The causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace have remained difficult to pin down for many years. The Pilgrimage of Grace was essentially specific to Yorkshire. What would have caused many thousands of people to rise up in Yorkshire to cause a rebellion that clearly rattled the government of Henry VIII?
While much has been written about the Pilgrimage of Grace, it has proved difficult to specifically pin down why so many people rallied to the cause. The document presented to the Duke of Norfolk at Doncaster – the ‘24 Articles’ – should give many clues as the demands should have been directly linked to the grievances of the rebels. However, the document was produced by a select group of nobles. No ‘commoner’ was present, nor invited to attend, and as they constituted the vast bulk of the rebels, their beliefs are seemingly excluded from these articles. Some of the articles are specific to religion, others to political issues. While these articles give a clear indication of what a select group wanted, they cannot be assumed to be what the ‘commoner’ wanted.
Certain rumours are known to have been very common in Yorkshire immediately prior to the rebellion taking hold. One was that Henry was about to order all parish churches to hand over their silver to the government and that they would be replaced with tin ones. There is no evidence that the government of Henry contemplated this but the rumour spread with due speed. Another rumour that spread was that a tax was going to be placed on ‘rites of passage’ – baptism, marriage and burial. This would have made financially pressed families feel even more financially vulnerable if brought in. A final rumour that was popular at this time was that the poorer classes were to be forbidden to eat certain types of food.
While these rumours seem nonsense now, they were believed in the mid-1530’s and with good reason. Many believed that Henry wanted to keep the ‘commoners’ in their place; many believed that Henry was so short of money that he would resort to anything to get a new source of cash. Whereas there are religious aspects to these rumours, they also overlap into social and economic issues that dominated lives of the ‘commoner’. It is doubtful if you could have separated all three at the time.
There can be little doubt that religious changes were a main reason for the Pilgrimage of Grace. Robert Aske would not have chosen the title for his followers if the protest had not had a religious input. The Reformation had affected over 100 small monasteries in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Many of these monasteries had worked with their local communities in both educational and medical aspects of day-to-day life and the projected loss of these were, at a local level, potentially very negative. There can be little doubt that some pilgrims were also angered at the thought of the Pope’s position being eroded by the introduction of new reforms. Basic religious beliefs had been held since childhood and any attempt to change them must have seemed very threatening.
There is little doubt that some of the rebels also had economic grievances and used the Pilgrimage of Grace to vent their anger. Rent increases seem to have been the primary reason for the anger of some of the ‘commoners’. However, historians who have researched the rebellion tend to play down just how widespread this anger was and point to the fact that rent increases would have been common throughout the country but that the Pilgrimage was limited to the north.
Those nobles who joined the rebellion (as opposed to being forced into it) seem to have done so because they believed that their traditional ‘feudal’ rights were being eroded and replaced with more modern methods that, in their opinion, undermined the power that they believed was theirs by right. The blame for this erosion of local power was put on Thomas Cromwell who wanted to see an expansion of central government’s power within the localities. It was this perceived policy of central intervention that angered the nobility in the north.
With so many people involved in the Pilgrimage, it is almost certain that individuals or small groups had their own reasons for joining. However, any record of what their grievances were has been lost to history. The belief that the Pilgrimage of Grace was primarily a rebellion led by aggrieved nobles backed by ‘commoners’ who, in the main, had serious concerns about the direction of religious reforms seems to be the best accepted cause. This was shown in the 24 Articles presented to Norfolk a Doncaster. If the rebellion was solely based on religious grievances, then the articles would have been purely about religion – similar to Luther’s 95 Theses. However, as the articles contained statements that were political/social, it is safe to conclude that the causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace were a combination of these.