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date: 01 October 2022

Participants in the Pilgrimage of Gracefree

(act. 1536–1537)

Participants in the Pilgrimage of Gracefree

(act. 1536–1537)
  • Claire Cross

Participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace (act. 1536–1537), were involved in the most serious of all Tudor rebellions, which affected the whole of the north of England when it broke out in the autumn of 1536. While most historians still regard the pilgrimage as largely a rising of the commons and the lower clergy against the innovatory religious and economic policies of Henry VIII's government, a minority have interpreted it as a conspiracy by conservative members of the northern nobility to overthrow the revolutionary regime of the king's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.


The conflagration began on 2 October 1536 at Louth in Lincolnshire when, following an inflammatory sermon on the previous day by the vicar, Thomas Kendall, a mob that was already excited by rumours that the king intended to confiscate the treasures of parish churches and tax baptisms, marriages, and funerals (among much else), seized the bishop of Lincoln's registrar, who had arrived in the town to carry out an examination of the secular clergy. Next day the rising spread to Caistor. Egged on by their priests, as they progressed the commons compelled the local gentry to come in, while at Horncastle on 4 October they lynched the bishop's chancellor, John Reynes. On their approach to Sleaford, John Hussey, Baron Hussey, the major landowner in the area, turned tail and fled, while another opponent of the royal supremacy, Matthew Mackarell, abbot of Barlings, as well as religious from Bardney, Kirkstead, and some other monasteries, openly supported their cause. Having converged upon Lincoln on 6 October they set about listing their grievances.

Two days previously the rebels had captured Robert Aske, the younger son of a gentry family from Aughton in the East Riding, as he passed through the county for the beginning of the law term in London. After being constrained to take their oath he returned to Yorkshire, only to make his way back to Lincoln to discover how the king had reacted to the commons' demands. During his absence news of the Lincolnshire events reached Beverley and its hinterland, which rose on 8 October. His hand forced, on 10 October Aske assumed control of the revolt in the East Riding, to which he referred for the first time in specifically religious terms as the Pilgrimage of Grace. He then revised and reordered the Lincoln articles to give primacy to the preservation of the church, the king, and the commonwealth and to the reformation of abuses within the realm. As they moved north and west from Beverley the commons recruited Sir William Babthorpe of Hemingbrough [see under Babthorpe family], the substantial yeoman John Hallam of Watton, and, most significant of all, Sir Thomas and Sir Ingram Percy, the estranged younger brothers of Henry Algernon Percy, sixth earl of Northumberland, a sick man who was then in residence at Wressell.

At the very time the pilgrimage was gathering strength in Yorkshire the Lincolnshire rising collapsed. Reports of the king's grave displeasure, coinciding with the arrival at Stamford of an army under the command of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, had the effect of detaching the Lincolnshire gentry from the commons. The gentlemen sued for pardon and on 11 October the now leaderless commons dispersed. Suffolk had succeeded in reimposing order upon the county by the end of the month.

The Yorkshire rising

Across the Humber, however, matters proceeded very differently. On 16 October the pilgrims marched ceremoniously through York, and Aske gave order for the dispossessed religious to be restored to their houses. After staying in the city for a few days he then went south to lay siege to Pontefract Castle, where Edward Lee, archbishop of York, and some forty knights and gentlemen had taken refuge. Though its commander, Thomas Darcy, Baron Darcy, had made increasingly frantic appeals for reinforcements, no aid had got through, and he surrendered the castle on 21 October. The prisoners were required by the rebels to switch their allegiance. Lee himself took the oath to them, probably without enthusiasm, and some of the secular nobility, notably the sixth earl of Northumberland, Ralph Neville, fourth earl of Westmorland, and John Neville, third Baron Latimer, also seem to have yielded to pressure and professed loyalty to the pilgrims' cause. But others, particularly Lord Darcy and Sir Robert Constable of Flamborough, became zealous converts, and from this date Aske tended to defer to the judgement of his social superiors.

Throughout the earlier part of October there had also been risings in the West and North ridings of Yorkshire and in co. Durham, and by the end of the month the commons had sworn Sir Christopher Danby of Well [see under Danby family], William Calverley of Farnley, Nicholas Tempest of Bashall, near Clitheroe [see under Tempest family], John Lumley, fifth Baron Lumley, his son George Lumley, and Sir George Bowes of Streatlam and his uncle, the lawyer Robert Bowes. Almost all these families, apart perhaps from the Bowes, sympathized with the old religion, and resented the central government's intrusion into local politics. That resentment may sometimes have been expressed in personal terms, for instance in the actions of Richard Norton of Norton Conyers, near Ripon, who attempted to divert the pilgrimage into an attack on the Cliffords, with whom he was at loggerheads. Very much the odd man out was Sir Francis Bigod, previously an ardent promoter of the royal supremacy who, following his capture by the rebels after two attempts to escape from Mulgrave Castle, lost his confidence in the king's good faith, and proceeded to attack the Erastian nature of the Henrician church from an evangelical standpoint.

