Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church established the monarch as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The dissolution of the monasteries (1536–40), overseen by the King’s minister Thomas Cromwell, was a campaign officially aimed against the perceived spiritual and moral corruption of the old religion. It was also a strategy to effect the transfer of monastic wealth to the crown, and to suppress allegiance to Rome.
Following the surrender of great abbeys such as Rievaulx and Fountains, deliberate, symbolic defacement took place. All items of property were then valued, and the systematic stripping and dismantling of buildings began. As well as a comprehensive removal of power and status, the process of suppression was aimed at salvaging costly materials. Valuable lead and glass were removed for sale and reuse, as was the stone fabric of the buildings themselves.
During Henry VIII’s reign policies were instituted against images that were superstitiously ‘abused’, but there was no call for the complete destruction of all images. In 1538 injunctions prohibited pilgrimages to shrines and the offering of money or candles to images or relics. Shrines were destroyed and references to the pope and the saint, Thomas Becket, banned.