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Out of Time: How King Henry VIII’s Reformation Triggered a Rebellion That Put Nottingham at the Heart of a National Power Struggle

29 November 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Raphael Achache

In keeping with our Seven Deadly Sins issue, we look back at a definitive turning point in the history of religion in England, exploring how King Henry VIII’s Reformation fuelled the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Northern rebellion that placed Nottingham at the centre of a power struggle for the soul of a nation…

Whether you’re religious or not, your understanding of ‘sin’ will have been greatly shaped by Henry VIII and his Reformation. Breaking away from the control of Rome and the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, he established himself as the Head of the Church of England, alienating a large proportion of his subjects in the process. In reaction, a widespread revolt known as the Pilgrimage of Grace rose in defiance in the North, inadvertently placing Nottingham – a strategic middle-ground between the traditionally Catholic North and a South which was easier for Henry to control – in the middle of a tug-of-war for the future of England’s conscience. 

There’s a reason that Henry VIII is one of the most well-known figures in British history. The head-lopping, drumstick-chomping, magnificently-calved monarch left more of a mark on the social, political and religious landscape than arguably any other monarch before or since. His decision to put an end to the grip Catholicism had over the country sent shockwaves through Europe, the repercussions of which were still being felt in England two centuries later. He fundamentally changed the way people thought about the two cornerstones of sixteenth century religious practise - sin and salvation – forever. His drastic policy shift made Brexit look like a game of rock-paper-scissors, as the country was divided – geographically and morally – to the extent where collapse, foreign invasion and outright revolution were all very tangible possibilities. The Protestants under his reign were concerned that he wasn’t reforming the church fast enough, the Catholics were distraught that their religion was being decimated, least of all by a ruthless policy of dissolving the monasteries, and all in positions in power were concerned that Henry had become overly reliant on ‘base-born’ (common) men, such as Thomas Cromwell, the man spearheading his Reformation. 

Nottingham wasn’t spared the wrath of King Henry, Cromwell and their Reformation, with Beauvale Priory in north-west Nottinghamshire subjected to particular brutality. Robert Lawrence, the Prior of Beauvale, travelled in person to London in 1535 with the aim of meeting Cromwell and persuading him to stop the dissolution of his priory. After refusing to meet Lawrence, Cromwell had him and two other Priors who had made similar journeys thrown into the Tower of London. There he was tortured and tried with treason for refusing to acknowledge Henry as the head of the church and, after being violently threatened by Cromwell, a reluctant jury found Lawrence guilty. He was executed in an intentionally barbaric manner, being hanged and drawn in his monk’s habit, before being mutilated, butchered and eventually cut into quarters while still alive. Four centuries later in 1970, Lawrence would be made a saint by Pope Paul VI.

Events reached fever pitch when, in 1536, a series of rebellions started to spring up in the North. By this point, Henry had already beheaded Anne Boleyn, the woman for whom he had broken from Rome in the first place after the Pope had declined his numerous demands for an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The first place to see action was Louth in Lincolnshire, where royal commissioners had been sent to seize the church’s land, jewels, gold and silver. Far more than being religious artifacts, many of these items had deep personal meaning to local residents, and had been donated in memory or as a blessing to a loved one. Led by Nicholas Melton, a monk and shoemaker, a 22,000-strong army gathered from nearby towns with the aim of forcing Henry to reverse the policy. They seized Dr John Raynes – one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners who had recently informed the clergy of the seizures – dragging him from his bed and beating him to death, burning all of his registers in the process. Gaining support from local gentry, their numbers swelled as they occupied Lincoln Cathedral. 

Their demands were simple: the freedom to continue worshipping as Roman Catholics, protection of the treasures of Lincolnshire cathedrals and an end to excessive taxes during peacetime (their discontent had been exacerbated by a bad harvest and resultant high food prices). Henry reacted by sending word to the rebels to disperse, or face the forces of the Duke of Suffolk – Henry’s right-hand-man and both the best soldier and leader of men in the country - which had already been mobilised and was camped on the banks of the River Trent. It’s important to note that, for all of their action, the uprising was never meant to remove Henry from the throne. In fact, despite his public image being hugely undermined by his divorce from the popular Catholic Catherine and subsequent marrying and beheading of the unpopular Anne Boleyn, the people, both poor and aristocratic alike, were still fiercely loyal subjects. They were ostensibly being forced to choose between loyalty to the crown, and loyalty to their God – a decision that caused a widespread crisis of conscience. Rather than choose one or the other, they were demanding the right to do both. 

Henry imposed martial law in the North, massacring hundreds in a series of brutal assaults. Many, including women and children, were hanged in their own gardens as an example to their fellow villagers

The fact that members of the aristocracy were flirting with the idea of joining the burgeoning rebellion was telling. Lord John Hussey was a member of the House of Lords from Sleaford who had grown rich from the early dissolutions, but had grown disillusioned with Henry’s religious policies, even going so far as to encourage Spain to intervene. When word of the initial rebellion reached him, Hussey made a show of resisting the rebels, while also offering to ride to the king to plead on their behalf. He had the appearance of a man willing to change with the wind, reluctant to commit to any one side until one had the upper hand. He fled here to Nottingham, where he refused to join the king’s army that was being assembled.

