Catholic Insight Sept 1997 v5 i7 p24-6

Henry VIII and the Pilgrimage of Grace (1537).



Loughran, Hugh

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1997 Catholic Insight


Two years ago, Hugh Loughran contributed two splendid articles concerning the period of the Reformation in England, "Easterweek, 1534" (C.I., April 1995) on St. Thomas More, and "June 22, 1535: St. John Fisher" (June 1995). Now he carries the story on to describe a popular movement to restore Catholicism in England and Henry's treacherous and brutal way of dealing with it.

During the study of A Man For All Seasons, a student asked me if Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More were the only defenders of the Catholic Church against Henry VIII. I told him of the Carthusians, and the other monks, priests, and laymen, but I forgot the largest, the most important, and the most neglected popular rising in English history, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the name given by Robert Aske, a Yorkshire lawyer practising in London, and one of its leaders.

In Yorkshire, Cumberland and Westmoreland, between October 9 and 14, through December, 1536, men of all classes -- nobles, gentry, clergy, and people -- rose in defence of Catholicism against Henry's attack.

The Pilgrimage of Grace is unique. Thirty-five thousand men of all classes united in this peaceful and spontaneous rising, the essential motive of which was religion. The pilgrims wanted the revocation of the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Treasons, which attempted to subject religion to politics and conscience to loyalty.


"The most dangerous insurrection" -- a peaceful one

The state papers of Henry VIII's reign reveal that Henry and his councillors considered it the most dangerous insurrection that had ever taken place. The swift mobilization and immediate solidarity of all classes of Northerners under their religious standards and banners proclaim the force and extent of the pilgrimage. From the borders of Scotland to the Lune and the Humber rivers and from "the Irish Sea to the German Ocean," the people freely swore a solemn oath, which its formulator Aske and the other leaders had explained to them before the swearing at York on October 17. In it, they bound themselves to take up Christ's cross, to defend the Catholic Church, to preserve the King's person and his issue, to strive for the suppression of "these heretics" and their heresies, to expel "villein" blood and "evil councillors" and to replace them with men of decent birth: they named Cromwell, Audley, and Rich, "that dicer and false swearer."

In their defence of the church, they demanded the restoration of the Mass, the restoration of papal authority in England, the casting out of Cranmer and other heretical bishops, and the return of monks and nuns to their suppressed lesser monasteries and religious houses.

The suppression of the lesser monasteries and religious houses, which had never been granted by either House, had brought social and economic chaos. A tremendous transfer of wealth occurred. For seven or eight centuries, monasteries, many of which had been founded by Irish missionaries from Saint Columba's monastery of Iona, had provided schools the means to educate in faith and virtue; hospitals; orphanages; shelter for poor local people with no families; employment for labourers; work for tenant farmers; and the maintenance of roads and seawalls. The monasteries gave comfort to weary travellers, and many people, busy at their daily work, could be refreshed by looking up to see the calm beauty of the monastery against the skyline.

The suppression and the Statute of Uses brought enclosure, and former pasture and leased farm land disappeared with the arrival of Henry's favourites.

The people fought the commissioners when they came to dissolve a monastery. They sheltered the elderly, feeble, and beloved monks and nuns whenever they could, and as the pilgrimage moved south, they returned the monks and nuns to their suppressed houses.

The people knew that the spoliation and desecration of the monasteries foreshadowed the spoliation and desecration of their parish churches. They suffered economic hardship from the suppression of the lesser monasteries, but their prime opposition arose from the desecration of the sacred. Consider the oath they swore.


Unswerving loyalty

The pilgrims were absolute nevertheless, in their loyalty to Henry as their sovereign lord. We shall see that it was the unswerving loyalty of Aske and the other leaders to Henry as their king which led to the defeat of the pilgrimage.

They marched peacefully under their banners, on which were seen the Five Wounds of Christ above the host above the chalice, from York to Doncaster, where the Duke of Norfork with 8,000 men (most of whom, he admitted, were in sympathy with the pilgrims) faced the 35,000 armed pilgrims including 12,000 horse -- knights, squires, yeomen -- and 800 priests and monks.


The liberties demanded

Norfolk had been sent north to parley. Henry had given him power to speak in his name.

