The Pilgrimage of Grace: Social Uprising During Henry VIII's Reign

What Chance Did the Pilgrimage of Grace Have Against Henry VIII?

Mount Grace Priority as it Looked in 1536
Sketch of Mount Grace Priory, c16th century, (c1990-2010). General view of the priory before dissolution in 1539 by King Henry VIII. Mount Grace Priory, in the parish of East Harlsey, North Yorkshire, England, one of ten medieval Carthusian houses (charterhouses), founded in 1398 by Thomas Holland, 1st Duke of Surrey. Artist Ivan Lapper, King Henry VIII. English Heritage / Heritage Images / Getty Images

The Pilgrimage of Grace was an uprising, or rather several uprisings, that took place in the north of England between 1536 and 1537. The people rose against what they saw as the heretical and tyrannical rule of Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Tens of thousands of people in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire were involved in the uprising, making the Pilgrimage one of the most unsettling crises of Henry's most unsettled reign.

Key Takeaways: The Pilgrimage of Grace

  • The Pilgrimage of Grace (1536–1537) was an uprising of tens of thousands of people, clergy and conservatives, against King Henry VIII. 
  • They sought the reduction of taxes, the re-establishment of the Catholic church and the pope as the religious leader in England, and the replacement of Henry's main advisors. 
  • None of their demands were met, and over 200 of the rebels were executed. 
  • Scholars believe the rebellion failed for lack of leadership and conflicts between the demands of the poor versus those of the gentry.

The insurgents crossed class lines, uniting commoners, gentlemen, and lords together for a few brief moments to protest social, economic, and political changes they observed. They believed the issues resulted from Henry's naming himself the Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England. Historians today recognize the Pilgrimage as growing out of the end of feudalism and the birth of the modern era.

Religious, Political, and Economic Climate in England

How the country came to such a dangerous place started with King Henry's romantic entanglements and search to secure an heir. After 24 years of being a jovial, married and Catholic king, Henry divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn in January of 1533, shocking Catherine's supporters. Worse, he also officially divorced himself from the Catholic church in Rome and made himself head of a new church in England. In March of 1536, he began to dissolve the monasteries, forcing the religious clergy to give over their lands, buildings and religious objects.

On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed, and on May 30th, Henry married his third wife Jane Seymour. The English parliament—deftly manipulated by Cromwell—had met on June 8th to declare his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate, settling the crown on Jane's heirs. If Jane had no heirs, Henry could pick his own heir. Henry did have an acknowledged illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy,1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset (1519–1536), from his mistress, Elizabeth Blount, but he died on July 23rd, and it became clear to Henry that if he wanted a blood heir, he would have to acknowledge Mary or face the fact that one of Henry's great rivals, the King of Scotland James V, was going to be his heir.

But in May of 1536, Henry was married, and legitimately—Catherine died in January of that year—and if he had acknowledged Mary, beheaded the hated Cromwell, burnt the heretic bishops that allied themselves with Cromwell, and reconciled himself with Pope Paul III, then the pope would have most likely recognized Jane Seymour as his wife and her children as legitimate heirs. That is essentially what the insurgents wanted.

The truth was, even if he'd been willing to do all that, Henry couldn't afford it.

Henry's Fiscal Issues

Jervaulx Abbey, near Masham, North Yorkshire, England
Jervaulx Abbey was one of the great Cistercian abbeys of Yorkshire, founded in 1156. It was dissolved in 1537, and its last abbot was hanged for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Dennis Barnes / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images Plus

The reasons for Henry's lack of funds were not strictly his famed extravagance. The discovery of new trade routes and the recent influx of silver and gold from the Americas into England severely depreciated the value of the king's stores: he desperately needed to find a way to increase revenue.

The potential worth raised by the dissolution of the monasteries would be a huge influx of cash. The estimated total revenue of the religious houses in England was UK £130,000 per year—between 64 billion and 34 trillion pounds in today's currency.

