How England's Worst King Spawned CapitalismRoundup
tags: England, capitalism, Henry VIII
“What’s that smell?” I asked my dad as we approached Rievaulx Abbey on a visit to Yorkshire, England. “It’s wild garlic,” he said — which I’d later learn was a surprising crop to find so far north, though the story behind the monastery would prove even more surprising.
The monastery was established in 1132 by Cistercian monks from France’s Clairvaux Abbey and remained in operation until the 1500s. But it plays a part in a uniquely English story — one that begins, as many do, with church and crown but ends with the Industrial Revolution.
The forced closure of Rievaulx, and many places like it, spurred the growth of enterprise in England, eventually bringing the country enormous wealth, according to new research from the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). And who gets credit for crushing England’s monasteries and planting the earliest seeds of modern-day capitalism? Henry VIII — the man recently voted the worst monarch ever by the British Historical Writers Association. “He was not the genially amusing figure of fun that Americans sometimes suppose,” says professor Deirdre McCloskey from the University of Illinois, Chicago. “He was a rank tyrant, operating like his somewhat later contemporary Ivan the Terrible,” she says, noting how he unleashed a form of economic terror on the church.
In the years before Henry got busy evicting monks in 1536, it was estimated that the church and its 825 monasteries owned nearly a third of the land in England and Wales, according to the NBER paper “Monks, Gents and Industrialists: The Long-Run Impact of the Dissolution of the English Monasteries.” The crown owned a further 5 percent, and in an agrarian society — as all societies were then — land is the means of production.
“Most European countries were theocracies; the church and state were one,” says Robert E. Wright, professor of political economy at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Between the crowns of the Hapsburg Empire, Spain and France, there was quite a bit of control of the economy, but less so in Holland and eventually in the U.K.” Significantly, Henry didn’t keep the monks’ land for the crown but instead decided to sell it off, bit by bit. “The monasteries and abbeys were to be plundered to establish a war chest for the conflict with Catholic Europe that now seemed inevitable,” writes historian Simon Schama in A History of Britain. ...