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Although you wouldn’t know it by its name, the Pilgrimage of Grace was a rebellion that occurred in the North of England from October 1536 to January 1537. It was motivated primarily by outrage at the dissolution of the monasteries and the English Reformation, although there were other secular motives as well.
The Pilgrimage of Grace is particularly significant as it was the single largest rebellion in Tudor history and presented a very real threat to the rule of Henry VIII, even though it ultimately failed to achieve its aims.
How did Henry VIII suppress this huge rebellion, and what relevance does the Pilgrimage of Grace have to Tudor history?
In the sixteenth century, the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope directed by King Henry VIII. This process was known as the English Reformation.
Not religious or spiritual.
The Pilgrimage of Grace refers to the uprising that occurred in Yorkshire. However, there were other smaller risings in the North as part of this rebellion, particularly in Lincolnshire. The Pilgrimage of Grace also refers to these uprisings as a whole, the events of which are detailed in the timeline below.
2 October 1536
The Lincolnshire Rising began.
4 October 1536
The Lincolnshire Rising spread. Dr Rayne, Chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln, was murdered.
5 October 1536
The Rebels, numbering around 40,000, marched towards Lincoln.
7 October 1536
The Lincolnshire Rebels occupied Lincoln Cathedral.
8 October 1536
The rebellion began in Yorkshire, led by Robert Aske.
12 October 1536
With the knowledge that the Duke of Suffolk was leading an army to face the rebels at Lincoln, many of the rebels left Lincoln.
18 October 1536
The Lincolnshire Rebellion collapsed.
20 October 1536
The Yorkshire Rebels occupied Pontefract Castle.
25 October 1536
The Rebellion spread further to the Pennines and the Lake District.
26 October 1536
The Rebels met with the Duke of Norfolk near Doncaster.
2-6 December 1536
Robert Aske met with the Duke of Norfolk. They agreed on a truce and the rebels drew up their demands in the Pontefract Articles.
Robert Aske met with Henry VIII at Greenwich Palace to discuss the rebels' demands.
16 January 1537
A renewed but very unsuccessful rebellion started in East Yorkshire, led by Sir Francis Bigod.
12 July 1537
Robert Aske was executed for treason in York. By this time, many others had also been executed for their involvement in the rebellion.
The motives of the rebels were complex, involving religion, economics, and politics. Let’s study those motivations in detail.
Henry VIII's reformation of the Church and the dissolution of the monasteries had proved extremely controversial. The break with Rome had occurred in 1534 and Henry VIII had become head of the Church of England.
After Henry became head of the Church of England, he began to dissolve the monasteries in 1536 as they represented the authority of the Pope. They also held a lot of wealth that the King could claim.
In the North of England, this was a particularly unpopular decision as that area of the country was, traditionally, strongly Catholic. Many also objected to the poor treatment of monks, nuns, and the clergy. They were often left homeless, destitute, and with very few options after they were forced out of their institutions.
In Tudor society, the parish church was the central point of everyone’s lives. The Reformation and establishment of the Church of England meant that many ordinary people felt that their community was threatened. Some people feared losing certain traditions that had been part of their communities for centuries, such as the worship of a particular saint, as well as losing their churches and wealth.
Although the Pilgrimage of Grace is normally explained as a religious rebellion, there were also underlying economic grievances that ordinary people had with the King, nobility, and the government. Those living in the North resented increased taxation, rents, and the encroachment of the nobility on their land.
The enclosure was a particularly sore issue. The common people resented how private landlords, generally from the gentry or nobility, were fencing land that had traditionally belonged to the common people. The people had always enjoyed the right to use the land to farm and graze cattle. Having it taken away not only insulted their dignity but also hindered their ability to make a living.
This felt like an attack on their rights and their community.
The fencing off of common land by private landlords.
The Pilgrimage of Grace also had some political motivations that were related to how Henry VIII ruled the country.
The initial cause of the Reformation had been Henry VIII’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to give him a male heir and marry Anne Boleyn. This situation is sometimes referred to as ‘The King’s Great Matter’. Many objected to the divorce on religious and moral grounds and were dismayed at Henry VIII’s poor treatment of Catherine of Aragon during the process.