The Sticking Points

The reason the uprisings involved as many people as it did is also the reason they failed: the people were not united in their desires for change. There were several different sets of written and verbal issues that the commoners, gentlemen, and lords had with the King and the way he and Cromwell were handling the country—but each segment of the rebels felt more strongly about one or two but not all of the issues.

  • No taxes during peacetime. Feudal expectations were that the king would pay his own expenses unless the country was at war. A peacetime tax had been in place from the mid-twelfth century, known as the 15th and the 10th. In 1334, the amount of the payments was fixed at a flat rate and paid by the wards to the king—the wards collected 1/10th (10%) of the moveable goods of the people living in the urban areas and paid it to the king, and the rural wards collected 1/15 (6.67%) of those of their residents. In 1535, Henry steeply raised those payments, requiring individuals to pay based on periodic assessments of not just their goods but also their rents, profits, and wages. There were also rumors of taxes to come on sheep and cattle; and of a "luxury tax" for people making less than 20 pounds per year on such things as white bread, cheese, butter, capons, hens, chickens.
  • The repeal of the Statute of Uses. This unpopular statute was of vital importance to wealthy landowners who held estates owned by Henry, but less so to the common folk. Traditionally, the landholders could use the feudal dues to support their younger children or other dependents. This statute abolished all such uses so that only the oldest son could derive any income from an estate owned by the King
  • The Catholic church should be reestablished. Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn was only one problem the people had with Henry's changes; the replacement of Pope Paul III as a religious leader to a king who was perceived as a sensualist was inconceivable to the conservative parts of England, who truly believed the switch could only be temporary, now that Anne and Catherine were both dead.
  • The heretic bishops should be deprived and punished. The basic tenet of the Catholic church in Rome was that the supremacy of the king was primary unless to follow his will was heresy, in which case they were morally obligated to work against him. Any clergy who refused to sign an oath siding with Henry was executed, and once the surviving clergy had recognized Henry as the Head of the Church of England (and were, therefore, heretics) they could not go back.
  • No more abbeys should be suppressed. Henry began his changes by taking down the "lesser monasteries," describing a laundry list of evils being perpetrated by the monks and abbots, and decreeing that there should be no more than one monastery within five miles of another. There were nearly 900 religious houses in England in the late 1530s, and one adult man in fifty was in religious orders. Some of the abbeys were great landowners, and some of the abbey buildings were hundreds of years old, and often the only permanent building in the rural communities. Their dissolution was a dramatically visible loss to the countryside, as well as an economic loss.
  • Cromwell, Riche, Legh, and Layton should be replaced by noblemen. People blamed Henry's advisor Thomas Cromwell and other of Henry's councilors for most of their ills. Cromwell had come to power promising to make Henry the "richest king that ever was in England" and the population felt that he was to blame what they saw as Henry's corruption. Cromwell was ambitious and smart, but of the lower middle classes, a clothier, solicitor, and moneylender who was convinced that an absolute monarchy was the best form of government.
  • The rebels should be pardoned for their insurrection.

None of these had a reasonable chance of success.

The First Uprising: Lincolnshire, October 1–18th, 1536

Although there were minor uprisings before and after, the first major assembly of dissident people took place in Lincolnshire beginning around the first of October, 1536. By Sunday the 8th, there were 40,000 men gathered in Lincoln. The leaders sent a petition to the King outlining their demands, who responded by sending the Duke of Suffolk to the gathering. Henry rejected all of their issues but said if they were willing to go home and submit to the punishment that he would choose, he would eventually pardon them. The commoners went home.

The uprising failed on a number of fronts—they had no noble leader to intercede for them, and their object was a mix of religion, agrarian, and political issues without a single aim. They were patently afraid of civil war, probably as much as the King was. Most of all, there were another 40,000 rebels in Yorkshire, who were waiting to see what the King's response would be before moving forward. 

The Second Uprising, Yorkshire, October 6, 1536–January 1537

The second uprising was far more successful, but still ultimately failed. Led by the gentleman Robert Aske, the collective forces took first Hull, then York, the second largest city in England at the time. But, like the Lincolnshire uprising, the 40,000 commoners, gentlemen and nobles did not advance to London but instead wrote to the King their requests.

