Post-classical history


Autumn 1536: The Pilgrimage of Grace

Christ crucified!

For thy wounds wide

Us commons guide.

Which pilgrims be

Through God’s grace

For to purchase

Old wealth and peace.

The Pilgrims’ Ballad, 15361

Henry VIII’s religious policies, implemented by Thomas Cromwell (his ‘Vicegerent in Spirituals’ who oversaw all clerical matters), caused widespread indignation. Most Englishmen objected not so much to repudiating the pope as to closing down monasteries and convents, and abolishing customs of great antiquity. Laws introduced by Parliament suggested that the crown intended to intrude into every aspect of life, while in all counties there seemed to be commissioners or government spies, or both. The surprising efficiency of Tudor administration contributed to the climate of suspicion. (In 1535 an investigation known as the Valor Ecclesiasticus took only five months to inform Mr Secretary Cromwell of the income of every single clergyman in the kingdom, from bishops down to parish priests and chantry chaplains.)

During the coming explosion, the Northeners would sing a wistful doggerel written by a Lancashire monk, a verse from which is quoted above. Again and again, the ballad makes it clear that they wanted things to remain as they always had been, whether worldly or spiritual; the king’s men should stop meddling and leave them in peace.2

In April 1536 a number of rebels were executed in Somerset, while 140 other persons in the same county sued for pardons after making unlawful assemblies. Almost nothing is known about this rising, but it anticipated far more dangerous disturbances in the North and we can safely assume that it was about religion.3 Many of the nobles and gentry were angry and resentful, and not just the ‘commons’, but were too frightened to take action.

In particular, there was real anger in the North Country at the closure of the smaller monasteries, which had been popular because they had supplied not only careers for younger sons and unmarriageable daughters but rudimentary social services: some basic education, a certain amount of accommodation for the elderly, hospitality to travellers, and above all food and clothing for the destitute. In addition, they had built roads, bridges and sea walls that nobody else in the area could provide. In the opinion of Robert Aske (about to play a leading role in the subsequent upheaval), their suppression was a serious loss for the communities in their neighbourhood: ‘the abbeys was one of the beauties of this realm to all men and [to] strangers passing through … gentlemen were much succoured in their needs with money, their young sons there succoured, and in nunneries their daughters brought up in virtue’.4

The proposed new registers of births, marriages and deaths caused almost as much disquiet. There were rumours that swingeing new taxes were to be introduced on every baptism, wedding and funeral, that church plate and ornaments would be confiscated, and that many parish churches were to be closed down. It was said, too, that there would be fines on eating goose, chicken or white bread.

In Lincolnshire these unsettling rumours appeared to be confirmed by the appearance during the autumn of three bodies of commissioners in the north-east of the county: one charged with closing down smaller monasteries, another with inspecting the clergy and a third with (supposedly) imposing a new tax called the ‘subsidy’. Early in October 1536, led by a cobbler, the people around the market town of Louth rose in protest, attacking any government officials they could catch. The Bishop of Lincoln’s unpopular chancellor was beaten to death with staves, while another man was (wrongly) reported to have been blinded, sewn in a newly flayed bullhide and then baited to death by dogs. Although the report turned out to be untrue, it showed the wild uneasiness of the times.

Local gentry and priests joined the revolt, with gentlemen putting on ‘harness’ (armour). Others sympathized but were frightened to take part. Lord Hussey supported the revolt although the extent of his involvement is unclear: if he did take an active role, he was incapable of providing leadership. Within a few days, 10,000 men had taken up arms (bows or scythe-blades on poles) and drawn up a petition. On 6 October they occupied Lincoln. They declared they would not pay any new taxes, demanding the restoration of the monasteries, the removal of heretical prelates such as Cranmer and the dismissal of Cromwell from the royal council.

