The Pilgrimage of Grace was a popular rising in Yorkshire in the autumn of 1536 in protest against Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the policies of the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, as well as other specific political, social and economic grievances. It has been termed “the most serious of all Tudor rebellions”. Although sometimes used with reference to other risings in northern England at the time, including the Lincolnshire rising which occurred twelve days before the actual Pilgrimage of Grace, the term Pilgrimage of Grace technically refers only to the uprising in Yorkshire. The traditional historical view portrays it as “a spontaneous mass protest of the conservative elements in the North of England angry with the religious upheavals instigated by King Henry VIII. Historians have also looked at the economic grievances involved, while still giving priority to religion.
The Lincolnshire Rising was a brief dissent by Roman Catholics against the establishment of the Church of England by Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries set in motion by Thomas Cromwell’s suggested plan of asserting the nation’s religious autonomy and the king’s supremacy over religious matters.
The rising began on 2 October 1536 at St. James Church in Louth, after evensong, shortly after the closure of Louth Park Abbey. The stated aim of the uprising was against the attempt to suppress Catholic religious houses, and was not against Henry VIII himself. It quickly gained support in Horncastle, Market Rasen, Caistor and other nearby towns. Angered by the actions of commissioners, the protesters/rioters demanded the end of the collection of a subsidy, the end of the Ten Articles, an end to the dissolution, an end to taxes in peacetime, a purge of heretics in government, and the repeal of the Statute of Uses. With support from local gentry, a force of demonstrators, estimated at up to 40,000, marched on Lincoln and by 14 October occupied Lincoln Cathedral. They demanded the freedom to continue worshipping as Catholics, and protection for the treasures of Lincolnshire churches. It was led by a monk and a shoemaker, and involved 22,000 people.
The moratorium effectively ended on 4 October 1536, when the King sent word for the occupiers to disperse or face the forces of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, which had already been mobilised. By 14 October few remained in Lincoln. Following the rising, the vicar of Louth and Captain Cobbler, two of the main leaders, were captured and hanged at Tyburn. Most of the other local ringleaders met the same fate over the next twelve days, including William Moreland, or Borrowby, one of the former Louth Park Abbey monks, with a lawyer from Willingham being hanged, drawn and quartered for his involvement. Soon, however, the Lincolnshire Rising helped inspire the more widespread Pilgrimage of Grace.
Pilgrimage of Grace and the early Tudor crisis
The movement broke out on 13 October 1536, immediately following the failure of the Lincolnshire Rising, and only at this point was the term ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ used. The causes of the expostulations have long been debated by historians, but several key themes can be identified:
- Economic grievances. The northern gentry had concerns over the new Statute of Uses. The poor harvest of 1535 had also led to high food prices, which may have contributed to discontent.
- Political grievances. Many people in northern England disliked the way in which Henry VIII had cast off his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Although her successor, Anne Boleyn, had been unpopular both as Catherine’s replacement, and as a rumoured Protestant and a southerner, her execution in 1536 on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason had done much to undermine the monarchy’s prestige and the King’s personal reputation. There was also anger at the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who was ‘base born’, and thus strongly objected to by the aristocracy.
- Religious grievances. The local church was, for many in the north, the centre of community life. Many ordinary peasants were worried that their church plate would be confiscated. There were also popular rumours at the time which hinted that baptism might be taxed. The recently released Ten Articles and the new order of prayer issued by the government in 1535 had also made official doctrine more reformed. This went against the conservative beliefs of most northerners.
Robert Aske was chosen to lead the insurgents; he was a London barrister, a resident of the Inns of Court, and the youngest son of Sir Robert Aske of Aughton near Selby. His was an old Yorkshire family from Aske Hall in Richmondshire. In 1536 Aske led a band of nine thousand followers who entered and occupied York. There he arranged for the expelled monks and nuns to return to their houses; the King’s newly installed tenants were driven out and Catholic observance resumed. The success of the rising was so great that the royal leaders, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, opened negotiations with the insurgents at Scawsby Leys near Doncaster, where Aske had assembled between thirty and forty thousand people.
Norfolk promised a general pardon and a Parliament to be held at York within a year, as well as a reprieve for the abbeys until the parliament had met. Trusting in the king’s promises, Aske dismissed his followers. Jesse Childs (a biographer of the Earl of Surrey, Norfolk’s son) specifically notes that Henry VIII did not authorize Thomas Howard, (3rd) Duke of Norfolk to grant remedies for the grievances (due to Norfolk’s enemies whispering into the King’s ear that the Howards could put down a rebellion of peasants if they wanted to, thus accusing Norfolk of sympathizing with the Pilgrimage). Norfolk, seeing their vast numbers (he and the Earl of Shrewsbury were outnumbered, five plus seven thousand (respectively) versus forty thousand pilgrims) made the negotiation and promises to avoid a bloodbath. It is exactly because he knew the promises he made on behalf of the King would not be met was why Norfolk jumped at the occasion of the new rising in February: he could state that the Pilgrims did not hold up their end of the deal (dispersement). He quelled the rebellion, executing some 216 parttakers, among them nobles (e.g., Lord Darcy, who tried to implicate Norfolk as sympathizer too), churchmen, monks, commoners.
