2016 August Monasticon Anglicanum


Monasticon Anglicanum (1655)


To satisfy the Curiosity of those who are willing to know, when, by whom, and for whom those Religious Houses were founded, (the Majesty of whose very Ruins strikes Travellers with Admiration), to preserve some Remembrance of these Structures, once the Glory of our English Nation, and of their Founders, that so highly deserv’d of the several Ages they liv’d in, is the Design of this Book.

Sir William Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum (London, 1655), vi.


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Image of a Cistercian monk in traditional garb, facing page 695 of the 1655 edition. The Monasticon illustrates monks and/or nuns of each order in religious clothing.


Making the Monasticon


When tourists today visit England, they are often struck with awe at the splendor of the country’s elaborate cathedrals: St. Paul’s, Salisbury, Canterbury, Winchester, Lincoln, Durham, Wells, Gloucester…and that’s just to name a few. Surrounded by the beauty of these structures, it may be challenging to imagine a time when these buildings were in danger.


However, only a few hundred years ago, English cathedrals, monasteries, and priories faced constant threats of destruction. Religious violence heightened in England after King Henry VIII’s split with Catholicism in the 1530s. After the separation, Henry attempted to redistribute the wealth of the Church. This decision meant that all religious structures and their associated lands were subject to seizure by the government. Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), was not hesitant to raid and destroy Catholic sites of worship in order to force them to give in to government demands.


After another century of religious turbulence, cathedrals faced a huge threat in the 1640s from Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who greatly opposed the Church of England’s support of Royalists. Many feared that, like the troops of Thomas Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s army would attack many Church sites of worship. Religious leaders and antiquaries worried that, with the destruction of Church property, all documentation of the Church’s history in England would be lost.


Determined to preserve the Church’s history in case of primary source destruction, a 36-year-old antiquary named William Dugdale (1605-1686) began a mission to document all major cathedrals in London, the Midlands, and the North. He hoped to record the monuments, inscriptions, and coats of arms of each location. He also hoped to research the history of their associated monasteries, nunneries, and hospitals, many of which had been dissolved by Henry VIII. He invited a draughtsman named William Sedgwick (1610-1669) to accompany him and illustrate the buildings and major monuments. This journey would be long, but highly successful – Dugdale managed to catalogue hundreds of worship sites.


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Floor plan of Westminster Abbey, facing page 15 of the 1718 edition. All words surrounding the floor plan make up the map’s key. Notice the coat of arms of Westminster Abbey in the upper left corner. Cathedrals commonly possessed individual coats of arms, usually for identification purposes.


Dugdale then turned to an old friend, Roger Dodsworth (1585-1654), for help completing his project. The two men searched for monastic records in the Tower of London and the Cottonian library. This type of collaboration between antiquaries was frequent in the seventeenth century, as most antiquaries cared more about creating the most thorough collection of documentation than about boosting their personal fame. By August 1651, they had enough material to print two folio volumes. However, due to printing expenses, they first had to fundraise, which they did by selling engraved plates. Dodsworth died in 1654, only one year before the publishing of the first volume of the book.


After working alone to see his work through the publishing process, Dugdale received his first printed copy of the Monasticon in 1655. This copy would be the first of three volumes.


A Gradual Success


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Image of the exterior of Exeter Cathedral, facing page 223 of the 1655 edition. The Monasticon contains many similar cathedral illustrations.


The Monasticon was not an instant success. It had a small initial set of readers. In addition, it received criticism from scholars who claimed that the publication of the Monasticon suggested a desire by Dugdale to return to an era of Catholicism. These scholars viewed cathedrals and monasteries not as sacred houses of God, but as sites of superstition and idleness.