As had happened in Lincolnshire, at the first stirrings of unrest some of the northern clergy had also thrown themselves into the fray. In early October the Observant Bonaventure, dispatched to the Beverley Franciscan friary on the dissolution of his order, sent words of encouragement to the commons on the Westwood. Robert Ashton (or Esch), an inmate of the Trinitarian friary at Knaresborough, prided himself on spreading news of the revolt throughout the East Riding. John Pickering, the papalist former prior of the York Dominicans, acted as an intermediary to the various rebel leaders, and in the process incriminated his host, William Wood, prior of Bridlington. Members of Holy Trinity Priory, York, Healaugh Priory, Warter Priory, Easby Abbey, and probably Coverham Abbey, as well as Clementhorpe and Nunburnholme nunneries, and Conishead and Cartmel priories—which had all been suppressed in the earlier part of the year—now enlisted the commons' support to enable them to return to their houses. A group of Cistercians who had transferred to their sister house of Whalley in the course of re-establishing their community at Sawley may have provided the pilgrims with their marching song.

Other religious had more personal ends in view, and the recently deposed abbots of Fountains and Rievaulx, William Thirsk and Edward Kirkby, and the former prior of Guisborough, James Cockerell, made overtures to the commons in the hope of regaining office. At the other remove the heads of houses still standing, all too conscious of their vulnerability, mostly strove to prevent their communities from becoming involved in the conflict, though in many cases their efforts proved to be in vain. When the commons marched on Jervaulx Abbey, Abbot Adam Sedbergh fled to a nearby fell, only to be brought back and compelled to contribute both men and money to the insurrection. John Paslew, the abbot of Whalley, capitulated in similar circumstances and went on to provide the rebels with supplies, as well as swearing the pilgrims' oath.

Even in the revolts in Lancashire, Cumberland, and Westmorland, where strife between landlords and tenants featured much more conspicuously than in the regions east of the Pennines—and in consequence kept the local magnates, Edward Stanley, third earl of Derby, Henry Clifford, first earl of Cumberland, and Robert Radcliffe, first earl of Sussex, loyal to the crown—religion still emerged as a major factor in motivating the commons. At a muster held on 16 October at Kirkby Stephen, Westmorland, the pilgrims appointed Robert Thompson, the vicar of Brough, as their chaplain, and routinely called for the defence of the faith and the preservation of the monasteries.

Government responses

Preoccupied with regaining control of Lincolnshire, the central government did not initially perceive the seriousness of the unrest in the north of England, and a royal army under the command of Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, only reached Doncaster in late October. Greatly outnumbered and playing for time, Norfolk arranged a truce and allowed the rebels to submit a list of their complaints. Concentrating upon his two main objectives of defending the church and obtaining the repeal of unpopular statutes, Aske deliberately made the articles short and unspecific. On 27 October Norfolk agreed that Sir Ralph Ellerker and Robert Bowes should carry the petition to the court, where Henry in early November rejected it out of hand, professing to find it dark and obscure. Consequently when the pilgrims, who had returned to their homes after the truce, reassembled at a grand council in York on 21 November, Aske immediately set to work to clarify their aims. This council reconvened alongside a separate gathering of representatives of the clergy on 2 December at Pontefract, where Archbishop Lee, in a sermon preached the next day, impressed upon the reluctant commons the virtues of passive obedience. Aske then presented their very detailed list of grievances to Norfolk, who instead of addressing the articles individually on 6 December offered the insurgents a general pardon, the promise of a parliament in the north at some future date, and protection for the previously suppressed monasteries until that parliament met. On 7 December, Aske recommended the terms to his followers, and after the reading of the pardon by the royal herald on 8 December they tore off their badges and began to disperse.

Over the Christmas season the government pressed on with its policy of detaching the northern aristocracy from the commons, with many of the leaders of the rising, including Aske, seemingly favourably received at court. This confirmed suspicions among some of the commons that the king would renege on his promises, and on 16 January 1537 Sir Francis Bigod and John Hallam tried to revive the pilgrimage. However, they grossly overestimated their support in the East Riding, failed to seize the ports of Hull and Scarborough, and were quickly captured by forces loyal to the crown. To the west of the Pennines an overzealous attempt in February to impose order in the neighbourhood of Kirkby Stephen on the part of Thomas Clifford (an illegitimate son of the earl of Cumberland) triggered a far more serious revolt, which on the 16th culminated in a march on Carlisle. This too was routed, by the combined efforts of Clifford and Sir Christopher Dacre.