Henry reacted quickly. He ordered the mustering of an ‘Army Royal’ to protect London in case the rebels marched on the capital. If they did not come south, the army was to head north and disperse them. The troops assembled at Ampthill in Bedfordshire, under the Duke of Suffolk. A letter from the king reached Lincoln on 10 October, angrily threatening ‘the rude commons of one shire, and that one of the most brute and beastly of the whole realm’ with severe punishment.5 Simultaneously, a herald arrived, repeating the threats and insisting there was no truth in the rumours of new taxes or church closures. Next day, lacking a proper leader, the gentry decided the situation was hopeless and persuaded the rebels to disperse. So did the Army Royal, which had got as far as Stamford, forty miles from Lincoln. Although many rebels went home reluctantly, everything quietened down very quickly. The Lincolnshire rising was over.

But within a few days the trouble flared up elsewhere, on a larger scale. Starting at Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire on 8 October, it then spread north-west, to Kirby Stephen in Westmorland and Penrith in Cumberland, as well as south-west into northern Lancashire along the Ribble valley. The rumours in all these areas were the same as those that had circulated in Lincolnshire, and so were the protests. To some degree Lord Darcy was behind the disturbances. How much is unknown, but it certainly appears that he was encouraging men to rise in defence of Catholicism. It is likely, too, that he still had every intention of destroying Henry VIII.

Unluckily for Lord Darcy – and for the White Rose party – the leadership passed into the hands of a one-eyed Yorkshire gentleman named Robert Aske from Aughton in the Derwent valley, an eloquent lawyer in his thirties with an oddly naive streak, who had been marginally involved in the Lincolnshire rising. While Aske wanted changes to the king’s policies, he never contemplated deposing him, instead turning the rising into a crusade which he christened ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace for the Commonwealth’. The pilgrims were divided into military-style companies, with a daily roll-call. Their basic aims were to defend the Church against heresy and rescue the king from his advisers – bishops such as Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, and above all from his minister Cromwell.

Darcy realized it would be impossible to play the White Rose card. The Lady Mary was popular with the pilgrims, but as heir to the throne: they had no wish for her to replace her father while he remained alive and followed Aske’s line that this was a pilgrimage to save the king from his evil ministers. Afflicted by long-standing health problems – a hernia and a chronic bowel complaint – Darcy confined himself to trying to maintain what influence he could over the rising. A few weeks later, with breath-taking insincerity he declared: ‘For my part I have been and ever will be true both to King Henry VII and to the King our Sovereign Lord, and I defy him that will say the contrary for, as I have ever said, one god, one faith, one king.’6

Aske, the ‘Chief Captain’ as he styled himself, did not have complete control over the rebels so that the Pilgrimage was not fully coordinated. Eventually there were nine armies under nine lesser ‘captains’. They included a ‘Captain Poverty’ in Richmondshire whose name indicates that worries such as a fear of enclosures played a role. But the overriding motives were undoubtedly religion and discontent with the government.

On 16 October thousands of armed pilgrims marched into York, and Aske sent the mayor a list of five ‘Articles’, which was addressed to the king. The first complained of the suppression of religious houses. Three days later the rebels took Hull, while on 17 October the people of Pontefract rose and invested the castle. Inside were Lord Darcy, constable of the castle, and the Archbishop of York with local knights and gentlemen. After a show of resistance, Darcy opened the castle gates on 21 October, his tactics being to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, although his sympathies were entirely with the pilgrims. Together with his friend Sir Robert Constable, he joined the leadership, becoming second only to Robert Aske. Throughout, he maintained his pose as a bluff, simple, honest man – ‘Old Tom’.

After the fall of Pontefract Castle, badges of the Five Wounds of Christ suddenly became plentifully available to the pilgrims. These displayed two hands and two feet pierced by nails,surrounding a bleeding heart on a chalice – a device Lord Darcy’s men had worn during a would-be crusade against the Moors in 1511. Secretly, he hoped that foreign troops were going to reinforce the pilgrims’ army. Aske’s loyalty to Henry infuriated Darcy as he knew the king’s treacherous, revengeful nature – leaving such an enemy on the throne was madness. But at least the Chief Captain was keen to have the Lady Mary’s right of succession restored, a key part of the White Rose programme.

