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Title: History of the Reformation - Insurrection of the North of England to Restore the Papacy and Destroy the Reformation (October, 1536.)
Author: John Calvin
Language: English
55 00005-0054 Insurrection of the North of England to Restore the Papacy and Destroy the Reformation (October, 1536.)
(October, 1536.)

THE bastard system of a catholicism without a pope, put forward by the king, did not enjoy great favor, and the evangelical Reform gained fresh adherents every day. The more consistent popish system endeavored to stand against it. There were still many partisans of Rome in the aristocracy and among the populations of the North. A mighty effort was about to be made to expel both Cranmer’s protestantism and the kings catholicism, and restore the papacy to its privileges. A great revolution is rarely accomplished without the friends of the old order of things combining to resist it.

Many members of the House of Lords saw with alarm the House of Commons gaining an influence which it had never possessed before, and taking the initiative in reforms which were not (as they thought) within its sphere. Trained in the hatred of heresy, those noble lords were indignant at seeing heretics invested with the episcopal dignity, and a layman, Cromwell, presuming to direct the convocation of the clergy. Some of them formed a league, and Lord Darcy, who was at their head, had a conference on the subject with the ambassador of Charles V. That prince assured him that he should be supported. The English partisans of the pope, aided by the imperialists, would be amply sufficient, they thought, to re-establish the authority of the Roman pontiff.

There was great agitation especially among the inhabitants of the towns and villages of the North. Those of the counties of York and Lincoln, too remote from London to feel its influence, besides being ignorant and superstitious, were submissive to the priests as to the very representatives of God. The names of the Reformers Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, and Tyndale were known by the priests, who taught their flocks to detest them. Everything they saw exasperated them. If they went a journey, the convents which were their ordinary hostelries existed no longer. If they worked in the fields, they saw approaching them some ragged monk, with tangled hair and beard, with haggard eye, without bread to support him, or roof to shelter him, to whom hatred still gave strength to complain and to curse. These unhappy wretches went roaming up and down the country, knocking at every door; the peasants received them like saints, seated them at their table, and starved themselves for their nourishment. ‘See,’ said the friars, showing their rags to the people about them, ‘see to what a condition the members of Jesus Christ are reduced! A schismatic and heretical prince has expelled us from the houses of the Lord. But the Holy Father has excommunicated and dethroned him: no one should henceforth obey him.’ Such words produced their effect.

When the autumn of 1536 had arrived, the ferment increased among the inhabitants of the rural districts who had no longer their field labors to divert them. They assembled in great numbers round the convents to see what the king meant to do with them. They looked on at a distance, and with angry eyes watched the commissioners who at times behaved violently, indulged in exactions, or threw down one after another the stones of the building which had been held in such long reverence. Another day they saw the agent of some lord settle in the monastery with his wife, children, and servants; they heard those profane lay-folks laugh and chatter as they entered the sacred doors, whose thresholds had until now been trodden only by the sandals of the silent monks. A report spread abroad, that the monasteries still surviving were also about to be suppressed. Dr. Makerel, formerly prior of Barlings, disguised as a laborer, and a monk (some writers say a shoemaker) named Melton, who received the name of ‘Captain Cobbler,’ endeavored to inflame men’s minds and drive them to revolt. Everywhere the people listened to the agitators; and ere long the superior clergy appeared in the line of battle. ‘Neither the king’s highness nor any temporal man,’ they said, ‘may be supreme head of the Church. The Pope of Rome is Christ’s vicar, and must alone be acknowledged as supreme head of Christendom.’ On Monday, 2d of October, 1536, the ecclesiastical commission was to visit the parish of Louth in Lincolnshire, and the clergy of the district were ordered to be present. Only a few days before, a neighboring monastery had been suppressed and two of Cromwell’s agents placed in it to see to the closing. The evening before the inspection (it was a Sunday) a number of the townspeople brought out a large silver cross which belonged to the parish, and shouting out, ‘Follow the cross! All follow the cross!

God knows if we can do so for long,’ marched in procession through the town, with Melton leading the way. Some went to the church, took possession of the consecrated jewels, and remained under arms all night to guard them for fear the royal commissioners should carry them off. On Monday morning one of the commissioners, who had no suspicions, quietly rode into the town, followed by a single servant. All of a sudden the alarm-bell was rung, and a crowd of armed men filled the streets. The terrified commissioner ran into the church, hoping to find it an inviolable asylum; but the mob laid hold of him, dragged him out into the marketplace, and pointing a sword at his breast, said to him, ‘Swear fidelity to the Commons or you are a dead man.’ All the town took an oath to be faithful to King, Commons, and Holy Church. On Tuesday morning the alarm-bell was rung again; the cobbler and a tailor named Big Jack marched out, followed by a crowd of men, some on foot and some on horseback.

Whole parishes, headed by their priests, joined them and marched with the rest. The monks prayed aloud for the pope, and cried out that if the gentry did not join them they should all be hanged; but gentlemen and even sheriffs united with the tumultuous troops. Twenty thousand men of Lincolnshire: were in arms. England, like Germany, had its peasant revolt; but while Luther was opposed to it, the archbishop of York, with many abbots and priests, encouraged it in England.

The insurgents did not delay proclaiming their grievances. They declared that if the monasteries were restored, men of mean birth dismissed from the Council, and heretic bishops deprived, they would acknowledge the king as head of the Church. The movement was got up by the monks more than by the pope. Great disorders were committed.

The court was plunged into consternation by this revolt. The king, who had no standing army, felt his weakness, and his anger knew no bounds. ‘What!’ he said to the traitors (for such was the name he gave them), ‘what! do you, the rude commons of one shire, and that one of the most brute and beastly of the whole realm, presume to find fault with your king? Return to your homes, surrender to our lieutenants a hundred of your leaders, and prepare to submit to such condign punishment as we shall think you worthy of; otherwise you will expose yourselves, your wives and children, your lands and goods, not only to the indignation of God, but to utter destruction by force and violence of the sword.’

Such threats as these only served to increase the commotion. ‘Christianity is going to be abolished,’ said the priests; ‘you will soon find yourselves under the sword of Turks! But whoever sheds his blood with us shall inherit eternal glory.’ The people crowded to them from all quarters. Lord Shrewsbury, sent by the king against the rebellion, being unable to collect more than 3,000 men, and having to contend against ten times as many, had halted at Nottingham. London already imagined the rebels were at its gates, and mighty exertions were made. Sir John Russell and the duke of Suffolk were sent forward with forces hurriedly equipped.

The insurgents were 60,000 strong, but with no efficient leader or store of provisions. Two opinions arose among them: the gentlemen and farmers cried, ‘Home, home!’ the priests and the people shouted, ‘To arms!’ The party of the friends of order continued increasing, and at last prevailed.

The duke of Suffolk entered Lincolnshire on October 13, and the rebels dispersed. A still greater danger threatened the established order of things. The men of the North were more ultramontane than those of Lincoln. On October there was a riot at Beverley, in Yorkshire. A Westminster lawyer, Robert Aske, who had passed his vacation in field-sports, was returning to London, when he was stopped by the rebels and proclaimed their leader.

On October 15 he marched to York and replaced the monks in possession of their monasteries. Lord Darcy, an old soldier of Ferdinand of Spain and Louis XII., a warm papal partisan, quitted his castle of Pomfret to join the insurrection. The priests stirred up the people, and ere long, the army, which amounted to 40,000 men, formed a long procession, ‘the Pilgrimage of Grace, ’ which marched through the county of York. Each parish paraded under a captain, priests carrying the church cross in front by way of flag. A large banner, which floated in the midst of this multitude, represented on one side Christ with the five wounds on a cross, and on the other a plow, a chalice, a pix, and a hunting-horn. Every pilgrim wore embroidered on his sleeve the five wounds of Christ with the name of Jesus in the midst. The insurgents had a thousand bows and as many bills, besides other arms, but hardly one poor copy of the Testament of Christ. ‘Ah!’ said Latimer, preaching in Lincolnshire, ‘I will tell you what is the true Christian man’s pilgrimage. There are, the Savior tells us, eight days’ journeys.’ Then he described the eight beatitudes in the most evangelical manner: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and the rest. Aske’s pilgrimage was of another sort. Addressing the people of those parts, he said to them: ‘Lords, knights, masters, and friends, evil-disposed persons have filled the king’s mind with new inventions: the holy body of the Church has been despoiled. We have therefore undertaken this pilgrimage for the reformation of what is amiss and the punishment of heretics. If you will not come with us we will fight and die against you.’ Great bonfires were lighted on all the hills to call the people to arms.
Wherever these new crusaders appeared the monks were replaced in their monasteries and the peasants constrained to join the pilgrimage, under pain of seeing their houses pulled down, their goods seized, and their bodies handed over to the mercy of the captains.

