It may sound like a peaceful procession of holy people, but the event of 1536 that became known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace” was more like a revolution than a pilgrimage, and the consequences for its participants were far from peaceful, with many of them ending up swinging from gibbets.
A reaction to the Dissolution of the Monasteries
The “Pilgrimage” was a direct response to the process instituted in 1535 that is generally referred to as the “Dissolution of the Monasteries”. As part of the English reformation of the Church, which began when King Henry VIII reacted to the Pope’s refusal to allow him to divorce Queen Katherine by assuming the headship of the Church in England, orders were given for all the religious houses to be closed down and for all their lands and property to be forfeited.
The King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, set about the task with enthusiasm as he stripped some 800 monasteries and nunneries of their treasures and, in the process, dismantled the country’s main source of education, employment and social welfare. It was undoubtedly true that many of the 7,000 monks, friars and nuns had become corrupt and venal – the situation had not improved in the century and a half since Geoffrey Chaucer had pointed this out in his Canterbury Tales – but the monasteries exerted such influence on local communities that their sudden removal was bound to have a devastating effect on the villages and towns round about.
Nearly a revolution
However, the Dissolution did not take place without protest. In October 1536 people across the north of England rose in revolt, with 40,000 rallying behind banners and marching to the aid of the monasteries. They succeeded in reinstating the monks and nuns in sixteen of the institutions that had already been suppressed and the “Pilgrimage” soon emerged as a major challenge to the authority of King Henry.
The central demand of the Pilgrims was that the reformation of the church should be reversed, including suppression of the Bible translation by William Tyndale and reinstatement of the traditional practices of the Catholic Church. They also demanded that Queen Katherine’s Catholic daughter, Princess Mary, should regain her legitimacy and thus her place as the heir to Henry’s throne. Their basic conviction was that King Henry had been pushed into taking actions that went beyond his beliefs and he had therefore been betrayed by arch-reformers such as Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
They actually had a point, because Henry’s personal beliefs were not far removed from those of his Catholic parents or first wife, Katherine of Aragon. He never ceased to believe, for example, in the doctrine of transubstantiation that held that the wine and bread of the mass were literally changed into the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ. This was a fundamental point of divergence from Luther and the other Protestant reformers.
Reaction to the Pilgrimage
However, even though King Henry might have had some sympathy with the religious views of the Pilgrims his greater need was to seize control of the wealth of the monasteries, and he could not allow anything to stand in the way of Cromwell’s progress towards full dissolution. The Pilgrimage had to be suppressed.
Although he appeared at first to be conciliatory towards the Pilgrims, for example by inviting their leader, Robert Aske, to London to present his grievances, he soon changed his tactics in favour of outright suppression. Orders were given to his army general, the Duke of Norfolk, to “cause dreadful execution” upon any town or village that had offended him by taking part in the Pilgrimage.
The Duke took his instructions seriously and was ruthless in his actions. At one monastery where the monks had been reinstated, the inmates were hanged on poles projecting from the steeple, and other protestors were hanged on trees in their gardens while their families watched. Robert Aske was hanged in public.
As so often, money talked. The sale of monastic land raised vast amounts of money, and the landed classes who bought the land from the king did very well from their enlarged estates. Many of the great aristocratic families of later centuries (down to the present day) owed their wealth and status to the bargains that they picked up as a result of Thomas Cromwell’s despoliations and the suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
© John Welford