Pilgrimage of Grace
Merry old England wasn’t very merry under Henry VIII, especially if you didn’t agree with the king on religion. The problem was Henry’s mind changed based on what his desires were and who was standing next to him at the time. By 1536, the average Englishman didn’t know what to believe nor who to ask because the wrong question to the wrong person and you got burned at the stake.
Because of the King’s Great Matter, England had broken with the Roman Catholic Church so Henry could divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Reformers began dismantling the abbeys and taking the spoils for their own. However, the rank and file of the kingdom were confused. They never asked for these changes. Very few people in the country supported the dissolution of the monasteries. G. W. Bernard gives the number of religious houses in England as 900 and that equated to about one man in fifty being in religious orders. Religious houses provided a social safety net for the kingdom’s poor as well as education and an object of veneration for pilgrimages. Suddenly, all of that was gone as well as all of those formerly in religious life finding themselves homeless.
When the King beheaded Anne Boleyn and married Jane Seymour, there was hope for the cause of orthodoxy. The new Queen’s family was for the old faith, however, the King maintained as his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. It was Cromwell who headed the royal commission to “inspect” monasteries as well as took the the first attempt to codify the break from Rome with the Ten Articles. Rumors abounded that the treasure in the parish churches were being replaced by tin or brass. This was not taken well, especially in the North where the old faith was still strong. The country was rife for rebellion.
Pockets of rebellion popped up in the summer 1536, and the instigators were promptly hanged. New laws were passed that no priest was allowed to carry a weapon more lethal than his meat knife. The first large scale rebellion began in October 1536 in Lincolnshire, but was put down in a fortnight. However, ‘the matter hangeth yet like a fever, one day good, one day bad’, an official wrote to Cromwell. The embers had been lit for the Pilgrimage of Grace.
The bells rang in the town of Beverley and the rebellion marched under the leadership of Robert Aske and the banner of the five wounds of Christ. They demanded the restoration of the old faith, the monasteries and ‘the Lady Mary be made legitimate.’ It gained steam and picked up Lord Thomas Darcy from Yorkshire, the King’s steward in York , as another leader. Together they commanded an army that was estimated at 30,000 strong. The royal army under the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk were much smaller and in disarray. However, instead of attacking they accepted the Earl’s offer to discuss terms at Doncaster. The believed they were dealing with a rational king and were good loyal subjects. They only wanted to remove the king’s corrupt ministers and restore the old ways. It was their fatal mistake.
The Pilgrims were initially offered a general pardon and they began to negotiate with the leaders. Norfolk agreed the King was ill advised by Cromwell and promised the king would consider their requests at parliament if they disbursed. Norfolk was a political enemy of Cromwell, and was trying to turn the situation to his advantage, but they didn’t care as long as their aims went together. The king even met with Aske and gave him a scarlet jacket and asked him to prepare a history of the last few months. Aske and the other leaders must have thought they had won. They were getting everything they asked for. It was all an elaborate ruse.
Additional risings in the North gave the King the excuse he needed to turn on Aske and Darcy. He tried to split them by asking Darcy to betray Aske. Darcy refused. They both died for it. The pardons that he had given them weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. The pilgrims were hung at crossroads, market squares and in their own gardens. Women who tried to take down the bodies of their menfolk were punished. Robert Aske begged that he be not drawn and quartered. Instead he was ’hung in chains’ or gibbetted at York. The knife might have been a kindness. Lord Thomas Darcy was executed on Tower Hill.
Right or wrong, Henry VIII brought them down through the duplicity that he was becoming famous for. He now found he could move with impunity.
Sources: Ackroyd, Peter- Tudors
Fletcher, Catherine- The Divorce of Henry VIII