Francis Bigod

Francis Bigod, the eldest son of Sir John Bigod and Joan Strangways Bigod, was born in 1507. His father was killed while fighting for Henry VIII against the Scots. Francis's grandfather Sir Ralph Bigod died in 1515 leaving the seven-year-old as heir. On 9th May 1515 his wardship was secured by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and he went to live with the king's Lord Chancellor who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury. (1)

Bigod studied at Oxford University where he came under the influence of the priest Thomas Garrard, who had been importing and distributing the English Bible that had been translated by William Tyndale. (2) As Geoffrey Moorhouse has pointed out: "Thomas Garrard, whose energies were spent on preaching the new gospel from the pulpit and distributing theological volumes wherever he could find a ready market for them. Bigod very soon became enamoured of a doctrine which asserted that any man might preach the word of God, that no temporal or spiritual law could stipulate anything that contradicted this. He emerged from Oxford not only with a much better education than the landed gentry of England normally acquired, but with a deep need to proselytise on behalf of the new religion." (3)

Francis Bigod and the Reformation

Francis Bigod married Katherine Neville, daughter of William Conyers. Although he had inherited a large estate, he found it very difficult to make it profitable and by the late 1520s he was deeply in debt. (4) He arranged for his friend, Thomas Cromwell to provide him with loans. "The Lord Chancellor obliged, both then and on other occasions, for Bigod seemed incapable of running his estates as profitably as most Yorkshire landowners. He was obsessed with the obligation he felt to leave land to his two children and so was loathe to sell any of it off." (5)

Bigod's biographer, Michael Hicks, has pointed out that his financial problems continued: "His shortfall in cash was corrected by borrowing. One debt due at Michaelmas 1533 was put off a year. His distress was not apparently alleviated by 700 marks paid to him by Lord Latimer for the marriage of his daughter Margaret to Bigod's infant son Ralph, on whom Francis settled lands worth £50 a year and for whom he contracted not to alienate the rest. That was on 12 October 1534; by 31 January 1535, Francis had persuaded Latimer to buy lands worth £40 a year for £700 payable in installments. Lands were also sold to Sir William Sidney." (6)

Francis Bigod remained interested in religious reform. He appointed Thomas Garrard as his chaplain and published a book, A Treatise Concerning Impropriations of Benefices. This was an attack on monastic wealth and suggested that this great income was preventing them from fulfilling their monastic vows more adequately than at present. This viewpoints expressed in this book made him popular with Thomas Cromwell but increased the hostility towards him from local people who considered him a heretic.

In January 1535, Bigod became one of the Yorkshire commissioners whose task was to compile the Valor Ecclesiasticus, the great register of monastic wealth. Later that year Bigod and Adam Sedbar, the abbot of Jervaulx Abbey, reported the Cistercian monk, George Lazenby, for preaching against the Royal Supremacy. Lazenby was arrested and executed for his beliefs in August 1535. (7)

Pilgrimage of Grace

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. (8)

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". (9)

Henry VIII
Robert Aske leading the Pilgrimage of Grace march to York.

When he first heard of the rebellion Francis Bigod feared for his life and attempted to flee to London. He sailed from Whitby in a ship bound for the Thames. However, the weather was very bad and the ship was blown northwards instead, so Bigod was forced to disembark at Hartlepool, where a group of rebels tried to lynch him. (10) Bigod escaped and after arriving back home he decided to change his views and offered his services to the rebels. He claimed that he wanted the monasteries to be reformed, not closed down. Bigod was sent to help with the blockade of Scarborough Castle. (11)

Francis Bigod and Thomas Darcy took part in negotiations with Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. He tried to persuade him 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)

Aske spent the Christmas holiday with Henry VIII at Greenwich Palace. When they first met Henry told Aske: "Be you welcome, my good Aske; it is my wish that here, before my council, you ask what you desire and I will grant it." Aske replied: "Sir, your majesty allows yourself to be governed by a tyrant named Cromwell. Everyone knows that if it had not been for him the 7,000 poor priests I have in my company would not be ruined wanderers as they are now." Henry gave the impression that he agreed with Aske about Thomas Cromwell and asked him to prepare a history of the previous few months. To show his support he gave him a jacket of crimson silk. (13)

Arrest & Execution of Francis Bigod

Following the agreement to disband the rebel army in December 1536, Francis Bigod began to fear that Henry would seek revenge on its leaders. Bigod accused 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. Norfolk's army entered Beverley where Bigod's men were assembling. Bigod managed to escape but most of his soldiers were captured. (14)

Francis Bigod was found hiding with two servants in a chapel in Cumbria. He was taken to Carlisle Castle before being sent to London. (15) On the 2nd June, 1537, Bigod was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets of the city. Bigod 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). (16)

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Primary Sources

(1) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002)

Not yet thirty, Bigod came from a North Riding family with noble blood in its distant pedigree, which placed it only just below the peerage in the social scale. With seats at Mulgrave Castle, near Whitby, and Settringham, to the east of Malton, the Bigods were considerable landowners whose greatest assets were in the East Riding, though there were other properties in both the West and North Ridings, and in Lincolnshire as well... They may have had great estates in terms of acreage, but these produced little in the way of income, which had become quite insufficient to meet all the outgoings including money periodically exacted by the Crown for the livery of the lands and other purposes...

Bigod's reputation in Yorkshire, where his neighbours increasingly saw him as a landowning failure, an incompetent manager of his estates who had been given more education than was good for him and had become a despised Protestant (though the word itself would not be attached to Englishmen for another twenty years).

(2) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

The protestant Bigod naturally initially opposed the Catholic Pilgrimage of Grace later in 1536 and fled from Mulgrave Castle by sea. Driven into Hartlepool, where the commons tried to lynch him, he went home and was captured, participating henceforth in the pilgrimage at the siege of his stepgrandfather Eure at Scarborough and at the Pontefract council, where his paper on the proper relationship of church and state attracted little support. However, Bigod unexpectedly found his promotion of the church and opposition to royal intervention in religion was shared by the pilgrims. Following their disbandment in December 1536, he doubted the king's good faith, fearing that Henry would garrison Hull and Scarborough as a basis for repression. It was to fulfil the king's promises that on 16 January 1537 Bigod launched another revolt: a loyal uprising. His plan was that of his tenant and ally, the yeoman John Hallam of Yorkswolds. Bigod dispatched the pilgrim articles unavailingly to Richmondshire, Durham, York, and the Percies, tendered the pilgrim oath, and himself spoke inspiringly from a hilltop. Former pilgrims, whether aristocrats or the commons of Hull, remained unconvinced. Lord Lumley's son George was to seize Scarborough, and Hallam Hull, on 16 January; both failed ignominiously. Bigod's subsequent assault on Hull on 19 January was pre-empted by a dawn raid on Beverley that captured almost all his men; sixty-two captives were identified. Bigod escaped, first to Mulgrave and then to Cumberland, where he was captured (10 February) and imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. Examination, trial, and hanging at Tyburn (on 2 June 1537) followed. He was buried the same day at London's Greyfriars. His uprising enabled Henry VIII to wreak revenge on those implicated in the 1536 revolt, very few of whom rose in 1537.

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(1) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Susan Wabuda, Thomas Garrard : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 244

(4) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 244

(6) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(7) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 245

(8) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 285

(9) Derek Wilson, A Tudor Tapestry: Men, Women & Society in Reformation England (1972) page 59

(10) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 245

(12) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 290

(13) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 115

(14) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 270

(16) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)