20 October 1536 – Pontefract Castle surrenders to the rebels

By eight o’clock in the morning on this day in history, 20th October 1536, Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy of Darcy, had surrendered his castle, Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire, to the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion. Lord Darcy and the castle inhabitants then swore the rebel oath.

Lord Darcy had sent a message to Henry VIII from Pontefract Castle on 17th October 1536 regarding the trouble in the area and how he “had been forced to flee to Pontefract Castle with 12 horse”. He explained that he had “used all the policy I knew for the repression of the unlawful assemblies, and when I found I could not prevail I repaired to Pontefract with such number of persons as seemed convenient.” In another message, “A remembrance of things committed to Sir Arthur Darcy, kt. [Darcy’s son} to be declared to the King’s Highness.”, sent on the same day, Darcy made it clear just how precarious their position was:

“(1.) Where the commons before arose in the Marshland, Holdenshire, Holderness, Yorkswold, and the East Riding; they are now up in the West and North Ridings, Wenssedale, Coverdale, Swaldale, Mydderdale, Kyrkebieshire, Messhamshire, Langestorth, Craven, Cleveland, Dent, Sedbare, and all Richmondshire and Yorkshire. They are 60,000–40,000 harnessed—and march forward so that they were expected before this castle this day; 20,000 entered York yesterday, while great numbers were before Hull and Scarborough Castle. (2.) They have surprised many gentlemen in their own houses and taken Sir Chr. Danbie, Sir William Malorie, John Norton, Richard Norton his heir, Roger Lassells, [Robert Bowes and Richard Bowes], Sir Ralph Ellerker, jun., Sir Oswald Willesforth, Sir Thos. Metham his son and heir, and Sir Piers Vavasor, [Sir John and Sir William Constable, of Holderness], and also lord Latymer. My lord of Cumberland, on his way to Hexham, returned for safety to Skipton Castle with lord Scrope. (3.) The commons swear every man, priest and other, and charge them, on pain of death, to come to musters, where they pick out the best men. (4.) They can not be resisted for no man can trust his tenants, and few their own servants. (5.) They spare no man’s goods [and say they will have the King’s money wherever they find it]. [(6.) Many would gladly leave them but dare not]. (7.) The castle is wholly unfurnished and the town of Pounfrett and towns about will not aid us. The commons stop the passages for victual. (8.) We in the castle must in a few days either yield or lose our lives. (9.) [The coming of Sir Arthur to the King shall not interfere with the King’s command to him by letter, as in his absence lord Darcy will put things in readiness]. “The said [Sir Arthur]” shall show there is no likelihood of vanquishing the commons with any power here.”

And in yet another message: “The insurrection has so increased all over the North that we are in great danger of our lives and see no way how it can be repressed. Sir Arthur Darcy, the bearer, will make a full report. Pomfret, 17 Oct. 1536.”

However, as Thomas Wriothesley noted in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, “has no great trust in Darcy”. The king probably knew that Darcy sympathised with the rebel cause.
So what happened next?

Here is an extract from my book On This Day in Tudor History:

“On the night of the 19th October 1536, Thomas Maunsell, Robert Aske and the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace threatened an assault on Pontefract Castle and its owner, Lord Darcy. By 8 o’clock on the morning of the 20th October, the castle had surrendered to the rebels and its inhabitants – which included the likes of Lord Darcy, Sir William Gascoigne, Sir Robert Constable, Edmund Lee, Archbishop of York, and Thomas Magnus, Archdeacon of the East Riding – had sworn the rebel oath.

No force had been necessary. Their leader, Robert Aske, had written down the grievances of the common people in a letter, on the 19th, asking the lords in the castle to intercede with the King on their behalf. He then visited the castle on the 20th and rebuked the lords for failing in their duty to their people by allowing heresy in their territory, and by not making the King aware of ‘the poverty of his realm and that part specially’. Lord Darcy replied that they would submit to him on the 21st, but Aske insisted on it happening that day, threatening action against the castle otherwise. Darcy surrendered.

