Henry’s Reign led to Massive Social Change
One consequence of Henry VIII reign was the opportunity for greater social mobility amongst those with the money and scruples to take advantage of the changing times. This was epitomized by Henry’s own councilors. Cardinal Wolsey was the son of a butcher, and Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith and brewer and Sir Richard Rich the son of a merchant. All rose socially because of their service to the King and in the case of Cromwell and Rich, established their families as part of the aristocracy
However, this social mobility extended beyond the King’s court. In all, during Henry’s reign, around a fifth of England’s’ overall wealth was redistributed with the dissolution of the monasteries. Some former monastic property was awarded to men who had been of service to the King or whose support he valued. Others, however, were sold off to the middling classes: lawyers, merchants, and doctors. These people who had money but no established pedigree. Now, they were able to establish their families as part of the landed gentry.
Others, however, suffered when the monasteries closed. These were the ordinary people, who had relied upon the monks and nuns for employment, medical care and social aid. Many tenant farmers found themselves turned off their lands when the new owners decided to turn small-scale farms over to the larges scale, highly profitable sheep farming.
While former nuns and priests were awarded a pension- if they had participated in the voluntary surrender of their monastery-their lay servants were left with no recompense. Left without employment or a roof over their head, these ex-monastic employees joined the rest of the displaced rural population heading for a new life in the towns.
Slum housing in England’s towns increased to house the lucky few that could afford a roof over their heads. However, the old, sick or unskilled found themselves lost in the ever-swelling begging communities. Their situation was made worse because the limited medical and social care offered by the monasteries had not been replaced. Vagrancy became such a problem that in 1545, many of London’s homeless were forcibly conscripted onto the ships of Henry VIII’s navy, effectively as galley slaves.