the lincolnshire rebellion 1536


Oct 1536-Feb 1537


Multiple, with leaders from Commons giving way to gentry (a pattern typical of many rebellions)

  • Shoemaker Nicholas Melton in Lincs.
  • Landowners such as Sir Robert Aske and Francis Bigod in Yorkshire.
  • Bush calls the rebellion ‘a rising of the commons’, stressing its manifestoes were issued “with consent of the commons” and that rebels swore to be true to “God, king and commons”

No noble leaders, but – conspicuously – local nobles did not actively try to suppress rebellion

Main causes

Religious change. Fear of dissolution of monasteries, which provided needed charitable social safety net – rebellion coincided with visits by King’s Commissioners; settling of local grievances

Fear of new taxes in a time of peace not war, prompted by passage of Cromwell’s Subsidy Act authorising the collection of £80,000

Subsidiary causes

Poor harvest the previous year

Shifts in power balances at court – old supporters of Catherine of Aragon losing out

Degree of threat

High (despite the ridiculously low death-toll, see below). An estimated 50,000 rebels in total, across a broad swathe of northern England. Some demands were met. But the risings were not co-ordinated or simultaneous, and there was never any intention to overthrow the king. This was a loyal rebellion


  • Local nobles forced to negotiate with rebels and a general pardon promised
  •  Subsidy dropped
  • Four sacraments resorted to prayer book (pro-Catholic outcome).
  • Second wave of rebels led by Bigod treated much more harshly – sign of how concerned government was by this rebellion


The Pilgrimage of Grace was the largest and most complex rebellion of the period. It took place in five separate locations, there were two different outbreaks of rebellion, in 1536 and 1537.

With so many different people involved over such a wide area, the Pilgrimage had no single leader or cause. It was both a religious and an economic protest, led in various places and various times by members of the gentry and the commons.

To make matters more confusing, most of the testimony we have comes from the aftermath, where there were strong motives for denying the rebellion had been organised – it also suited Cromwell to push the idea it had had economic and not religious motives. In this sense the Pilgrimage can be whatever historians want it to be, but perhaps the safest conclusion is that it reflected a wide range of discontent at an especially charged time.

  • Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were implementing a wide-reaching programme adding to the power of the centre to control the regions
    • New taxes, London commissions looking at northern religious houses
    • Passage of the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries and the Ten Articles
  • The impact of the Reformation was increasingly being felt at a local level
  • There had been a very poor harvest in 1535
  • The pressure of population growth was causing unemployment – population rose 15% in this decade
  • Enclosure was spreading
  • The Subsidy was being collected – many opposed it because they felt an aggressive war with France was none of their business

Things were changing rapidly at this time. While the Break with Rome had taken place in 1532, there was absolutely no change in religious doctrine for a further two years. Henry’s Ten Articles (1536) changed this. They…

  • Cut the number of sacraments from 7 to 3 (baptism, penance, Eucharist)
  • Banned worship of images
  • Denied that it was possible for prayers to save souls from purgatory

The Articles were accompanied by a ban on the celebration of many Catholic holy days and moves to dissolve not only the few great religious houses, but also the many lesser monasteries, which provided most of what social “safety net” there was, especially in the north:

  • Charity for the destitute
  • Accommodation for men travelling in search of work

Trouble began in the autumn of 1536. The first violence was in Lincolnshire in October – the Lincolnshire Rising:

  • Three government commissions were at work in the county, dissolving the lesser monasteries, enforcing the 10 Articles and collecting the subsidy
  • The 4 commissioners enforcing the 10 Articles were seized
  • A popular revolt at first – the evidence suggests no pre-planning:
    • Priests were active in recruiting support
    • Rebellion spread organically from parish to parish
    • Rumour played an important part in mobilising support
  • Gentry assumed control after a week or so – they were seen as the “natural leaders” of society. Again the situation is confused, in part because after the revolt was over the leaders were anxious to downplay their involvement. Some claimed to have been forced to lead by the commons
    • This phase marked by oath taking and the drawing up of petitions

The first set of rebel demands was the Louth Manifesto(October 1536) – its mixed bag of demands was typical of the mixed motives of the rebels. It called for

  • An end to peacetime taxation
  • End to the dissolution of monasteries (16 of 55 northern monasteries had already been dissolved)
  • Restoration of ancient church liberties
  • A pardon for all rebels

The underlying pitch of the demands was effectively medieval –that there were low born councillors keeping the king from knowing what was really happening in his dominions.

This was followed by

  • riots in Cumberland over enclosure, and hedges pulled down in Giggleswick, Yorkshire
  • a rising in Yorkshire led by Sir Robert Aske. He was a lawyer and the younger son of an important Yorkshire family which had links to the Percy Earls of Northumberland

In all, it is estimated that 50,000 took part in some phase of the Pilgrimage, though the largest single gathering was the 30,000 strong rebel army assembled in Yorkshire.