However, in the preface to the Monasticon, Dugdale explains that his goal is preservation, not persuasion. He explains that, “…the Generality of People, ever since the Dissolution, have, thro’ a mistaken Zeal, and false Prejudices, thought, that the very Memory of those great Men, who erected these Places, ought to be bury’d in the Rubbish of those Structures…” He goes on to claim that, rather than “burying” the memory of Catholicism, the English should embrace it as part of English history. Catholicism played a huge role in developing English civilization, due to both its influence on political leaders and its role in the governance and economy of smaller towns. Dugdale points out that, “Monasteries are founded not only to the Honor of God, but also for the Benefit of the Publick.” He claims that monasteries helped develop the education system and that, “…Religious places, amidst so many Wars, Plagues, Famines, Depredations and Exactions, are always thriving, and able to give Alms.”


Nevertheless, critics were not entirely incorrect in arguing that Dugdale had a bias favoring the Church. Although Dugdale discusses the benefits flowing from monasteries, he does not mention that they often held large amounts of wealth while many members of the towns surrounding them lived in poverty. He does not bring up issues such as the rampant corruption within the Church or its oft-biased ecclesiastical court system. He also tends to use phrasing favorable to Catholics.


Whether Dugdale wrote objectively or not, the impact of the Monasticon is immense. By claiming that the Monasticon detailed a key element of English history, Dugdale established monastic study as a legitimate research field. He revealed the great importance of monasteries throughout England’s history as well as the scale of their landholdings. He also elevated the importance of charters and deeds as primary sources of history by including them in his work.


In fact, the Monasticon was so important that another antiquary, John Stevens (c. 1662-1726), produced an English translation of it in 1718. Stevens also wrote a two-volume supplement, known as The history of the antient abbeys, monasteries, hospitals, cathedral and collegiate churches, to Dugdale’s work. For more information on this supplement, please see the main exhibition.


The Contents of the Monasticon


A full collection of all that is necessary to be known concerning the Abby-Lands, and their Revenues; with a particular Account of their Foundations, Grants, and Donations; collected from Original MSS. the Records in the Tower of London, at York, and in the Court of Exchequer, and Augmentation-Office: As also the Famous Libraries of Bodley, King’s-College, Camb. the Benedictine College at Doway, Arundel, Cotton, Selden, Hatton, &c.

Sir William Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum (London, 1655), preface.


Dugdale begins the Monasticon with a history of the Church. He starts by describing the Church’s founding in Jersualem and the subsequent development of a hierarchy of Church officials, such as bishops and archbishops. He describes the different branches of the Church, which he illustrates with a picture reminiscent of a family tree.


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Diagram of the development of the Church, page ii of the preface of the 1718 edition. The illustration shows five major saints at the base of a tree. From these saints grow branches such as military orders, spiritual orders, bishops and archbishops, and kings.


Dugdale then focuses on religion in England, stating, “So great a Work it was to establish the Doctrine of Christ…Who will not admire that 30 English Saxon Kings and Queens, conteming the Allurements of the World, should, within the Space of 200 Years, embrace a religious Solitude? Who does not admire their magnificent Profusion in founding of Monasteries?” Statements such as these make readers understand why some scholars may have criticized Dugdale for having a Catholic bias.


After giving a general history of Catholicism and the development of monasteries in England, Dugdale provides readers with descriptions and histories of individual cathedrals, monasteries, priories, and hospitals. He sorts these structures by the religious order to which they belonged. For each order, Dugdale also includes a drawing of a monk and/or nun in traditional garb.


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Typical page layout of the 1718 edition. Each paragraph describes a different Benedictine monastery, nunnery, or priory.


Dugdale includes religious orders that are not generally well known in modern times. For example, he mentions the Knights Templars of the Order of St. Augustin. In this section, he discusses the burial of King Henry III (1207-1272), who paid the Templars for a burial in the Temple Church in London, as well as the persecution of the Templars during the Inquisition. The findings of the Inquisition eventually led to their elimination by the Pope.


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Illustration of a Knight Templar, page 176 of the 1718 edition.


When Dugdale mentions large religious structures, such as cathedrals, he generally includes illustrations, usually a drawing of the cathedral exterior or floor plan. The floor plans often include a scale and a key identifying major features of the cathedral’s interior, such as burial sites.


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Illustration of the exterior of Wells Cathedral, facing page 27 of the 1718 edition. Notice the accuracy of the drawing compared with a modern photograph of the cathedral.


