Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace, a widespread revolt against King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and the Act of Supremacy, which named Henry the head of the Church in England, was the most serious domestic challenge the king faced during his reign.

Summary of Event

By the fall of 1536, there was a great deal of discontent in the north of England. This discontent had many sources, including bad harvests over the previous few years. Heavy royal taxation came with rumors of more taxes, causing further hardship and resentment. There was also a general sense of alienation in the north, the feeling that the south, and the central government based there, neither knew nor cared about the north and its problems. Taxation;England
Grace, Pilgrimage of (1536-1537)
Aske, Robert
Henry VIII
Cromwell, Thomas
Howard, Thomas (1473-1554)
Henry VIII (king of England)
Cromwell, Thomas
Aske, Robert
Howard, Thomas (third duke of Norfolk)
Edward VI (king of England)

Most upsetting of all, however, were the religious changes, in particular the dissolution, or closing, of England’s monasteries, which had begun that year. As a result of all these factors, and especially the religious one, northern England rose up in a rebellion that was most likely the most serious internal threat faced by King Henry VIII during his reign.

The closing of the monasteries followed the king’s repudiation of the Papacy and his assuming the headship of the Church of England in 1534. Catholicism;England The architect of this royal supremacy in the church, as well as the dissolution of the monasteries, was Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who was well known to favor Protestantism. Although only smaller monasteries were being shut down in 1536, on the ostensible grounds that they were corrupt, it was widely expected that there would be further attacks on monasticism Monasticism;England in general.

Moreover, the recently issued Ten Articles Ten Articles of Faith (1536) , which attempted to define the doctrine of the Church of England for the first time, indicated that the English church was becoming more open to Protestant Protestantism;England doctrine, and royal injunctions were already attacking popular Catholic religious practices on the grounds of “superstition.” The conservative Catholic north was incensed with this heretical turn of religious policy by a governmental regime whose questionable morality had been on display in the months prior: The first six months of 1536 saw the death of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, whom he had divorced in 1533; the death of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, whom he had executed in 1536; and his third marriage, this time to Jane Seymour, also in 1536.

These religious grievances, combined with broader discontent, led to a general insurrection, which broke out in Lincolnshire early in October, 1536. The insurrection was sparked by a group of villagers who mistakenly believed their church goods were about to be seized. Eventually numbering about ten thousand rebels, the leaders of the Lincolnshire Rebellion issued articles that, in addition to economic complaints, called on the king to end the dissolution of the monasteries and dismiss bishops they considered heretical. Lasting less than two weeks, the Lincolnshire disturbance ended peacefully before government action could be taken against it.

News of the Lincolnshire Rebellion Lincolnshire Rebellion (1536) , however, quickly led to other revolts, so that, by the end of October, the central government was no longer in control of the north, from Yorkshire and Lancashire to the Scottish border. While each of these disturbances reflected economic and local problems, what bound them all together was their opposition to the religious changes under Henry. Like those of the Lincolnshire rebels, articles produced by the other revolts universally condemned the dissolution of the monasteries and heretical bishops, and they also called for the removal of Thomas Cromwell, who was widely viewed as the “evil counselor” responsible for both the king’s offensive religious program and his extortionate fiscal program.

The predominance of the religious issue, however, can be seen in the largest of these revolts, in Yorkshire, led by a lawyer named Robert Aske. It was Aske who named the movement the Pilgrimage of Grace, and extensive religious symbolism was employed by the pilgrims to emphasize that this was a crusade for the old religion. At its peak, Aske’s Yorkshire rebellion alone numbered about thirty thousand individuals, and the entire pilgrimage probably approached fifty thousand.

Aske’s leadership of the pilgrimage indicates the complicity of local elites. The uprisings were, in their origins, genuinely popular movements, and at the start, local elites seem to have been somewhat coerced into participation by the crowds. The northern elites, however, not only disliked the religious changes as much as the common folk, but also had their own grievances against Henry and Cromwell, in particular recent legislation that limited their control over their lands and increased their financial obligations to the Crown. Therefore, elite influence on, and leadership of, the pilgrimage emerged quickly, with these concerns being listed in the articles of complaint.

