Yorkshire Catholics, amongst whom the present novice and author likes to number himself, are rightly proud that the infamous rebellion against the despotic royal authority wielded by the Henrican government in the 1530s against the Catholic Religion, commonly called the Pilgrimage of Grace for the Commonwealth, arose in God’s own county, and that her fertile and verdant pastures were consequently watered with the blood of many holy martyrs. Indeed, visitors to York herself today will do well to remember, when one is searching for a parking space in Castlegate car park, to spare a thought for the undoubtedly saintly [in the author’s opinion] Robert Aske, who was exposed in heavy chains from the walls of the Keep that is today called Clifford’s Tower: a most gruesome demise for the humble Yorkshire barrister that became the figurehead of that most godly of risings of the winter of 1536.
Yet the historian must remember, of course, that this Pilgrimage of Grace was, in fact, the culmination of a wider series of rebellions, and must not be confused with the principal subject of our discussion, which is the earlier Lincolnshire Rising of October 1536, for here we find a reasonable degree of Premonstratensian involvement.
Our Order’s first foundation in England, Newhouse (1143, from Licques in the County of Flanders), was to be found in the North Riding of Lindsey, in Lincolnshire. There was a great concentration of Premonstratensian houses in that county until the Reformation. Newhouse also founded our own local Abbey of Beeleigh in 1180, as well as Barlings Abbey in Lincolnshire, which will appear again shortly. There were 34 Norbertine houses in England on the eve of the Reformation.
Recent historiography has suggested that many common people were dissatisfied with the religious changes that were taking place in the wake of King Henry’s separation from the Holy See. Though some have suggested that the king himself had no particular interest in ridding the English Church of its Latin language, ceremonial, ritual and religious orders, his many of his state counsellors certainly were, and so they pressed on with the wholesale rejection of all that is good and true that comes with apostasy. So the nobles and the commons of Lincolnshire, roused to such activity by the Vicar of Louth, took arms and marched on Lincoln; they were 20,000 men in number. The king, aware that he could not use the local lords to quash the rebellion, for they sympathised with the cause, dispatched the Duke of Suffolk with an army of 8,000 to march upon Lincoln. At the news of this, many of the noble rebels fled, and the commons remained, and, when the Duke arrived, he offered them an amnesty if they left quietly, some of whom did, though many stayed. The siege, however, was quickly ended when news was received by the Duke that a larger rebellion had arisen in Yorkshire, and so marched north.
One might rightly ask why the Lincolnshire Rising is connected with our Order, and so now we come to the person of Matthew Mackarel o.praem., the Abbot of Barlings and Titular Bishop of Chalcedon (being an auxiliary of the diocese). Barlings was a sizeable abbey just to the east of Lincoln on the Wragby Road, and possessed three parishes in the county, and two more parishes in Norfolk (one of which, Bungay, is now administered by the Benedictine Abbey of Downside, though all traces of its Norbertine past are now thoroughly expunged).
The rebels sought the support of the clergy. At this time, as well as the forced closure of smaller monastic houses, even secular clergy were being investigated by the royal commissioners, purportedly to assess their intellectual capability, but, in reality, to weed out secretly “Popish” clergy. There was a tremendous increase in homeless and destitution, as priests, religious and secular, and monks and nuns were thrown out onto the street. Valuable parochial property (mainly vestments and plate) were seized by the state, and replaced with cheaper items, and parishes were merged. This, even then being the last straw, the rebels put pressure on the clergy to lend their support to the rising, since, “by the suppression of so many religious houses whereby the service of God is not well performed but also the poverty of your [majesty’s] realm be unrelieved [is done] a great hurt to the commonwealth.” [Declaration of the Lincolnshire Commons, 8 October 1536] So integrated were ecclesiastical institutions into the everyday life of normal people, when one half of this symbiotic relationship was damaged, so was the other. The Church, not the State, after all, was the authority that provided education, healthcare and welfare.
The most notable cleric in the area was the auxiliary bishop of the vast diocese of Lincoln, Holy Doctor Mackarel, as he was called, the Abbot of Barlings. A Lancashire man originally (he was professed in Cockersands), he had been the only Englishman (according to record) who had studied abroad (Freiburg), and was created a doctor of divinity by Cambridge University.