Darcy had little choice when there were only around 300 men in the castle, and the rebels numbered in the tens of thousands, but historian M.L. Bush makes the point that the castle inmates could have tried to crush the rebels ten days earlier when the rebellion was in its infancy and its numbers much, much smaller. Bush explains that the elderly Lord Darcy actually sympathised with the rebel cause, because of his reservations about the dissolution of the monasteries and the power of Thomas Cromwell, whom he would have viewed as a heretic and an “upstart”. The grievances of the rebels were justified in Darcy’s opinion, but he did not want to raise a revolt himself, or take an active part in one, so he fled to Pontefract Castle and hoped that he would not need to get involved.”

As R.W. Hoyle points out, Darcy then “became one of the pilgrims’ captains”. It appears from the primary sources that although he had joined the rebels and was sympathetic to their cause, he tried to maintain peace and order.

On 6th November, the Duke of Norfolk wrote to Darcy:

“For old love, I must warn you also of the speech of the people here who think you consented to Aske and the commons in the delivery of Pomfret. I have used myself like a true friend, thinking you delivered the castle for lack of victual and ordnance and were forced to go with the commons like many other noblemen. To declare yourself, I advise you to take, alive or dead, but alive if possible, that arrant traitor Aske, which will extinct the ill bruit and raise you in the favour of his Highness.”

Darcy was being ordered to prove his loyalty to the king and prove the rumours wrong by apprehending Robert Aske. Darcy refused to do so, saying that he was an honourable man who would not betray any living man in such a way: “”alays in[y good lord] yt ever ye being a man of so [much honour] and gret [experyence] shold advice or chuss mee a man to be of eny such sortt or facion to betray or dissav eny liffyng man, French man, Scott, yea or a Turke; of my faith, to gett and wyn to me and myn heyres fowr of the best dukes landdes in Fraunce, or to be kyng ther, I wold nott do it to no liffyng person.” However, he emphasised his loyalty to the king: “Will be ready to do what he can as a true knight and subject and would be ready to serve the King in his scullery the rest of his short life without a penny rent from his lands, so that these businesses were brought to a good pass.”

Although Darcy, along with Aske, accepted the king’s offer of a pardon and his promise of a future free Parliament to be held at York, made by proclamation in early December 1536, the two men were to come to sticky ends. Following Bigod’s Rebellion in early 1537, which neither man supported, Darcy and Aske were arrested. On 15th May 1537, Lord Darcy was found guilty of treason at a trial in Westminster Hall and condemned to death. He was beheaded on Tower Hill on 30th June 1537. Robert Aske was executed by being hanged in chains on 12th July 1537 at York.

R.W. Hoyle concludes that “Darcy was poorly served by Henry and finally abandoned by him: having been taken by the pilgrims, he worked to secure their disbandment through the use of ‘policy’. While there is plenty of evidence for his sympathy for the aims of the commons, his claim that ‘I have served above fifty years the king’s majesty and his father and should not in my old age enter rebellion with the commons’ is correct.”

Click here to read more about the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion.

Notes and Sources

Photo: Pontefract Castle keep, cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Richard Croft – geograph.org.uk/p/3352841.

  • Hoyle, R. W.. “Darcy, Thomas, Baron Darcy of Darcy (b. in or before 1467, d. 1537).” R. W. Hoyle In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, January 2008.
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 11, July-December 1536, 760, 761, 768, 995, 1045.
  • Bush, M.L. (1996) The Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Rebel Armies of October 1536, Manchester University Press.
  • Ridgway, Claire (2012) On This Day in Tudor History, MadeGlobal Publishing.

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8 thoughts on “20 October 1536 – Pontefract Castle surrenders to the rebels”
  1. Lord Darcy was a fool in his judgment of the situation. He was right to have concern over the number of men at his gate and to write to the King asking for help and Henry should have sent him more troops, but that was not possible as he didn’t have enough troops. Darcy was our man in Yorkshire and he was the King’s representative and authority there. It was his duty to close his gates and defend his castle and the town at all odds but he was not able to do so. Henry was in foul moods as his leg hurt so he was not given at this time to bad news being taken well. He was angry to receive letters from Darcy and he told him to hold out and sent what help he could, such as it was. However, there were 40,000 men at the gate of Pontefract Castle, the gateway to the North, a mighty fortress yes, but the men were not enough to hold out.

