Transcript for Spotlight On: State Papers
Hello, my name is Sean Cunningham and I’m Head of Medieval Records here at The National Archives. Today I’m going to look at records from our series SP1, which is state papers relating to Henry VIII. State papers material covers Henry VIII’s reign right up to the 18th century, to 1782, so this is the very earliest collection.
So each king and queen after 1509 have their own collection of state papers and that deals with their offices and correspondence of their secretaries. So that’s several series for all of the kings in the 16th century right up to the Georgians. And also a lot of material relating to foreign affairs as well, so state papers eventually has a foreign affairs secretary. So this series contains a huge range of information that’s coming in and going out of the centre of things at London and Westminster and it’s basically letters, correspondence, information, news, gossip, drafts, and copies of things, so it’s all the material that the government needs to process to be able to govern effectively. So it’s really a record of the information flow in and out of the king’s headquarters basically. Before I open the box, you’ll notice that this document has its own unique reference – in this case, SP1/118. That means we can find it in our catalogue and see the description that we’ve already entered for it, which summarises what it is what dates it covers and what might be inside.
So let’s have a look at what’s inside the box. You can see a collection of letters bound together by the Victorian archivists at The National Archives. So this book relates to letters coming in and going out in April 1537.
So the document I’m looking at is actually a song or a ballad and it was written by a friar called John Pickering, who was one of the leaders of a rebellion against Henry VIII in the north of England called the Pilgrimage of Grace. This rebellion happened in the autumn and winter 1536 and this document was written up and collected together in the spring of 1537 as the government went through what had happened and started to persecute and prosecute the people involved.
So Father Pickering is here being interviewed in London about his role in the rebellion, and you get lots of questions and his answers to the queries, but at the back of his papers is this song that he actually wrote called ‘An exhortation to the nobles and commons of the north’ – basically a way of trying to persuade them to join the rebellion against Henry VIII, but really for Henry VIII, because the way it is presented is as a kind of rebellion against the king’s advisers. Because it would be treason to say the king was a bad king, but if you can say his advisers were leading him astray, then that’s different. So at the end of the song it says God save the king, even though he’s trying to get people to rebel against the king and his government. So you can see that this is quite a complicated way of expressing your discontent with the way the country is being run and it’s really aimed at the king’s chief minister called Thomas Cromwell, who’s been running the country. He’s been abusing his power as these people in the north saw it. He’s just dissolved the smaller monasteries; that means he’s taken them into the king’s hands and he’s kicked all of the monks and nuns out of the monasteries they lived in. He’s been using parliament to change the way things worked and packing it with the king’s friends.
And the people in the north – because they’ve got to defend the north against the Scots, who are still part of a separate kingdom at this time – they need to be strong and they can see that the way the government is going is undermining their position. So this rebellion is really a protest at the way that Henry VIII’s government is running the north, how it’s treating his own subjects in the north. So it’s really a kind of north-south divide thing coming out as well. And it’s part of a series of rebellions that happened at this time linked to religious change; to the way that reformation is coming in and Protestantism is coming in and the Catholic religion is being pushed out. But in the north, especially in the West Country where there’s another rebellion in 1549, this is where the Catholic population has stayed loyal to the old religion. And so you can see in these records here that struggle between what people like Cromwell want to introduce to the country and what people around the country see as their traditional practice and religion and the way they hold their land, the way they live their lives.
So it’s a time of great change and it’s throwing up these problems that people feel they really can’t resolve except by rebelling, taking up arms, marching against the king. And this was brutally put down, as was the Prayer Book Rising in Devon and Cornwall as well. So there was no mercy really shown to these people by the crown at the time. So rebelling against the Tudor government was a dangerous thing to do, even if you pretended you were doing it to save the king from bad advisors. So the document, because it’s a ballad or a song is really interesting for understanding the nature of Tudor rebellions, because it really captures what people felt. So it’s an exhortation, so it’s a call to arms basically. It’s trying to get the people of the north to join the rebellion. So in doing that it explains what the problems are, what the rebels want to achieve, how they’re going to go about it, all done in the form of a song that people can sing as they’re marching across the countryside. So it really captures not only the sort of mood of the rebels but also their bigger aims and grievances.
So this document is only one example of a piece of information about the Pilgrimage of Grace, and you can see from the book itself there’s lots of other papers just from this month which you need to look at to get a fuller understanding what was going on, who was involved, and also to see what the government’s side was. How did the Henry VIII officers stamp down on these rebels, how did they stop the rebellion getting to London and kicking the king off the throne? This kind of information is here in the rest of the state papers collection for Henry VIII’s reign. But there’s also lots of other documents in other parts of the way government worked which will tell you a bit more about how that happened. So using one source is only going to give you one point of view. You need to look across many other things to try and balance out either different viewpoints or get a fuller picture of what was going on.