The Abbot was clearly against the royal settlement, but, as with most of the clergy in England, he tolerated it, in the hope, perhaps, that things will all get sorted out eventually. After all, Henry VIII was not the first English king to attempt to split from Rome. We cannot judge the personalities at the Reformation in England with the benefit of hindsight: most people would rather live their lives and say their prayers, and were not involved in high politics. But the Abbot was also sensible, and saw the way the wind was blowing. He sold many valuable items from the Abbey, and established a trust fund, to allow the brethren to have an income when their home would inevitably be shut down. Perhaps he was even aware of the rumour that the king intended to start closing larger monasteries, and that Barlings was at the top of the list. Clearly, he was supportive of the rebel’s ultimate cause, but he disagreed with their method, knowing that it would only serve to hasten the inevitable. “It was against the laws of God and man that any religious person should go to any battle and specially against their prince,” he said.
But the rebels, led by the Vicar of Louth (a secular priest) insisted on his involvement. So pressured was he by the rebels to join them, that he was deeply affected by profound melancholia, that he could not offer the Mass. Not only did the rebels want practical aid – they had requested of him, for example, that they could eat meat on Fridays – but they wanted the abbot and canons to actually join the rising, thereby giving their action legitimacy and authority. The insistence of the involvement of religious – already suppressed or no – suggests the importance of this cause of restoration of monastic life in England was the rebels – it was not simply a matter of where the next meal should come from, and who would provide us with material sustenance, thought surely that was a realistic consideration. Compared with the rebels themselves, the monasteries were seen as timid. Surely the rebels, in placing so much pressure – sometimes violently – on the religious, thought that they were acting in their interest; the abbeys simply could not see what was happening, and perhaps they buried their heads in the sand.
When the Abbot finally did relent, he wanted his involvement to be widely publicised, to ensure that assaults on his confreres would cease. He did not, as some dubious accounts have suggested, assumed the pseudonym, “Captain Cobbler”. He would not permit his fellow canons from participating in the rising, except six of the “tallest”, presumably, the younger and most able-bodied men. Those seven canons rode with the rebels to Lincoln in their full habits, bedecked in rochet and fur. Never should it be said that Norbertines do things by halves.
Not only was the holy Abbot responsible for his canons, he also had pastoral care of the people, as a bishop. If the flock of Christ the Good Shepherd were going to do something – even if he disagreed with the manner in which it took place – he had a responsibility to be with them as their pastor. And so too did Norbertine canonesses provide aid; the nearby Priory of Irford donated their horse to the rebels.
Though the Duke of Suffolk allowed most of the rebels to return home in peace, as he was taking leave of Lincoln, he ordered the arrest of the clergy who were present, including those seven Norbertines. It is known that four of them were summarily executed in Lincoln immediately. The Abbot, and another canon (the seventh presumably was allowed to return home), as well as the Vicar of Louth, were sent to London, and although the Abbot was hardly what we might call a ring-leader, he was seen as one of the “great doers of this matter”. His fate was uncertain after his arrest that October. In spite of being indicted for treason, the Earl of Shrewsbury succeeded in convincing the king to commute his sentence to imprisonment, which lasted for three months, until he was charged with “riotous assembly and of compassing and imagining the death of the king,” and executed alongside the Vicar of Louth at Tyburn on 29 March 1537.
Ironically, the involvement of seven men from the Abbey hastened its demise. The king invoked an Act of Attainder when the Abbot died, and requisitioned the Abbey and all its property; Barlings was most cruelly scourged by the royal commissioners. All that remains of the abbey today is a small section of nave wall. The ruined tower collapsed in 1757.
The picture shown at the beginning of this article is an imaginary scene of the start of the Pilgrimage of Grace (or the Yorkshire Rising), painted in 1913. It depicts a Norbertine, in his distinctive biretta and almuce, amongst the other religious, though it is not certain whether any Norbertines were involved directly in this later rising. As is well-known, the Yorkshire Rising was cruelly deceived by the King, who promised to heed their demands, and, given their godly constitution, they agreed to lay down their arms and obey the king, now that he had apparently agreed to undo his mistakes. But, instead, the king had the rebel leaders in Yorkshire (Aske amongst them) seized and charged with treason, and so their blood was spilled for Christ and His Holy Church.
A more detailed description of the Abbot’s involvement can be read at this earlier post on our website: https://norbertinevocations.wordpress.com/2008/03/12/matthew-mackerell/