Historian Geoffrey Elton has offered some evidence that suggests that there was a conspiracy of nobles involved in supporting the rebellion. He believes that the rebellions were largely the work of a group of nobility who wished to restore Princess Mary (Catherine of Aragon’s daughter) as heir to the throne of England.
It is said that they exploited the economic and religious concerns of the Northerners to put pressure on Henry VIII. Whilst this is not a concrete theory, it is nevertheless useful to understand how the Pilgrimage of Grace has been interpreted over time.
Now that we have looked at some of the causes of the rebellion, let's see the main figures who were involved in it.
Robert Aske was a lawyer from York who became the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace. The son of a gentleman, he was a devout Catholic and strongly opposed Henry VIII’s religious reforms.
During the rebellion, he took actions such as arranging for displaced nuns and monks to resume their religious observance and led negotiations with the Duke of Norfolk.
Despite being on fairly good terms with Henry VIII after the treaty in December 1536, Aske was eventually tried for treason and executed in York for his part in the rebellion.
Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk
Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk was a powerful politician who led the King’s forces against the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace. He initially tried to negotiate with the rebels and offer them a pardon, but when they refused, he led a brutal act of punishment against the rebels.
Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk was a politician, military commander, and close friend of Henry VIII. When the Lincolnshire Rising broke out, he led an army of the King’s troops towards Lincoln, prepared to deal with the rebels. He also offered them a pardon, which many accepted as they feared violence from the King’s troops.
While not directly involved in the rebellion, Thomas Cromwell is an important figure to remember as he was Henry VIII's principal advisor and the main architect of the Reformation. He was responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries and the rebels had a particular grievance with Cromwell’s religious policies.
In December 1536, Robert Aske presented the rebels' demands to the King. In their conversation, he said the following, demonstrating Cromwell's importance in the rebellion:
Sir, your majesty allows yourself to be governed by a tyrant named Cromwell. Everyone knows that if it had not been for him the 7,000 poor priests I have in my company would not be ruined wanderers as they are now.
The Pilgrimage of Grace presented a real threat to the rule of Henry VIII. Let’s study the main reasons for it.
The Reformation and break with the Catholic Church had been deeply unpopular and divisive in Europe. This was very troubling for Henry VIII, as the most powerful nations (like France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire) in Europe were strongly Catholic countries that condemned the Reformation.
With a rebellion rising in England, there was a very real concern that the Pilgrimage of Grace would gain support from one or more of these countries and mount an invasion, backed by the Pope to overthrow Henry VIII. There was no chance of England withstanding an attack like that.
Another reason why the Pilgrimage of Grace presented a threat was that it had support from different sections of society. It was not just a rising of the people: it had support from the nobility and clergy. The involvement of people who wielded power and influence in society, rather than just the common people, meant that the rebellion was more prepared and supported than usual, therefore presenting a greater threat.
A body of people who are ordained for religious services, such as priests and nuns.
Unlike most rebellions in the Tudor era, the Pilgrimage of Grace was not localised to one specific area of the country. The Pilgrimage of Grace spread across much of the North of England. As it was not localised to one area, it was more difficult to put down. In addition, the spread of the rebellion allowed for a greater number of people to join, making the rebellion stronger.
The banner used by the rebels in Pilgrimage of Grace. It displays the five wounds suffered by Jesus Christ on the cross. This imagery was used to evoke the suffering of the worshippers of Catholicism in England.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was suppressed in two ways: through peaceful agreement, and through acts of violence.
On 2 December 1536, the Duke of Norfolk met with Robert Aske to discuss the terms of an agreement for peace. The rebels drew up a formal list of their demands, entitled The Pontefract Articles:
It was agreed that the rebels would be pardoned and a parliament in Yorkshire would deal with other grievances. Aske was invited to present the demands to Henry VIII over Christmas 1536. In response to this diplomacy, the rebels had begun to disband, making it easier to suppress the rebellion.