(Wiki Commons, available online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wells_Cathedral_West_Front_Exterior,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg)


Dugdale occasionally includes drawings of entire towns containing a cathedral. These drawings include keys identifying major sites, usually religious, within the town. These images help us understand that cathedrals were both architecturally imposing and economically powerful, as they held possession of many of the lands and buildings within an area.


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Illustration of the town of Glastonbury, page 2 of the 1718 edition. Notice the key at the base of the drawing.


The Monasticon includes several lists of people associated with the church, such as bishops and prebends. These lists demonstrate that hundreds of people were involved in the Church hierarchy.


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Portion of a list of bishops of Winchester, page 12 of the 1718 edition. Dugdale lists each bishop’s name and the year of his consecration or transference to Winchester.


The book features copies of inventories taken by cathedrals or monasteries. These inventories list all the items within a cathedral, but also all of the landholdings, buildings, and other possessions of the Church within a particular region. These inventories reveal that the Church controlled large amounts of land and wealth.


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Portion of a cathedral inventory, page 281 of the 1718 edition. This inventory lists items present within the cathedral, such as rings, chalices, and pots. Similar inventories list exterior lands owned by church leaders and monks.


Some other features of the Monasticon are worth noting. The first is an image showing the coat of arms of each cathedral. Individual dioceses and Christian clergy often had individual coats of arms, which evolved as a system of identification. Clergymen would frequently place these symbols on documents and religious buildings.


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Graphic of the names and coats of arms of the cathedrals and major churches of England and Wales, facing page 271.


The second is a drawing of an ecclesiastical court. The main aim of these courts was to hold jurisdiction in spiritual or religious matters. However, since England lacked a strong central government with a stable judiciary system during the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical courts began to rule on other matters as well. They continued to play a large role during the years in which Dugdale wrote the Monasticon. For instance, they had jurisdiction in matters of succession to personal property until 1857.


Ecclesiastical courts tended to follow an inquisitorial system, in which judges led an investigation against a defendant, who had the favorable presumption of the law. These judges were Church officials, usually bishops or archdeacons.


These courts exemplify another way in which the power of the Church extended beyond conducting religious services and ceremonies.


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Illustration of an ecclesiastical court, facing page 29 of the 1718 edition. The Earl of Chester, in the center of the image, heads the court. He is surrounded not only by barons, but also by abbots, or heads of monasteries.


Thirdly and finally, the Monasticon contains a copy of a script for a Dance Macabre, or a “Dance of Death.” This type of spectacle dates from the mid-fourteenth century. At the time, the Black Death was claiming millions of lives across Europe. As a comforting mechanism, the Church began performing “Dances of Death” that portrayed death not as a destroyer, but as a messenger of God summoning people to the afterlife. These plays emphasized the concept that all men must die and face God, who would appear as a Judge. The concept of a Dance Macabre has translated into popular culture, a feat that would not have been possible without saved transcripts of the original plays.


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Portion of the script of a Dance Macabre, page 333 of the 1718 edition. This script would have been found by Dugdale in cathedral archives.


The Start of Monastic Study


The diverse materials found within the Monasticon are important because they illustrate the extent of power and influence of the Church in England throughout the centuries. They demonstrate that, no matter how thoroughly Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell, or other English leaders tried to reduce the power of the Church, they could not erase the Church’s critical contributions to English history.


In addition, the Monasticon established monastic research as a legitimate field of study. Inspired by Dugdale, other antiquaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries conducted similar research projects, building upon the Monasticon by discussing additional monasteries or giving a more in-depth analysis of a specific cathedral. This research would not have been possible without the foundation provided by the Monasticon.


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Illustration of a cathedral interior, facing page 328 of the 1718 edition.



Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ecclesiastical court.” Accessed July 21, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/ecclesiastical-court.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. “Dance of Death.” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04617a.htm.


Oxford Dictionart of National Biography. “Dugdale, Sir. William.” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8186?docPos=1.


Text by Ms. Nicole Fleming, second year student, Brown University, USA.

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