On November 27, Aske and the leaders of the pilgrimage met at Pomfret (Pontefract) Castle to agree to the terms under which they would lay down their arms. In addition to the clauses of the oath and their demands at York on October 17, they demanded the recognition of the liberties of the Church under the Pope granted by Magna Carta; the affirmation that only Convocation could deal with spiritual matters; the suppression of heretical books; the restoration of Princess Mary, bastardized by Henry's "marriage" to Anne Boleyn; the prosecution of the royal commissioners, described as lewd, ignorant, brutal men "for extortion, peculation, and other abominable acts"; the restoration of holy days; and the end to enclosure.

They were demanding nothing more than the peace and order that had existed in England before Henry began his murderous revolution against the Church. Like Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher, and their companions in martyrdom, they were defending the Faith against the Defender of the Faith.

After all the articles and demands had been read and explained to the people, all agreed to them.

While the pilgrims gave unquestioned loyalty to Henry as their sovereign lord, all the demands and articles of their petition show a complete collapse of confidence in the royal government. To underscore their political loyalty to Henry, consider their rising's name, the Pilgrimage of Grace.


Lies and betrayal

Norfolk accepted the pilgrims' terms and took them to Henry. Henry did what he always did in a crisis: he stalled for time. His final betrayal of his loyal subjects was foreshadowed by his instructing his ambassadors in the lies they were to tell about the causes and progress of the pilgrimage.

Henry hoped that disaffection and disputes among the pilgrims would cause a rash attack and thereby give him an excuse to punish the insurgents. But Aske handled any grumbling skilfully.

He and the other leaders kept order (prevented stealing, etc.) and frustrated Henry's hopes. Norfolk tried to have Aske assassinated, but no one would betray him. Henry attempted to intimidate the pilgrims: he fatuously claimed their demands were not clear enough. He demanded to know how the pilgrims could speak against the good bishops who supported him, and he pointed out that the liberties of the Church conflicted with the laws of the realm. The pilgrims stuck to their demands.

Henry was so terrified by the real and tremendous threat that he intended to restore papal authority in England.

At a second meeting with the pilgrims in York on December 3, Norfolk pledged in Henry's name to grant a general pardon to all pilgrims and to hold a parliament within a year at York or Nottingham to undo the disastrous legislation of the past seven years. The King accepted Norfolk's pledge.

Some pilgrims were sceptical. The crisis had come.


"We are pilgrims, not rebels"

Aske's loyalty saved Henry. His assurance of Henry's fidelity allowed the pilgrims to disband - confident, even joyful, that their petitions had been granted by their sovereign Lord.

On December 17, Henry invited Aske to present to him "the whole circumstance and beginning of that matter," and assured him of the protection of the pardon "already granted to you."

At Henry's request, Aske wrote a complete history of his connection with the rising. This crucial document, called the "expostulatory narrative to the king," has never been published. Yet the lies of one of the commissioners visiting religious houses and monasteries have been published repeatedly.

Yorkshire in January 1537 saw a new wave of unrest caused by impatience with Henry's delays, Suffolk's manoeuvres, Cromwell's continuing in office, and no relief from the suppressions or the hostile acts against the church.

Aske wrote to Henry warning him of the continuing danger of insurrection. Many testified to his constant efforts to calm the people, and his statement to the pilgrims, "We are pilgrims, not rebels," is a testament of his loyalty.

The King never intended to carry out his promises on the specious grounds that they were promises of a universal pardon and a parliament, not an actual pardon. Even the anti-Catholic nineteenth-century historian J.A. Froude, however, acknowledged that Henry had really granted a pardon.

Sir Francis Bigod was a member of the Pilgrimage of Grace, but he was not in sympathy with its aims. In late January, suspicious of Henry's delays and fearful of reprisals, he attacked Hull and Scarborough. The attacks failed. In February, stricken peasants laid hopeless siege to Carlisle.

Aske had attempted to control Bigod and to quell his rebellion. For this, he received a letter of heartfelt thanks from Henry. But the letters which Aske and other leaders of the pilgrimage wrote to discourage Bigod were later used by Henry to convict them of treason. In their letters, they reminded Bigod of the goals and demands of the pilgrims, and Henry said this was treason by word.