Some two hundred rebels were put to death in the aftermath of these uprisings. In early March seventy-four insurgents perished under martial law in Cumbria, where Norfolk then saw to the prosecution of Abbot John Paslew and two other Whalley monks, William Haydock and Richard Eastgate. Having found all three guilty of treason, the court went on to order their immediate execution. With the north-west cowed Norfolk next turned his attention to Yorkshire. Compared with Lincolnshire, where thirty-four rebels were hanged, the Yorkshire commons escaped relatively lightly, since the government concentrated its attention upon the more prominent members of northern society, who were summoned to London for interrogation and trial. Not everyone was arraigned who had been involved in the rising. Sir George and Robert Bowes were able to persuade the government of their loyalty, as was Sir Ralph Ellerker. Some, like the earl of Westmorland and Lord Latimer, successfully pleaded that they had joined the pilgrims under duress; others, like Sir William Babthorpe and Sir Christopher Danby, had been quick to desert them. William Calverley admitted his errors and wrote a poem advising against rebellion. But Matthew Mackarell died a traitor's death at Tyburn on 29 March, and many others followed in the next two months. Sir Francis Bigod, Sir Thomas Percy, Sir John Bulmer and his wife, Sir Stephen Hamerton, Nicholas Tempest, George Lumley (but not his father John, who escaped punishment), John Pickering, William Wood, and Adam Sedbergh were all executed at Tyburn, as were James Cockerell and William Thirsk, former abbots of Guisborough and Fountains respectively. Bulmer's wife, Margaret Cheyne, was burnt at Smithfield, and Thomas, Lord Darcy, was beheaded on Tower Hill. Sir Robert Constable was hanged at Hull, and so, probably, was John Hallam, while John, Lord Hussey, was executed at Lincoln. Following his condemnation Robert Aske was sent back to the north to be hanged in chains at York on 12 July 1537.

As a direct consequence of the attainder of the heads of their houses Whalley, Barlings, Kirkstead, Jervaulx, and Bridlington were pronounced forfeited to the crown. Although royal officials failed to accumulate sufficient evidence to charge the abbot of Furness with treason, they exerted so much pressure upon Roger Pyle and his community that they voluntarily surrendered their abbey, and in so doing set a precedent for the future dissolution of all the surviving monasteries in England and Wales. The participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace achieved none of their aims; the king never sanctioned the calling of a parliament in the north of England to consider their grievances, the changes in the church continued apace, and Cromwell and his associates retained power until the end of the decade.


  • M. H. Dodds and R. Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536–1537, and the Exeter conspiracy, 1538, 2 vols. (1915)
  • R. W. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the politics of the 1530s (2001)
  • C. Haigh, The last days of the Lancashire monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace, Chetham Society, 3rd ser., 17 (1969)
  • S. M. Harrison, The Pilgrimage of Grace in the Lake counties, 1536–7 (1981)
  • M. L. Bush, The Pilgrimage of Grace: a study of the rebel armies of October 1536 (1996)
  • M. L. Bush and D. Bownes, The defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace: a study of the postpardon revolts of December 1536 to March 1537 and their effect (1999)
  • A. Fletcher, Tudor rebellions (1968)
  • A. G. Dickens, Lollards and protestants in the diocese of York, 1509–1558 (1959)
  • C. Cross and N. Vickers, eds., Monks, friars and nuns in sixteenth century Yorkshire, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 150 (1995)
  • A. G. Dickens, Secular and religious motivation in the Pilgrimage of Grace, SCH, 4 (1967), 379–98
  • C. S. L. Davies, ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace reconsidered’, Past and Present, 41 (1968), 54–76
  • C. S. L. Davies, ‘Religion and the Pilgrimage of Grace’, Order and disorder in early modern England, ed. A. Fletcher and J. Stevenson (1986), 58–91
  • M. Bowker, ‘Lincolnshire, 1536: heresy, schism or religious discontent’, Schism, heresy and religious protest, ed. D. Baker, SCH, 9 (1972), 195–212
  • G. R. Elton, ‘Politics and the Pilgrimage of Grace’, After the Reformation: essays in honor of J. H. Hexter, ed. B. Malament (1979), 25–56
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