There was this notable difference between the revolt in Germany and that in the North of England. In Germany, a few nobles only joined the people and were compelled to do so. In England, almost all the nobility of the North rallied to it of their own accord. The earls of Westmoreland, Rutland, and Huntingdon, Lords Latimer, Lumley, Scrope, Conyers, and the representatives of several other great families, followed the example of old Lord Darcy. One single nobleman, Percy, earl of Northumberland, remained faithful to the king. He had been ill since the unjust sentence which had struck the loyal wife of Henry VIII. — a sentence in which he had refused to join and was now at his castle lying on a bed of pain which was soon to be the bed of death. The rebels surrounded his dwelling and summoned him to join the insurrection. He might now have avenged the crime committed by Henry VIII. against Anne Boleyn, but he refused.

Savage voices shouted out, ‘Cut off his head, and make Sir Thomas Percy earl in his stead.’ But the noble and courageous man said calmly to those around him, ‘I can die but once; let them kill me, and so put an end to my sorrows.’ The king, more alarmed at this revolt than at the former one, asked with terror whether his people desired to force him to replace his neck under the detested yoke of the pope. In this crisis he displayed great activity.

Being at Windsor, he wrote letter after letter to Cromwell. ‘I will sell all my plate,’ he said. ‘Go to the Tower, take as much plate as you may want, and coin it into money.’ Henry displayed no less intelligence than decision, he named as commander of his little army a devoted servant, who was also the chief of the ultramontane party at the court the duke of Norfolk. Once already, for the condemnation of the protestant Anne Boleyn, Henry had selected this chief of the Romish party. This clever policy succeeded equally well for the king in both affairs.

London, Windsor, and all the south of England were in great commotion.

People imagined that the papacy, borne on the lusty arms of the northern men, was about to return in triumph into the capital; that perhaps the Catholic king of the Scots, Henry’s nephew, would enter with it and place England once more under the papal scepter. The friends of the Gospel were deeply agitated. ‘That great captain the devil,’ said Latimer in the London pulpits, ‘has all sorts of ordnance to shoot at Christian men.

These men of the North, who wear the cross and the wounds before and behind, are marching against Him who bare the cross and suffered those wounds. They have risen (they say) to support the king, and they are fighting against him. They come forward in the name of the Church, and fight against the Church, which is the congregation of faithful men. Let us fight with the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God.’

The rebels, far from being calmed, showed — part of them at least — that they were animated by the vilest sentiments. A body of insurgents had invested the castle of Skipton, the only place in the county of York which still held for the king. The wife and daughters of Lord Clifford, and other ladies who inhabited it, happened to be at an abbey not far off, just when the castle was beleaguered. The insurgents caused Lord Clifford to be informed that if he did not surrender, his wife and daughters would be brought next day to the foot of the walls and be given up to the campfollowers.

In the middle of the night, Christopher Aske, brother of Robert, who had remained faithful, crept through the camp of the besiegers, and by unfrequented roads succeeded in bringing into the castle all those ladies, whom he thus saved from the most infamous outrages. Robert Aske, Lord Darcy, the archbishop of York, and several other leaders had their head-quarters at Pomfret castle, where the Lancaster herald, dispatched by the king, presented himself on the 21st of October.

After passing through many troops of armed men ‘very cruel fellows,’ he says — he was at last introduced to the great captain. Seeing Lord Darcy and the archbishop before him — persons more important than the Westminster lawyer — the herald began to address them. Aske was offended, and rising from his seat told him haughtily, that he was the person to be addressed. The messenger discharged his mission. He represented to the leaders of the rebellion that they were but a handful before the great power of his Majesty, and that the king had done nothing in regard to religion, but what the clergy of York and of Canterbury had acknowledged to be in conformity with the Word of God.

When the speech was ended, Aske, as if he did not care for the herald’s words, said rudely to him, ‘Show me your proclamation.’ ‘He behaved,’ wrote the envoy, ‘as though he had been some great prince, with great rigor and like a tyrant.’ ‘Herald,’ said Aske, ‘this proclamation shall neither be read at the market-cross nor elsewhere amongst my people. We want the redress of our grievances, and we will die fighting to obtain them.’ The herald asked what were their grievances. ‘My followers and I,’ replied the chief, ‘will walk in pilgrimage to London, to his Majesty, to expel from the council all the vile blood in it, and set up all the noble blood again; and also to obtain the full restitution of Christ’s Church.’ ‘Will you give me that in writing?’ said the herald. Aske gave him the oath which the rebels took, and at the same time putting his hand on the paper, he said with a loud voice, ‘This is my act; I will die in its defense, and all my followers will die with me.’ The herald, intimidated by the authoritative tone of the chief, bent his knee before the rebel captain, for which he was brought to trial and executed in the following year. ‘Give him a guard of forty men, and see him out of town,’ said Aske.

Forthwith thirty thousand well-armed men, of whom twelve thousand were mounted, set out under the orders of Aske, Lord Darcy, and other noblemen of the country. Norfolk had only a small force, which he could not trust; accordingly the rebels were convinced, that when they appeared, the king’s soldiers and perhaps the duke himself would join them. The Roman-catholic army arrived on the banks of the Don, on the other side of which (at Doncaster) the king’s forces were stationed. Those ardent men, who were six against one, inflamed by monks who were impatient to return to their nests, proposed to pass the Don, overthrow Norfolk, enter London, dictate to the king the execution of all the partisans of the Reformation, and restore the papal power in England, The rising of the water, increased by heavy rains, did not permit them to cross the river.

Every hour’s delay was a gain to the royal cause; the insurgents having brought no provisions with them, were forced to disband to go in search of them elsewhere. Norfolk took advantage of this to circulate an address among the rebels. ‘Unhappy men!’ it said, ‘what folly hath led you to make this most shameful rebellion against our most righteous king, who hath kept you in peace against all your enemies? Fye, for shame! How can you do this to one who loves you more than all his subjects? If you do not return, every man to his house, we will show you the hardest courtesy that ever was shown to men, that have loved you so well as we have done.

But if you go to your homes, you shall have us most humble suitors to his Highness for you.’ This proclamation was signed by Lords Norfolk, Shrewsbury, Exeter, Rutland, and Huntingdon, all catholics, and the greatest names in England.

The insurgents thus found themselves in the most difficult position. They must attack the supporters of their own cause. If the lords who had signed the proclamation were slain, England would lose her best councilors, and her greatest generals, and the Church would be deprived of the most zealous catholics. The strength of England would be sacrificed and the country opened to her enemies. Old Lord Darcy was for attacking; young Robert Aske for negotiation. On Saturday, 28th of October, commissioners from both parties met on the bridge leading to Doncaster.

The rebel commissioners consented to lay down their arms, provided the heresies of Luther, Wicliff, Huss, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, and the works of Tyndale were destroyed and nullified; that the supremacy was restored to the see of Rome; that the suppressed abbeys were reestablished; that heretical bishops and lords were punished by fire or otherwise; and that a parliament was held promptly at Nottingham or York. There could no longer be any doubt, that the object of the insurrection was to crush the Reformation. The names of most of the reformers were mentioned in the articles, and fire or sword were to do justice to the most illustrious of their adherents. The same evening they handed in a letter addressed: To the King ’s Royal Highness. From Doncaster, this Saturday, at eleven of the clock at night. Haste, post, haste, haste, haste! The rebels themselves were in such haste that they waited no longer. The next day (29th of October) the king’s lieutenant announced at one in the afternoon, that the insurgents had dispersed and were returning to their homes. Two of the rebel leaders were to carry the stipulated conditions to the king, and Norfolk was to accompany them. That zealous catholic was not perhaps without a hope that the petition would induce Henry to become reconciled to the pope. He was greatly deceived.

Thus God had scattered the forces of those who had stood up against Wicliff, Huss, and Luther. The kingdom resumed its usual tranquillity. A little later the men of the North, excited by the intrigues of the pope and Reginald Pole, then a cardinal, again took up arms; but they were defeated; seventy of them were hanged on the walls of Carlisle, and Lords Darcy and Hussey, with many barons, abbots, priors, and a great number of priests, were executed in different places. The scheming archbishop of York alone escaped, it is not known how. The cottages, parsonages, and castles of the North were filled with anguish and terror. Henry, who cut off the heads of his most intimate friends and of his queen, did not think of sparing rebels. It was a terrible lesson, but not very effectual. The priests did not lose their courage; they still kept asking for the re-establishment of the pope, the death of the Lutherans, and the annihilation of the Reform.

An event which occurred at this time seemed likely to favor their desires.

A great blow was about to be dealt against the Reformation. But the ways of God are not as our ways, and from what seems destined to compromise His cause, He often makes His triumph proceed.