Even though none of the great Northern magnates were involved, it must have seemed to King Henry and Cromwell that the entire North Country supported Aske; so large an army had not been seen throughout the Wars of the Roses. ‘This matter hangeth like a fever, one day good, another bad,’ wrote a member of the council to Cromwell on 15 October.7 The king had no clear picture of what was happening, but suspected that Darcy must be behind it. The army intended for Lincolnshire had returned home. With considerable difficulty, the king assembled two new forces to send north, one commanded by the elderly Earl of Shrewsbury and the other by the Duke of Norfolk. Irregularly paid and ill-fed, these troops were inclined to sympathize with the pilgrims.

As a youth Lord Shrewsbury, who brought 7,000 men, had ridden to Bosworth with King Richard,8 although in 1487 he had fought for his supplanter at Stoke against the Earl of Lincoln. Throughout Henry VII’s reign he had been called on to muster his household men and tenants in emergencies, but had never acquired any experience of commanding troops in battle. Ironically, he, too, detested Cromwell. So did the Duke of Norfolk, an equally unexperienced general whose own force numbered about 5,000. Like Shrewsbury and no doubt most of his own men Norfolk secretly shared the pilgrims’ views, but he was much too frightened of the king to disobey him.

Apart from uncompromising spirits such as Sir Robert Constable, the pilgrims’ leaders did not want a war although there was a moment on their march to Doncaster when battle was only averted by torrential rain. By now they were 30,000 to 40,000 well-armed men, officered by gentry. ‘Lord Hussey sent me word that the rebels are sufficiently well appointed, and in a condition to fight the royal army, since they are numeric ally stronger by one third,’ Chapuys reported to the emperor on 5 November. ‘Besides abundance of provisions of all kinds they have a tolerably large sum of money, but they still want some help in men either from Flanders or from Spain and are confident that Your Majesty will assist them.’9 Chapuys did not realize that by now the pilgrims had missed their opportunity.

The Duke of Norfolk’s levies, not yet reinforced by Shrewsbury, were outnumbered and demoralized. Most would probably have run for their lives rather than fight. Had the ‘Army Royal’ been defeated in the North Country, it is difficult to see how King Henry could have kept his crown. An invasion of imperial troops with Pole at their head, which many observers thought more than likely, would have completed his ruin. When Norfolk realized just how large an army he was facing, he secured a truce on 27 October – and saved his master’s skin.

Little was heard from the Lord Cromwell of Wimbledon (his sonorous title since the previous summer), who was largely responsible for causing the crisis and whose head the pilgrims were demanding loudly. Seemingly terror stricken, he kept in the background as far as possible. There is a note of hysteria in the very few surviving letters he wrote during the crisis.

Lengthy negotiations began. Two of the pilgrims’ leaders, Sir Ralph Ellerker and Robert Bowes (a barrister), took a petition to Henry at Windsor. In a long letter in reply, the king promised that if they could prove, as they alleged, ‘certain of our Council to be subverters both of God’s law and the laws of this realm … we shall proceed against them’. He ended by promising every pilgrim a full pardon with the exception of ten ringleaders, commenting with unquenchable self-satisfaction, ‘Now note the benignity of your Prince’. Throughout his reply Henry congratulated himself on the good government he had given his people for the last twenty-eight years.10

Norfolk tried hard to win over Lord Darcy. ‘I cannot do it in no wise, for I have made promise to the contrary, and my coat was never hitherto stained with any such blot,’ was his reply to an invitation to betray Aske and his fellow pilgrims.11 In November, expecting the negotiations to fail, he gave his kinsman, old Canon Waldby from Carlisle, £20 for expenses and sent him to the Low Countries to ask the regent for 2,000 landsknechts and 2,000 arquebuses. But Darcy then changed his mind, cancelling Waldby’s journey.

