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Patrick Collinson

  • The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s by R.W. Hoyle
    Oxford, 487 pp, £30.00, May 2001, ISBN 0 19 820874 X

The crisis, the most severe to hit the regime since it had come into office, began in Lincolnshire. Columns of smoke rose above the English countryside. At one point the nation’s leader was tempted to take personal charge of the management of the crisis. But when the Lincolnshire problem proved to be shortlived, he unwisely wound the preventative operation down, persuading himself that the crisis was under control, even over. But at that very moment it spread to Yorkshire, into the pastoral uplands of Richmondshire, on towards Skipton and the Lake District, and down the Ribble valley into north Lancashire. It is a question whether these new outbreaks were independent and spontaneous, or deliberately propagated from the original flashpoints. But there is no doubt that they were accompanied and fed by rumours and fear. The Government in London was itself a victim of the rumour mill. ‘This matter hangeth yet like a fever, one day good, one day bad.’ The result of the crisis and of its mismanagement was personal ruin for many and the end of a way of life in the North Country, symbolised by the monasteries, now facing wholesale dissolution.

The last sentence gives the game away. The smoke rose from the burning roofs of monasteries, not from animal funeral pyres; the crisis was not foot and mouth but rebellion. The Pilgrimage of Grace, as the convulsions came to be known, was the largest and most menacing of a succession of ‘Tudor Rebellions’, to quote the title of a seasoned classic by Anthony Fletcher (1968), recently revised by Diarmaid MacCulloch and reissued (1997). But in the perception of the actors this was not rebellion at all, and when they found themselves described as rebels in intercepted government bulletins, their fury almost turned them into what they were sure they were not. The events of 1536-37, a watershed in the history of the North of England and regarded by R.W. Hoyle as England’s War of Religion (albeit a war in which almost no shots were fired), were in the perception of the time ‘commotions’, ‘tumults’, and this is how historians, too, can best understand them.

The commotions themselves were all contained within less than six months, and lasted under a fortnight in the case of the original explosion in north-east Lincolnshire. So, as bare narrative, the story is quickly told and occupies only eight of Hoyle’s 487 pages. The summer of 1536 had seen the adoption of a series of alarmingly radical alterations in religion, new things for the clergy to know and do, new demands on their pockets, the threatened loss of the rich treasures of the parish churches. The smaller monasteries were being dissolved. Where would all this end? Were the churches themselves safe? And this was happening in the midst of a major political crisis at the centre: the old and discarded queen (Catherine of Aragon) dead, the new one (Anne Boleyn) decapitated, an indecently hasty third royal marriage, the Princess Mary and her conservative supporters neatly sidestepped. Since the King could not be directly blamed for these upsets, those who disliked them (most people?) pointed the finger at his upstart ministers, and above all at Thomas Cromwell, whose personal role in ‘all this’ is still debated.

The way in which the commotions began tends to support the view of, among others, Abraham Lincoln and Harold Macmillan that events are the motors of history, not policy decisions, or, according to Hoyle, the deeper underlying structures, the slowly shifting tectonic plates preferred by Braudel and his school. The unfortunately coincidental presence in north-east Lincolnshire in early October 1536 of three sets of commissioners – one to oversee the dissolution of the lesser monasteries, an ecclesiastical visitation mostly bearing on the clergy and a gathering of the gentry to deal with matters of taxation – allowed a local riot in the market town of Louth to spread rapidly into an insurrection which engulfed much of the county, put the gentry at the mercy of the insurgents and occupied Lincoln itself.

What appears to have lit this fuse was fear that the church goods of Louth, and of other towns, were about to be confiscated. The question remains whether the igniting spark was instinctive, as instinctive as the cry of one of the male choristers as the men of Louth followed a great silver cross in procession: ‘Go we follow the crosses for and if they are taken from us, we will follow them no more.’ The evidence against spontaneity concerns, in part, the role of the clergy, who had gathered in numbers for a visitation which appeared to endanger their professional interests. Within days as many as twenty thousand men were ‘up’, which is to say, up in arms, and sworn to a vaguely worded oath, which they enforced on the gentry. But within as many days, with no promise to meet their demands, the Lincolnshire men were persuaded to go home. Their movement had fizzled out. Any credit belonged to the Lincolnshire gentry, who had regained control.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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