    Darcy has a choice. He can force those outside into a siege and hope for relief and maybe risk the loss of his castle or life of fellow Englishmen outside from hunger and cold or he could attack them. He could also invite Robert Aske inside and then arrest him and make him order his men and women outside to lay down their arms. Henry would send men, but it would be days later, so Darcy would take a risk no matter what he did. However, he certainly should never have agreed to what he did do. Henry made it clear he was to hold out and not side with the rebels. Darcy wanted to talk with them first and he negotiated with Aske. Darcy went further by surrendering his castle and giving shelter to the rebels and agreeing to help them. He fell short of joining them, but he gave his protection and support. No wonder he was regarded as a traitor.

    1. Yes he went against Henrys orders, he was furious when he found out, he believed Darcy was secretly in with them most likely, certainly he had some sympathy for them, but it must have been an awkward situation he found himself in, 40,000 people on your front door, was Darcy married? If so his wife and family must have been petrified, Henry was determined the rebels should not succeed, in the Tudors it showed Aske being invited to talk to the King, a bit of melodrama there, he ended up in chains, a rather filthy way to die although there are no good ones really, Darcy too paid the ultimate price for the rebellion, even though it was not down to him but he gambled on the idea of negotiation, it must have seemed sensible to him at the time, he was in his castle in the north with only 300 inhabitants against 40,000, maybe he thought it was worth trying, but he actually gave shelter to them, was he a coward or a turncoat, certainly it was enough for Henry to have him killed for high treason.

      1. Hi Christine, yes he was married twice and had three sons and a daughter by his second wife and possibly another son by his first. They were all well into full adulthood by 1537 and Darcy himself was no spring chicken, as he was an elderly gentleman in his seventies. He used the explanation that he had a shortage of provisions to allow Aske into the castle to negotiate. I agree he was in a very difficult position, but he also supported the rebels point of view. He was torn between faith and duty and Henry didn’t help. His own attitude stinks. His policies caused the problem in the Catholic heartlands of the Midlands and North of England. He had even abolished the Council of the North which he was forced to reestablish in which local gentry acted with royal authority independently to deal with unique local problems in these rural areas. Like most countries, the North of England is a totally different place, economically, socially, culturally, religiously and in ethnic make-up to the South. Government in Yorkshire, Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmoreland was in the hands of half a dozen vast landowners who ruled the place as if it was their personal fiefdom, supported by a larger but equally driven lesser group of noble families and the entire region backed them. Parts of the far North are wild and remote even today, but back then the counties of Northumberland and Westmoreland in particular and Yorkshire could be just as unruly as the Highlands of Scotland. The Council of the North was established to bring some order from this chaos while allowing some independence and autonomy to find the best way to deal with local disputes. This was the only concession granted after the Pilgrimage of Grace ended because it was the only thing which could fully restore order and authority without risking more uprisings. Lord Darcy was the symbol of royal authority in Yorkshire, but this was given to Suffolk as the new Lord Lieutenant. He allowed royal authority to be threatened by letting them into Pontefract, but because of lack of military support Lord Darcy may have had no choice.

        Henry was really angry but he also negotiated, partly because he needed to gain time. Lord Darcy and the others accepted a royal pardon and Robert Aske came to court over Christmas were he received the VIP treatment. He brought a petition to the King, was granted safe conduct, listened to one of Henry’s lectures, but also gave details of why they had rebelled and what they wanted, why they fought so hard for the religious houses, was wined and dined, met the Queen and Princess Mary, saw all the old festival traditions and was given a very fine coat by Henry. He came safely home.

        Lord Darcy had given Aske his protection, stood with him when the two armies met and agreed a truce, but he was not necessarily acting as a rebel leader, more as a liaison. His mistake was either to trust King Henry or to become too involved. I believe he was trying to save lives. His age may also have made him reckless because I am certain he felt his age and ill health would be taken into consideration and he would not have to travel to London to face trial. Unlike Aske, he was old nobility, he had served three Kings with distinction, so he should have been able to bargain himself out of trouble. However, Henry Viii was no longer the type of person you could negotiate with. He was looking for a way out of the pardons and a few hotheads gave him the excuse he needed to crush the rebellion and take his revenge on the gentry who had supported the rebels.

