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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 123-124
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The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s. By R. W. Hoyle. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2001. Pp. xvi, 487.)
Of all the rebellions that troubled Tudor England, the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-37) was the most extensive and potentially the most devastating. Yet, Henry VIII rode out this storm and was probably in an even stronger position in its aftermath. This rising has attracted a fair amount of historiographical attention. Many debates have focused on the issue of what motivated the revolt: was it primarily economic, political, or religious factors that led so many subjects to take up arms? Moreover, was this the result of a conspiracy and co-ordination from the top of the social hierarchy, or was this a spontaneous manifestation of discontent on the part of large segments of the common people?
R. W. Hoyle addresses these and a host of related issues in his exhaustive study of the Pilgrimage of Grace. He rejects the various conspiracy theories and the related idea that members of the gentry or nobility masterminded this uprising. On the contrary, according to his succinct thesis, "The rebellion was overwhelmingly popular and spontaneous" (p. 17). It reflected the widespread discontent of many people, especially commoners, throughout much of the North of England. Hoyle further argues that many of the sharp distinctions that are often posited between the North and the rest of England are overdrawn, and that the North itself was hardly uniform. These are helpful insights but they highlight an important question as to why these series of disturbances in the mid-1530's were essentially confined to the North. Unfortunately, the author does not adequately address this intriguing question, and, in general, the background and context of the rebellion are not as well covered as the rebellion itself.
Still, this is the most thorough and detailed account of the Pilgrimage of Grace to date. Hoyle provides good coverage of the origins of these disturbances in Lincolnshire in early October of 1536. As a corrective to many previous studies, he emphasizes the urban, lower class, and spontaneous nature of the rising. Due to rumors and concerns for parochial religion, "a riot by urban [End Page 123] artisans was transformed into the rising of a rural canton" (p. 110). Although the Lincolnshire rising subsided fairly quickly, it provided the impetus for similar risings in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Robert Aske, in particular, managed to transform these inchoate disturbances into the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was devoted to the defense of the Church (including opposition to the nascent dissolution of the monasteries), and the overthrow of the king's lowborn and evangelical councilors.
Another wave of protest erupted in Richmondshire, which claimed to act in the name of "Captain Poverty," and this second and semi-independent movement spread throughout much of the North. Hoyle argues that there was not a common ideology uniting the different areas of rebellion. Although there was widespread discontent with the religious changes of the 1530's, economic and agrarian dislocations were probably uppermost in the minds of some of the rebels. This multiplicity, if not divergence, of interests, along with the lack of cohesive leadership, helps to explain why the "pilgrims," who had numerical superiority over the royal forces commanded by the Duke of Norfolk, did not attack but disbanded. Based on the foregoing reasons, as well as the successful efforts of Norfolk and others to split the gentry leaders from the commons, and the promise of a pardon from the king, the Pilgrimage of Grace ran its course and went into "voluntary liquidation" (p. 362).
Believing that they had been deceived, some individuals and areas rose again in early 1537. The king, who had been obstinate and duplicitous throughout the period of revolts and negotiations, reacted with a vengeance. The latter provocation provided him with all the excuse he needed to crush the latest uprisings, execute many of the actual or perceived ringleaders, and renege on his other promises, such...