In February 1537 a new rising took place in Cumberland and Westmorland called Bigod’s Rebellion (not authorised by Aske) under Sir Francis Bigod, of Settrington in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The rebellion’s outcome was that, after its failure, Henry arrested Bigod, Aske and several other rebels, such as Darcy, John Hussey, 1st Baron Hussey of Sleaford, the Chief Butler of England, Sir Thomas Percy and Sir Robert Constable. All were convicted of treason. During 1537 Bigod was hanged at Tyburn, Lords Darcy and Hussey both beheaded, Thomas Moigne, M.P. for Lincoln was hanged, drawn and quartered, Sir Robert Constable hanged in chains at Hull and Robert Aske hanged in chains at York. In total 216 were executed: several lords and knights (including Sir Thomas Percy, Sir Stephen Hamerton, Sir William Lumley, Sir John Constable and Sir William Constable), 6 abbots (Adam Sedbar, Abbot of Jervaulx, William Trafford, Abbot of Sawley, Matthew Mackarel, Abbot of Barlings and Bishop of Chalcedon, William Thirsk, Abbot of Fountains and the Prior of Bridlington), 38 monks, and 16 parish priests. Sir Nicholas Tempest, Bowbearer of the Forest of Bowland was hanged at Tyburn, Sir John Bulmer hanged, drawn and quartered and his wife Margaret Stafford burnt at the stake. In late 1538 Sir Edward Neville, Keeper of the Sewer was beheaded. The loss of the leaders enabled the Duke of Norfolk to quell the rising, and martial law was imposed upon the demonstrating regions, ending predication.
The circumstances of their trial and execution were recorded by the author of Wriothesley’s Chronicle:
Also the 16 day of May  there were arraigned at Westminster afore the King’s Commissioners, the Lord Chancellor that day being the chief, these persons following: Sir Robert Constable, knight; Sir Thomas Percy, knight, and brother to the Earl of Northumberland; Sir John Bulmer, knight, and Ralph Bulmer, his son and heir; Sir Francis Bigod, knight; Margaret Cheney, after Lady Bulmer by untrue matrimony; George Lumley, esquire; Robert Aske, gentleman, that was captain in the insurrection of the Northern men; and one Hamerton, esquire, all which persons were indicted of high treason against the King, and that day condemned by a jury of knights and esquires for the same, whereupon they had sentence to be drawn, hanged and quartered, but Ralph Bulmer, the son of John Bulmer, was reprieved and had no sentence.
And on the 25 day of May, being the Friday in Whitsun week, Sir John Bulmer, Sir Stephen Hamerton, knights, were hanged and headed; Nicholas Tempest, esquire; Doctor Cockerell, priest; Abbot quondam of Fountains; and Doctor Pickering, friar, were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered, and their heads set on London Bridge and divers gates in London.
And the same day Margaret Cheney, ‘other wife to Bulmer called’, was drawn after them from the Tower of London into Smithfield, and there burned according to her judgment, God pardon her soul, being the Friday in Whitsun week; she was a very fair creature, and a beautiful.
Successes and failures
The Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace have traditionally been seen as complete failures. They did, however, achieve several results that suggest otherwise.
Contrary to popular myth, there were some partial successes because of the rebellions:
- The government postponed the collection of the October subsidy. This had been a major grievance amongst the Lincolnshire organisations.
- The Statute of Uses was partially negated by a new law, the Statute of Wills.
- Four of the seven sacraments that were omitted from the Ten Articles were restored in the Bishop’s Book of 1537. This marked the end of the drift of official doctrine towards Protestantism. The Bishop’s Book was followed by the Six Articles of 1539.
- An onslaught upon heresy was promised in a royal proclamation in 1538.
- England was not reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church, except during the brief reign of Mary I.
- The dissolution of the monasteries continued unabated, with the largest monasteries being dissolved by 1540.
- Great tracts of land were seized from the Church and divided among the monarchy and its supporters.
- The moves towards official Protestantism achieved by Cromwell were not reversed except during the five-year reign of Mary I (1553–1558).
It is a common assumption among historians that the nobility and gentry were the leaders of the Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace. These historians tend to argue that the Risings only gained legitimacy through the involvement of the Northern nobility and gentlemen, such as Lord Darcy, Lord Hussey and Robert Aske. However, historians such as M.E. James, C.S.L. Davies and Andy Wood, among others, look at this position of leadership as not so straightforward.
James and Davies look at the Risings of 1536 as the product of common grievances. The lower classes were aggrieved because of the closure of local monasteries, due to the Act of Suppression. The Northern nobility felt their rights were being taken away from them in the Acts of 1535-1536, which subsequently made them lose confidence in the royal government. James looked at how the lower classes and the nobility used each other as a legitimizing force in an extremely ordered society. The nobles hid behind the force of the lower classes, with claims of coercion, since they were seen as blameless for their actions because they did not possess political choice. This allowed the nobles an arena to air their grievances while, at the same time, playing the victims of popular violence. The lower classes also used the nobility to give their grievance a sense of obedience, since the “leaders” of the rebellion were of a higher social class than them. Davies, however, looks at the leadership of the 1536 Risings as more of a cohesion. Common grievances over evil advisors and religion brought the higher and lower classes together in their fight, but once the nobles came up against the King’s forces and an all out war they decided to surrender, thereby ending the cohesion.
Andy Wood, on the other hand, coming from a new wave of social history which gives the lower classes more agency, argues that the commons were the effective force behind the Risings. He argues that this force came from a class group largely left out of history: minor gentlemen and well-off farmers. According to Wood, these groups were the leaders of the Risings because they had more political agency and thought.