The Age of Reformation

VII The Age of Reformation

On Sunday 1 October 1536 armed men under a shoemaker rejoicing in the title Captain Cobbler took possession of Louth parish church. What began as a demonstration developed into a riot, and several of the gentry and clergy became involved. Houses were wrecked, government servants attacked and soon half Lincolnshire was ablaze. Groups of men assem­bled at Caistor, Louth and Horncastle and ‘burned Gaynesborough my lord Burrowe’s [Burgh] house and Kyme also’. How much of the county was affected is not clear; Robert Carr in his statement against lord Hussey of Sleaford asserted that ‘if my lord had gathered men for the King as he has done for his own pomp to ride to sessions or assize, he might have driven back the rebels’, but Hussey reported to Thomas Cromwell, the king’s minister, that even if he had reached the rebels he would not have found anyone in the county to fight for him. Instead troops were mustered outside the area at Nottingham and Huntingdon. The mob was free to march on Sleaford and on Lincoln where they awaited the king’s reply to their demands.

The reasons for this rising were mixed. Violence was still prevalent in the countryside; if Robert de la Launde of Ashby could attack the Knights Hospitallers at Temple Bruer, lesser men could oppose a new tax with force. It was not however just the tax which caused the riot; it was the new and more efficient system of government which lay behind the tax, an administration which had ordered parish registers to be kept and with its Statute of Uses had deprived the landholder of his right to leave his lands to anyone he chose. And it could enforce its rule in the counties: commissioners from London enquired into enclosures or local disturbances or evasions of some new law; three sets of commissioners were assembled near Louth when the rising broke out, commissioners for the suppression of the monasteries, tax commissioners at Caistor and commissioners to visit the clergy of Louth and Horncastle. Such rulers brought swift and harsh suppression; by 13 October the rising had collapsed, though Robert Aske, one of its leaders, fled into Yorkshire to lead the Pilgrimage of Grace later. Twenty-one ringleaders, commons and clergy, were executed including the abbots of Kirkstead and Bar­lings; even Hussey was beheaded for doing nothing. When the king passed through the region, he was met by sullen ‘quietness’.


What he saw was not the rich region of earlier days. Grantham and Stamford still flourished, Boston maintained its position for a time and some of the larger fenland communities were prosperous. But flooding was destroying whole settlements. (Skegness was ‘clene consumid and eten up with the Se’ in 1526) and most of the salterns (in the great flood of 1571 ‘all the salt-cotes where the chief and finest salt was made were utterly destroyed’), the industrial basis of the county’s economy, especially cloth-making, was collapsing, and trade was declining.

The land was still intensively exploited. Lincolnshire’s contribution to the nation was the produce of the countryside, from building stone to eels. Arable was now more important than grazing, but pressure was growing for more pasture, for sheep on the Wolds and Heath, for cattle fattening in the clay vales and Marsh, and for dairy and meat in the keenly regulated fen pasturages. There was some depopulation caused by enclosure – 12 villages disappeared in Kesteven, 17 in Lindsey, mostly on the Wolds – but not as much as elsewhere. As the numbers of livestock increased, so too did the cultivation of winter feed crops such as pulses. Everywhere corn and pasture lived side by side. Even in the Fens, despite the flooding, barley was the main crop.

There are signs that the economy of Lincolnshire was slowing down. There are few great Tudor houses in the county – Irnham in the early years and Doddington at the end of the century are exceptions. The others like Stragglethorpe, Halstead, Torksey or Brocklesby are minor examples. There were others now gone – Snarford, Glentworth, Ashby de la Launde, Aubourn, Belleau and the large mansion begun by Lord Clinton on the site of Sempringham abbey, but the county has little to offer in the way of parks and country mansions. When Henry VIII called the rebels ‘rude commons of one shire, and that one of the most brute and beastly of the whole realm’, he was echoing common opinion; his librarian John Leland said that the county, though plentifully supplied with ruins, lacked fine buildings and that the towns were ‘much decay’d’.

The towns were certainly suffering. Lincoln’s trade had been falling off since two-thirds of its population had died in the Black Death and subsequent plagues in the 14th century; by the mid-16th century the town probably housed only some 2,500. Buildings were empty, streets blocked by fallen house timbers and the suburbs had dwindled; by 1549 only half the number of parish churches were left. Those who later visited the city spoke of its sorry plight – Evelyn (1654) called it ‘an old confused town’, John Rey (1662) ‘a mean and poor place of little trade …of no strength and … full of tumult’.

Boston was hit by the silting up of its harbour. Stamford did not recover from the dissolution of its religious houses and the decline of its fair for some 200 years, although a number of buildings suggest there was still some wealth in the town; several of its churches were closed by Act of Parliament at this time. By the middle of the century, Lincolnshire no longer possessed any town of national importance. On the other hand, the smaller market towns like Market Deeping, Burgh le Marsh, Tattershall and Ancaster grew. By the 17th century, 34 market centres are recorded in the county, mostly very small (only six had populations larger than 2500); and it was on this network of local trading centres, rather than on a few great towns as existed earlier, that the modern urban pattern has been built.

