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R.W.. Hoyle. The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xvi + 487 pp. index, map. bibl. $45.1SBN: 0-19-820874-X.

The Pilgrimage of Grace was the greatest and most threatening of the Tudor rebellions as well as the most vexing. Perhaps as many as thirty thousand people participated in a series of rebellions that spread across the North of England in the fail of 1536 in the aftermath of Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church. Historians remain divided on the meaning of the Pilgrimage and the motivations of the rebels. Was the rebellion the result of increasingly strained economic conditions in the North in the early 1530s or was it an attempt to cling to the old religion? Was it a reaction against Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell or was it the product of tensions and fissures within northern society? Was it an authentic popular rising or was it aided and abetted by gentry and nobles who hoped to benefit from it without risking direct involvement themselves? Further complicating the task of understanding is the fact that much of our information about the Pilgrimage comes from depositions given by its leaders after the rebellion had been quashed and they had been arrested. Thus, much of what they have to say should be used with the greatest caution. Despite these problems, solving the mysteries of the Pilgrimage remains a siren's song beckoning to the best Tudor historians. The modern study of the Pilgrimage begins in 1915 with the publication of the two-volume narrative by Ruth and Madeline Dodds. Since then, A.G. Dickens, G.R. Elton, Penry Williams, and C.S.L. Davies are among the distinguished historians who have been lured by its song.

R.W. Hoyle is the latest scholar to take a shot at the Pilgrimage, and he brings impressive qualifications to the task. Hoyle is the most able and subtle recent historian of the early Tudor North, with a particular gift for revealing the multiple difficulties and pressures faced by even the leading northern lords. Along with George Bernard and several others, Hoyle has emerged as a leading figure in recasting the early Tudor nobility as less rebellious and more acquiescent to royal authority than earlier historians thought. Where most historians see the North as lawless and ungovernable, an exception within the English state, Hoyle tends to see the region as quite governable and generally unexceptional. All these themes are echoed in his book.

In The Pilgrimage of Grace and Politics of the 1530s Hoyle has several goals. He wishes to replace the eighty-year-old narrative of the Dodds sisters with a readable text, reflective of modern scholarship. "I hope to be read" (viii), he declares. More importantly, he wishes to establish that while the Pilgrimage is connected to the court politics of the 1530s, it is best understood as an authentic popular movement, which occurred without the encouragement of the upper classes.

The results, however, are mixed. Hoyle has certainly produced a narrative that supercedes the Dodds in every important respect. Naturally, it is more reflective of modern scholarship, but it is also a much more sophisticated treatment of mass insurrection, and its analysis of northern society is more probing and balanced. Even if they disagree with Hoyle's overall view of the Pilgrimage, every Tudor historian will benefit from reading what he has to say about the North. Hoyle also delivers on the promise of readability. His style is smooth and engaging, although how many general readers will want to wade through a 487-page book, regardless of its readability, remains open to question. Hoyle's knowledge of the northern society enables him to perceive clearly that the Pilgrimage was a series of revolts that differed regionally, socially, and economically. The motivation and social composition, for example, of the Lincolnshire rebels was not necessarily the same as that of the Yorkshire rebels.

In other regards Hoyle is less successful. Much of Hoyle's case for a popular rising depends upon a rather uncritical use of sources, particularly taking leading actors at their word. "When Aske says he did not know Darcy," Hoyle asserts, "I believe him" (x). This is a questionable approach, since the main source of Aske's behavior is the deposition he gave in the spring of 1537, and that source is riddled with inconsistencies and improbabilities.

To take another example, in a critical section of the book Hoyle reinterprets the actions of Thomas, Lord Darcy, usually seen by historians as a minor noble who played a double game, professing loyalty to Henry VIII while encouraging the rebels. In contrast, to make the case for a popular rebellion started without noble coercion, Hoyle stresses the inherent weakness of Darcy's position, citing the numerous and detailed letters that Darcy wrote to Henry describing the situation, warning of its danger, and urging Henry to take action. If the king did not take the Pilgrimage seriously, Hoyle contends, it was not Darcy's fault. Yet Henry VIII also complained that Darcy did not send enough correct information, and Hoyle's evidence from Darcy's correspondence does not negate the more telling evidence of Darcy's actions. Darcy had a history of hostility toward Henry VIII's reforms and was plotting with Ambassador Chapuys in 1534 along lines that closely followed what happened in the Pilgrimage. And, despite sending information and professing loyalty, he still refused to proceed against Robert Aske, the rebel leader, and handed over Pontefract Castle to him.

These difficulties aside, Hoyle's study of the Pilgrimage remains impressive. Where Hoyle says that he hopes to be read, we can safely add that he should be read.


Marshall University
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Author:Palmer, William (English theologian)
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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