7 – Pilgrimage of Grace 1536
Religion in England underwent a huge transformation after the ascent of the House of Tudor to the throne under Henry VII in 1485. He would reign until 1509, when his son and heir, Henry VIII became King at the age of 17. The young Henry’s reign would go down as one of the most important, most turbulent and most studied in British history, in no small part because of the extensive religious reforms that were ushered in under his rule.
When he came to the throne, England was a staunchly Catholic country, as was most of the rest of Europe. In 1519, the Protestant Reformation began in Germany, but the ripples were barely felt in Britain. Henry, however, would begin a religious revolution of his own and provoke a huge backlash in the process. His arranged marriage to Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce a living male heir – she had a girl, Mary, a boy that died in infancy and three stillbirths – and with the House of York always waiting to retake the throne, Henry decided that he needed to ditch her. He sought to have the Pope annul his marriage, but the pontiff, Clement VII, refused. Henry responded by breaking England away from the Church of Rome and named himself head of the Church of England.
Now in charge of the Church, Henry proceeded to confiscate the vast wealth of the Catholic monasteries in 1536, which many saw as little more than a naked cash grab. Certainly in the North of England, where Catholicism was still widely practised and the Church and its monasteries had formed the central focus of most people’s lives. Disillusioned by a King who treated religion as something to be changed to his own ends and angered by economic hardship – there had been a poor harvest and several unpopular land reforms – a rising began in Yorkshire, led by lawyer Robert Aske.
He led 9,000 men into York and immediately restored Catholicism, before further successes swelled the rebel’s numbers to somewhere between 20 and 40,000. The Duke of Norfolk tried to negotiate a peace with Aske, offering for the restoration of the monasteries and a pardon for those who had participated in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace, as well as a Parliament to be held in the northern city of York. Aske accepted and sent his men home.
Shortly afterwards, a second rising began even further north, in Cumberland, and Norfolk crushed it mercilessly. With the advantage back with the King, Norfolk arrested Aske and all the leaders of the Pilgrimage on charges of treason. They were executed alongside 216 other people, including many monks and priests, while martial law was enforced all over the North.
Henry’s track away from Rome and towards the establishment of the modern-day Church of England was not seriously altered, but his search for a male successor would continue to be in vain. His new wife, Anne Boleyn, would produce a daughter, the future Elizabeth I, but suffered a stillborn son. She was executed and Henry married his mistress, Jane Seymour, who finally produced a son, Edward VI, but died in the process. Edward would succeed Henry eventually – but not before he had gone through another three wives – and subsequently died at the age of 15 after 6 years on the throne. The succession plan had failed, but the religious changes survive to this day.