Termed as ‘the most serious of all Tudor rebellions’1, the Pilgrimage of Grace which consisted of ‘allegedly over 60,000 rebels’2, is the topic of much historiographical debate. Affording Henry VIII with severe internal threats, the uprising inevitably affected the king in a number of ways both personally and procedurally. The individual effects may have encompassed turning Henry into a more despotic and tyrannical leader. This in turn may have sparked Henry to treat the rebels in a more unrestrained manner, forced him to review his religious practices and murder Thomas Cromwell.
Some historians suggest that the Pilgrimage of Grace forced Henry VIII into becoming a paranoid and distrustful king, resulting in an adoption of a despotic and tyrannical leadership. Source 11, a letter received by the Duke of Norfolk from Henry in June 1537, just subsequent to the pilgrimage, is useful for allowing us into Henry’s personal thoughts. An oppressive approach seems to be magnified in the letter, when the suggestion of the execution of rebels should be done at ‘Doncaster and thereabouts’, as opposed to the Tower of London, ‘to knit up this tragedy’3 by using such vengeance to fear others. Using source 18, a private account of Henry VIII written by Charles de Marillac (1540) along with source 11, reinforces the idea Henry became tyrannical following the rebellion. It proposes Henry didn’t ‘trust a single man’ so would therefore ‘not cease to dip his hand in blood’4, clearly reinforcing the brutality Henry embarked upon. The source is reliable as it shows interpretations of Henry from a well-placed observer within court. Many historians agree with the views within the sources, suggesting that ‘the idea of resorting to concessions or compromise was inconceivable’5 to Henry, with William Roper going further, describing him as a ‘tyrant’ who destroyeth this whole realm’6. However, it is debatable whether it was the actual Pilgrimage that caused changes to his personality or infact it was other occurrences stemming from 1536. As proposed by Suzannah Lipscomb, Henry’s new enthusiasm for revenge seemed ‘disproportionate’, with a palpable shift in personal response to threats. Her suggestion for such transition is due to an accumulation of events occurring in 1536, including: the deaths of his illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy and Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn’s execution after alleged adultery. Lipscomb believes that the Pilgrimage along with these events helped Henry become ‘more distrustful and despotic - in short a tyrant’7. Conversely, evidence from sources 11 and 18 is contradicted by that in source 25, of William Thomas writing in 1547 about the late king, proposing that although ‘he did many evil things’8 he did not do so through tyranny. However, some historians disregard both of these suggestions and simply propose that Henry didn’t convert to a tyrant after any event, including the Pilgrimage, as he never acted in an abnormally despotic manor. This argument is reinforced by many historians including Suzannah Lipscomb, who suggests that ‘such
painful and spectacular punishment was thought necessary both to deter others and to cleanse society’9, proposing Henry’s brutal actions were necessary for the realm to survive, and as source 25 proposes, were not enforced by ‘a cruel tyrant’10. This is a useful source to extract evidence from, as being the first biographer of Henry, Thomas is objective, and writing after Henry’s death, allowed spectrum from flexibility of ideas. This view is then further heightened when viewing G.R Elton’s views, who argued that ‘Henry VIII was neither despot nor dictator, and despite some tyrant’s instincts, never a tyrant’11. This evidence therefore questions the extent to which the Pilgrimage of Grace forced Henry VIII into becoming a tyrant.
An additional consequence of the Pilgrimage is Henry VIII’s panic and savage treatment of the rebels. Evidence from the beginning of the Pilgrimage suggests that Henry was quite reserved. Source 8, a letter from Robert Aske (leader of the rebels) describes Henry extending ‘mercy from his heart’12, after Henry inviting him into court for Christmas 1536. Undeniably, Henry was worried about the sheer force of the rebellion, which is expressed throughout source 1, with reference to the king being ‘in great fear’13. The letter from Eustace Chapuys to Charles V holds great credibility because being Spanish Ambassador; he is an experienced and educated court insider. However, in saying it must be remembered it may be the product of hyperbolic gossip which may undermine the dependability. The contribution of both sources 1 and 8 show that despite being perturbed, Henry was, initially, able to deal with the rebels in an assertive yet proactive way. Furthermore, it is the thought of many historians that the pilgrimage had the effect of transforming this treatment to a more savage approach. The years of the Pilgrimage of Grace as Robert Hutchinson suggested ‘were defining moments of the king... and sewed the poison seeds’14 of his personality. This extensively contrasts with the view suggested in sources 1 and 8. Source 11 hints at the vengeance which escalated within him by 1537. In an interaction between Henry VIII and the Duke of Norfolk, Henry asks for execution to create a ‘groan…upon their sufferance’15. This violence is supported by the view of Nick Ford, who makes reference to how Henry showed the rebels ‘no mercy’ and ‘hundreds were hanged with their bodies left on gallows’16. Such violence is highlighted in source 27, where Sir Walter Raleigh comments on the vast amount of ‘princes of blood’17 Henry had executed. This is particularly strong evidence as being from History of the World (1614); Raleigh had the advantage of hindsight and objectivity, which makes the source more compelling. As well as this evidence Suzannah Lipscomb adds insight into how ‘after a certain point a number of astonishingly high-profile and high-status individuals were attained and executed without trial’18. All this evidence gives substantial support for the idea that the Pilgrimage of Grace changed the way Henry treated the rebels.
