Historica Wiki
Historica Wiki

The Pilgrimage of Grace (October 1536-October 1537) was a popular uprising that began in Yorkshire, before spreading to other parts of northern England, including Cumberland, Northumberland, and north Lancashire, under the leadership of the lawyer Robert Aske. The rebellion was a protest against King Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the policies of the King's chief minister Thomas Cromwell.



In 1536, King Henry VIII of England's chief minister Thomas Cromwell initiated the "Dissolution of the Monasteries", in which royal commissioners fanned out throughout England to close down monasteries, friaries, priories, and nunneries, destroy religious symbols, and confiscate the wealth and property of the religious houses for the King's exchequer. Cromwell's anti-clerical policies also included the banning of feast days for Catholic saints and raised taxes on the peasantry. In rural northern England, a spontaneous mass protest of the conservative elements angry with the religious upheavals instigated by King Henry began to demand that Parliament be convened in northern England, that taxes be abolished, that the attacks on churches and religious houses stop, and that feast day venerations be allowed. John Constable recruited the learned lawyer Robert Aske as the leader of the uprising, and the "captains" of the rebels told all of their followers (mostly peasants) to wear badges showing the wounds of Jesus.


Members of the pilgrimage

The peasant army captured Lincoln shortly after the revolt began, and the local gentry was unable to stop the peasants, who were superior in numbers and resolve. King Henry VIII decided to send Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk to command a royal army and suppress the uprising, and he had Cromwell warn the rebels to return home and remember their loyalty to the King.

Capture of Pontefract

The rebel army marching on Pontefract

The rebels in Lincolnshire dispersed and returned home after being offered a pardon, but in Yorkshire and the whole north, the rebels entered York and celebrated mass in the cathedral there. The rebels grew in numbers with each victory, and they proceeded to march on Pontefract Castle, which was held by Lord Darcy. Lord Darcy wrote to the King, asking for him to negotiate with the rebels, as the castle was unable to be held against the large rebel army. Lord Darcy met with Aske, and the peaceful Aske convinced Darcy to give shelter to his pilgrims, who swore not to kill from envy. Meanwhile, Cromwell raised new levies in London and had Richard Rich named the commander of the garrison. As Suffolk advanced north, he requisitioned horses from the people of London, reprimanding Mayor Ralph Warren for his decision to not requisition horses, lest he create panic.

Suffolk encamped not far from Newark, with Shrewsbury's 6,000 troops being encamped nearby. The royal forces originally planned to hold a line along the River Trent to block the rebel advance, but they were lacking in cannon, and they faced 30,000 rebel soldiers. The rebels kept large forces at Doncaster and Jervaux Abbey, and they laid siege to the Earl of Cumberland's castle at Skipton. North of the River Don, the rebels had complete control of almost all of the country. The rebels decided to wait for the outnumbered royal forces to attack, knowing that any attack would likely be defeated. Pope Paul III, with the encouragement of Cardinal Otto Truchsess von Waldburg, decided to appoint Reginald Pole as a Papal legate, and he would head to France and the Low Countries to meet representatives from the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor and persuade them to provide monies, arms, and mercenaries to support the "most holy crusade" in England.


The Duke of Suffolk negotiating with the rebel leaders

The Duke of Suffolk decided to negotiate with the rebels rather than do battle, and he rode out to the rebel camp to meet the pilgrims. The rebels agreed to his proposal to have a truce as two of the rebel captains presented a petition to the King, but Suffolk - intending to betray his promise - failed to convince Lord Darcy to turn over Aske at the parley. John Constable and Ralph Ellerker were sent to London, and the King decided to offer a general pardon to the rebels, while the Duke was sent to negotiate with the rebels. Constable did not agree with the negotiations, as he presented a copy of a letter from Cromwell that threatened to crush the rebellion so brutally so that people in the future would continue to fear the monarchy. 

