Rebellion: Pilgrimage of Grace

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by Dr Jack Binns

When one of King Henry VIII’s surveyors drew a bird’s-eye view of Scarborough in 1538-9, he showed outside Newborough Bar a gibbet and a corpse suspended from it. We have no certain knowledge to identify this victim, but he might well have been John Wyvill of Osgodby, “a gentleman of £20 lands”, who was executed for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. If, like some other traitors, his chained corpse had been boiled and tanned, it would have been on public display for many years.

Scarborough had a minor but not insignificant involvement in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the misleading name given by its one-eyed leader, Robert Aske, to a gigantic demonstration of Yorkshiremen in the autumn of 1536. When the rising spread from Lincolnshire across the whole of Yorkshire and beyond, engulfing Hull, York, Wakefield and Pontefract, only two strongholds, Skipton and Scarborough, remained loyal to the King. Skipton castle was the chief residence of the Cliffords, the earls of Cumberland, and Scarborough’s royal castle was in the custody of Sir Ralph Eure the younger of Foulbridge. But whereas Skipton had little strategical importance, deprived of Hull, Bridlington and Whitby, King Henry valued Scarborough highly as his only remaining entry into rebellious Yorkshire.

Accordingly, in October 1536, “victuals and gunpowder” were sent by sea to the besieged castle and the following month Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s principal minister, sent more supplies and a gift of £100 to Sir Ralph.

Though Scarborough castle had suffered from decades of neglect and material decay, it was still too strong for the Pilgrims, who lacked the artillery necessary to batter down its walls. Nevertheless, the King was much displeased to learn that his £100 had been seized and its carrier captured and physically abused.

After Henry’s insincere promise of a general pardon and a parliament had been accepted by Aske and the other captains, the siege at Scarborough was lifted. Eure was called to London and rewarded with permanent care of the castle, a garrison of 100 men for it, and a lifetime grant of the royal manor of Northstead.

But one of the Pilgrim leaders, Sir Francis Bigod of Mulgrave and Settrington, distrusted Henry and Cromwell. He said that the royal pardon was merely a trick to gain time and disperse the Pilgrim “army”. To prevent the King from taking revenge, Scarborough and Hull had to be secured. Unfortunately for Bigod and his few associates, none of the chief captains concurred: his rising was a fiasco. When Eure returned to Scarborough in January 1537, Bigod’s juniors, John Wyvill and Ralph Fenton of Rudston, surrendered to him without resistance.

Bigod had been right: Henry took a terrible revenge. None of Yorkshire’s leaders, actual or only suspected, escaped punishment. Sir Thomas Percy, whose mother was “the old lady of Northumberland” living at her dower mansion at Seamer, was one of them hanged and quartered at Tyburn. Ralph Fenton and Robert Aske were hanged in chains to die of exposure at York.

Historians continue to disagree with each other about the causes and character of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Was it fundamentally a popular reaction to all the radical religious changes that had taken place since 1529, such as the break with Rome, Henry’s assumption of the title of Supreme Head of the Church in England and the attack on and closure of dozens of smaller abbeys and convents? Was it a court faction plot to unseat Thomas Cromwell, the most hated “low-born” minister in the land? Or was it no more than the response to the “frantic fantasies” of an ignorant, superstitious commons?

Whatever the motives elsewhere, in Scarborough, two different sources of resistance to Henry’s Reformation can be identified, in the town’s three friaries and amongst the extended Percy family.

When John Dobson, vicar of Muston, was examined by the King’s Council at York in December 1537, accused of spreading treasonable prophecies, in defence he said that he had first read them in Scarborough’s Carmelite friary. Present on that occasion were John Borrowby, the prior, and Richard Chapman, warden of the Franciscans.

The prophecy foretold that in the year 1537 “the dun cow which is the bishop of Rome...shall come into England jingling with her keys, and set the church again in the right faith” and “when the Crumme [Cromwell] is brought low, then shall we begin Christ’s cross row”. Subsequently, Thomas Bradley of Ayton was one of several other priests accused of retailing this fanciful but dangerous nonsense. Most of them were let off with a severe warning, but John Dobson was executed at York after the Lent assizes there in 1538.

Scarborough’s friars were more fortunate. After Richard Chapman surrendered his house in March 1539, in compensation he received a chantry in St Mary’s church worth £3 3s. 8d. a year. Ten years later, he was said to be “well learned and in good health”. John Borrowby became a curate at Scarborough and later a priest at Cherry Burton.

One of the lines in the so-called prophecy ran “the moon shall kindle again, and take the light of the sun [the Tudors], meaning by the moon the blood of the Percies”, and there is ample evidence to implicate the Percies in the Pilgrimage of Grace.

By 1536, the sixth earl of Northumberland, the weak-minded, spendthrift head of the family, had been persuaded to surrender his vast estates to the Crown, thereby disinheriting his younger brother, Sir Thomas. According to one East Riding captain, Sir Thomas was “the lock, key and wards of this matter” who alone had mustered 10,000 men from Yorkswold. His refusal to join Bigod made sure of Sir Francis’ failure. At least five Yorkshire captains had been or were still Percy employees.

In Scarborough, the Percies enjoyed a long tradition of wealth, political influence and, most significantly, close association with the town’s religious hierarchy. Within months of their closure, the three friaries were still receiving Percy money. Yet after the death of Thomas Percy, gentleman, in 1538, the family name disappears from the Common Hall lists, whereas those who had sheltered in the castle with Eure, with names such as Fish, Lacy and Langdale, all continued to prosper.