Pilgrimage of Grace is a euphemism for an outbreak of rebellions in the northern counties of England in 1536/7. The most prominent of these was led by a lawyer called Robert Aske.
His achievement was remarkable, managing to stitch together disparate grievances maintained by different and not necessarily co-operative groups. The complaints were, of course, about religion, this being the XVI century.
Henry VIII’s marital difficulties had led to his Chief Minister dragging England towards anathema with Roman Catholicism, and the ultimate creation of the Anglican Church. The Pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon, so, unbelievable though it may seem, Henry and Thomas Cromwell were prepared to reform England’s Church so as to allow Henry to divorce his wife (who had committed no offence except not provide Henry with a male heir) and take a second wife (Anne Boleyn QV.)
Naturally there were other motives: the Catholic Church was an even greater landlord than the king or duke or earl. Henry had inherited chronic greediness from his spidery father the first Tudor. With the coming of the Reformation, Henry, his ministers and nobility (if they were anti-Catholic) were about to enjoy the greatest land-grab in history. Millions of acres, the castles, fortified mansions, villages, cottages and churches of all sizes would fall into Henry’s hands. When the deed was done, Henry re-distributed the lands and what stood on them among his retainers, keeping the best parts for himself. Many Catholic landlords lost their land and their heads if they were foolish enough to complain.
The people of the North were against it. Robert Aske was there to encourage and incite them. Many did not agree with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and were prepared to take their pitchfork to London with them. Great marches were enjoined, heading for the capital, but Henry’s emissaries were there to meet the dissidents. The leaders wished to assure the King that they remained loyal to him but did not like what he was doing with their Church. The King’s representatives promised pardons all round should the revolutionaries return quietly to the shires. They believed it. They had forgotten what an Italian had said about putting your trust in Princes.
If the Prince is a Tudor to boot, the people will regret their confidence. Severe retribution followed, with more than two hundred executions, among them that of Robert Aske. Henry VIII continued his lethal mischief for many years afterwards, and married four women more after his marriage with Anne failed. Creating the conditions under which that marriage could take place was the principal manoevre which led to the creation of the Church of England, with the Monarch at its head. That state of affairs still exists, except that Anglican congregations have diminished, and many formerly Anglican vicars are now Catholic priests. There is a certain irony in this.
The Pilgrim Fathers
What eventually became the United States of America started with these 103 brethren from the West of England who sailed in the Mayflower in 1620. In that period, they were known as the ‘Old Comers’ or the ‘Forefathers’, though by the middle of the 19th century they were re-named the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ and that is the name that stuck. They had been persecuted for their religion, and wished to start life again in another, better place. Many came from Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, and had already tried by going to live in Holland, but in 1618 their representatives in London got permission from the authorities, and financing from the merchants. They would form an expedition to Virginia.
The group was already democratic as, having no Charter, they made a covenant for self-government, and were self-governing as well on the tedious and stormy voyage. This agreement, one of the first in Anmerican democratic history, was called the Mayflower Compact. The ship made a landfall not in Virginia, but at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where dreams of Virginia vanished, and the settlers settled right there. Winter in Massachusetts is no joke, and half the settlement died of malnutrition and the cold in the first seven months. Luckily for History a man called William Bradford was among them to record the experience.
The remnant did business with the friendly Native Americans, mostly in animal furs, exported to England where a lucrative market existed. The plantation grew quickly as the rich soil was exploited to the full; new houses and villages sprang up; roads (and churches) were built. The settlers soon had to deal with a huge Puritan influx. Religion again! Why leave England?
In 1643 the settlement joined the New England Confederation, and then in 1691 it officially became a part of Massachusetts. Colonization was well on the way. The Pilgrim Fathers might have played a small part in the history of New England, but the symbolic importance is that they were the first permanent settlers (with a Charter) in the European colonization of North America.