Aske was elected “chief captain” of the Yorkshire rebels. It seems to have been he who termed the rebellion a “Pilgrimage” with its elements of peaceful and religious protest, rather than violent rebellion. The rebels thenceforth marched under the (Catholic) banner of the Five Wounds of Christ.

  • Seeing the rebellion as essentially peaceful is not a stretch – only one man was killed in the Pilgrimage of Grace

The Yorkshire rebels were nonetheless a formidable force, 30,000 strong, and they were threatening to march south if their demands were ignored. Henry sent the Duke of Norfolk to treat with them and there was a meeting at Doncaster. Aske found him willing to listen, and the outcome was an agreement for a truce. The rebel army disbanded and Aske convened a council atPontefract (December 1536) to issue a new manifesto.

The 24 articles of the Pontefract Manifesto embraced many causes:

  • 3 were economic – including an end to enclosure
  • 6 were legal or administrative – including a parliament to be held in the north
  • 6 were political – including the removal of Cromwell and Cranmer (seen as a protestant ‘heretic’) and restoration of Mary to the line of succession
  • 9 were religious – including restoration of Papal authority

Henry wanted to refuse all demands, but Norfolk persuaded him this would lead to a march on London, so he agreed instead to a general pardon for the rebels and promised a parliament convened in York would consider grievances.

Before this could happen, there was a second outbreak of rebellion in the north led by a protestant minor landowner calledSir Francis Bigod (January 1537). He had a number of very local grievances over landholding but also feared the king’s pardon was just a ruse to get the rebels to disperse so that they could be punished.

Bigod’s rising gave Henry the excuse to crush the rebels by force and compel the local gentry & nobility to back him or face the consequences.

  • Aske and Bigod were arrested, convicted of treason and hanged
  • 50 Lincolnshire rebels and 130 northern rebels were executed, still a relatively small number considering the size of the rebel support
  • The rebellion thus remained entirely northern, though there was certainly sympathy in the south

Questions over whether the Pilgrimage was planned and led divide historians.

  • The banners used in the Pilgrimage were made in advance. On the other hand, Aske was on his way to London for the new law term when he got caught in the rebellion – no evidence of pre-planning
  • For Geoffrey Elton, it was the product of the northern gentry and emphatically not a ‘spontaneous combustion’ caused by discontent among the commons. There were spontaneous elements, but at root it was a planned rebellion
  • For Davies, it was predominantly popular, and there were genuine religious causes behind it. He accepts there was “a great deal of upper class prompting”
  • For JJ Scarisbrick, it was a conservative rebellion from below – the ‘largest rebellion in English history’, but “above all a protest against change – a desperate attempt to restore what had been pulled down and protect what still stood.”
  • For Dickens the “roots of the movement were decidedly economic, its demands predominantly secular”

Reasons for success and failure

To argue the Pilgrimage was a success:

  • Henry had to start paying more attention to the north – he was very careful to avoid a repetition

To argue the Pilgrimage was a failure:

  • Rebels failed to take advantage of their numbers of general sympathy for the cause; they did not march south

How to see the Pilgrimage

You really can take your pick, there are so many different views

  • It was local reaction to the centre
    • CSL Davies argues this
    • Says Percies were behind everything and fighting for their old power and independence
    • Religion was a useful cloak to win popular support
    • Points to Aske’s links with Percies –sees him as a catspaw
  • It was factional
    • Geoffrey Elton argues this
    • Says initial Lincolnshire rebels had links to local landowners who were part of Catherine of Aragon’s faction, who had lost favour and patronage at court
    • Idealism and religion cloaked naked political aims
  • It had social and economic causes
    • ML Bush argues this
    • Subsidy resented in a poor and famished north – three bad harvests since 1527 and starvation: “sheep do eat men” (More) – and there were rumours of new taxes on the way
    • Resentment at enclosure – though no widespread pulling down of fences
  • It was a religious rebellion
    • JJ Scarisbrick argues this
    • More of the rebel demands were religious than anything else
    • Monks managed to “wag the people” (Sir William Fairfax)

Key stats, quotes & views

  • There were at least 10,000 rebels in Lincolnshire.
  • Bush says total number of rebels was 50,000 in 9 different armies.
  • Fewer than 10% of rebels were directly affected by the Subsidy (you had to be worth more than £20 to pay it, it was not a tax on peasants)
  • Limit to desire to have old religion back – Aske’s rebels wanted the Pope to be “supreme” but also to limit the amount they paid to the church in tithes
  • ‘From the first, the real lead came from the local gentry’ – Geoffrey Elton


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