In the autumn of 1536 a rising broke out in Lincolnshire, and this was hardly quelled when all Yorkshire rose in arms.
Henry VIII Makes Himself Head of the Church of England, featuring a series of excerpts selected from A Short History of the English People by John R. Green published in 1874. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
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Their death was soon followed by that of More. The interval of imprisonment had failed to break his resolution, and the new statute sufficed to bring him to the block. With Fisher he was convicted of denying the King’s title as only supreme head of the Church. The old bishop approached the scaffold with a book of the New Testament in his hand. He opened it at a venture ere he knelt, and read, “This is life eternal to know thee, the only true God.” In July More followed his fellow-prisoners to the block. On the eve of the fatal blow he moved his beard carefully from the reach of the doomsman’s axe. “Pity that should be cut,” he was heard to mutter with a touch of the old sad irony, “that has never committed treason.”
Cromwell had at last reached his aim. England lay panic-stricken at the feet of the “low-born knave,” as the nobles called him, who represented the omnipotence of the crown. Like Wolsey he concentrated in his hands the whole administration of the state; he was at once foreign minister and home minister, and vicar-general of the Church, the creator of a new fleet, the organizer of armies, the president of the terrible star chamber. His Italian indifference to the mere show of power stood out in strong contrast with the pomp of the Cardinal. Cromwell’s personal habits were simple and unostentatious; if he clutched at money, it was to feed the army of spies whom he maintained at his own expense, and whose work he surveyed with a ceaseless vigilance. For his activity was boundless.
More than fifty volumes remain of the gigantic mass of his correspondence. Thousands of letters from “poor bedesmen,” from outraged wives and wronged laborers and persecuted heretics, flowed in to the all-powerful minister, whose system of personal government turned him into the universal court of appeal. But powerful as he was, and mighty as was the work which he had accomplished, he knew that harder blows had to be struck before his position was secure.
The new changes, above all the irritation which had been caused by the outrages with which the dissolution of the monasteries was accompanied, gave point to the mutinous temper that prevailed throughout the country; for the revolution in agriculture was still going on, and evictions furnished embittered outcasts to swell the ranks of any rising. Nor did it seem as though revolt, if it once broke out, would want leaders to head it. The nobles, who had writhed under the rule of the Cardinal, writhed yet more bitterly under the rule of one whom they looked upon not only as Wolsey’s tool, but as a low-born upstart. “The world will never mend,” Lord Hussey had been heard to say, “till we fight for it.”
“Knaves rule about the King!” cried Lord Exeter; “I trust some day to give them a buffet!” At this moment, too, the hopes of political reaction were stirred by the fate of one whom the friends of the old order looked upon as the source of all their troubles. In the spring of 1536, while the dissolution of the monasteries was marking the triumph of the new policy, Anne Boleyn was suddenly charged with adultery and sent to the Tower. A few days later she was tried, condemned, and brought to the block. The Queen’s ruin was everywhere taken as an omen of ruin to the cause which had become identified with her own, and the old nobility mustered courage to face the minister who held them at his feet.
They found their opportunity in the discontent of the North, where the monasteries had been popular, and where the rougher mood of the people turned easily to resistance. In the autumn of 1536 a rising broke out in Lincolnshire, and this was hardly quelled when all Yorkshire rose in arms. From every parish the farmers marched with the parish priest at their head upon York, and the surrender of this city determined the waverers. In a few days Skipton castle, where the Earl of Cumberland held out with a handful of men, was the only spot north of the Humber which remained true to the King. Durham rose at the call of the chiefs of the house of Neville, Lords Westmoreland and Latimer. Though the Earl of Northumberland feigned sickness, the Percies joined the revolt. Lord Dacre, the chief of the Yorkshire nobles, surrendered Pomfret, and was acknowledged as their chief by the insurgents.
The whole nobility of the North were now enlisted in the “Pilgrimage of Grace,” as the rising called itself, and thirty thousand “tall men and well horsed” moved on the Don demanding the reversal of the royal policy, a reunion with Rome, the restoration of Catherine’s daughter, Mary, to her rights as heiress of the crown, redress for the wrongs done to the Church, and above all the driving away of base-born councilors, or, in other words, the fall of Cromwell. Though their advance was checked by negotiation, the organization of the revolt went steadily on throughout the winter, and a parliament of the North, which gathered at Pomfret, formally adopted the demands of the insurgents. Only six thousand men under Norfolk barred their way southward, and the Midland counties were known to be disaffected.
But Cromwell remained undaunted by the peril. He suffered, indeed, Norfolk to negotiate; and allowed Henry under pressure from his council to promise pardon and a free parliament at York, a pledge which Norfolk and Dacre alike construed into an acceptance of the demands made by the insurgents. Their leaders at once flung aside the badge of the “Five Wounds” which they had worn, with a cry, “We will wear no badge but that of our lord the King,” and nobles and farmers dispersed to their homes in triumph. But the towns of the North were no sooner garrisoned and Norfolk’s army in the heart of Yorkshire than the veil was flung aside. A few isolated outbreaks in the spring of 1537 gave a pretext for the withdrawal of every concession.