Henry VIII & Iron


LONDON - The turbulent love life of Henry VIII, which led to the English Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries, may also have postponed the industrial revolution by 200 years.

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. Without the Reformation, it is possible that the seeds of industrial Britain could have been sown in the tranquil cloisters. In an attempt to discover more about the industrious monks of Rievaulx, researchers are spending the 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. Although the popular perception of monasteries is one of study, contemplation, prayer and bee-keeping, the reality of medieval Yorkshire was very different. 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, an outstation 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 Fahrenheit 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. However, Mr. 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 reveals 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. They were poised to do it on a large scale, but by breaking up the virtual monopoly, Henry VIII effectively broke up that potential." Ian Panter, a scientific adviser to English Heritage, said: "There are so many unanswered questions about the way monks produced iron that the only way to resolve them is to rebuild one of their furnaces."
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