Yorkshire Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Organized resistance to the collection of a tax levied by Henry VII led to the killing of the earl of Northumberland. Although the rebels took York, the earl of Surrey soon quelled the rebellion, and a judicial commission was convened to try the rebels.

Summary of Event

Throughout the 1480’, a decade that featured frequent warfare on the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, the citizens of Yorkshire were pressured to provide supplies and troops for the nearby border conflicts. They were all the more hard hit, then, by a series of taxes initiated in 1487. From 1487 to 1489, Yorkshire county, already depressed by years of military conflict, began to seethe at the collection of nearly one-third of its wealth in taxes and grants. Anger at excessive taxation, as well as resentment at the exemption of the nearby Borders county from a 1489 tax, apparently left numerous Yorkshire citizens ready to resist collection of the latest tax: The seeds were planted for open rebellion. Taxation;England Yorkshire Rebellion (1489) Henry VII Percy, Henry Chamber, Robert Howard, Thomas (1443-1524) Vergil, Polydore Vergil, Polydore Henry VII (king of England) Chamber, Robert Percy, Henry Skelton, John Egremont, Sir John Howard, Thomas (second duke of Norfolk)

Although many details of the Yorkshire Rebellion have generally been gleaned from Polydore Vergil’s historical account, which was commissioned by Henry VII approximately fifteen years after the rising, full records of the royal commission of oyer and terminer (that is, the order creating and authorizing the court that tried the rebels) also remain. This commission details the indictments against the rebels and has allowed historians to reconstruct much of what actually transpired.

Planning of the armed resistance seems to have begun on April 20, 1489, at a secret assembly convened at Ayton in Cleveland. Although the number of attendees from the nearby area is not clear, records show that the meeting was presided over by Robert Chamber of Ayton, a yeoman who was apparently the initial leader of the uprising. Chamber was assisted by at least two other yeomen and a chaplain. Most probably, the would-be rebels decided to marshal a large body of citizens and march to Thirsk to raise their grievances about excessive taxation with Henry Percy, the earl of Northumberland. Theoretically, commoners and gentry could make their grievances known to the king by communicating their complaints to the most proximate magnate, who would function as the representative of the Crown. Indeed, the earl of Northumberland was not only the most powerful noble in the Yorkshire area but also the key magnate in all of northern England.

The earl of Northumberland evidently gained intelligence of the rebels’ plans. On April 24, Northumberland summoned to Thirsk Sir Robert Plumpton and his armed retainers. The two forces met at South Kilvington on April 28, by which time Chamber had put together a force of some seven hundred rebels. Percy’s retainers apparently neglected to defend the earl from the rebels, for Northumberland seems to have been the only individual murdered during the Yorkshire Rebellion—a rising that eventually involved huge numbers of armed insurgents. Contemporaries such as the Paston family and the poet John Skelton seem to have been greatly disturbed by the killing of Northumberland, commenting on the violence and chaos created by the Yorkshire rioters.

After the murder of Northumberland, the rebels apparently sensed both that their avenue to legitimate complaint had been closed and that a strong response would come from Henry VII’s armies, for they soon began recruiting insurgents for a more widespread uprising. The recruitment of rebels involved some written proclamations but probably relied primarily on oral communication among the largely illiterate commoners who formed the majority of the rebels. The issues motivating the rebels now went beyond those of taxation, expanding to include claimed breaches in the rights of sanctuary and assembly.

Fresh rebels for the rising were recruited both in North Yorkshire and, under the leadership of Sir John Egremont, in nearby East Riding. The rebel contingents convened at Sheriff Hutton and soon marched southward, through Bramham Moor and Ferrybridge, reaching Doncaster by May 13. Hugh Bunting, a York fletcher, provided arrows for the rebel forces, who were joined at Dringham by a throng of York citizens bent on joining the rebel ranks.

On May 15, 1489, the rebel army, numbering some five thousand insurgents and apparently under the command of Sir John Egremont, was apparently welcomed into the city of York by citizens supporting the revolt. The rebels succeeded in seizing the city, which they did not in any way loot. Henry VII, whose fragile regime was only in its fourth year of rule, responded by raising an army under the command of Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey. Surrey succeeded in quickly dispersing the rebel forces. The sheer might of his royally raised army apparently cowed the rebels into surrendering without serious incident.

Beginning on May 27, 1489, and lasting only until June 1, a royal commission of oyer and terminer was established at the York Guildhall, with thirteen peers, six judges, and King Henry VII presiding over the proceedings. Although thousands of rebels were apparently involved in the riots, there were only sixty-six indictments, with only forty-four of these indictments involving rebellion. (The remainder were presumably criminals who took advantage of the chaos surrounding open rebellion to commit various misdeeds.) Jurors were chosen from the surrounding area, with most of these apparently being gentry or otherwise well-to-do individuals.