In any case, Henry had taken care to deflect foreign intervention, by offering the Lady Mary’s hand in marriage to the sons of both Charles V and Francis I, ignoring her recent ‘bastardization’. Neither of these rulers wanted to drive the English king into an alliance with his greatest rival. At the same time, their ambassadors in London, methodically fed misinformation by Cromwell, were reporting that the king would soon crush the rebellion, regardless of any help from abroad.

Henry sent Sir Ralph Ellerker and Robert Bowles back to the North with his reply. On 18 December, they reached Darcy’s house at Templehirst, where the ‘captains’ had assembled. Wrongly, the king had decided they must be tired of being under arms, especially with winter approaching, and that his promise of a pardon for nearly everybody would ensure the swift collapse of the Pilgrimage, just as it had ended the trouble in Lincolnshire. He was therefore astounded when the pilgrims showed not the slightest intention of going home. Despite this, he did not agree to any of their requests, merely sending them a letter that was an odd mixture of eloquence and bluster, offering little more than an insincere promise of pardons. Yet he was bound to win since the struggle had now become one of negotiation rather than civil war. The pilgrims had lost their chance by not fighting at Doncaster.

A letter from Cromwell to Sir Ralph Eure, holding Scarborough for the king, had been intercepted when a royal ship was captured. It should have warned the pilgrims not to put too much trust in Henry’s pardons. ‘My lord Privy Seal’ had written that if the pilgrims continued with their rebellion, they would be punished so mercilessly that ‘their example shall be fearful to all subjects whiles the world doth endure’.12

A council of captains at Pontefract drew up a manifesto. The first article showed a surprising knowledge of heresy and heretics, expressing the pilgrims’ antipathy to Luther, Melancthon, Bucer and the Anabaptists, together with such home-growns as Wycliffe, Tyndale and Barnes. Nothing could have better expressed most Englishmen’s loathing for the tiny little clique who were trying to force German ideas on the Church. Another article asked that all heretics, from bishops to laymen, should suffer ‘condign punishment by fire’, another that the Lord Cromwell and Sir Richard Rich be similarly punished as ‘subverters of the good laws of the realm, and maintainers and inventers of heretics’. There were demands for there-establishment of Rome’s authority, and for dissolved religious houses to be given back to the monks and friars. A further demand was for the restoration of the Lady Mary’s right to inherit the throne, ‘for the Lady Mary is marvelously beloved for her virtue in the hearts of the people’.13

The pilgrims’ articles were formally presented to the Duke of Norfolk at Doncaster on 6 December by Aske, supported by a delegation of knights, esquires and ‘commons’, who solemnly knelt before the duke as the king’s representative. A discussion of the articles then began. Acting on instructions that he had received from Henry at the last moment, Norfolk promised every pilgrim a free pardon, announcing that Parliament would be called to discuss their demands in detail. This was a purely verbal agreement, never written down, but Aske’s delegation were fully convinced that the king had given in to them and accepted their manifesto.

The gullible Robert Aske rode back in triumph to Pontefract to give the news to 3,000 pilgrims who were waiting at the market cross. The cannier among them refused to believe it, angrily threatening to raise all Yorkshire once more, but Lancaster Herald arrived from Doncaster on 8 December and read out the royal pardon, which convinced most people. Returning to Norfolk, Aske knelt and resigned his office of Chief Captain. The pilgrims took off their badges and went home.

They had been outwitted by the most treacherous monarch in English history. Henry then divided the gentry from the commons by such stratagems as inviting Aske to spend Christmas at court and presenting him with a wonderful jacket of crimson silk, but showed no sign of carrying out his promises. In the meantime, royal officials toured the North, denouncing the Pilgrimage. Just as the king had hoped, this resulted in new, smaller, risings that were easily put down. At the end of January 1537, a group of Yorkshiremen plotted to capture Hull and Scarborough, despite Aske’s efforts to dissuade them, and in February Cumberland men attacked Carlisle.

These fresh revolts gave Henry an excuse for repudiating the Doncaster agreement, and he ordered the Duke of Norfolk to declare martial law in the Western Marches. The king also repudiated his promise to grant pardons. During the summer of 1537 the North Country endured a sustained reign of terror, while seventeen pilgrim leaders were taken to London for trial and execution.

