Henry VIII May Have Delayed Monks´ Industrial Innovation

Closed a Monastery That Had Makings of an Early Blast Furnace

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LONDON, JUNE 24, 2002 (Zenit.org).- King Henry VIII´s revolt against the Catholic Church and his closing of monasteries may also have helped postpone the industrial revolution.



Archaeologists have found evidence that the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx Abbey, in North Yorkshire, were developing a prototype blast furnace for the large-scale production of cast iron when they were evicted by the king in 1538, the Daily Telegraph reports.

Without the break with Rome, it is possible that the seeds of industrial Britain could have been sown in the cloisters.

Researchers were spending last weekend producing iron in the abbey grounds for the first time in 450 years. By analyzing the slag produced in the re-created clay furnace, scientists hope to find clues about the development of the full-scale blast furnace, the invention that perhaps more than any other ushered in the industrial age.

Rievaulx had its own facilities for producing iron for the abbey´s quarries and farms and for sale to the outside world. After the monks were expelled, an inventory of the abbey listed a furnace at Laskill, about four miles from the abbey.

Gerry McDonnell, an archaeologist at Bradford University, was intrigued to find out how far the monks had developed iron technology.

Since the Iron Age, the most common form of furnace had been a clay stack, usually around 6 feet high and 3 feet wide and built around a frame of willow branches. Charcoal and iron were piled into the top, and air was pumped into it with bellows.

Stack furnaces are unlikely to reach the 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,482 Celsius) needed to melt iron. To create cast iron, blast furnaces with mechanically powered bellows are needed. Textbooks used to state that the first were built in Kent in the 1490s.

McDonnell believes that the Rievaulx monks were close to creating such a furnace. An excavation there has revealed a square, stone-built furnace about 15 feet across, which probably was water-powered.

The slag of a primitive stack furnace contains high concentrations of iron. But a chemical analysis of the slag at Laskill shows concentrations far more typical of a blast furnace.

"One of the key things is that the Cistercians had a regular meeting of abbots every year, and they had the means of sharing technological advances across Europe," he said. "They effectively had a stranglehold on iron. The breakup of the monasteries broke up this network of technology transfer."

"They had the potential to move to blast furnaces that produced nothing but cast iron," McDonnell added. "They were poised to do it on a large scale, but by breaking up the virtual monopoly, Henry VIII effectively broke up that potential."