But Henry’s threat worked as, less than ten days later, the rebels’ numbers had dwindled, with many choosing to return home to avoid facing the wrath of Suffolk’ trained army of soldiers. Melton and the other ringleaders were rounded up and executed as a warning to other would-be rebels. However, their deaths would have quite the opposite effect. 

Robert Aske was the son of an old and well-established Yorkshire family. A lawyer and devout Catholic, he was well-known and respected in aristocratic circles so, when a subsequent rebellion broke out in York, he was asked to lead. The Pilgrimage of Grace, as it was to be known, would become the most serious of all the Tudor era rebellions. Whereas the Lincolnshire Rising had been a spark extinguished within two weeks, the Pilgrimage of Grace was a full-on bonfire of discontent that threatened to capsize Henry’s authority. Men from all of the major Northern regions – Northumberland, Cumberland, Lancashire and York – gathered under a banner bearing the Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ and, led by Aske, swore an Oath of the Honourable Man before entering and occupying York. Once there, they arranged for expelled monks and nuns to be returned to their houses, and normal Catholic practises to be resumed.

In usual bombastic form, Henry demanded to meet the rebels at the head of an army he would personally lead. But those royalists closer to the situation, namely Thomas Howard and George Talbot, had a more realistic view of events, and saw the very real threat the rebels – who now numbered between 30,000-40,000 – posed. With an army of just 5,000, Howard feared being massacred, and so offered Aske and his rebels a truce, opening negotiations near Doncaster. 

Their demands stretched further than those of the original rising, with Aske’s demands including: a full pardon be granted to all men involved in the rising; a Parliament be held in either Nottingham or York; that no man north of the River Trent be compelled to attend any other court except York; the repealing of Henry’s anti-Catholic laws; the reinstatement of Princess Mary (daughter of Catherine) to the line of succession; reinstatement of Papal authority and restoration of the supressed monasteries and the removal of Thomas Cromwell from the Council. 

Fearing for his life, Norfolk made promises of full pardons, a Parliament to be held in Nottingham or York within a year, and safe passage for two delegates from the pilgrimage to Windsor, where they would be granted an audience with Henry to present their demands. It’s unknown whether Norfolk had the authority to make these promises or, if he did, Henry ever intended to fulfil them. It’s likely that Henry was biding his time, waiting for the rebels to slip up, as he met with the delegation. The truce held for all of November 1536, during which time the pilgrimage must have felt that they’d accomplished their mission. Meeting again with Norfolk, Aske and his fellow leaders tore off their Pilgrim badges and dispersed. They’d had assurances that their demands would be properly considered, and all would be pardoned.  

England was split in two and, with Nottingham as a middle-ground, the fate of a nation hung in the balance

The fact that such a vainglorious king such as Henry VIII humbled himself to consider these demands illustrates just how much of a threat they posed. English monarchs at this time had no standing armies and, as such, a force of thirty thousand men constituted a very tangible threat, particularly if Catholic countries like Spain or France leant their weight to the cause. Henry’s own father, Henry VII, had seized the throne with just a fraction of that number only half a century earlier. 

When hearing of their demands to remove his ministers, namely Thomas Cromwell, Henry responded with rhetoric more attune to creating a rebellion rather than quashing one, saying:

“And we, with our whole council, think it right strange that ye, who be but brutes and inexpert folk, do take upon you to appoint us who be meet or not for our council; we will, therefore, bear no such meddling at your hands, it being inconsistent with the duty of good subjects to interfere in such matters.”

Henry didn’t have to wait long for an excuse to get his revenge. Less than a month later, another uprising – which hadn’t been sanctioned by Aske – rose in the North, sparked in part by those who refused to trust in their king’s promises. Henry didn’t need a second invitation and, considering it a breach of the amnesty he’d negotiated, apprehended all of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, despite the fact that they were not involved with this new uprising. Lord Hussey was beheaded, whereas Aske was hanged in chains (the fact that he was portrayed by Sean Bean in the 2003 TV film Henry VIII should have been enough of a clue that his story wasn’t to have a happy ending). Henry imposed martial law in the North, massacring hundreds in a series of brutal assaults. Many, including women and children, were hanged in their own gardens as an example to their fellow villagers. Lords, knights, monks and priests were not spared, as anyone who was even partially suspected of having taken part in, or even sympathised with, the pilgrimage being ruthlessly put to death without proper trial. 

While the Pilgrimage of Grace is seen as the most serious of all Tudor-era rebellions, it only hastened Henry’s policy of removing Catholicism root and branch from the country. With the loss of their leadership, as well as countless religious figures, the Catholic movement in the North was broken, and Henry was free to fill his coffers with the treasure taken from the monasteries. The reformation he started was continued after Henry’s death by his son, Edward VI and, after a brief but bloody return to Catholicism under his daughter, Queen Mary, was finalised by his younger daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. But for those few months in 1536, England was split in two and, with Nottingham as a middle-ground, the fate of a nation hung in the balance. 

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