My last post on Katherine Parr got me thinking about the fate of the gentry involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace and the way in which events are often more complicated than we first suppose. Take the Constable brothers, though some texts identify them as an assortment of brothers and cousins. They weren’t young men. Two of them were veterans of Flodden. Sir John Constable of Burton Constable and Sir William Constable of Great Hatfield, one of the brothers at Flodden, lived some of the time in the wapentake of Holderness. Both of them were in residence in October 1536.
That month Anthony Curtis arrived in the area with the news that had spread through Lincolnshire and was now making its way through Yorkshire. The King, it was said, was going to limit the number of churches to one every five, or seven miles depending on the source, and was about to raise fees for marriages, christenings and funerals. Bad enough that the new articles of faith denied there was any such place as Purgatory. Soon the area was up in arms as the Commons answered the call to join the Pilgrimage of Grace. Those who were less than enthusiastic either fled or were ‘persuaded.’
John and William Constable took themselves off to Hull and remained behind the town’s walls. They, together with the two Sir Ralph Ellerkers (which must have been uncomfortable as there was something of a feud going on between the two families) were the leading gentry of the area and it wasn’t long before the pilgrims arrived at Hull’s gates demanding the town and the gentry to lead them. Burton reveals that their brother Sir Robert Constable who’d been knighted by Henry VII after the Battle of Blackheath in 1487 was already in Pontefract Castle and that their other brother Sir Marmaduke, another veteran of the Scottish wars, went into hiding where he remained a loyal man of the king…always easier to achieve when you haven’t got a mob threatening to do very nasty things to you or your family.
On the 19th of October Hull capitulated when it started to run out of food. The rebels forced the men behind its walls to take their oath. Sir John Constable after initially refusing to submit to the rebels found himself in charge of Hull whilst Sir William, together with the pilgrims, headed in the direction of Pontefract.
Pontefract Castle fell to the rebels on the 21st and the Constable family found another of their number sworn to the pilgrim oath. Sir Robert now began working with Aske to organise the host of men who’d answered the call to arms or had been forced into rebellion. Later Sir Robert would negotiate with the various captains and commons for negotiation with the Duke of Norfolk rather than battle although it is evident there was a time when he wanted to continue beyond Doncaster towards London. This did not endear him to Henry VIII. Moorhouse reveals that Henry had a little list of men he wished to make an example of including Robert Aske and Lord Darcy. Sir Robert Constable’s name also featured on the list.
In the aftermath of the rebellion Sir John managed to talk his way out of the situation. In 1537 he oversaw the trials and executions of Hull’s pilgrims. Sir William also sat on the trial commission.
King Henry VIII did not forget his little list of men who did not deserve pardon in his opinion. Sir Robert was at Templehurst (Temple Newsam) , home of Lord Darcy, when Robert Aske arrived there on January 10, 1537. He’d been wined and dined over Christmas by the king so had no idea that Henry was after vengeance as he was now trying to damp down renewed calls for rebellion. Notices had been stuck on church doors across the area demanding a return to the old format of service. The three men decided the best thing to do was to try and keep the north calm until the Duke of Norfolk arrived. The problem was that all three of them would soon be summoned to London. Sir Robert received his politely worded note on the 19th February. By Easter he was in the Tower. The men went voluntarily believing that the king would treat them fairly. They didn’t understand that Sir Francis Bigod’s rebellion in January 1537 nullified the agreement that Henry had reached with them…in Henry’s mind. It didn’t matter that Robert Aske even had a letter of recommendation from the Duke of Norfolk.
Due process of the law now kicked into play. The Duke of Norfolk put together a jury to hear the accusations against the men. This was held in York. Moorhouse notes that the jury was composed of a large number of relatives of the three men. This effectively ensured that there would be an indictment, or as Moorhouse observes, the three men would have been joined in the Tower by some of their nearest and dearest. There were three men prepared to turn evidence against Constable. Moorhouse details it (p298-99) and the fact that it was undoubtedly a fix – not least because one of the prosecution witnesses was a certain Sir Ralph Ellerker (you’ll remember him from Hull where he also signed the pilgrim oath). Ellerker was either buying his own safety or taking the opportunity to take out a member of the Constable family with whom the Ellerkers were feuding.
Lord Darcy was executed in London but Sir Robert Constable, Robert Aske and Lord Hussey, another leader of the pilgrimage, were sent back to the places where they’d rebelled against the king. It must have been an unhappy convoy that set off from London. Lord Hussey was dropped off at Lincoln where Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk awaited him with an executioner. The convoy continued north. Aske would die in chains in York but Sir Robert was destined for Hull. When he arrived there was time to spare as his execution was set for market day (plenty of spectators). He was executed on the 6th of July 1537 and his body was hung in chains.
As for Sir Marmaduke – he purchased Drax Priory from the Crown because of it’s links to his wife’s family.
To find out more about the history of the Pilgrimage of Grace double click on the image to open up a new webpage. Rather alarmingly I have added to my list of posts for this week – there’re Sir Nicholas Tempest who was hanged at Tyburn for his part in the pilgrimage as well as Sir John Bulmer and his wife Margaret Stafford. She was burned at Smithfield for her treason. It’s not that I’m turning this blog into a series of posts about who Henry VIII executed – although there’s enough material for it- it’s more that I’ve become curious about who escaped and who paid the ultimate penalty and why.
Bush, M.L. (1996) The Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Rebel Armies of October 1536 Manchester: Manchester University Press
Lipscomb, Suzannah. (2006) 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII Oxford: Lion Hudson
Moorhouse, Geoffrey. (2002). The Pilgrimage of Grace. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson