Robert Constable, the eldest of four sons and two daughters of Sir Marmaduke Constable and his wife Joyce Stafford Constable, was born in Flamborough in about 1478. According to his biographer, Christine M. Newman: "Little is known of Constable's early life and education. From his early career, however, it seems likely that he was trained as a soldier and retained a preference for the traditional militaristic pursuits of his class. He was in the royal army which defeated the Cornish rebels at Blackheath and was knighted on the battlefield on 17 June 1497." (1)
Constable also distinguished himself at Flodden Field on 9th September 1513, against the Scots. Geoffrey Moorhouse, the author of The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) suggests that Constable was very unstable: "He (Constable) had a reputation for wildness in his youth when, among other things, he abducted a girl who was a ward in chancery and tried to force marriage with one of his retainers on to her. Most people agreed that he was a man with a very short fuse and a disposition to violence." (2)
On the death of his father in 1518, Constable inherited the family estates. He was a Justice of the Peace and was appointed to a number of stewardships, including Sheriff Hutton, Hotham, Leconfield and Pocklington. He was also steward of Howden for Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of Durham. Constable was often involved in disputes and several times made appearances before the court of Star Chamber. (3)
On 28th September 1536, the King's commissioners for the suppression of monasteries arrived to take possession of Hexham Abbey and eject the monks. They found the abbey gates locked and barricaded. "A monk appeared on the roof of the abbey, dressed in armour; he said that there were twenty brothers in the abbey armed with guns and cannon, who would all die before the commissioners should take it." The commissioners retired to Corbridge, and informed Thomas Cromwell of what had happened. (4)
This was followed by other acts of rebellion against the dissolution of the monasteries. A lawyer, Robert Aske, eventually became leader of the rebellion in Yorkshire. People joined what became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace for a variety of different reasons. Derek Wilson, the author of A Tudor Tapestry: Men, Women & Society in Reformation England (1972) has argued: "It would be incorrect to view the rebellion in Yorkshire, the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace, as purely and simply an upsurge of militant piety on behalf of the old religion. Unpopular taxes, local and regional grievances, poor harvests as well as the attack on the monasteries and the Reformation legislation all contributed to the creation of a tense atmosphere in many parts of the country". (5)
Within a few days, 40,000 men had risen in the East Riding and were marching on York. (6) Aske called on his men to take an oath to join "our Pilgrimage of Grace" for "the commonwealth... the maintenance of God's Faith and Church militant, preservation of the King's person and issue, and purifying of the nobility of all villein's blood and evil counsellors, to the restitution of Christ's Church and suppression of heretics' opinions". (7) Aske published a declaration obliging "every man to be true to the king's issue, and the noble blood, and preserve the Church of God from spoiling". (8)
Robert Constable shared Aske's criticism of Thomas Cromwell and his policy of closing the monasteries. It has been claimed by Christine M. Newman that he may have joined Pilgrimage of Grace because of the influence of Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. "Percy affinities undoubtedly played a part in the rebellion and this, to some extent, may have accounted for Constable's stance. Other factors, such as his increasing dissatisfaction with the aims of royal government, may also have played a part." (9)
Geoffrey Moorhouse believes that his poor health (he had "perpetual gout") was a factor in his decision to join Robert Aske. Moorehouse argues that Constable and Thomas Darcy had made a strange decision: "In switching sides Constable, like Darcy, was putting himself under the command of a man half his age, from somewhere beneath him in the social scale and with no military experience whatsoever, whereas these two old sweats had spent long years of their lives fighting at home and abroad." (10)
Henry VIII summoned Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, out of retirement. Norfolk, although he was 63, was the country's best soldier. Norfolk was also the leading Roman Catholic and a strong opponent of Thomas Cromwell and it was hoped that he was a man who the rebels would trust. Norfolk was able to raise a large army but he had doubts about their reliability and suggested to the King that he should negotiate with Aske. (11)
Robert Constable and Thomas Darcy took part in negotiations with the Duke of Norfolk. He tried to persuade them and the other Yorkshire nobles and gentlemen to regain the King's favour by handing over Robert Aske. However, they refused and Norfolk returned to London and suggested to Henry that the best strategy was to offer a pardon to all the northern rebels. When the rebel army had dispersed the King could arrange for its leaders to be punished. Henry eventually took this advice and on 7th December, 1536, he granted a pardon to everyone north of Doncaster who had taken part in the rebellion. Henry also invited Aske to London to discuss the grievances of the people of Yorkshire. (12)
