The medieval church as a major land owner

"The primary role of the church has always been to use religion and fear to maintain the status quo in favour of those in power."

The article: Land, rent, church, tithes,rectors and vicarscontains more about the role of the church in rural communities.

In the 465 years between the Norman French invasion and Henry VIII becoming head of the Church of England in 1531, the Christian church had become the richest and largest land owner in England.

Death from disease and starvation was ever-present in the Middle Ages and the feudal system meant that the common man risked death by fighting for his Lord and for the King on request - though the fighting season tended to end during harvest time - or everyone would have starved.

The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) taught that everything in the Universe had been created a few thousand years ago by a supernatural "god" and that humans were made up of two parts: the natural (the physical body) and the supernatural (a thing called the "soul".)

In addition they taught that after death the "soul" would go either to a place called "heaven" where god and his "angels" (human-like creatures with wings) lived and everything was calm and peaceful or a place called "hell" where the soul would spend eternity being tortured by "devils" - bad angels under the control of "The Devil".

These ideas of a supernatural creator god, heaven, hell, devils and angels were common in the three religions that shared the same holy book: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Islam taught that an angel sits on each of your shoulders - one keeps a record of your good deeds, the other keeps a record of your bad deeds. When you die the two lists are compared by god who determines if your soul goes to heaven or hell

Fear of death, and what happens after death, was exploited by the church for its own financial gain.

Christian churches were full of images of heaven and hell and priests made sure that people lived in fear of what would happen to their souls. The images below are from Albi Cathedral in France - some of the best surviving paintings of what would happen when god made his final judgment.

Albi cathedral: the last judgement
Albi cathedral: the good going to heaven
Albi cathedral: the bad going to hell

With no television or mass media, and little or no alternative to the teachings of religious leaders (any challenge tended to be met with death), the paintings on the walls of the local church, and ranting from the pulpit, were sufficient to keep the population in a state of fear about death.

A religious protection racket

Having established fear, the Christian church offered a way for your soul to go to heaven rather than hell.

It did this by demanding money in three ways:

  • The system of tithes. By paying 10% (or more) of your income for the maintenance of the church: its buildings and its holy men, you were showing that you did good deeds during your life.
  • The sale of indulgences. Not everyone was good all the time so the church sold get-out-of-jail-free cards in return for significant financial donations. An indulgence ensured that a specific bad act would be wiped from the record after your death. Of course the church had the hot-line to god and his angels - so it was the only organisation that could offer this service.

    Indulgences were offered for all sorts of things, from the trivial to mass murder. For example, the church granted an indulgence to anyone who fought in a crusade - no matter how evil your deeds - and no matter if you murdered Muslims or fellow Christians as was the case in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and in the Massacre of Béziers in 1209 where Norman barons slaughtered thousands "in the name of god".

  • Prayers for the dead. The church taught that god took his (for some reason, most religions assume their "god" is male) time deciding where your soul would go and during this time your soul was in a place called "purgatory" and the more prayers that were said for you, the greater the chance of your soul going to heaven.

    The Christian church also taught that unbaptised people, including babies, could not go to heaven but had to spend the rest of eternity in a place called "Limbo". Obviously this was very upsetting for Christian parents of unbaptised children so it is widely believed that the Catholic Christian sect changed its mind about Limbo in 2007 - in fact the church now refers to Limbo as a "theory", not a definitive statement by the church. All very confusing.

    In return for a substantial donation, usually of land, the church would guarantee that holy men would be on their knees every day praying to god that your soul would leave purgatory and go to heaven. No donation meant no prayers - the gates of hell were waiting for those who refused to donate.

The medieval Christian church was riddled with corruption. Those appointed to senior positions in the church got there not because of their knowledge of theology, or their good deeds, but because of who they were and how they could use the power of the church to benefit themselves and those who supported them. The church was always fighting within itself and splits ("schisms") were common. Church leaders behaved no differently (no better or worse) than the other rich and landed leaders of the day.

Changes in land ownership

By the time of the Reformation, the break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England with the King at its head, the church was fantastically wealthy. Death-bed donations of land had made it the largest land owner in the country and the monasteries managed estates larger than most of those derived from the theft of land after the Norman French invasion.

Henry VIII had a second motive for doing what he did. Yes, he wanted to end his marriage with Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, but he also had his eye firmly on the wealth of the church.

In 1536 the Act of Suppression ensured that 376 monasteries were closed and all their land became the property of the king. The king did not need land, he needed cash, so the land was sold off to whoever could afford it.

For the first time, and on a large scale, those not directly descended from those involved in the Norman French invasion of 1066 were able to acquire ("receive stolen goods") large amounts of land - a new class of land owner had arrived.

Of course, before this time some of the land belonging to the large estates had been sold off for various reasons - usually when "noble" families wanted money or when no suitable heir was available. However, the redistribution of land after the Reformation represented the largest shift in land ownership in English history since "The Great Theft" of the entire country by Guillaume Le Batard.

We can see traces of this in Trusley. "Nunsfield", north of Long Lane, was once the property of the nuns of Derby. Anywhere with "grange" as part of its name will have been once owned by one of the great abbeys or monasteries and in Trusley we have "Grangefield Farm".

As in the Peasants Revolt, the Cavendish family was very active during the dissolution of the monasteries and Sir William Cavendish became one of Thomas Cromwell's "visitors of the monasteries." Part of his wealth came from holding public office in the Exchequer and he was accused of accumulating extra riches unfairly during the dissolution. The inventories of monasteries in our area were carried out at his request.

Sir William married Bess of Hardwick, sold his property in Suffolk and moved to Derbyshire where he purchased the Chatsworth estate in 1549 and began to build Chatsworth House in 1553. The village of Edensor spoilt the view from the 6th Duke of Devonshire's windows so in 1842 he had it demolished and rebuilt out of sight.