Nothing could cow Lord Darcy. When examined by the Lord Privy Seal, he told him:

Cromwell, it is thou that art the very original and chief causer of all this rebellion and mischief, and art likwise causer of the apprehension of us that be noblemen and dost daily earnestly travail to bring us to our end and to strike off our heads, and I trust that ere thou die, though thou wouldst procure all the noblemen’s heads within the realm to be stricken off, yet shall there one head remain that shall strike off thy head.14

‘Old Tom’ was beheaded on Tower Hill, Lord Hussey at Lincoln. Most of the others were executed at Lincoln or York, suffering the usual butchery except for the knights, who because of their rank were hanged until dead. Orders were given that Robert Aske, too, should not be cut down before he was dead, although his torso was hung in chains to rot on the gibbet. The only woman among them, Margaret Cheyney – Sir John Bulmer’s ‘paramour’ – who with her lover had been found guilty on the most specious grounds, was burned alive at Smithfield – ‘a very fair creature and a beautiful’ according to an observer.15

In the meantime, given a bad fright by what he regarded as the ‘horrible treason’, Henry had ordered Norfolk to break the North Country. About 150 of the commons, including several monks, were hanged during a campaign of calculated frightfulness: men were strung up on trees in their own gardens, priests dangled from steeples and another woman was burned. Some hangings took place without trial, to avoid any chance of acquittal. The king rejected all appeals and if a jury found a defendant not guilty he ordered a retrial – he grumbled at Norfolk’s negligence in not quartering the bodies. He announced that in the summer of 1537 he would go on a progress through the North, to accept its return to obedience, but when the time came he shirked the visit.

By any reckoning the Pilgrimage of Grace was an exceptionally dangerous upheaval: ‘a formidable counter-revolutionary programme, a fundamental rejection of the Henrician Reformation’.16 Yet there had been few signs of Yorkism. During the Lincolnshire rising someone at Stamford had demanded ‘A new King’17 while at Furness Abbey in a region once famous for loyalty to Richard III’s memory, some of the monks declared that Henry VIII could not be the rightful King of England because his father ‘came in by the sword’, and another prophesied that ‘the red rose should die in his mother’s womb’. One of the brethren of Furness who spoke out was named Broughton, perhaps a kinsman of Lord Lovell’s friend, Sir Thomas Broughton.18 But that was all.

The Pilgrimage was the White Rose’s only real chance of toppling the king and they let it slip.19 Even so, Henry continued to fear the White Rose, and not entirely without reason. He knew that, had he been driven from the throne, there was only one man who could have taken his place – Reginald Pole. Judging from his bitterness towards the entire Pole family, the possibility that Reginald might still succeed in exploiting the situation was never very far from his thoughts.

26. Autumn 1536: The Pilgrimage of Grace

1. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XI, (iii), 786.

2. The definitive study is R.W. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001 – which argues that the gentry only joined in order to defuse it.

3. Dodds and Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 88–9.

4. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XII (i), 900, 901 and 945.

5. Ibid., vol. XI, 780.

6. LP Hen VIII, X, 1086; Dodds and Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 300–6.

7. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XI, 672, 722–3.

8. C. Ross, Richard III, London, Eyre Methuen, 1981, p. 212.

9. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. V (ii), 114.

10. LP Hen VIII, XI, 957.

11. Ibid., XII (i), 1013.

12. R.B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 2 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1902, vol. 2, p. 169.

13. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XI, 1246.

14. Ibid., vol. XII (i), 976.

15. C. Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England during the Reign of the Tudors from ad 1485–1559, ed. W.D. Hamilton, vol. 1.

16. Bernard, The King’s Reformation, op. cit., p. 344.

17. Dodds and Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 305.

18. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XII (i), 841.

19. Scarisbrick suggests that the Pilgrimage ‘could have openly enlisted latent Yorkist sentiment’, stressing its failure to do so. J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968, p. 341.

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