In the face of these disturbances, Henry dispatched Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, who was religiously conservative but still loyal to the Crown. Howard realized quickly that the pilgrimage was far too large to be dealt with militarily, so he opted instead to negotiate with the rebels. Norfolk offered pardons and promises of royal attention to the north’s grievances, and he successfully got the rebels to disperse.

Henry was furious with this turn of events, but he had no other choice than to accept it in the short run. Howard turned out to be fairly clever. None of his promises or concessions had been put in writing. Moreover, divisions began to appear among the pilgrims, for, while they were fairly certain of what they did not want, they were less certain of what they did want. In this situation, the elites began to gravitate toward the Crown. Aske himself was brought to the royal court for Christmas. The commoners among the pilgrims had been uneasy with the settlement reached with Howard, and they continued to have doubts and suspicions.

Early in 1537, these simmering dissatisfactions flared up again in a handful of further rebellions. The new disturbances played into Henry’s hands. Smaller and more dispersed than the earlier pilgrimage, they were within the government’s ability to handle, and they provided an excellent justification for revoking all the previous pardons. Norfolk returned to the north, and June saw the last executions for the pilgrimage, including that of Aske.

After the events of 1536-1537, Henry and Cromwell worked to extend central control over the north, undermining the power of the traditional leading families there and instituting a Council of the North. The dissolution of the monasteries continued, and, while the pace of religious change in other regards slowed or even reversed, this was entirely because of the changing inclinations of the king, whose shift toward conservatism after 1539 cost Thomas Cromwell his head as well.


The Pilgrimage of Grace illustrates two very important things about early Tudor England. First, the central government’s coercive and policing powers were limited. Howard negotiated with the rebels because he had to. Despite King Henry’s anger, his government simply did not have the resources to pacify and end such a widespread uprising. It was fortunate for Henry that differences among the pilgrims themselves fractured the movement and alienated many northern elites. If not for these differences, the king might never have been able to extract his vengeance on the pilgrimage’s leaders.

The second, and perhaps more significant, aspect of the pilgrimage is the ability of issues concerning religion to ignite open rebellion and the inevitable mixing of religious grievances with those that are secular. Religious rebellion occurred again during the reign of Henry’s son, King Edward VI. Edward’s more aggressively Protestant religious policy, including the introduction of a new, Protestant worship service, led to uprisings in Devon and Cornwall in 1549. As with the Pilgrimage of Grace, religious concerns were mixed with economic ones, and news of the revolt in the west led to other rebellions, eastward and northward into East Anglia. As the uprising moved farther east, however, religion became less of a factor and complaints about the economy became more of a factor. Indeed, in Norfolk in 1549, Kett’s Rebellion Kett’s Rebellion (1549)[Ketts Rebellion (1549)] made a great show of support for the government’s changes in religion and religious practice, while also protesting oppressive landlords. Not nearly as threatening as the Pilgrimage of Grace, all these rebellions were suppressed.

Further Reading

  • Dodds, Madeleine Hope, and Ruth Dodds. The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536-1537, and the Exeter Conspiracy, 1538. 2 vols. London: Frank Cass, 1971. Originally published in 1915, this work remains the most comprehensive study of the events.
  • Fletcher, Anthony, and Diarmaid MacCulloch. Tudor Rebellions. 5th ed. New York: Longman, 2004. This volume sets the pilgrimage within the context of other Tudor revolts, such as the Western Rebellion.
  • Hoyle, R. W. The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530’. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. The most scholarly recent work on the pilgrimage, this study reviews the historiography of, and current controversies surrounding, this event, and it analyzes the uprisings.
  • Moorhouse, Geoffrey. The Pilgrimage of Grace: The Rebellion That Shook Henry VIII’s Throne. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002. This is a well-written narrative of the rebellions and their aftermath.
  • Shagan, Ethan H. “Politics and the Pilgrimage of Grace Revisited.” In Popular Politics and the English Reformation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Shagan focuses on the politics within and without the pilgrimage.

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

1549: Kett’s Rebellion