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The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536: Facts & Overview

Instructor: Wendy Faircloth

Wendy has taught all subjects of high school social studies and English and has a master's degree in Secondary Education.

Learn about one of the most serious domestic issues faced by King Henry VIII of England - a rebellion, well-organized and with religious overtones, that could have toppled him from the throne.

Standing Against the Throne

England, 1536 -- Henry VIII, one of England's most notorious kings, was on the throne. Any challenge to the king was a crime of treason, punishable by death. Men convicted of treason were hanged, cut down while still alive, disemboweled, and after death had their heads cut off and their bodies cut into four pieces. The 'quarters,' or pieces of their bodies, were sent to and displayed in the places in which their treason had occurred as a warning to others. All traitors' heads were prominently displayed on a spike, often on the London Bridge, to remind the public of the consequences of disloyalty.

Given such a harsh penalty, why would anyone rebel against the king? It is hard to imagine taking the risk of facing such brutal punishment. Yet in 1536, there were uprisings against Henry VIII in the north of England, leading to a serious threat to his reign. One of these uprisings, the Pilgrimage of Grace, began in Yorkshire and eventually included 35,000 men, well-armed and ready for battle. The Pilgrimage of Grace was an especially strong threat to Henry because of the strong and effective leadership of Robert Aske, a Yorkshire lawyer from an established landowning family.

What Made Henry VIII Vulnerable to Rebellion?

Many people remember Henry VIII for his marriages to six different women during his lifetime, two of whom he executed. He is also known for his break with the Roman Catholic Church and for appointing himself the Head of the Church of England. Henry's marital and religious issues were reasons for dissent within his kingdom.

King Henry VIII of England

Henry had been married to Katherine of Aragon, a princess of Spain, for twenty years, but they only had one child that survived infancy: the Princess Mary. While today a female heir would not be a problem, in the England of Henry's time, there had never been a successful Queen regnant (a Queen ruling in her own right; Queens of England were Queen consorts as the wives of kings.)

Henry had grown desperate for a legitimate son so that he could pass on his kingdom securely, avoiding the risk of the violent civil wars that England had experienced before. Henry tried to force the Pope to 'annul' his marriage to Katherine, or say that they had never truly been married, but this ploy failed.

Taking matters into his own hands, King Henry declared himself Head of the Church in his realm, England, and had his Archbishop Thomas Cranmer annul the marriage. He also had his daughter, Mary, stripped of the title of Princess and declared illegitimate.

Unhappiness Spreads

This turn of events made many people in England very angry. While a minority of English people welcomed a break with Rome, fueled by the ideas of Reformation of the church in Europe, many did not. English Catholics were appalled at the break with what they saw as the abandonment of the true Church. To make matters worse, Henry VIII was disbanding monasteries and abbeys and taking their land and money. The dissolution of the monasteries was extremely unpopular in much of England, particularly in the North. People looked on in horror as the treasures of the Church were poured into Henry's coffers.

The nobility of the North, as well as many of the common people, blamed many of Henry's actions on his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. (It was much safer to denounce Cromwell than the King himself.) Cromwell was not a member of the noble elite. He came from very humble birth and rose on his own merit, something almost unheard of at the time. The nobles and landed gentry of the North loathed Cromwell and resented his influence over Henry.

The common people were unhappy as well. Agricultural practices were changing in England, with an increasing tendency for a few prosperous landholders to take control of what had previously been common farmland that many could use and instead 'enclosing' it as pasture. This tendency to enclose land seemed to create wealth for few at the expense of many. Without land to farm, ordinary people had no way to support themselves. A difficult economic climate meant that ordinary citizens felt they did not have much to lose, increasing their willingness to participate in a revolt.

Rebellion Breaks Out

Resentment swelled up, and an uprising began in Lincolnshire. However, this movement was repressed rather quickly. The young lawyer Robert Aske, who had been traveling and caught up in the Lincolnshire protest on his way to London, decided to help the cause with his legal skills and leadership ability.

Under Aske, an uprising began in Yorkshire. Aske imposed order and structure on the rebellion. He chose the term 'Pilgrimage of Grace' to convey the sense of religious mission that the movement had. Like other gentlemen of the day, Aske believed Thomas Cromwell was the real culprit behind Henry's increasingly unpopular policies. His goal was never to overthrow the King, but rather to get his attention.

The Rebels Make Their Demands

Aske and the nobles of the rebel group met and formed a list of '24 Articles,' or demands they wanted to make of the King before they would disband. These demands addressed primarily religious issues, but also touched on some important political and social issues. Some of the most important demands were:

• England would not tolerate the 'heresies' of the Reformers (such as Luther, Wycliffe and Hus)

• England would again be under the authority of the Pope in Rome and that Parliament would recognize the rights of the Church

• The king's daughter, the Lady Mary, would be restored to legitimacy

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