Margaret Cheyney was born in about 1500. It is believed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. She married William Cheyney and after his death she became the mistress of John Bulmer. (1) Bulmer was a large landowner in Yorkshire. After his wife, Anne Bigod Bulmer died, the couple established a home at Lastingham, near Pickering. (2) Sharon L. Jansen believes that the couple married in 1534 and she was known locally as Lady Bulmer. (3) Charles Wriothesley described her as being "beautiful". (4)
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. (5)
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". (6)
Within a few days, 40,000 men had risen in the East Riding and were marching on York. (7) 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". (8) 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". (9)
John Bulmer later joined the rebellion. However, he claimed that he had only became a member of the Pilgrimage of Grace under the threat of having his home burned down. (10) However, he soon became one of the leaders and was one of those involved in peace negotiations with Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. (11) As a result of these discussions, Robert Aske, went to London to have discussions with Henry VIII. (12)
Sharon L. Jansen, the author of Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) points out that there is no evidence that Margaret Cheyney was a member of the Pilgrimage of Grace. The fact that she was heavily pregnant at the time makes it even more unlikely. The boy, named John, was born in January 1536. (13)
Robert 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. (14)
While in London another rebellion broke out in the East Riding. It was led by Sir Francis Bigod who accused Aske of betraying the Pilgrimage of Grace. 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. (15)
On 24th March, 1537, 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 both arrested and sent to the Tower of London. (16) Aske was charged with renewed conspiracy after the pardon. (17)
When news reached John Bulmer and Margaret Cheyney in Lastingham about what had happened to Aske and Darcy, Bulmer apparently told a friend that he would rather die in battle in Yorkshire than as a prisoner in London. (18) They discussed the possibility of him fleeing to Scotland. Their parish priest later recalled that if Bulmer left the country on his own she "feared that she should be parted from him forever". Apparently he stated "Pretty Peg, I will never forsake thee." According to Geoffrey Moorhouse: "Others heard him say that he would rather be put on the rack than be parted from his wife. For her part, she vowed that she would rather be torn to pieces than go to London, and she begged him to get a ship that would take them and their three-month-old son to the safety of Scotland." (19)
The government later claimed that Margaret suggested that John Bulmer should start another uprising. It was said "she enticed Sir John Bulmer to raise the commons again" and that "Margaret counselled him to flee the realm (if the commons would not rise) than that he and she should be parted". John Bulmer then contacted several local landowners to discuss his plans. At least two of the men approached, Thomas Francke and Gregory Conyers, told Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk about the planned uprising by Bulmer. (20)
John Bulmer and Margaret Cheyney were arrested in early April, 1537. They were taken to London and were tortured. "We have no record of Margaret's confession, either, though it was doubtless extracted, but Bulmer refused to say anything in his that would implicate her and he pleaded guilty to the treason charge, possibly in the forlorn hope that this would exonerate her. Both of them, in fact, originally pleaded not guilty before changing their minds while the jury was actually considering its verdict and one view is that they did so because they had been promised the King's mercy if they admitted their guilt. Bulmer referred to Cheyney as his wife and nothing else right up to the end, much to the irritation of his accusers and the judge." (21)
Margaret Cheyney was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Madeleine Dodds and Ruth Dodds, the authors of The Pilgrimage of Grace (1915) have speculated on the reasons for this. They argued that she "committed no overt act of treason; her offences were merely words and silence". They believed that Henry VIII wanted to use the case of Cheyney as an example to others. "There can be no doubt that many women were ardent supporters of the Pilgrimage.... Lady Bulmer's execution... was an object-lesson to husbands... to teach them to distrust their wives." (22)
Sharon L. Jansen agrees with this point of view: "Margaret Cheyney's sexual power was suspect; women like her could lure their husbands into danger. Men needed to submit to their princes, and they also needed to control their wives, their mothers, their daughters, their female servants. Margaret Cheyney had violated the contemporary notion that wives should be chaste, silent, and obedient, and her death could certainly have been intended as a warning about the proper behaviour of women." (23)
On the 25th May, 1537, John Bulmer was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets of London. Bulmer 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). Later that day Margaret Cheyney was burnt to death at Smithfield. (24)
The Duke of Norfolk had Bulmer and his Peg arrested in Easter week and they were sent down to London; for some reason, a day or two apart. She went first and was imprisoned we know not where, but he was put into the Tower. We have no record of Margaret's confession, either, though it was doubtless extracted, but Bulmer refused to say anything in his that would implicate her and he pleaded guilty to the treason charge, possibly in the forlorn hope that this would exonerate her. Both of them, in fact, originally pleaded not guilty before changing their minds while the jury was actually considering its verdict and one view is that they did so because they had been promised the King's mercy if they admitted their guilt. Bulmer referred to Cheyney as his wife and nothing else right up to the end, much to the irritation of his accusers and the judge. After the legal system had exhausted itself on them in the middle of May, both were sent for execution on the 25th of that month, Margaret to be burned at the Smithfield stake, Sir John to face the gallows at Tyburn. There seems to be no record of what became of their tiny son.
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.
The depositions show only that she believed the commons were ready to rebel again, and that the Duke of Norfolk alone could prevent the rebellion. In addition to this she kept her husband's secrets and tried to save his life. She (Lady Bulmer) committed no overt act of treason; her offences were merely words and silence. The reason for her execution does not lie in the heinous nature of her offence, but Henry was not gratuitously cruel, and her punishment had no object. It was intended as an example to others. There can be no doubt that many women were ardent supporters of the Pilgrimage.... Lady Bulmer's execution... was an object-lesson to husbands... to teach them to distrust their wives.... Lady Hussey and the dowager Countess of Northumberland were both more guilty than Lady Bulmer.
Margaret Cheyney, other wife of Bulmer, was drawn after them from the Tower of London into Smithfield, and there burnt, according to her judgment, God pardon her soul, being the Friday in Witsun week; she was a very fair creature and a beautiful.
On 25 May 1537 Margaret Cheyney was taken from the Tower of London, where she had been imprisoned since early April, and dragged on a sledge to Smithfield, in the old City of London, a site known for its meat market and its public executions. There she was burned alive at the stake.
Only ten days earlier she had been indicted of high treason by Henry VIII's government, the charge arising from the role she was accused of having played in a series of rebellions that had erupted in the northern counties. Although she did not admit to acting or speaking against the king or his government while she was being investigated and examined, she still pleaded guilty to the charge. Her sentence - burning at the stake - was the prescribed method of execution for any woman convicted of high treason. Even so, it was not the usual sentence carried out on those who were found guilty. Just a few months earlier, in an act of relative mercy, Anne Boleyn had been beheaded after her conviction for the same crime.
Margaret Cheyney's execution followed several others on that Friday. Earlier in the day six prisoners also judged guilty of high treason had suffered public execution at Tyburn. Sir Stephen Hamerton and Sir John Bulmer, enjoying the privilege of knighthood, had been hanged and beheaded. The others - Nicholas Tempest, esquire; James Cockerell, the former prior of the Augustinian priory of Guisborough; William Thirsk, the former abbot of Fountains Abbey; and John Pickering, a Dominican of Bridlington - had suffered the full penalty of the law. They had been hanged, disemboweled, and quartered, their heads, according to a contemporary chronicle, "set on London Bridge and diverse gates in London."
(1) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 7
(2) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 259
(3) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 8
(4) Charles Wriothesley, diary entry (25th May, 1537)
(5) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 285
(6) Derek Wilson, A Tudor Tapestry: Men, Women & Society in Reformation England (1972) page 59
(7) Anthony Fletcher, Tudor Rebellions (1974) page 26
(8) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 287
(9) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 109
(10) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 259
(11) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 59
(12) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 290
(13) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 8
(14) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 115
(15) Michael Hicks, Francis Bigod : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(16) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 297-298
(17) Richard Hoyle, Robert Aske : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(18) John Sherren Brewer, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII: Volume XII (1862-1932) page 1084
(19) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 292
(20) John Sherren Brewer, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII: Volume XII (1862-1932) pages 1084-1087
(21) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 295
(22) Madeleine Dodds and Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace (1915) page 212
(23) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 23
(24) Charles Wriothesley, diary entry (25th May, 1537)