        Sir Francis Bigod led another rebellion in 1537 and yet another lot marched on Carlisle. Darcy tried to defuse this, as did Aske but it was not to be stopped. The army marched north under Suffolk, Norfolk, Shrewsbury and Lord Derby with greater numbers than before and those who were not killed were rounded up. Lord Darcy and Lord Hussey another supporter were also brought to trial and beheaded. Henry was in no mood for any excuse and it was probably an unfair end to the career of someone who to be fair had been a long and good royal servant, but could not stand by and fire on fellow countrymen.

        1. Thanks Bq, how dreadful that he was in his seventies too, that’s old by our standards to have to deal with all that, and then to be executed, it’s true as Hoyle writes that Darcy was poorly served by the King.

        2. I don’t know if there was any other reason for Henry to be concerned about Thomas Darcy, probably not and he was an old soldier as well, but Henry had no regard for his services, age, his difficult situation, anything. He may have wrongly given the rebels protection, but he also sought a fair settlement. He sympathized yes, but he mainly just wanted to save lives. The rebels needed a voice higher than Robert Aske who although learned and a lawyer and soldier (no family ) was not a gentleman and nobles only negotiate with nobles. Normally someone ended up supporting these rebellions or giving them safe passage. Darcy had a lot of experience and the connections at court, he knew how to deal with Norfolk or Suffolk if a truce was made. The army of pilgrims had the numbers, so negotiating was sensible, even if it was only a ploy. Other nobles gave in to Aske, partly because of threats, like John Neville, Katherine Parr’s second husband who feared for his wife, as did others, but most were pardoned. Maybe Darcy standing with them, even passively, was seen as too far, although I agree with Robert Hoyle, Henry responded with anger, not aid. Then the Cliffords held out in Skipton and Carlisle, although 50 men joined the cause and the Earl of Cumberland took to the fray against them. The young heir, Sir Henry Clifford was left to hold out for weeks before Suffolk could move out of Lincolnshire. The soldiers held his wife, Lady Eleanor Brandon, who had escaped Bolton Castle for Bolton Abbey as a hostage. It must have been tempting to give in. However, a retainer of the Cliffords, Christopher Aske went to the Abbey and rescued them. Once reinforcements were on the way Aske gave up. However, a second rebel army in January 1537 attacked Carlisle but the Royal army was prepared for them. It was an ambush and the numbers killed are unclear. Around 700 attacked. Now some authorities say they were all killed, others say half, others less. However, they were all killed, injured or captured and some executed afterwards. I agree, Henry used this and here I believe Darcy was badly used. It was obvious that he didn’t support the second rising after the general pardon, but he was a scapegoat. Legitimate excuses of ill health were made but he was still forced to travel south were he was tried and beheaded. Now Tudor winters were very cold as the period known as the Little Ice was still around and there are no motorways. If it snows in Yorkshire even now it is thick and deep for weeks. You probably had it even worse then. For an elderly, sick man in his seventies this was going to be a hard journey let alone the terrible fate at the end which he must endure. I read the journey took several weeks as they had to move slowly. I have just been watching Gunpowder which showed the full horror of the full punishment for high treason and it was a mercy that he was beheaded due to his status and connections. Most of the ordinary rebels who did not receive a pardon found themselves subjected to a number of fates. In all something like 226 were executed in Yorkshire, Cumberland and Lancashire. In Lincolnshire the number is either 109 or 169, depending on the smudges on the records or who you are reading at the time. The method of execution varied from hanging from trees, walls and ruins and the bodies being butchered, to hanging and no butchery on Norfolk’s orders for which he was critcised by Henry to the full monty for some of the leaders. A number of gentlemen were also beheaded, although most were pardoned. Other leading rebels turned Kings evidence or pleaded as did many common that they were forced to take part by threats to their lives or families and found themselves pardoned and given the lands of their masters. It was also the fate of a female ckusin of Norfolk to be burnt as a female traitor, while her husband was beheaded. Robert Aske faced a unique but cruel death. The story is that he requested that he be spared being hung drawn and quartered or he be not alive when cut down. Whether this is true or not he faced the terrible sentence of being hung alive in chains for three days from the high walls of Clifford Tower at York Castle. There is a possibility that as be stepped of the walls the weight of the chain would kill him, but older records at the Castle described him and another man who shared his fate being hung for three days and receiving drink every couple of hours. This was a horrible way to die, intended to shock into obedience a defeated people. There was not one part of the north and Midlands affected by this. It would never be forgotten, nor would the Northern Revolt of 1569 and 70, or the Prayer Book, 1549 or Wyatt 1554 or Peasants Revolt 1381, all people wanting social change, to preserve their traditional way of life or to protect what they saw as national independence. The Tudors and Medieval Kings and in some cases, Stuarts reacted with cruelty and often swiftnesd to put down and crush rebellions. The Pilgrimage of Grace is unique in its time scale and that the Government had to negotiate in the counties themselves. Henry was forcrd to negotiate as he did not have the men or arms and he needed them to disperse. His calling them to the palace in London was intended to by time, find out more, raise troops and with a pardon they went home. The second set of risings gave the crown the excuse to swoop.

