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Yorkshire versus Henry VIII

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The defeat of the north was one of Henry VIII’s less-well-known achievements. Never heard of it? It was not achieved by battle but by rather less expensive methods: fear and impoverishment. Until his reign, the north (and Yorkshire in particular) had been thorns in the sides of English kings for centuries. Although smaller and poorer than the south, the north with its Scandinavian heritage of independence produced men and women who were tough, hardy fighters, useful as soldiers and invaluable against Scottish invaders.

That independence, however, made them dangerous, quite capable of marching on a terrified London, as they did during the Wars of the Roses, and owing loyalty not to the king, but to their own northern lords: the Percys, the Nevilles, the Scropes.

Henry wanted to centralise government in London, with himself in full control. He liked to keep the great landholders close under his own eye, and, like any mafia boss, surrounded himself with lesser men who relied solely upon him for their wealth. The rich pickings provided by the closure of the monasteries gave him the opportunity to buy the loyalty of ambitious men.

 In the north, often impoverished by war and less productive than further south, the many poor had always relied heavily on the support provided by monasteries made rich by the charitable gifts of centuries of pious donors. In Yorkshire alone there were ninety hospitals caring for the sick, elderly and foundlings and northern monasteries often also maintained the infrastructure of roads and bridges. After their closure monastic land was often “given” (i.e. sold) by Henry to anyone who was prepared to pay for it and, inevitably, it was those down south close to Henry who had the first pick. Large parts of Yorkshire became the property of southern men who had no interest in local problems or customs. The poor were thrown onto their own slender resources, or the dubious charity of landowners.

But what of those great northern lords who had held so much power? Outraged by the changes Henry was making to their religion as well as what they considered was their own loss of prestige in a court filled with southern low-born people like Cromwell, they attempted to ‘encourage’ the king to change his ways by joining, together with many ordinary northern folk, in a peaceful protest march to London: the Pilgrimage of Grace. Peaceful it may have been, but the numbers involved were considerable and, to the king, threatening. Persuaded by fair words to go home when they reached Doncaster, those who took part, noble as well as common, found themselves ruthlessly hunted down in subsequent months. Soon those ancient northern families were cowed into submission by the hanging, drawing and quartering of some of their members. Lesser mortals, including churchmen, were hanged. Fines and taxes followed, seriously impoverishing better off northerners.

In 1541 Henry finished the job by making a Great Progress to Yorkshire to demonstrate his own kingly glory, graciously accepting the homage (and gifts) of towns, their councillors kneeling before him, humbled by poverty.

There were later rebellions, but none that really come so close to success. Game set and match to Henry!

By Ingrid Barton

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