During Henry VIII’s reign, he forced his country through a whirlwind of religious reform, and faced intense factional rivalry from subjects in his own court. All his moves, whether political, religious or personal, were scrutinized by his court and by his people, and though they tended to acquiesce, Henry sometimes went too far and the public could not hold their tongues for any longer.
During the Henrician Reformation, a number of measures were taken to eradicate Papal influence in England. One of these measures was the Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries. This followed the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries, and shut down all remaining Monasteries. In the eyes of the people of Yorkshire, this was wholly unacceptable, and they made Henry painfully aware of this. This was part of a larger string of measures Henry took to take the title of “Head of Church and State”. This is often referred to as the “Royal Supremacy”, and caused England to lean heavily toward Protestantism; this was not popular at home or on the continent.
The predecessor to the Pilgrimage was the Lincolnshire rising in October 1536. This is considered to be less religiously motivated, instead seemingly triggered by bad harvests in 1535 and 36, together with political concerns and a fiery sermon by a local priest. This brought up lingering feelings of resentment towards government interference in local affairs.
After a short flurry of activity, the rebels drew up a list of grievances, citing high taxes and the hatred of the Statute of Uses. The rising was quickly dissolved after the Duke of Suffolk arrived with a royal army.
Later the same month, Yorkshire saw a similar rising, but bigger and, on the surface at least, more of a threat to Henry VIII.
Under the leadership of Robert Aske, a middle class lawyer, 30 000 men marched on York. This was an organised band of men, some of whom had fought in the Scottish War. The rebels swore an oath that contradicted the Royal Supremacy and drew up manifestos calling for the removal of “evil councilors” from Henry’s government, the restoration of the Old Faith (Catholicism) and protection of the monasteries.
Norfolk was sent to put down the rising, it became clear that his 8 000 strong army was not fit to take on the 30 000 rebels that Aske was leading. Norfolk retreated and told Henry about the strength of the rebels. After lengthy discussion, Norfolk convinced Henry that negotiation was the only way to placate the rebels. Henry offered the rebels a full and free pardon if they dispersed immediately, and agreed to hear their demands in a court. True to his word, negotiations were held, but no deals were going to be made. The rebels had put their trust in Henry, but he had not followed through.
Henry had survived the largest numerical uprising of the Tudor period. However, we cannot credit him nor Norfolk for any quick thinking; the rebels had no intent to harm Henry or his regime, and in fact professed their loyalty to him profusely throughout the whole fiasco. Henry had been given the first taste of what his people thought of his religious reform. Subsequent monarchs would have to face the same treatment.