Following the agreement to disband the rebel army in December 1536, Francis Bigod began to fear that Henry VIII would seek revenge on its leaders. Bigod wrote to Constable urging him to take part in a new rebellion. Constable refused and pointed out that any new revolt would violate the Doncaster agreement and that this was not a time of year for fighting anyway. Constable also added that his gout made it impossible for him to join his forces. (13)
Bigod accused Constable, Robert Aske and Thomas Darcy of betraying the Pilgrimage of Grace. On 15th January 1537, Bigod launched another revolt. He assembled his small army with a plan to attack Hull. Aske agreed to return to Yorkshire and assemble his men to defeat Bigod. He then joined up with Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and his army made up of 4,000 men. Bigod was easily defeated and after being captured on 10th February, 1537, was imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. (14) Although Constable did not take part in this military action he did what he could to "maintain order". (15)
On 24th March, Robert Constable, Robert Aske and Thomas Darcy were asked by the Duke of Norfolk to return to London in order to have a meeting with Henry VIII. They were told that the King wanted to thank them for helping to put down the Bigod rebellion. On their arrival they were all arrested and sent to the Tower of London. (30) Constable was subsequently indicted, not for his activities in the main phase of the rebellion, but for offences allegedly committed after his pardon. (16)
Robert Constable was taken to Hull and on 6th July, 1537, he was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets of London. He was taken to Tyburn and was hanged, almost to the point of death, revived, castrated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (his body was chopped into four pieces). His head and other parts of his body was displayed in various parts of the city.
Robert Constable had fought many times for his sovereign, most notably as a very young man, when he was knighted on the field of battle at Blackheath in 1497, after routing an army of 10,000 who had risen up against new taxations and marched to the very outskirts of London. He had also distinguished himself at Flodden Field, when he fought alongside other Constables against the Scots. He had a reputation for wildness in his youth when, among other things, he abducted a girl who was a ward in chancery and tried to force marriage with one of his retainers on to her. Most people agreed that he was a man with a very short fuse and a disposition to violence.... Now, at the age of sixty-three, his temper not improved by perpetual gout, he had turned against the King.
The precise motivation behind Constable's rebellious participation in the Pilgrimage of Grace is not clear. His family had long been tenants and clients of the earls of Northumberland, who had extensive landed interests in the East Riding and Constable was a member of the council of Henry Percy, sixth earl of Northumberland. Percy affinities undoubtedly played a part in the rebellion and this, to some extent, may have accounted for Constable's stance. Other factors, such as his increasing dissatisfaction with the aims of royal government, may also have played a part. In religious matters, too, he, along with his old friends Darcy and John Hussey, Baron Hussey, maintained a traditional stance. In 1534 all three men had agreed upon their aversion towards heresy and their determination to die as ‘Christian men’.
Whatever his ultimate motivation - and despite his initial reluctance and claims that he was coerced—Constable was quickly drawn into the pilgrimage and soon became one of its leaders. He adopted, in the first instance, a resolutely rebellious stance but subsequently went on to accept a royal pardon under the terms of the agreement reached at Doncaster in early December 1536. During Sir Francis Bigod's revolt in January 1537, Constable strove to stay the commons and maintain order, in accordance with the December agreement. Nevertheless, the resurgence of the rebellion provided the crown with the opportunity to take reprisals against the rebel leaders. Constable, together with other leading pilgrims, was summoned to London where he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and subsequently indicted, not for his activities in the main phase of the rebellion, but for offences allegedly committed after his pardon. Following his trial and condemnation, Constable was taken to Hull for execution.
(2) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 123
(4) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 285
(5) Derek Wilson, A Tudor Tapestry: Men, Women & Society in Reformation England (1972) page 59
(6) Anthony Fletcher, Tudor Rebellions (1974) page 26
(7) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 287
(8) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 109
(10) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 124
(11) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 59
(12) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 290
(13) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 256
(14) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(16) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 297-298