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Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and the Pilgrimage of Grace


480 years ago on December 2nd a group of men gathered at Pontefract in Yorkshire to produce a list of grievances against King Henry VIII and his policies. These men were the representatives of a massive number of rebels who had participated in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a revolt of some 30,000 which had the potential to seriously threaten the king’s grasp on his throne.

A series of uprisings against the king and his councillors broke out in Louth, Lincolnshire at the start of October 1536 and although this initial revolt ended within a fortnight, the movement and its ideas had spread to neighbouring counties, most notably Yorkshire. It is this stage of the rebellion – from 14 October – which is properly referred to as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The title appears to have been devised by the London-based lawyer, Robert Aske at York.

The rising, which the Duke of Norfolk referred to as representing ‘all the flower of the north’ was huge, spontaneous and crucially, encompassed all three orders of the realm; the commons, the clergy and the nobility.

The main cause of the insurrection was objection to the king’s religious policies: the dissolution of the monasteries, the promotion of heretical bishops and the influence of ‘persons of low birth and small reputation’, specifically Thomas Cromwell and Richard Rich.

‘To have the lord Crumwell, the Lorde Chancelor, and Sir Ric Riche knight to have condigne ponyshment, …as maynteners of the false sect of those heretiques..’

Aske prepared an oath to be sworn by the Pilgrims which called for the restitution of the church, the suppression of heretics and the expulsion of ‘all villain blood and evil councillors…from his grace and his privy council..’.[1] 

The earls of Shrewsbury, Rutland and Huntingdon (among others) advised the king about the magnitude of the rebellion and Aske was warmly received in York, where he issued proclamations between 15 and 16 October. One was an order for the suppressed religious houses to be restored, including St. Mary’s at Sawley in Lancashire. At this time, a sixteen stanza Pilgrims’ Ballad was in circulation throughout the north and is an example of anti-regime religious policy.  

The Earl of Shrewsbury sent Lancaster Herald to Pontefract to deliver a proclamation condemning the king’s subjects for having behaved ‘unnaturally’ and offered a pardon if the rebels were prepared to submit. Aske prevented the herald from making the proclamation and the rebellions continued with musters taking place in Yorkshire and Cumberland. How had a situation come about where a rising of this magnitude had continued unchallenged for three weeks? By late October, nine well-armed hosts had formed and all regarded Aske as their leader. The Pilgrimage demonstrated how rebels could utilise warning beacons, bells and musters to raise well-equipped armies which were larger than any Henry could field against them.

Despite Henry’s belligerent rhetoric and threats to lead an army royal, the king’s commanders on the ground had a more realistic grasp of the situation. It was in these circumstances that the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Shrewsbury met with the rebels at the First Appointment at Doncaster on 27 October 1536 and agreed a truce. This was agreed on the understanding that the rebels’ five grievances or articles were to be taken to the king by two of the Pilgrim leaders, Ralph Ellerker and Robert Bowes, accompanied by the Duke of Norfolk.

The truce held throughout the month of November, although there are numerous references to Henry’s contempt for the rebels and his correspondence is suggestive that he was biding his time, waiting for the rebels to slip up. On 21 November the Pilgrims’ council met at York, where Robert Bowes gave an account of his visit to the king at Windsor and reassured them as to the king’s mercy. Henry was willing to pardon all but ten ringleaders. There were many among the Pilgrims who hated and distrusted Cromwell and Aske was of the view that there were many in the south of the country who longed for the Pilgrims to arrive there. Heresy was deeply unpopular in the North and Cromwell was perceived as its principal advocate and the main provider of evil counsel. By making Cromwell the author of their misfortunes, the Pilgrims were seeking to frame their movement as not being against royal authority.

The Pilgrims representatives were summoned to a second appointment to discuss the situation with the Duke of Norfolk. In the lead up to the meeting, the issue of a free and general pardon for all rebels was a major part of the debate. The meeting took place at Pontefract between 2 and 4 December and Norfolk had been advised by the Privy Council that it would not be honourable for Henry to grant a free pardon: the king was of a view that his honour would be gravely diminished. However, the rebels’ military strength and resolve obliged Norfolk to grant the free and general pardon, and it reserved no one for punishment. 

The Pilgrims based their negotiating position on the original five articles given to Norfolk on 27 October and produced the twenty-four Pontefract Articles on 4 December. Of these, ten are undoubtedly exclusively religious grievances and are discussed in detail in Insurrection: Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Heresy, heretical bishops, the Dissolution of the monasteries and the Royal Supremacy were all criticised and the Pilgrims petitioned that the king’s daughter by Katherine of Aragon be declared legitimate (she had endured the demotion from princess to ‘Lady Mary’ following her father’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the subsequent Act of Succession, 1534). The rebels also wished to have a parliament convened in either Nottingham or York in the near future.

On 6 December it was agreed that these twenty-four articles were to be taken to the king and a general pardon be granted. In addition, the restored abbeys were allowed to remain.

Two days later, Lancaster Herald brought the general pardon and confirmation that a parliament would convene at York (although no date was specified). The gentlemen met with Norfolk at Doncaster and tore off their Pilgrim badges (of the Five Wounds of Christ) and dispersed.

So far as the Pilgrims were concerned, this must have felt like a mission accomplished: all were pardoned, a parliament was to convene in York, the restored abbeys would stand and the king would consider their twenty-four articles.

The very fact that such a vainglorious monarch such as Henry VIII condescended to contemplate a discourse with the rebels demonstrates the sheer magnitude of the insurrection and the potential it had to threaten his throne. It must be remembered that English monarchs in this period did not have standing armies and thirty thousand men in the field by early modern standards was a huge number. Henry’s own father (with an extremely flimsy claim) had won the throne by conquest with a mere fraction of that number only fifty-one years previously.

There has been much debate as to whether Henry ever intended to keep the agreement: to consider the rebels’ grievances, to hold a parliament in York and freely to pardon all the protagonists. It is in the aftermath that the king’s response will be examined to try and shed some light on his true intentions.

By Susan Loughlin

[1] Susan Loughlin, Insurrection: Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and the Pilgrimage of Grace2016, p.33

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