England had been Protestant since the death of Mary Tudor in 1558. The majority of the population had quietly got on with the change from Protestantism under Edward VI to Catholicism under Mary and then back to Protestantism with the ascent of Elizabeth.
On 14 November 1569 the Northern Earls led by the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland revolted. They and their followers arrived at Durham Cathedral and celebrated a Catholic Mass having first of all overturned the communion table and destroyed Protestant books. They rapidly acquired some 6000 men who marched under the old Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) banner – the five wounds of Christ shown at the start of this post. No one is quite sure how many people flocked to follow the banner – numbers have been put as high as 20,000.
What is interesting, aside from the insurgency itself, is the number of people who chose to go to the mass and what the state of religious belief actually was. The cathedral was packed. Perhaps its not so surprising. Cuthbert Tunstall had been Bishop of Durham in 1559 but had been deprived of the diocese when he refused the Oath of Supremacy. He had been replaced by James Pilkington an unpopular but conformist Puritan. That said there were a large number of parishes, many of them impoverished and subject to border raids, not to mention a shortage of clergy. In many places the vicar had to serve several parishes or there were none. It was even noted that “vagabond Scots” did the work of preaching. It is perhaps not surprising that people continued to believe what they had always believed, irrelevant of what Protestant London might like. Effectively circumstance and geography ensured that religious belief in the north remained conservative.
The stated aim of the Northern Rebellion was to topple Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots – returning Catholicism to the country once again. By the 20th of December the Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland had fled across the border into Scotland and the churches which had toppled their communion tables and celebrated mass had some explaining to do. The Durham Consistory Court was busy. Charges related to destroying Protestant books and altars, setting up Catholic altars and holy water stones that should have been destroyed previously but which had simply been hidden away, taking part in a Catholic mass and other Catholic rites. Not everyone attended a mass because they wanted to. People in Darlington were forced to attend the event and so far as the Durham clergy were concerned a number of them testified that they had taken part in the old rites by compulsion rather than desire.
The numbers of churches destroying the paraphernalia of Protestantism in Yorkshire was even higher than it was in County Durham. It’s worth noting that the Earl of Northumberland’s territory stretched far into Yorkshire. Inevitably with statistics it is impossible to know how many of the men who burned books did so under duress or had simply become carried away on a tide of destruction rather than having genuine belief into the rights and wrongs of the matter.
As for the altars and water stones there is evidence that when it became clear that the rebellion was failing that a number of them including the water stones placed by the doors in Durham Cathedral were quietly returned to their hiding places. When questioned no one admitted to knowing what had happened to them.
Texts identify the fact that in the years that followed numbers of Northern magnates opened their homes to Jesuits and the problem of clergy numbers remained in the north alongside impoverished livings.
Doran, Susan, and Durston, Christopher (1991)Princes, Pastors and People: The Church and Religion in England, 1529-1689 London: Routledge
Duffy, Eamon (1992) The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, New Haven: Yale University Press
Kesselring, Krista J. (2007) The Northern Rebellion of 1569: Faith, Politics and Protest in Elizabethan England, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan