Sir Thomas More was placed on his trial in Westminster Hall before a special commission (1st July). Able lawyer as he was, he had no difficulty in showing that by silence he had committed no crime and broken no Act of Parliament, but no defence could avail him against the wishes of the king. The jury promptly returned a verdict of guilty. Before sentence was passed the prisoner spoke out manfully against royal supremacy, and in defence of the authority of Rome. He declared that the Act of Parliament, which conferred on the king the title of supreme head of the Church, was opposed both to the laws of God and man, that it was in flagrant contradiction to the Magna Charta, and that the king of England could no more refuse obedience to the Holy See than a child could refuse obedience to his father. Even after his trial and condemnation another attempt was made to induce him to submit, but he refused, and on the 6th July he finished his career as a martyr for Rome.
The execution of Fisher and More showed plainly to all that the breach with Rome was not likely to be healed. When news of what had taken place in England reached Rome Paul III. was anxious to issue a decree of deposition against Henry. Had he done so, and had he been supported by the Emperor and Francis I. there is no doubt that many of the English noblemen would have joined the standard of the invaders, but the hostility between France and the Emperor saved Henry. Neither party was willing to aid the Pope lest the other should form an alliance with England. Fearing such a union, however, between Francis I. and Charles V. Henry hastened to seek the aid of the Protestant princes of Germany. From 1531 he had been in communication with them urging them to be careful about introducing religious innovations, but he was now so alarmed lest the Emperor and the King of France might join hands to assist the Pope in convoking a General Council, that English envoys were directed to meet the Protestant princes at Schmalkald (1535), to arrange for common action. A close union between England and the Protestant states of Germany could not be effected, because the Protestant princes insisted that Henry should accept the Confession of Augsburg, and Henry refused to permit such interference in the religious affairs of England. Still, English divines were instructed to remain at Wittenberg, and Lutheran theologians were invited to come to England for the discussion of religious differences.
Meanwhile Cromwell was engaged in a visitation of the monasteries of England (1535). To bring home to the minds of the bishops the meaning of royal supremacy, he suspended their visitations while the royal visitors were at work. Cromwell, unable to undertake the duty himself, appointed delegates, and supplied them with the list of questions that should be administered. His principal delegates were Richard Leyton and Thomas Leigh, both men, as is evident from their own letters, who were not likely to be over scrupulous about the methods they employed. They were harsh, rude, and brutal in their treatment of both monks and nuns, especially in houses where they suspected hostility to the recent laws. They used every means in their power to break up the harmony of religious life, and to unsettle the minds of the younger members of the communities. In a few months the visitations were finished, and the reports of the visitors were presented to Cromwell. According to these reports most of the monasteries and convents were homes of sin and vice, and many of the monks and nuns were guilty of heinous crimes, but, though in particular instances there may have been some grounds for these charges, there is good reason for not accepting as trustworthy this account of monastic discipline. In the first place the royal visitors traversed the country with such lightning-like rapidity that it would have been impossible for them to arrive at a correct judgment even had they been impartial and honest men. That they were neither honest nor impartial is clear enough from their own correspondence. They were sent out by Cromwell to collect evidence that might furnish a decent pretext for suppressing the monasteries and for confiscating the monastic possessions, and they took pains to show their master that his confidence in them had not been misplaced. Their only mistake was that in their eagerness to black the character of the unfortunate religious they exceeded the limits of human credulity. They positively revelled in sin, and the scandals they reported were of such a gross and hideous kind that it is impossible to believe that they could have been true, else the people, instead of taking up arms to defend the religious houses, would have risen in revolt to suppress such abominations. Nor is it correct to say that the /Comperta/ were submitted to Parliament for discussion, and that the members were so shocked by the tale they unfolded that they clamoured for the suppression of these iniquitous institutions. There is abundant evidence to prove that Parliament was reluctant to take any action against the religious houses, that it was only by the personal intervention of the king that the bill for the suppression of the lesser monasteries was allowed to pass, and that it is at least doubtful if any but general statements founded on the /Comperta/ were brought before Parliament. The story of the production of the "Black Book" supposed to contain the reports is of a much later date, and comes from sources that could not be regarded as unprejudiced. It had its origin probably in a misunderstanding of the nature of the /Compendium Compertorum/, which dealt only with parishes of the northern province. It is strange that though the commissioners made no distinction between the condition of the larger and the smaller monasteries, the Act of Parliament based upon these reports decreed only the suppression of the smaller monasteries, as if vice and neglect of discipline were more likely to reign in the small rather than in the larger communities; and it is equally strange that the superiors of many of the houses, about which unfavourable reports had been presented, were promoted to high ecclesiastical offices by the king and by his vicar-general, who should have been convinced of the guilt and unworthiness of such ministers, had they trusted their own commissioners. In the case of some of the dioceses, as for example Norwich, it is possible to compare the results of an episcopal visitation held some years previously with the reports of Cromwell's commissioners, and though it is sufficiently clear from these earlier reports that all was not well with discipline, the discrepancy between the accounts of the bishops and the royal commissioners is so striking, that it is difficult to believe that the houses could have degenerated so rapidly in so short a space of time as to justify the /Comperta/ of the commissioners. But what is still more striking is the fact that after the decree of suppression had gone forth, other commissioners, drawn largely from the local gentry, many of whom were to share in the plunder of the monastic lands, visited several of the houses against which serious charges had been made, and found nothing worthy of special blame. These men were not likely to be prejudiced in favour of the monks and nuns. They were well acquainted with the people of the district, and had every opportunity of learning the verdict of the masses about the discipline of the religious communities. They were, therefore, in a much better position to arrive at the truth than the royal commissioners who could only pay a flying visit of a few hours or at most of a few days.
The real object of the visitation and of the scandalous reports to which it gave rise, was to secure some specious pretext that would justify the king in the eyes of the nation in suppressing the monasteries and in confiscating their possessions. The idea that the monastic establishments enjoyed only the administration of their lands and goods, and that these might be seized upon at any moment for the public weal, was not entirely a new one either in the history of England or in that of some of the Continental countries. Years before, Cardinal Wolsey, for example, had dissolved more than twenty monasteries in order to raise funds for his colleges at Ipswich and Oxford, while not unfrequently the kings of England rewarded their favourites and servants by granting them a pension to be paid by a particular monastery. With the rise of the middle classes to power and the gradual awakening of greater agricultural and commercial activity, greedy eyes were turned to the monasteries and the farms owned by the religious institutions. Unlike the property of private individuals these lands were never likely to be in the market, and humanly speaking a transfer of ownership could be effected only by a violent revolution. Many people, therefore, though not unfriendly to the monks and nuns as such, were not disinclined to entertain the proposals of the king for the confiscation of religious property, particularly as hopes were held out to the nobles, wealthy merchants, and the corporations of cities and towns that the property so acquired could take the place of the taxes that otherwise must be raised to meet local and national expenditure.
For months before Parliament met (Feb. 1536) everything that could be done by means of violent pamphlets and sermons against the monks and the Papacy was done to prepare the country for the extreme measures that were in contemplation. The king came in person to warn the House of Commons that the reports of the royal commissioners, showing as they did the wretched condition of the monasteries and convents called for nothing less than the total dissolution of such institutions. The members do not appear, however, to have been satisfied with the king's recommendations, and it was probably owing to their feared opposition to a wholesale sacrifice of the monasteries that, though the commissioners had made no distinction between the larger and the smaller establishments the measure introduced by the government dealt only with the houses possessing a yearly revenue of less than ￡200. Even in this mild form great pressure was required to secure the passage of the Act, for though here and there complaints might have been heard against the enclosures of monastic lands or about the competition of the clerics in secular pursuits, the great body of the people were still warmly attached to the monasteries. Once the decree of dissolution had been passed the work of suppression was begun. Close on four hundred religious houses were dissolved, and their lands and property confiscated to the crown. The monks and nuns to the number of about 2,000 were left homeless and dependent merely on the miserable pensions, which not unfrequently remained unpaid. Their goods and valuables including the church plate and libraries were seized. Their houses were dismantled, and the roofless walls were left standing or disposed of as quarries for the sale of stones. Such cruel measures were resented by the masses of the people, who were attached to the monasteries, and who had always found the monks and nuns obliging neighbours, generous to their servants and their tenants, charitable to the poor and the wayfarer, good instructors of the youth, and deeply interested in the temporal as well as in the spiritual welfare of those around them. In London and the south- eastern counties, where the new tendencies had taken a firmer root, a strong minority supported the policy of the king and Cromwell, but throughout England generally, from Cornwall and Devon to the Scottish borders, the vast majority of the English people objected to the religious innovations, detested Cromwell and Cranmer as heretics, looked to Mary as the lawful heir to the throne in spite of the decision of the court of Dunstable, and denounced the attacks on the monasteries as robbery and sacrilege. The excitement spread quickly, especially amongst the peasants, and soon news reached London that a formidable rebellion had begun in the north.
In October 1536 the men of Lincoln took up arms in defence of their religion. Many of the noblemen were forced to take part in the movement, with which they sympathised, but which they feared to join lest they should be exposed to the merciless vengeance of the king. The leaders proclaimed their loyalty to the crown, and announced their intention of sending agents to London to present their petitions. They demanded the restoration of the monasteries, the removal of heretical bishops such as Cranmer and Latimer, and the dismissal of evil advisers like Cromwell and Rich. Henry VIII. returned a determined refusal to their demands, and dispatched the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Duke of Suffolk to suppress the rebellion. The people were quite prepared to fight, but the noblemen opened negotiations with the king's commanders, and advised the insurgents to disperse. The Duke of Suffolk entered the city of Lincoln amidst every sign of popular displeasure, although since the leaders had grown fainthearted no resistance was offered. Those who had taken a prominent part in the rebellion were arrested and put to death; the oath of supremacy was tendered to every adult; and by the beginning of April 1537, all traces of the rebellion had been removed.
The Pilgrimage of Grace in the north was destined to prove a much more dangerous movement. Early in October 1536 the people of York, determined to resist, and by the middle of the month the whole country was up in arms under the leadership of Robert Aske, a country gentleman and a lawyer well-known in legal services in London. Soon the movement spread through most of the counties of the north. York was surrendered to the insurgents without a struggle. Pomfret Castle, where the Archbishop of York and many of the nobles had fled for refuge, was obliged to capitulate, and Lord Darcy, the most loyal supporter of the king in the north, agreed to join the party of Aske. Hull opened its gates to the rebels, and before the end of October a well trained army of close on 40,000 men led by the principal gentlemen of the north lay encamped four miles north of Doncaster, where the Duke of Norfolk at the head of 8,000 of the king's troops awaited the attack. The Duke, fully conscious of the inferiority of his forces and well aware that he could not count on the loyalty of his own soldiers, many of whom favoured the demands of the rebels, determined to gain time by opening negotiations for a peaceful settlement (27th Oct.). Two messengers were dispatched to submit their grievances to the king, and it was agreed that until an answer should be received both parties should observe the truce. The king met the demands for the maintenance of the old faith, the restoration of the liberties of the Church, and the dismissal of ministers like Cromwell by a long explanation and defence of his political and religious policy, and the messengers returned to announce that the Duke of Norfolk was coming for another conference. Many of the leaders argued that the time for peaceful remonstrances had passed, and that the issue could be decided now only by the sword. Had their advice been acted upon the results might have been disastrous for the king, but the extreme loyalty of both the leaders and people, and the fear that civil war in England would lead to a new Scottish invasion, determined the majority to exhaust peaceful means before having recourse to violence.
An interview between the leaders and the Duke of Norfolk, representing the king, was arranged to take place at Doncaster (5th Dec.). In the meantime a convocation of the clergy was called to meet at Pomfret to formulate the religious grievances, and a lay assembly to draw up the demands of the people. Both clergy and people insisted on the acceptance of papal supremacy, the restoration of all clergy who had been deposed for resisting royal supremacy, the destruction of heretical books, such as those written by Luther, Hus, Melanchthon, Tundale, Barnes, and St. German, the dismissal of heretical bishops and advisers such as Cromwell, and the re-establishment of religious houses. Face to face with such demands, backed as they were by an army of 40,000 men, Norfolk, fearing that resistance was impossible, had recourse to a dishonest strategy. He promised the rebels that a free Parliament would be held at York to discuss their grievances, that a full pardon would be granted to all who had taken up arms, and that in the meantime the monks and nuns would be supported from the revenues of the surrendered monasteries and convents. Aske, whose weak point had always been his extreme loyalty, agreed to these terms, and ordered his followers to disband. He was invited to attend in London for a conference with the king, and returned home to announce that Henry was coming to open the Parliament at York, and that the people might rely with confidence on the royal promises. But signs were not wanting to show that the insurgents had been betrayed, and that they must expect vengeance rather than redress. Soon it was rumoured that Hull and Scarborough were being strengthened, and that in both cities Henry intended to place royal garrisons. The people, alarmed by the dangers that threatened them, attempted vainly to seize these two towns, and throughout the north various risings took place. The Duke of Norfolk, taking advantage of this violation of the truce, and having no longer any strong forces to contend with, promptly suppressed these rebellions, proclaimed martial law, and began a campaign of wholesale butchery. Hundreds of the rebels, including abbots and priests, who were suspected of favouring the insurgents, were put to death. The leaders, Aske, Lord Darcy, Lord Hussey, Sir Thomas Percy, Sir Francis Bigod, together with the abbots of Jervaux and of Fountains, and the Prior of Bidlington were arrested. Some of them suffered the penalty of death in London, while others were sent back to be executed in their own districts. By these measures the rebellion was suppressed in the north, and the rest of the counties were intimidated into submission.