          Controversially, the Tudors showed the entire population being hunted down and hung regardless. Henry Viii wrote a number of contradictory letters during this time to his commanders saying on one hand to hang them all and their families and suffer them to be killed as traitors and on the other to act with restraint. Partly this was in response to the rapidly changing situation and to the advice for moderation and negotiation. Having pardoned most of the rebels, however, once a number rose again, it was seen as a betrayal of that new oath given to conform, so punishment was seen by the King as justified. He could not just simply march in, round up just anyone and hang them as the North now had to be pacified. A second, more limited general pardon was issued with the exceptions of named leaders and an example was yo be made in the worst areas from the rest. A small number were targeted from a list of identifying rebels, they were held for trial, with at least one person from each area being executed. Not everyone tried was executed or even found guilty. Some were pardoned with conditions to work almost as a government spy on their neighbours future behaviour. Others were believed when they claimed to be forced into rebellion and released on the same conditions. It was also controversial to show a young boy being hung, but in Tudor times a boy ceased to be a child at around fourteen and we do have a few noted executions of boys at this age. They were probably rare and very shocking, but we have to admit they happened as they were judged to be of sufficient mind to be responsible. This would never be accepted today, although it was even in the nineteenth century. Girls could be married at twelve, but may not have been encouraged go consummate the marriage and may have been shown mercy st such a young age. I read recently that boys aged ten and over could be executed, so it is possible. The records do not specifically state a case here, but they are not totally complete so it is possible. It was a terrible crackdown, although by no means the worst in our history. It set a pattern from which the North did not recover for generations.

  2. Certainly the peasants revolt is something ingrained in our memory, it’s a momentous event in history and something every school kid is taught about, I thinks it’s more well known that the northern rebellion and Wat Tyler seems to be more well known that Wolsley or Cromwell, or Napoleon, in that marvellous book ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seton the author takes you through the terrifying events of those days down to the burning of the Duke Of Lancasters apartments and the death of Tyler, they were betrayed by Richard 11 the child King, it must have been awful for Darcy who had served two kings faithfully to find himself in the situation he was in, and yes having to make that horrendous journey down south amidst all the snow and ice, I agree Yorkshire and most areas of the north can be cut of for weeks due to the bad weather conditions, they can have blizzards and be southbound which makes travelling by car dangerous, it must have been twenty times worse in Tudor times before proper roads and motorways, I wonder the journey didn’t kill him, I would have thought Henry would cut Darcy a bit of slack but once he had made up his mind about someone he rarely backed down, thankyou for that info as I don’t know much about the northern rebellion, but I am more knowledgeable about it now.

    1. Your welcome. I became obsessed with the Pilgrimage of Grace a few years ago and practically absorbed any information possible. It was a fascinating study, even if I got bogged down, but it has been a special interest of mine for many years. It has been a few years since the last history, but both modern books do it justice, although Madeleine Dodd and Martin Bursh are still the main authority on this period.

  3. As a Cranmerian Christian and utterly old school Anglican, it’s so good to see that the battle for history and the facts are continuing here. Thank you for these goodly memories.

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