Outliers is a historical fiction podcast, telling stories from the shadows of history. In this Outliers blog series, we’re uncovering the true history that inspired our podcasts’ stories. This week’s episode, Empty Barrels, is set in the reign of Henry VIII and the reformation is in full swing. We hear about a royal clerk, Robert, who is apathetic to the religious changes around him. Robert is surrounded by the evidence of the dissolution of the monasteries in his job. When some treasures are confiscated from a monastery near to where he grew up, Robert makes a snap decision to act. He pockets some of the confiscated items and then faces the dilemma of what to do with them.
This story is one of the more heavily fictionalised stories in season two of Outliers. Robert is not a historic figure, although his role and that of many clerks at the Palace of Whitehall were the administrative cogs of a very large bureaucratic machine. The dissolution of the monasteries was by necessity a heavily administered enterprise, and clerks like Robert were instrumental in its organisation. They would have come face to face with the wealth that was redistributed from monasteries and abbeys throughout the country. Although there is no evidence of it, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch of the imagination to contemplate that there would have been some meddling with this wealth.
This story is set in Whitehall Palace which was the centre of power and the main residence of the royal family during the reign of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell was Henry’s chief minister during this time, and it was Cromwell who succinctly and precisely orchestrated the administrative process of the dissolution of the monasteries. In the story, Robert works as a clerk to Thomas Heneage who was the groom of the stool; this role was effectively the person in charge of the private finances of Henry VIII. Robert’s role functions as the go between for Heneage and the court of augmentations, which would have had its home at Whitehall. The court of augmentations was founded in 1536, specifically to organise the confiscated property, wealth and items from dissolved monasteries, audit them, and redistribute them into the royal coffers.
In creating this story, the writer Abir Mukherjee wanted the focus to be less about the religious changes of the time, and more about how the changes translated to everyday life. The Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries was a huge moment of change in Europe, and yet our story shows that moments of change can often only become meaningful when they reach us on a personal level. In this story, it is only when this happens that Robert fully contemplates the personal impact of such momentous religious change to the country.
You can read the full transcript of Empty Barrels here.