During the 1530s, the marital problems of King Henry VIII caused a dispute between the King and the Pope (the head of the Roman Catholic Church). Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce a male heir, so he asked the Pope for a divorce. The Pope refused. Henry retaliated in 1534 by declaring himself ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’. Most churchmen supported the king, and they readily granted the divorce.
In 1536, King Henry realised that, as head of the church, he could also control the monasteries. There were about 800 monasteries in England at that time and they owned about a third of all the land in the country. Henry saw that he could make himself rich by closing monasteries and seizing their wealth. He sent round Commissioners to visit the monasteries. They claimed that they found many monasteries (including Wymondham) were badly run and that the monks were living easy and sometimes immoral lives.
In 1536, King Henry VIII ordered the closure of all the smaller monasteries with annual incomes of less than £200 (about £200,000 in today’s terms). Wymondham escaped, as its income was just above this level. But Henry later continued the process to include the richer monasteries, and in 1538 the Abbot and monks of Wymondham ‘freely’ surrendered their buildings and estates to the King. The roofs were quickly removed from the monks’ part of the church, which was gradually demolished so that its stone could be re-used elsewhere. But the Parish Church – i.e. the eastern half of the building – survived. This is the building you see today.