The first tremors
In Michaelmas of 1536, three government commissioners were at work in the wild and foreign North of England. The last time such a number of government men had been there was when Thomas Wolsey's officers had been attempting to levy the Amicable Grant, the harshest taxation the English commons had ever faced1. They had failed; perhaps, the people believed, they could fail again.
And they had many reasons to wish they would. One of the Royal men was in the county to oversee the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, one to collect a tax, and one to investigate and report on the state of the county's clergy. And as if the largest redistribution of wealth since the Norman Conquest wasn't enough, rumours were spreading like wildfire, mainly in Lincolnshire. No man would be allowed to eat white bread without paying a special tax to the King, it was said; there would be no Church left in all the county. When the commissioners were coming, the commons would be waiting, guarding the treasure houses of the Church.
The first disturbance began in Louth, where the local people were very proud of their Church's magnificent spire. When the Royal registrar arrived, he was seized by a band of peasants led by a shoemaker who would later be nicknamed Captain Cobbler. Driven by fear and anger, they continued to seize royal officers and compelled them to sign documents supporting the peasants' cause. These they dispatched to London. An air of legitimacy came to to rising when the local gentry (eighteen of the most prominent) chose to throw in their lot in support - and as these gentry Justices of the Peace were responsible for keeping order, there was no-one to stop the rebellion spreading.
The gentry were, however, a restraining influence on the commons. Their co-operation changed it from a riot into a legitimate protest against the government's unpopular policies; but their support could only be ensured for as long as the King remained amicable. As the commons turned to violence and murdered the unpopular chancellor of the Bishop of Lincoln, their hopes died with him. The King ordered the rebels to disperse or face harsh punishment, and a Royal army was only forty miles from their encampment. The gentry's will was broken; they told the commons they would go no further, and sued the King for pardon. When they left, the rebellion collapsed into disarray, and with no determined leadership the commons were forced to return home. All through, the principle noblemen of the North had stayed distant from the affair.
The Pilgrimage of Grace
On 4th October, lawyer Robert Aske was crossing the River Humber at Barton and he heard from the ferrymen about the rising in Lincolnshire. His imagination caught, he had soon taken the oath of the rebels and instated himself in the leadership of a Yorkshire rising. As an astute and capable lawyer Aske was able to articulate the rebels' demands better than any other, and as a man with significant grievences against Thomas Cromwell's regime he was not short of motivation. It was Aske who chose to name the rising the Pilgrimage of Grace, and this excellent piece of religious propaganda brought the rising its widest possible support base. He told two messengers as he and 10,000 men marched to York that "we are pilgrims and we have a pilgrimage gate to go to."
In York, the mayor proved pliable. Aske stressed that he had peaceful intentions towards him and the town was ceded; in keeping with his promise Aske allowed no footman within the town walls as a protection against spoil. Meanwhile, in the surrounding counties, a further 20,000 troops had been raised by the local nobles and gentry. This meant a massive 30,000 troops were now massed, a sufficient number to easily defeat any Royal force sent to do battle with it. They marched on to Pontefract, where Lord Darcy submitted to them2. This was a fantastic coup for Aske, who knew that the King would only take heed of him if the great men of the North were behind him. It was never his intention to clash with Royal armies or attempt to overthrow the King, merely for the North to stand up and be counted - to do so, it must be united, he reasoned.
The Duke of Norfolk and 8,000 Royal troops awaited the pilgrims. Some of the pilgrims were spoiling for a fight, but Aske managed to contain this faction, instead favouring talks with the Duke. Aske wanted instead to try and win the Duke of Norfolk over to his side so that he could then use his influence at Court in the pilgrims' favour. The faction who favoured not negotiating with Norfolk for fear of his untrustworthiness would eventually be proved right, and may well have won at this point if it was known what he had written to the King before the meeting - "I beseech you to take in gode part what so ever promes I shall make unto the rebells for sewerly I shall observe no part theroff."