Since the forces had been pacified by the agreement, the rebellion broke into smaller riots, which meant it was a lot easier to suppress. The army used force to break up these smaller outbreaks and many were executed, including Robert Aske himself.
Aske was imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London before being taken to York and hanged outside Clifford’s Tower at York Castle. Over 200 nobles, gentlemen, and clergy were executed for their part in the rebellion.
Bigod's rising in January 1537 emerged in the aftermath of the peace agreement as the rebels' demands were yet to be honoured. Aske tried to discourage this but this new rebellion gave Henry VIII reason to capture and execute the rebels, fulfilling none of their demands.
The Pilgrimage of Grace has retained an important place in the wider history of the Tudor era. This is mainly because it is the biggest act of anti-Reformation sentiment in the history of this period, and indeed one of the biggest uprisings to ever occur against any monarch of England.
It is significant because it could have been disastrous for Henry VIII, especially if foreign powers had gotten involved. The Pilgrimage of Grace demonstrates how polarising the English Reformation was.
Henry VIII’s desire for divorce raised controversy in Europe and alienated England. It also split the country into opposing sides, creating a divide that would continue to cause domestic problems throughout the rest of Henry VIII’s reign and into the reigns of the rest of the Tudor monarchs.
The English Reformation was the cause of rebellions and disorder a long time after the reign of Henry VIII. Some examples include the Western Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, during Edward VI's reign; Wyatt's rebellion in 1554 against Mary I, and the Northern Rebellion in 1569 against Elizabeth I.
Even beyond the Tudor era, the Reformation caused issues. For example, the 1605 Gunpowder plot against James I was motivated by a desire for the return of Catholicism under the new king. In 1701, over 150 years after the Reformation took place, the Act of Settlement was passed to ensure Protestant succession to the throne of England, eventually leading to George I becoming King of England.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was a major rebellion against the rule of Henry VIII that occurred from October 1536 to January 1537. The Rebellion arose in response to the English Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries but there were also economic and political causes.
The Pilgrimage of Grace began with the Lincolnshire Uprising, which began in Louth, Lincolnshire and spread over the county. The main Pilgrimage of Grace began in Yorkshire and then spread throughout the county and into much of the North of England.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was ended by both peaceful negotiation and brutal suppression. An agreement was made in December 1536 to ensure that the rebel army would disband, but by July 1537, over 200 members of nobility, gentry and clergy had been executed for supporting the rebellion.
The causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace were religious, economic and political. Many people, especially in the North of England, disliked the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. They also objected to rising taxes and rent, increasing the enclosure of land, and the growing power of the nobility in their area. Many also did not agree with Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
Peaceful agreements were made in which the rebels agreed to disband if the King would listen to their grievances and potentially act upon them. However, the disbanded rebel forces could not match the strength and numbers of the King’s troops when the crucial moments came.
When did the Pilgrimage of Grace take place?
October 1536 to July 1537
What smaller uprising preceded the Pilgrimage of Grace?
The Lincolnshire Rising
Who led the Pilgrimage of Grace?
Which of the following was NOT a cause of the Pilgrimage of Grace?
The articles that detailed the rebel demands were called…
The Pontefract Articles
What was enclosure?
The fencing off of common land by private landlords
Which historian put forward the theory of a noble conspiracy in support of the rebellion?
Which politician was responsible for the policies of the Reformation and particularly hated by the rebels?
Who led the King’s forces to defeat the rebels in Yorkshire?
The Duke of Norfolk
Which important piece of biblical imagery was included on the banner that the rebels marched under?
The wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross
What was one reason why the Pilgrimage of Grace was a genuine threat to Henry VIII?
The potential for foreign support from much more powerful countries
What happened over Christmas in 1536?
Robert Aske was invited to Greenwich Palace to meet the king
Who led the smaller and very unsuccessful uprising in early 1537?
Sir Francis Bigod
Why did the rebellion occur and spread in the North of England?
The North of England was traditionally a strongly Catholic area.
What was the eventual fate of Robert Aske?
He was executed
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