Robert Lee, a younger son of Richard Lee and grandson of Sir Richard Lee, lord mayor of London, was born in about 1481. A family friend, Sir Thomas More, later recalled Lee's intellectual promise when a ten-year-old schoolboy. Lee was admitted to Oxford University in 1495 and five years later he became a fellow of Magdalen College. In 1501 he moved to Cambridge University. He also spent time studying at Louvain University. According to Claire Cross "in 1510, 1512, and 1513 he acquired prebends in the cathedrals of Salisbury, Lincoln, and Winchester respectively". (1)
Lee had conservative views on religion and in 1521 joined forces with More, Thomas Wolsey and John Fisher to help Henry VIII to write a book, Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, that attacked the teachings of Martin Luther. (2) Over the next few years he had a long-running theological dispute with Desiderius Erasmus, "who became so irritated by Lee's attitude to him that he dismissed the Englishman as a pushy young man who simply wanted to be famous". (3)
In 1531 Edward Lee was appointed as the Archbishop of York. He was then sent to discuss the King's proposed divorce of Catherine of Aragon with Pope Clement VII. The historian, David Starkey, has pointed out that Henry VIII considered Lee as his chief legal expert. (4) In May 1534 Lee and Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall were used to try to persuade Catherine to repudiate her marriage and to advise her of the new act limiting the succession to the heirs of Henry and Anne Boleyn. (5) Catherine's obstinacy provoked the King to order her removal to Kimbolton Castle. (6)
In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry VIII the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (7)
Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (8)
It has been claimed that Archbishop Edward Lee had great doubts about the King's religious reforms but he agreed to take the oath. (9) However, he remained loyal and preached against papal supremacy in York Minister in 1535. (10) Sir Francis Bigod accused the Archbishop of failing to preach the royal supremacy with sufficient fervour. That summer he was busy trying to persuade the monks in Yorkshire from rebelling against the King. Lee also co-operated with Thomas Cromwell in the passing of the Act of Suppression, accepted the surrender of the houses with an income of less than £200 a year. (11)
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. (12)
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". (13)
Within a few days, 40,000 men had risen in the East Riding and were marching on York. (14) 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". (15) 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". (16)
Fearing for his life, Archbishop Lee fled to Pontefract Castle where he received protection from Thomas Darcy. (17) Robert Aske arrived at the castle on 20th October. After a short siege, Darcy, running short of supplies, surrendered the castle. Richard Hoyle has pointed out: "Darcy's actions are in fact perfectly plausible when taken at face value and especially when the Pilgrimage of Grace is seen as a widespread popular movement in opposition to expected and feared religious innovations. When disturbances broke out in Yorkshire, he sent the king a long and accurate assessment of the situation and sought reinforcements, money, supplies of munitions, and the authority to mobilize. On two further occasions he wrote at length describing a deteriorating situation. On all three occasions his information and advice were ignored... It was Aske's contention that Darcy could not have resisted a siege, but would have been killed if the commons had stormed the castle." (18)
Aske was aware that Archbishop Lee had a reputation as a conservative and in the autumn of 1535 had written to Thomas Cromwell, complaining about the new radical preachers who were active in the region. He followed this up six months later with the suggestion that nobody should be allowed to preach unless they had been granted permission from Henry VIII. Lee had also complained about the plan to close Hexham Abbey. (19) Aske and his followers assumed that the archbishop sympathized with their aims for the restoration of the church's liberties. (20)
Archbishop Lee agreed to take the pilgrims' oath. It included the following: "Ye shall not enter into this our Pilgrimage of Grace for the Commonwealth, but only for the love that ye do bear unto Almighty God, his faith, and to Holy Church militant and the maintenance thereof, to the preservation of the King's person and his issue, to the purifying of the nobility, and to expulse all villein blood and evil councillors against the commonwealth from his Grace and his Privy Council of the same. And ye shall not enter into our said Pilgrimage for no particular profit to your self, nor to do any displeasure to any private person, but by counsel of the commonwealth, nor slay nor murder for no envy, but in your hearts put away all fear and dread, and take afore you the Cross of Christ, and in your hearts His faith, the Restitution of the Church, the suppression of these Heretics and their opinions, by all the holy contents of this book." (21)
Robert Aske was convinced that Archbishop Lee supported the Pilgrimage of Grace and he was allowed to go free. However, on 4th December 1536 he preached a sermon in Pontefract Priory advocating passive obedience. (22) By March 1537, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell had gained control of the situation and the rebel leaders were arrested. That summer over 200 were executed. This included This included Robert Aske, Thomas Darcy, Francis Bigod, Robert Constable, John Bulmer, Margaret Cheyney and William Thirsk.
