Sunday, April 12, 2015

Geoffrey Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7 was one of the most important Tudor rebellions. It is relatively unknown, yet the tens of thousands of rebels that were involved very nearly broke Henry VIII's government and had they marched on London history would almost certainly have been very different. Geoffrey Moorhouse's history of the Pilgrimage, and the Lincolnshire Uprising that took place immediately beforehand is an important account of this neglected event.

Moorhouse explains that the Pilgrimage had many causes. It has often been seen as reactionary in the sense that it was opposed to the changes Henry VIII was making to the English Church, particularly the dissolution of the monasteries. However to simply see it as a backward looking uprising is to miss some of the key dynamics of the period. While the Catholic Church and monasteries were not popular across the whole of England, in the north in particular, they fulfilled an important social function. As Moorhouse explains
The monasteries as a whole might spend no more than five per cent of their income on charity, but in the North they were a great deal more generous, doubtless because the need was greater in an area where poverty was more widespread and very real. There, they still did much to relieve the poor and the sick, they provided shelter for the traveller, and they meant the difference between a full belly and starvation to considerable numbers of tenants, even if they were sometimes imperfect landlords.
Northern monasteries also contributed significantly to the local economy, operating sheep farms, coal mines as well as their religious roles. The northern population of England felt neglected by London and if Archbishop Cranmer's words are anything to go by, they had some justification
a certain barbarous and savage people, who were ignorant of and turned away from farming and the good arts of peace, and who were so utterly unacquainted with knowledge of sacred matters, that they could not bear to hear anything of culture and more gentle civilisation.
It is noteworthy for instance, that one of the demands of the rebels was for a northern parliament, possibly at York, and certainly the apparent concession that this would happen was one of the factors that helped disperse the mass of rebels towards the end of the rebellion.

Other economic factors were to play their roll in stimulating the uprising. Henry's taxes were never popular and added to the woes of an impoverished people. But religious changes were the dominate feature. On several occasions rebellion was sparked by Henry's changes to traditional holidays. When the priest failed to announce the forthcoming saint's day, parishioners protested and mass meetings, and demonstrations followed.

The rebels restored many monks to their monasteries enormously angering the king, and some rebels expressed anger and surprise when they found out that their comrades from other parts of the country had not done the same, suggesting that one of the most important aims of the revolt was putting "religious persons in their houses again".

The rebellion spread through messengers and the ringing of church bells. But this was not simply a peasant rebellion, nor just a revolt of those at the bottom of society. Local landowners and gentry often led different armies, though strangely many of these did so only after being pressed into service. Their lives, or the lives of their families, being spared if they did so. It is striking though, how once in leading roles, the gentry often seem to have taken to their position with gusto. Heading up negotiations, leading military operations and helping spread the uprising. But many of these men also had genuine grievances. The most famous leader, the lawyer, Robert Aske certainly opposed many of Henry VIII's plans. Moorhouse points out though, that most of the gentry began "looking for a way out as soon as a hint of one appeared".

The rebels were enormously successful, with tens of thousands of poorly armed men in the field and no standing army to oppose them, they were able to control much of the north of England capturing key castles and towns.

The banner of the five wounds of Christ a symbol used
by many of the rebels
The majority of the rebellion ended following negotiations with the king's representatives who seemed to give in to many of the rebels' demands. The demands themselves were mainly those of the gentry, reflecting their own class interests, though these were clearly influenced by the tens of thousands of ordinary people in arms through the country. Henry VIII seems to have failed to understand quite how endangered his position was, and even though the rebels had been pardoned, he used the excuse of an outbreak of fighting to renege on his promises. Some leaders, like Robert Aske, were executed as a result.

Had the rebels not disbanded, and marched on London, things would have been very different. In the final chapter, Moorhouse speculates on the differences that might have taken place. Henry VIII has few options, he could have fought (and likely would have been defeated) or fled, both of which would have been disastrous for his rule. He could have negotiated, but that would have meant a weak government that likely would not have survived. Certainly figures like the hated Thomas Cromwell, a man who one rebel leader, Lord Darcy denounced at his trial, would have been killed. The reformation might have been still born, and English history very different indeed. The rebels didn't march on London and Henry VIII emerged stronger than ever, though his paranoia and revenge accounted for the lives of many linked to the Pilgrimage. Moorhouse points out, that the economic and social problems didn't disappear and Henry did nothing to improve matters, which helps why in 1549, barely 15 years after the Pilgrimage of Grace, England erupted in rebellion again as peasant armies rose around the country.

This is an important and useful book. Sadly it feels over-written in places and suffers enormously throughout from a lack of footnotes and source material, a major problem for the reader trying to delve deeper into this important history. Nonetheless this is an important piece of history for the reader learning more about the neglected social history of England.

Related Reviews

Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s

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