclesiasticus – a kind of modern Domesday Book, which contained all the goods, other possessions, but also misdemeanours of the monasteries. Very thoroughly the three royal visitators recorded the physical, moral and financial status of the monasteries and it is not surprising that among the hundreds of monasteries there were some failures: For example, the lack of chastity, obedience, charity, monastic discipline, but also money-making with false relics.


    Dissolution of the Monasteries in Midsomer County

    Thomas Cromwell
    Thomas Cromwell. Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532-1533. Public Domain.

    The plan of Thomas Cromwell – now appointed “viceregent of the King in all his ecclesiastical jurisdiction” – was not initially to close all monasteries, but only those with an annual income of 200 pounds or less (roughly equivalent to the purchasing power of about 170,000 pounds or about 148,000 euros (reference value: 2019 ). The Suppression of Religious Houses Act affected a total of 376 monasteries.

    Lewes Priory became a precedent in 1537: the monks were offered pensions but not the option to move to another monastery. This increased the pressure on the monastic superior to agree to the dissolution.

    Henceforth, the clergy of dissolved monasteries were only offered a pension, while former employees and alms recipients did not receive anything at all. But even the royal pension was far too little to survive on and caused unemployment, which was already high at the time, to rise to a striking level. This fuelled the people’s anger against the regime. Revolts broke out in several places in the kingdom, some of which Cromwell was only able to quell with great difficulty.

    King Henry VIII was furious with the revolts and eventually had all the monasteries in the kingdom secularised. First, in 1538, all monasteries that had taken part in one of the revolts, and between 1538 and 1540, all others – some with unrelenting severity. It argues that Monks Barton Priory was forcibly dissolved in these last years of the decade. Perhaps the heinous harshness also stemmed from the fact that the monks had joined a rebellion?

    In 1540, only the abbey churches of the cathedrals remained. Any further monastic property now belonged to King Henry VIII, who gifted his favourites with the former monastic property or kept it for himself.


    Inkpen’s Manor – a royal gift?

    Manor House Long Crendon
    Inkpen’s Manor also known as Long Crendon Manor, Buckinghamshire. – Rob Farrow: The Manor, Long Crendon. CC-BY SA 2.0.

    Well, it is not explicitly stated in the Garden of Death episode that the Inkpen family in Midsomer Deverell got their estate as such a gift – they also could have been granted the manor otherwise as Henry VIII’s favourites. But it is relatively likely that it was through secularised church property and certain that they were favourites of Henry VIII.

    On the Open Day in 2000, Joyce and Tom Barnaby visit the garden of Inkpen’s Manor, which is so popular that it once again causes half a traffic chaos in the local street, in which Barnabys have also got caught. While Joyce is already looking around delightedly and reading the booklet “The Inkpens have been here since the Reformation“ to her husband, Tom is still grumbling about the car park situation. (But that has nothing to do with the dissolution, it’s just funny.)


    In the chapel of love

    There is also a brief mention of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Midsomer Parva: here the chapel of Parva Manor probably previously belonged to an abbey and then came to the Clifford family through dissolution. Unfortunately, however, there are no longer any records of this transaction in the 16th century, and this provides fuel for debate.

    On one side are the Reverend Jim Hale and Alex Deakin, the curator of the church parish. On the other side is the non-religious nightclub owner and pornographer, Alan Clifford.

    Tom Barnaby and Dan Scott are going to interview him after the death of Alex Deakin, curate of the local parish. The murdered man had visited Alan Clifford only the day before and it was not a friendly conversation. The two detectives are interested in what the argument was about: The church’s ownership of Clifford’s estate, of course. Alan Clifford wants to make it a chapel of love, and the clergy are disgusted and insist that the church belongs to them. Clifford cannot prove that the estate was given to him during the Dissolution of the Monasteries because the records have not survived.

    But now Alex Deakin has been murdered. Agnes Waterhouse replies to Tom Barnaby with a certain snappiness in her voice that the manor was dissolved at the time of Henry VIII and therefore before the first church records were created. Unfortunately, it is not clarified whether this is true.


    The consequences of the Dissolution of the Monasteries

    By 1540, most of the former monasteries had been sold or burnt, about 12,000 people were without work and alms and a good 8,000 religious were without a home or a task. About 100 former monastery churches became parish churches or cathedrals. In a few areas where there was no great need for building material, they fell into disrepair over the centuries and are now a tourist attraction as ruins.

    Cromwell’s plan worked: The dissolution brought £1.5 million into the state coffers during Henry VIII’s lifetime. But his family also came into great prosperity. And among other things, he gave his nephew Richard seven abbeys with an income of 2,500 pounds – this was the origin of the fortune of Thomas Cromwell’s great-grandson Oliver, who a good hundred years later was one of the leading forces in the Civil War and eventually appointed himself Lord Protector. A phase of English history that also left a great many traces in Midsomer.