Although Archbishop Lee had signed the oath his life was spared. As Jasper Ridley, the author of Henry VIII (1984) has pointed out: "Nearly all the noblemen and gentlemen of Yorkshire had joined the Pilgrimage of Grace in the autumn. Henry could not execute them all. He divided them, somewhat arbitrarily, into two groups - those who were to be forgiven and restored to office and favour, and those who were to be executed on framed-up charges of having committed fresh acts of rebellion after the general pardon. Archbishop Lee, Lord Scrope, Lord Latimer, Sir Robert Bowes, Sir Ralph Ellerker and Sir Marmaduke Constable continued to serve as Henry's loyal servants." (23)
Archbishop Edward Lee continued to show his loyalty to Henry VIII after the defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace. On the advice of Thomas Cromwell he preached several sermons in London in support of the royal supremacy in the summer of 1537. He also agreed that reformist preachers should be allowed to travel freely around the North, something he had complained about in 1535. (24)
Life for Archbishop Lee became easier after the bill of the Six Articles was presented by Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk in Parliament in May 1539. It was soon clear that it had the support of Henry VIII. Although the word "transubstantiation" was not used, the real presence of Christ's very body and blood in the bread and wine was endorsed. So also was the idea of purgatory. The six articles presented a serious problem for religious reformers.
Bishop Hugh Latimer and Bishop Nicholas Shaxton both spoke against the Six Articles in the House of Lords. Latimer had argued against transubstantiation and purgatory for many years. Latimer now faced a choice between obeying the king as supreme head of the church and standing by the doctrine he had had a key role in developing and promoting for the past decade. (25) Thomas Cromwell was unable to come to their aid and in July they were both forced to resign their bishoprics. For a time it was thought that Henry would order their execution as heretics. He eventually decided against this measure and instead they were ordered to retire from preaching.
In July 1540, Lee joined his fellow bishops in annulling the marriage of the Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves. As His biographer, Claire Cross, has pointed out: "In the more conservative climate which prevailed after the passing of the Act of Six Articles and the fall of Cromwell he appeared somewhat less beleaguered, though as one who had sided with the rebels the archbishop still was faced with the indignity of having to seek his monarch's forgiveness on his knees, when Henry VIII visited York in the late summer of 1541." (26)
Archbishop Edward Lee died, aged sixty-two, on 13th September 1544.
The outbreak of the Pilgrimage of Grace in Beverley early in October 1536 made the archbishop's relationship with the central government even more precarious. Fearing retaliation from his aggrieved tenants Lee fled from Cawood to Pontefract where he became a prisoner of the rebels when Lord Darcy surrendered the castle on 20 October. He and the other gentlemen there then took the pilgrims' oath. Not without some justification Aske and his followers assumed that the archbishop sympathized with their aims for the restoration of the church's liberties, but Lee disappointed them by preaching a sermon advocating passive obedience in Pontefract Priory on 4 December. In January 1537, after Norfolk had brought the first insurrection to an end, Lee dared to question the wisdom of attempting to collect the clerical tenth while the north remained so volatile. During the second rising he stayed in his palace at Cawood and by so doing contributed to the quietness of the adjoining parts of the East Riding. To defend himself against allegations of treason in the aftermath of the uprising he drew up a very long exculpatory account of his involvement in the pilgrimage.
Nearly all the noblemen and gentlemen of Yorkshire had joined the Pilgrimage of Grace in the autumn. Henry could not execute them all. He divided them, somewhat arbitrarily, into two groups - those who were to be forgiven and restored to office and favour, and those who were to be executed on framed-up charges of having committed fresh acts of rebellion after the general pardon. Archbishop Lee, Lord Scrope, Lord Latimer, Sir Robert Bowes, Sir Ralph Ellerker and Sir Marmaduke Constable continued to serve as Henry's loyal servants; Darcy, Aske, Sir Robert Constable, and Bigod were to die. So were Sir John Bulmer and his mistress, Margaret Cheyney, who was known as Lady Bulmer but was not lawfully married to him. Henry had given special orders to arrest the Earl of Northumberland's brother, Sir Thomas Percy, though Northumberland, who was dying of sickness, was allowed to spend his last days in freedom in his house in London.
(1) Claire Cross, Edward Lee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(2) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 127
(3) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 80
(4) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 231
(5) Claire Cross, Edward Lee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(6) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 269
(7) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 43-44
(8) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 82
(9) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 333
(10) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 80
(11) Claire Cross, Edward Lee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(12) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 285
(13) Derek Wilson, A Tudor Tapestry: Men, Women & Society in Reformation England (1972) page 59
(14) Anthony Fletcher, Tudor Rebellions (1974) page 26
(15) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 287
(16) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 109
(17) Claire Cross, Edward Lee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(18) Richard Hoyle, Thomas Darcy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(19) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) pages 80-81
(20) Claire Cross, Edward Lee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(21) Robert Aske, Pilgrimage of Grace Oath (October, 1536)
(22) Claire Cross, Edward Lee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(23) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 295
(24) Claire Cross, Edward Lee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(25) Susan Wabuda, Hugh Latimer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)