This the King also rejected out of hand–but the messengers bearing the outright rejection were stopped before they reached York. Cromwell saw this disturbance as better organized than the Lincolnshire uprising, and thus more of a danger. Simply rejecting the issues might result in an outbreak of violence. Henry's and Cromwell's revised strategy involved delaying the rabble at York for a month or more.

A Carefully Orchestrated Delay

While Aske and his associates waited for Henry's response, they reached out to the Archbishop and other clergy members, those who had sworn allegiance to the king, for their opinion on the demands. Very few responded; and when forced to read it, the Archbishop himself refused to assist, objecting to the return of papal supremacy. It is very likely that the Archbishop had a better understanding of the political situation than Aske.

Henry and Cromwell designed a strategy to divide the gentlemen from their commoner followers. He sent out temporizing letters to the leadership, then in December invited Aske and the other leaders to come to see him. Aske, flattered and relieved, came to London and met with the king, who asked him to write up the history of the uprising—Aske's narrative (published word-for-word in Bateson 1890) is one the main sources for the historical work by Hope Dodds and Dodds (1915).

Aske and the other leaders were sent home, but the prolonged visit of the gentlemen with Henry was cause for dissension among the commoners who came to believe they had been betrayed by Henry's forces, and by mid-January 1537, most of the military force had left York.

Norfolk's Charge

Next, Henry sent the Duke of Norfolk to take steps to end the conflict. Henry declared a state of martial law and told Norfolk he should go to Yorkshire and the other counties and administer a new oath of allegiance to the King—anyone who did not sign was to be executed. Norfolk was to identify and arrest the ringleaders, he was to turn out the monks, nuns, and canons who still occupied the suppressed abbeys, and he was to turn over the lands to the farmers. The nobles and gentlemen involved in the uprising were told to expect and welcome Norfolk.

Once the ringleaders were identified, they were sent to the Tower of London to await trial and execution. Aske was arrested on April 7th, 1537 and committed to the Tower, where he was repeatedly questioned. Found guilty, he was hung at York on July 12th. The rest of the ringleaders were executed according to their station in life—noblemen were beheaded, noble women were burned at the stake. Gentlemen were either sent home to be hung or hung in London and their heads placed on stakes on London Bridge.

End of the Pilgrimage of Grace

In all, about 216 people were executed, although not all the records of the executions were kept. In 1538–1540, groups of royal commissions toured the country and demanded that the remaining monks surrender their lands and goods. Some didn't (Glastonbury, Reading, Colchester)–and they were all executed. By 1540, all but seven of the monasteries were gone. By 1547, two-thirds of the monastic lands had been alienated, and their buildings and lands either sold at market to the classes of people who could afford them or distributed to local patriots.

As to why the Pilgrimage of Grace failed so abysmally, researchers Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds argue that there were four main reasons.

  • The leaders were under the impression that Henry was a weak, good-natured sensualist who was led astray by Cromwell: they were wrong, or at least wrong in understanding the strength and persistence of Cromwell's influence. Cromwell was executed by Henry in 1540. 
  • There were no leaders among the rebels with unconquerable energy or willpower. Aske was the most passionate: but if he could not convince the king to accept their demands, the only alternative was to have Henry overthrown, something they could not conceivably succeed in doing on their own
  • The conflict between the interests of the gentlemen (higher rents and lower wages) and those of the commoners (lower rents and higher wages) could not be reconciled, and the commoners who made up the numbers of the forces were distrustful of the gentlemen who led them. 
  • The only possible uniting power would have been the church, either the Pope or the English clergy. Neither supported the uprising in any real sense.


There have been several recent books on the Pilgrimage of Grace over the past few years, but writers and researching sisters Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds wrote an exhaustive work explaining the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1915 and it is still the main source of information for those new works.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Pilgrimage of Grace: Social Uprising During Henry VIII's Reign." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, September 2). The Pilgrimage of Grace: Social Uprising During Henry VIII's Reign. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Pilgrimage of Grace: Social Uprising During Henry VIII's Reign." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).