Bigod was unbalanced. A Protestant, he applied for a licence to be a priest. Not from a desire to sanctify his parishioners. He craved getting into a pulpit.


Broken promises and terrifying reprisals

These attacks on Hull, Scarborough, and Carlisle were the excuse Henry was looking for to break his pledge given at Doncaster. He charged that "the solicitations and traitorous conspiracies of monks and canons" had incited the people. The monks and canons were innocent.

Lincoln, York, Durham, Newcastle, and Hull witnessed terrifying reprisals.

Acting on Henry's orders and under martial law, Norfolk spread terror and devastation. In February, seventy-four men were hanged at Carlisle. In Cumberland, seventy peasants were hanged from trees in their gardens. The chief monks of Sawley, one of the religious houses opened by the pilgrims, were "to be hanged on long pieces of timber, or otherwise out of the steeple." One hundred and fifty other victims would be executed in London and in various places in the North.

In York, Hull, and Pontefract, some five hundred men were hanged, among them many monks and friars in their habits and twenty-three leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Norfolk's savagery was seen in his "hanging upon the trees a score of men in every village he passed along." These peasants were denied the last sacraments.

The state papers of Henry's reign record Norfolk's statement at Welby: "I will esteem no promise that I make to them (his victims) nor think my honour is touched in the violation of the same."

In the grand jury investigation of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace at York on May 9, 1537, Norfolk, as well as packing the jury, made the relatives and friends of the accused sit on the jury, among whom was John Aske, Robert's brother. This almost unbelievable cruelty was done to try their loyalty. Norfolk concluded his letter to Cromwell detailing his scheme involving the jurors: "Doubt ye not, my lord, but the matter shall be found according to the king's pleasure."

Aske and all the others were found guilty of conspiring on the tenth of October, 1536, "to deprive the king of his dignity, title, name, and royal state, namely of being on earth the supreme head of the English Church." The jury found them also guilty of endeavouring to compel the king "to summon and hold a parliament and convocation and other divers high treasons." Further, that, once pardoned, they repeated these treasons in January.

A week later, the accused were brought before chancellor Audley at Westminster. They pleaded not guilty. Their trial took place on May 24.

On that day, all the prisoners, except one, were condemned to death.

We have seen that ironically it was not Norfolk's loyalty but the loyalty of Aske and the other leaders which saved Henry, and for their courageous loyalty to Henry, the nobles were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, and Robert Aske was dragged through the streets of York on a hurdle, and then hanged in chains.


Why the Pilgrimage failed

The Pilgrimage of Grace failed because the pilgrims, while armed, did not bargain from a position of strength. They attempted to negotiate before they had conquered. Trusting Henry's pledge, Aske, Henry's most loyal subject and his severest critic, restrained those who would march farther south and conquer. The King himself knew that the country from Doncaster to London supported the pilgrimage. Aske believed Henry would keep his pledge and would never wreak bloody vengeance on them. That Henry intended such vengeance can be seen in his threat during the previous Lincolnshire rising to have "the utter destruction of them, their wives, and their children."


Tyranny Victorious

With the defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace, nothing checked Henry's tyranny. Cromwell brought about a complete change of government of the North. The reopened monasteries and religious houses were again possessed by the Crown, and the suppression of the lesser monasteries continued.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, in the words of Professor John Scarisbrick, "must stand as a large-scale, spontaneous, authentic indictment of all that Henry most obviously stood for, and it passed judgement against him as surely and comprehensively as Magna Carta condemned King John or the Grand Remonstrance the government of Charles I."

I mentioned at the beginning that the Pilgrimage of Grace is the most neglected popular rising in English history. The English crown was never in more danger of being toppled, yet non-Catholic historians have generally dismissed this as a local event of no consequence, pathetic in its attempt to bring down Henry's solid regime.

Such dismissal arises presumably from its failure and its being too great a popular movement to be ignored or countenanced.

More convincingly, these historians attempt to dismiss the Pilgrimage of Grace because it was a movement, splendid in its magnitude, that was fought for the wrong religion.


Hugh Loughran is a retired English teacher involved in prolife work who lives in Mississauga, ON.


Document Number: A30430815


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