    The filming locations: Two manors…

    You remember that a recent example of Cromwell’s dissolution was the closure of 40 small monasteries to allow Cardinal Wolsey’s Christ Church College to open?

    It says that in every place where St Frideswide’s church stood. In Midsomer, Waverley Abbey was used as a filming location for St Frideswide’s former abbey and it is this very ruin that is used for the exterior shots of Monks Barton Abbey. On one hand, Monks Barton Priory (with the Iron Lady in the entrance, whose door Tom Barnaby slammed so carelessly), on the other hand, was filmed at Nether Winchendon House, which was also used as a location in Garden of Death, but not for Inkpen’s Manor.

    Confused? Well, add to that the fact that Nether Winchendon House (Monks Barton Priory) and Long Crendon Manor (Inkpen’s Manor) are only four miles apart in Buckinghamshire and very close to the Chiltern Hills – so they share common history. This commonality, however, does not concern the Dissolution period, but rather the Norman period: both locations were given by King William I to Sir Walter Giffard, Lord of Longueville, new Earl of Buckingham, and William’s right-hand man, immediately after the Battle of Hastings. As such, both buildings are also listed in the Domesday Book.

    Walter Giffard’s grandson of the same name endowed the Augustinian Canons’ Abbey of Notley in 1162 and a few years later gave the abbey two very nearby manors, Nether Winchendon Manor and Long Crendon Manor. They remained in their possession until the Dissolution in 1538 . All three buildings were inscribed on the National Heritage List on 25 October 1951. While Nether Winchendon House is open for visiting a few days a year, Long Crendon Manor is a B&B and the only surviving remnant of Notley Abbey – the abbot’s lodging converted to a farmhouse – is a wedding venue. From 1945 until their divorce in 1960, the farmhouse belonged to film stars Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.


    … and two abbeys

    Waverley Abbey
    Waverley Abbey in June 2023, by Petra Tabarelli. Public Domain.

    The Dissolution of the Monasteries in Waverley and Notley proceeded differently. While Waverley was dissolved in 1536 because its annual income of 174 pounds (1535) fell below the threshold, Notley was dissolved in December 1538. Notley’s holdings were much higher, with £318 of ecclesiastical estates and £177 of temporal estates, and her influence considerable. She was already subject to the King from 1535 anyway, after the murder of her patron, the Duke of Buckingham.

    While Notley Abbey was transferred to Sir John Williams, Waverley Abbey came to Henry VIII’s treasurer Sir William FitzHerbert , was largely demolished and used as a quarry, mainly for Loseley Park. This served, among other things, as the supposed inspiration for Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel in They Seek Him Here, as well as Morchard Manor, where the boxing match between Hennan and Sayer took place in 1860.

    As different as the dissolution of the two abbeys was, the Giffard thread runs through them. Waverley was founded in 1128 by William Giffard, son of Walter (William’s right-hand man), as the first Cistercian foundation in England. (You will already read more about the history of the abbey later in St. Frideswide’s article).


    A little creepiness at the end

    Let’s go back to the beginning of the episode in Monks Barton.

    Tom Barnaby and Ben Jones have just arrived at the crime scene at the Goodfellow’s home, which is being investigated by George Bullard. The postman found no one at the Goodfellows’, but found some blood and has alerted the police. George tells Tom about a past case: Peter Thomas, son of the missing Molly and Colin. He went missing and was found a few days later in Monks Barton Wood. He was completely hypothermic and could no longer speak properly, only making eerie noises. He died shortly afterwards. Hypothermia is the official explanation of his death. But is this true?

    At the end of the episode, Tom and Joyce Barnaby walk through the misty Monks Barton Wood in everyday clothes and dressed a little warmer as before. Tom wants to show his wife that the wood is not haunted at all.

    Seconds later, Joyce is frightened at Cyrus LeVanu, who – scared to death – is leaning against a tree trunk. Scared to death, that’s what George Bullard later says when he has it on the table, but calls it a parasympathetic rebound and explains: This is an automatic calming of the metabolic system in response to shock, which can work so well, however, that you calm down so much that instead of beating more slowly, your heart simply stops beating at all.

    The message of the episode is clear: Peter Thomas and Cyrus LeVanu were both frightened to death in Monks Barton Woods – whether both were caused by hypothermia or something else scary… who knows.

    Whereby I find the seemingly crazy Stanley Goodfellow the real scary thing of the episode. Together with Honoria Lyddiard, he is one of the only two people in Midsomer who really scare me the most.




    Further readings

    • Clark, James G.: The Dissolution of the Monasteries. A New History. New Haven 2021.
    • Youings, Joyce: The Dissolution of the Monasteries. London 2021.


    Read more about Midsomer Murders & History

    The Chronology of Midsomer County by Year or by EpsiodesDeep Dives into Midsomer & History.

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