Nevertheless, Aske decided to agree to negotiations with the Duke of Suffolk in York, and the Duke of Suffolk informed the rebel leaders that King Henry graciously conceded to the rebels' request to hold a parliament in the north; a special parliament would be held at York. However, the rebels' demand to punish Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Audley, and Richard Rich was not answered by the Duke, who said that he could not offer an answer. He then proceeded to say that Papal obedience would be discussed at the special parliament, and that a general pardon would be offered. Aske then proceeded to bring up the issue of the maintenance of religious houses, and the Duke of Suffolk stated that the destruction of religious houses would halt until the parliament session was called, and the matter of their restoration would be discussed at Parliament. The rebels were persuaded to go home and put aside their arms, as Christmas was approaching, and Aske told them that they had succeeded in ensuring that their faith had been maintained without bloodshed. Aske's audience was then requested by King Henry, and he was granted safe passage to and from the court. Aske was treated very kindly, with King Henry giving him a coat as a gift, promising to travel to York for his wife Jane Seymour's coronation, and allowing for his daughter, Princess Mary of England, to visit Aske, whom she praised (he then said that he wanted for her to become the next ruler of England).

Return to war

Aske returned to Pontefract Castle and told the men there of the King's good deeds, but he found that the men had already made up their minds to continue the war. John Constable announced that the men were marching on to Carlisle, as Constable claimed that the King's promises were empty. This was to Aske's displeasure, as he was angry at his fellow rebels for putting the agreement in jeapordy with their rash actions.

King Henry then sent Suffolk to northern England to force the people to accept an oath in which they would swear their allegiance to the king and acknowledge their past sins. King Henry told Suffolk to lie about the parliament, calling it a "delay", and he angrily scolded Suffolk after Suffolk reminded Henry that he had given his word to the peasants. He then scolded Cromwell for his low birth when Cromwell attempted to weigh in on the situation in the King's favor. 

Quelling of the uprising

The fight near Carlisle

The executions of captured rebels

The rebels gathered near Carlisle, ready and eager to besiege the castle, but the Duke of Suffolk led his men in an attack on the rebels, bringing out the spears. The rebels were driven back in a bloody chase, and scores of men were captured. Constable was captured, and the rebel army was crushed. This uprising, a breach of the rebels' pledges, allowed for Thomas Cromwell to proclaim martial law in the whole of the north. The Duke of Suffolk then confronted John Constable, and he told him that he was to be taken to London to be tortured; Constable then told the Duke that he had lied about the Parliament, and told him that he probably did not mean to carry out the promise. Shrewsbury then gave Suffolk a list of names of the 74 people who refused to write down their past crimes and submit the oath; all of those people were to be executed. Several of them were hung from trees, and a disturbed Suffolk gave the sign of the cross from a distance as he watched the affair.

Punishment of the leaders

The display of the rebel leaders' heads

The Duke of Suffolk travelled to Pontefract, where he confronted Lord Darcy, Elleker, and Aske, and Darcy informed Suffolk that they were against the rising, and that they had not betrayed the king. Suffolk informed the men that he was sure of their loyalty, but he had them travel south with him to explain the recent events. Suffolk assured the men that he would write letters to the king and council in all of their favors, and the leaders were persuaded to go with Suffolk. Suffolk took Aske to Francis Bryan, who told him that he would be kept in the Tower of London for his "safety", and that he would be nicely lodged there. Cromwell informed Suffolk that he was rumored to be a secret papist due to punishing only 74 of the 40,000 rebels, and told him to make a terrible example of the rebels.

Darcy, Elleker, and Aske were imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Darcy and Constable were beheaded for treason; Darcy after a treasonous letter, dated after the King announced the amnesty, was discovered. Aske was sentenced to death after admitting that he supported the monasteries because of their contributions to society, which Cromwell said was begrudging the persecution of Catholicism and king's supremacy. He was sentenced to be returned to York, where he would be hanged in chains as punishment for his role in the rebellion. Elleker was pardoned, but only after he confessed his sins, and he was wracked by guilt after his friends were killed.


A crowd of civilians being confronted by the Duke of Suffolk before their executions

The uprising was put down with sheer brutality, and 216 people were executed, including 6 abbots, 38 monks, 16 parish priests, and several knights. The Duke of Suffolk felt guilty about his role in crushing the uprising, but he later told his wife Catherine that he would have killed his own children if it meant remaining in the King's favor; he was then sent to the north to massacre men, women, and children. Cardinal Reginald Pole condemned King Henry in the vilest of terms, as a "heretic" and "adulterer", in response to his brutal suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising. The same cardinal was granted private audience with King Francis I of France, and he attempted to persuade King Francis and others to help rekindle the rebellions against King Henry. The Pilgrimage of Grace was the most significant of the Tudor rebellions, and England would not be reconciled to the Catholic Church, except during the brief reign of Mary I of England from 1553 to 1558.