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Hang and quarter them: The letter revealing Henry VIII’s temper 2

a handwritten text in ink

The letter from Henry VIII demanding the head of the Abbot of Norton Abbey. Courtesy National Archives, Open Government License V.2.0

A 16th century draft letter demonstrating King Henry VIII’s infamous temper goes on display at Norton Priory

This piece of handwritten correspondence dating to the 16th century is believed to have been written under dictation from Henry VIII to a secretary during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The draft letter is one of a number of surviving letters that passed between Henry and Thomas Cromwell, his chief advisor during the period of the dissolution and lords such as Piers Dutton in the north west.

It responds to the news that the canons and local people had stopped Henry’s men from closing Norton Abbey in 1536.

Enraged, the King rails against “the traitorous demeanour of  the late Abbot and canons of the Monastery of Norton”

a painted portrait of Henry VIII wearing his waistcoat and fur-trimmed cap

Hans Holbein the Younger. Portrait of Henry VIII of England.

Henry’s eloquent rant continues: “the said Late Abbot and canons have most traitorously used themselves against us and our realm and moved insurrection against the common quiet of the same”.

At first he demands the Abbot of Norton Abbey, Thomas Birkenhead, be hung drawn and quartered with the body parts displayed around the country, “in such sundry places as ye shall think requisite”. Intriguingly, he then has a change of heart and the command is crossed out and replaced simply with, ‘hung’.

Why Henry changed his mind remains a mystery.

“We can almost hear his outrage as he decides on the most effective response to the news of events at Norton Abbey,” says Sean Cunningham, Head of Medieval at The National Archives, which is lending the letter to Norton Priory.

“Although ministers like Wolsey and Cromwell were famous for doing most of the bureaucratic moving-and-shaking on Henry’s behalf, the king was educated and intelligent enough to know when and how to bend the system to his will when necessary,” he adds.

“As a king with a reputation for delegation of the routine business of state, this draft signet warrant shows that Henry VIII did, in fact, take a very close interest in events that threatened his power and undermined his sovereignty.”

Other experts, like Dr Andrew Abram from Manchester Metropolitan University, believe it is “possible that the High Sheriff of Cheshire, Piers Dutton – who first reported the resistance at Norton -was deliberately exaggerating the situation and provoking the King to further his own political goals.”

a photo of a handwritten text

Sir Piers Dutton reports to Cromwell that he has taken into his custody the Abbot of Norton and other men affiliated with the Abbey. © The British Library Board

The local machinations of Henry’s henchmen notwithstanding, the closure of the monasteries was a time of significant political and religious upheaval and London often struggled to keep pace with regional developments as the dissolution of Roman Catholic monasteries, priories, friaries and nunneries continued across and England and Wales between 1536 and 1541.

In the north, where some of the local populations had forged close ties with their local monastic orders, October 1536 saw common people arm themselves against the King’s commissioners charged with carrying out his orders.

On October 12 1536 Sir Piers Dutton wrote to Sir Thomas Audley to inform him that the Abbott and canons of Norton had gathered 200–300 persons and threatened to attack the King’s commissioners. He subsequently took the Abbott and three of his canons into custody.

In the wake of Henry’s incendiary response, it is thought local magnates, like Lord Brereton and others with access to the King’s ear, may have helped to persuade the king to order the (relatively) more benevolent punishment of hanging – although this would be small comfort to the Abbot.

There was however a final twist. Although it was popularly held that the Abbot of Norton was executed, historical records suggest that Brereton cancelled the order, in light of rebellions being quelled throughout the north, particularly the Pilgrimage of Grace – a revolt against Henry’s dissolution that had its epicentre in Yorkshire in 1536 and which resulted in the execution of around 200 hundred individuals.

Letters between Thomas Audley and Thomas Cromwell, and William Brereton to Cromwell suggest that the lucky Abbot Birkenhead was released in 1537, going on to become a secular priest with a state pension.

The Henry VIII letter is on loan from The National Archives until the end of August 2018 and is accompanied in the Norton Priory Museum by a stunning 16th century silver-gilt reliquary from the Victoria and Albert Museum to demonstrate the wealth of the monasteries at that period.

The full story detailing all the letters and their transcripts can be found at the website, www.livingletters.co.uk, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Henry VIII’s letter is on display at Norton Priory from May 4 – August 31 2018. 


Norton Priory Museum & Gardens is an award winning museum, excavated medieval ruins, the spectacular St Christopher statue, the lovely Walled Garden and the extensive woodland and sculpture trail.


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