Another suggested consequence of the rebellion is that it appeared to force Henry to review his past religious reform and return to a more conservative form of practice. Using source 25 as a point of evidence, it shows Henry expressing his fear of ‘discord and dissension’ resulting from the lack of ‘love and charity’ amongst those in Parliament, suggesting refrainment from using such terms as ‘back papist, anabist and pharisee’ would help ‘see these divisions extinct’19. Here in 1545, 18 months before the king’s death, Henry is anxious about the religious confusion and the uncertainty of religious character that would be continued down the dynastical line after the Break with Rome. The debate here is whether the Pilgrimage of Grace had a profound impact upon a state of what J.J. Scarisbrick called a ‘religious discord of a kind which [England] had not known before’20. Some historians argue that the rebellion acted as a warning to Henry not to neglect the traditional faith of England, and indeed his own faith. However, this debate is complicated by the complexity of England’s religious character in the 1540s. Whether the term ‘Henrician Catholicism should be regarded as tautology or an oxymoron’21 is argued amongst many historians. Richard Rex described this reference as a ‘sick label’ agreeing with E. C Messenger who suggests that ‘we must decline giving it the title of “Catholic”’22. However, Henry’s first biographer, A.F Pollard, was insistent that he ‘never wavered in his adhesion to the cardinal points of Catholicism’23 and L. F. Holt agrees, suggesting the Henrician settlement could be considered ‘Catholicism without a pope’. The issue is therefore whether the Pilgrimage made any significant change to Henry’s religious character. Certainly, some of the sources suggest that it did. This idea is reinforced in source 16, which presents Henry VIII’s words in 1538, just a year after the rebellion, over John Lambert’s (Sacramentarian) trial. Henry warns he would ‘not be a patron unto heretics’24, showing how he wanted to reinstate a conservative religion within England. Further support of this point can be made when studying source 19. In this, Thomas Cromwell, a devout Protestant, is described and charged by Henry, as a ‘detestable heretic’ causing many ‘errors and heresies’25. It could be suggested, that this highlights the impression that Henry was altered by the Pilgrimage to reflect on the religious reforms which had driven and divided England in 1536.
The murder of Thomas Cromwell shows additional evidence to suggest that the Pilgrimage of Grace forced Henry to reflect on past actions. There is historiographical debate suggesting the fate of Cromwell (executed 1540) could be linked with a delayed response to the Pilgrims’ demands. Cromwell, representing strong Protestantism, was highly unpopular with the rebels, as they associated him with Henry’s religious reforms. The Pilgrims placed blame upon Cromwell, reinforced within source 3, an extract from the York Articles (drawn up by Pilgrims in 1536), which makes reference to ‘persons as be of low birth and small reputation’26 causing such grievance to which they ‘suspect to be the lord Cromwell’. Many rebels believed Thomas Cromwell - the ‘evil spirit of Henry’s reign’27- broke the ‘Great Chain of Being’28 which linked Henry to his subjects. As well as source 3, source 10 shows the extent to which they believed this. During Cromwell’s execution, Edward Hall makes reference to the ‘rejoiced…religious men’29. Being a contemporary chronicler, Hall is likely to make objective observations and therefore provides reliable information. The religious background both to the Pilgrimage of Grace and the rebels’ protests, provides evidence suggesting the Pilgrimage forced Henry to see Cromwell negatively. In source 19, Henry personally charges Cromwell as a ‘detestable heretic’, and a ‘deceiver’ who had ‘infixed in the hearts of [people]’30. This can be seen as linked to source 3, the extract from the York Articles, which comments on those ‘which hath procured the profits for their own advantage’. This almost mirrors what Henry had personally said in source 19. This reflection shows how Henry may be responding to the charge of the Pilgrims. However, whether this is the full explanation for the fall of Cromwell is the topic of much historical debate. Some historians, such as Patrick Coy believe that instead of the reaction to Pilgrimage of Grace, it was Cromwell’s mistake with Anne of Cleves that sealed his fate. He suggests ‘Cromwell was answerable for the disaster of a marriage’31 and that such a mistake was fatal during the despotic transition Henry was undergoing. Other historians, such as Robert Hutchinson, contrast this view by suggesting that Cromwell was ‘accused of hiring large numbers of retainers’ in fear of the ‘creation of private armies in England’32. As well as this evidence, using source 21, Henry comments on Cromwell’s death as being done under ‘false accusations’33 leading to the death of the ‘most faithful servant’ he ever had. This contrasts greatly with source 19 where Henry accuses Cromwell of making ‘damnable errors and heresies’. Despite this, the fact that Henry’s justification for execution was made through being ‘a detestable heretic’34 shows the motives were at least partly religion-based, and a probable consequence of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Despite the fact ‘the Pilgrimage of Grace failed completely’ it significantly affected England, and in particular Henry for many years after 1536. The rebellion prompted immediate reactions, such as the beginning of a tyrannical leadership, and caused knock on effects, such as the execution of Thomas Cromwell a few years later. However, the significance it held for the pilgrims was very slim, ‘its only result was to hasten the very events which the Pilgrims dreaded’35, showing that it had a more empowering influence on Henry himself. The most substantial impact it had was on Henry VIII’s personal attitude towards patriachal dominance; he became increasingly tyrannous, egoistical and intransigent.