The Pilgrimage of Grace, October-December 1536

Article excerpt

The Pilgrimage of Grace has often been written off as a little local difficulty. Yet Nick Fellows is impressed by the power which Robert Aske and the other leaders could muster, by the shock they dealt to Henry VIII's government and by their success.

Despite being the most heavily documented of all the Tudor disturbances, the Pilgrimage of Grace had attracted relatively little study since the publication, by Ruth and Madeline Dodds, in 1915 of their work on the rising. Their narrative account was such that it appeared as if there was little more that could be said about the actual events, even if their analysis of the causes has been challenged. The Pilgrimage was dismissed as a failure and its significance and impact were seen as minimal. The rebels were defeated at Carlisle in February 1537, and the severe repression and executions that followed were a warning to other would-be rebels not to risk the wrath of their monarch. According to these accounts, the pilgrims had failed to achieve what appear to have been their prime goals of restoring the monasteries and removing the king's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.

The publication of Michael Bush's The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1996, however, challenged many of these assumptions, and in this article I want to suggest that the Pilgrimage represented not only a serious challenge to Henry, but nearly resulted in his replacement by his daughter Mary. The pilgrimage, far from being a failure, was a success and achieved many of its aims.

Defining the Pilgrimage

In order to understand why it is time to revise our understanding of the Pilgrimage it is essential that we are clear about the events with which we are dealing. The Pilgrimage of Grace refers only to those events that took place north of the River Trent between October and December 1536, culminating in a royal pardon issued in December. It does not include the Lincolnshire Rising, which was easily dispersed and was over within two weeks in early October; and nor does it include the Cumberland Rising that met its bloody end at Carlisle in February 1537, with rumours of 800 deaths on the field of battle and many more hanged in their own villages as a warning that further resistance was pointless. Although both these other risings were related to the main Pilgrimage and often had the same causes, they were separate revolts. The Lincolnshire rising was more violent, lacked the support of peers and did not restore the monastic houses, whereas the risings in 1537 were led not by a catholic, whose aim was to restore the old religion, but a supporter of the new learning, Sir Francis Bigod. Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgrimage proper, was not involved in the Cumberland fiasco: he was engaged in telling the northern gentry of the promises he had received in London from the king.

The Purposes of the Pilgrimage

We must also be very clear about the aims of the pilgrimage, for only then can we judge the achievements of the movement. Firstly, it was not a military rising designed to overthrow the king, and must not be seen as such. It was, as its name suggests, a pilgrimage that was to be peaceful and whose aim was to put pressure on the king to change his ways. This was shown clearly in the oath the pilgrims swore: `You shall not enter into this our Pilgrimage of Grace for the Commonwealth, but only for the love that ye do bear unto Almighty God his faith, and the Holy Church militant and the maintenance thereof, to the preservation of the King's person and his issue'. The oath continued to stress the sort of behaviour that was expected from the participants: they were not to use it to make profit, nor to harm others, but simply to take `the Cross of Christ'.

What was it that attracted in excess of 40,000 men to its cause? Historians have been quick to see the rising in terms of religion, a response to economic difficulties, local issues or the reaction of a defeated court faction. …