During the proceedings, it is reported, many commoners debased themselves to plead for mercy from Henry VII. Five rebels were condemned to death by hanging, including the original ringleader, Robert Chamber of Ayton, as well as Christopher Atkinson of Ayton, James Binks of Sowerby (both yeomen), and a cobbler, William Lister. Thomas Wrangwish, the mayor of York, was also condemned to death but was pardoned by Henry VII. Henry also pardoned six others accused of lesser crimes, including Sir John Egremont, one of the leaders in the recruitment of rebels that followed the killing of Northumberland. The legal proceedings appear to have been thorough and relatively fair, as is evidenced by the acquittal of Henry Middlewood and the mitigation of charges against John Slingsby. By June 1, the proceedings were terminated, and the Yorkshire Rebellion was effectively quelled, less than six weeks after it had arisen.

Significance

While the Yorkshire Rebellion of 1489 had little direct impact on Henry VII’s England, it was the first of a series of rebellions against Tudor Tudor Dynasty monarchs that would punctuate that dynasty’s reign. The rising itself seems to have led to only a single death and was apparently bloodlessly disbanded by Surrey’s army, so it must be seen as both largely nonviolent and fundamentally unsuccessful. Its effects on English history and on the imagination of English subjects, however, are hard to measure.

Historians of the Renaissance have emphasized that Tudor rule was enforced as much by the representation of power as it was by power itself: Counterfeiting currency was a capital offense, because coins were branded with the image of the monarch, an image which must always remain in the monarch’s absolute control. Moreover, when the earl of Essex wished to foment rebellion against Elizabeth I in the wake of the Tyrone and Essex Rebellions (1597-1601) Tyrone Rebellion (1597-1601) , he is reputed to have staged a performance of William Shakespeare’s Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596). Elizabeth understood very well the significance of a play representing the deposing of an English monarch—any English monarch—and she reacted to it as a direct threat to her authority, asking “Know ye not that I am Richard?”

The Tudors, then, seem to have understood their power to rest on their subjects’ belief in that power’s utter inviolability. Understood in this context, the consequences of any rebellion against royal authority, no matter how quickly defeated, must be judged as significant.

Robert Chamber’s rebellion did not spread beyond Yorkshire, and it appears to have been confined to the southeast and northeast portions of the county. Indeed, Henry VII’s decision to hold court proceedings in York itself, the relatively small number of individuals indicted for rioting, and the leniency with which Henry treated those on trial all point to the fact that Henry VII did not feel particularly threatened by the revolt. The rebellion’s only obvious effect on the English political landscape was the promotion of the earl of Surrey to the position of “king’s lieutenant,” which disrupted the traditional Percy domination of the north of England.

The Yorkshire Rebellion did, however, have clear and lasting psychological effects: Contemporaries were clearly shaken by the disturbance, as is evidenced by the Pastons’ and the poet John Skelton’s condemnation of the rioting, as well as by Polydore Vergil’s detailed recounting of a violent and chaotic revolt. The extent to which these men were shaken by a seemingly inconsequential event may indicate that Henry himself underestimated its importance, both for his own reign and for those of his descendants. In retrospect, the rebellion is remembered as the first of a series of anti-Tudor uprisings, including the Cornish Rebellion (1497), the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-1546), Kett’s Rebellion (1549), the Western Rebellion (1549), Wyatt’s Rebellion (1554), the Northern Earls’ Rebellion (1569), and the Tyrone and Essex Rebellions (1597-1601).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hicks, M. A. “The Yorkshire Rebellion of 1489 Reconsidered.” Northern History 22 (1986): 39-62. Offers an exhaustive description of the events surrounding the rebellion, using as evidence detailed analysis of the records of the royal commission investigating the revolt. Argues that the revolt was a “loyal rebellion,” largely nonviolent and self-righteous, suggesting that historians have wrongly focused on exaggerated contemporary accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hicks, Michael. English Political Culture in the Fifteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 2002. Broad survey of the background of political activity in late medieval England, valuable for its discussion of peasant perspectives, alongside those of individuals higher up on the social scale. Argues that communities succeeded in remaining stable, despite risings and widespread warfare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palliser, David. Tudor York. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. Broad survey of the history of the region in which the Yorkshire Rebellion occurred, providing details of the rising and a clear context for the players involved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skater, Victor, ed. The Political History of Tudor and Stuart England: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2002. Collection of primary sources, edited so as to illustrate the sociopolitical background of a chaotic period of social upheavals, of which the Yorkshire Rebellion is one striking instance.

1455-1485: Wars of the Roses

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

1497: Cornish Rebellion

Aug. 22, 1513-July 6, 1560: Anglo-Scottish Wars

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

1549: Kett’s Rebellion

Jan. 25-Feb. 7, 1554: Wyatt’s Rebellion

Nov. 9, 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls

1597-Sept., 1601: Tyrone Rebellion

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