In the first round of negotiations, the leaders of the revolt kept their demands very general to give them plenty of room for shifting their position as the flow of talks required. They called, for instance, for "unpopular statues to be repealed" and "the Faith truly be maintained." As the talks went on, the stress which existed in the relationship between the gentry and the commons became plain - the commons muttered among themselves that the landed classes would betray them and hand them over to the King. In fact, Lord Darcy showed exceptional chivalry and loyalty to his lesser charges, refusing to give up any of them lest he and his family be known to his people as a traitor.
The talks continued back and forth as these things do, all the time with the Royal side merely playing for time and trying to appease the rebels without actually doing anything. Eventually, they were promised a special parliament to address their concerns, and Aske was invited to London for a special meeting with the King. A general pardon was issued, and the rebels thought they had won. They began to return home, and Aske travelled down to London. In the South, it was said that the rebels had dispersed under threat of force, and hence the perceived strength of the Tudor dynasty was maintained. Aske was met with great feasting and showered with gifts in London, where the King beseeched him to write a detailed account of the happenings. When Aske returned North, he spoke of the King's understanding nature and kindness.
And that was the last anyone heard of the implementation of the rebels' demands, for not a word of promise had been commited to paper by the King.
Causes and motivations
It was traditional to view the Pilgrimage of Grace as the great cry of the united North against the heretical religion forced on them by the Henrican Church reforms. There is much evidence to support this point of view - the very name of the rising, and the ever-present nature of the symbolism of the Five Wounds of Christ. The pilgrims bore this symbol on badge and banner (many of these pieces manufactured by Lord Darcy in his castle), which affirmed that they fought for the good of Christ and His Church. Many of the articles in the demands written down by the rebels related to religion. But there is much evidence that these articles were in fact written by the clergy and the gentry within the ranks of the pilgrims - they mention the names of European heretics who it is unlikely the commons would have heard of.
For their part, the commons feared the unknown. The religious changes coming their way threatened to change a way of life which had existed for hundreds of years, and so it was easy to rally them under the banner of opposing this change. Aske himself was certainly quite a high-minded religious idealist, and his ability to articulate his ideas to the commons and win their support of his religious imagery must not be under-estimated.
It is hard to know the exact motives of any of the groups involved in the rebellion, although an examination of the demands they published does show the vast number of interests which they represented. There are two themes which come up in every set of articles published by the rebels. One is concern over the dissolution of the monasteries, which is what Aske claimed was the main cause of the rising. It is unlikely that opposition to the dissolution was based on genuine theological understanding, rather the conservatism of the North was based on an understandable preference for the rituals and rites of the past over the scary unknown of Cromwell's new regime. The other ever-present concern was to do with taxation, and some historians have argued that this was the main reason for the rising.
The North of England had been poor for a long time, and in fact it was at this time not much poorer than it had been at other times. Nor was Crown taxation especially high at this time. Economic causes were in a way just a cover for the political causes of the North of England, who hated and resented the interference of London in their affairs. Cromwell was hated by both the gentry and the commons for his interference in their secular and religious lives, and this hatred knit them together into a force willing to fight together against the Crown. The divorce case had also upset the people of the North, who championed the now disinherited Princess Mary as Henry's successor. As it stood, Henry could will his successor through an act of parliament, and there was an absurd rumour in the North that he would pass the Crown to Cromwell!
As always, it is impossible to assess the motivation of every single rebel. Some had religious problems, some economic, some political. The North, distant from London and resentment of its influence, was often quick to rise against the Crown. Thomas Cromwell, through parliament, was executing a real coup in many respects, bringing about a revolution in English life, law, and the nature of authority. It is to be expected that he encountered some resistance upon the way, and for its part the Crown was most skillful in dealing with it.
1. The Amicable Grant had been an attempt to take roughly £800,000 from the commons, and even at the time people realized that this would totally devestate the English economy. However, the imperial ambitions of Henry VIII in his foolish youth were not easily waylayed.
2. Why is not entirely known. It may be because Darcy genuinely sympathized with the pilgrims for economic or religious reasons, or because the pilgrims threatened to kill his grandchildren. The loyalty of the troops guarding his castle was also in doubt.
Elton, G. R. England under the Tudors: Methuen & Co., 1974.
Fellows, Nicholas. Disorder and rebellion in Tudor England: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.
Fletcher, Anthony. Tudor Rebellions 2nd. ed.: Longman, 1973.
Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.