Religious changes

Lincolnshire’s reputation for decay was probably based on the ruins of its monasteries, swept away in the changes made by Henry VIII. In 1534, the smaller houses, of which Lincolnshire had many (a tenth of all monasteries valued at less than £200 p.a. were in the county) were dissolved. In 1536, 36 more monasteries were inspected, found wanting and closed; Cromwell’s servants engaged in destroying Legbourne nunnery near Louth only just escaped with their lives. The work of destruction was thorough; the Lincolnshire commissioners were ordered to raze the houses to the ground, and when they complained that ‘there be more of great houses in England besides with thick walls and most part of them vaulted’, instructions were given to save costs by removing the roofs, gables and stairs, leaving the walls standing; the lead was carried to Lincoln, and the buildings – as at Louth – were given as quarries to local communities.

The closure of the monasteries was only one part of Henry VIII’s changes. The old order was to be destroyed. The rebels in Lincolnshire in 1536 intended to stop the process before their parish churches were attacked. But they failed and their fears proved correct. More monasteries were dissolved as a result of the rising and by 1538 they were all gone. When Edward VI came to the throne, the inhabitants of town and country saw their chantries, guilds and plays swept away. Some chapels were closed, a loss felt keenly in some of the huge fenland parishes. Most of the hospitals were dissolved, and there was a struggle to keep the schools, despite the growing demand for them from gentry and merchants The parish churches felt the winds of change gold and silver and jewelled ornaments were sold, bells melted, images pulled down, wall paintings whitewashed and replaced by texts, and a number of churches especially in the towns were closed. In some places there was resistance; in others the churchwardens disposed of the church property before it was seized.

Nor did the cathedral escape. The shrines of St. Hugh and other saints were sacked. In 1547 the recently installed bishop Henry Holbeche surrendered many of the episcopal estates, and large parts of the diocese were given to the new bishoprics of Oxford and Peterborough. It is not surprising that the rebels in 1536 plundered the palace of Bishop John Longland who as confessor to the king was thought to be behind many of these changes.

Social fabric

Some people profited from the changes. John Holland and Richard Glanforthe bought the rich cloth fittings of Winterton church. Monastic lands and buildings were given or sold, sometimes complete. Lord Cecil in the reign of Elizabeth was informed:

Grimsby Grey Friars – stands whole, nothing sold, Mr. Hatclyff has possession. Grantham Friars is whole by your commandment; [Stamford] Black friars – I think the king would he, should have a dwelling house and the rest be sold for greatest profit. Austin Friars is sold by one Gedney. The White and Gray Friars sold by order of Master Sesel.

About one sixth of the cultivated land of Lincolnshire passed from ecclesiastical into lay ownership at this time.

Social changes

The political life of the county was transformed. Until the 1530s there was no dominant figure to consolidate royal power in the region. Lord Beaumont had been mad for many years before he died in 1507, while the lords Willoughby of Parham, Burgh of Gainsborough and Hussey of Sleaford were lesser men; and the crown neglected the Lancaster estate of Bolingbroke. The vacuum allowed the rise of gentry families, some like John Heneage, the bishop’s steward, on the basis of office, others on land ownership. The wealthiest were the Ayscoughs of Stal­lingborough and South Kelsey, the Dymokes of Scrivelsby and the Tyrwhits of Kettleby, but there were many others who could occupy with dignity the role of J.P.s, fewer in the Fens (‘the want of gentlemen here to inhabit’, 1580) than in Kesteven and particularly on the Wolds.

The rebellion seems to have alerted the king to his weakness in the region. He built up the wealth and power of Charles Brandon duke of Suffolk, his brother in law and favourite who had married Katherine heiress to the Willoughby fortune; Brandon settled at Grimsthorpe and was granted large monastic estates including Vaudey and Louth Park. He dominated the county until his death in 1545. Edward Fiennes lord Clinton and Saye of Tattershall succeeded him from the 1550s; rewarded with large estates, many of them monastic, he became lord lieutenant and from 1572 earl of Lincoln. Both Brandon and Clinton were supported by Thomas Manners first earl of Rutland at Belvoir (another monastic property) on the county border.

Monastic estates were thus used to build up royal influence in the region. Whether this meant change in land use is not clear. Some new owners like the Copledykes of Harrington or Thomas Taylor of Doddington,the bishop’s registrar, built houses, and a few like Brandon at Grimsthorpe laid out ‘a fayre parke’. Robert Carr, son of a rich merchant and king’s steward at Sleaford, ‘a proper gentleman’, was accused in the Star Chamber of having ‘dispossessed the poor inhabitants of their houses, decayed their town and turned the same wholly to sheep …pulled down and defaced [three churches] tearing down and spoiling all manner the furnitures and ornaments there’; but it is not clear how typical Carr was.

Not all the older families opposed the new order any more than all the new ones supported it. A pro-Catholic family for instance acquired on Nocton Priory and built a hall there. But the sales, like the marriage of the clergy, created a vested interest in maintaining the Protestant Reformation; there were many opposed to the restoration of the old religion. The puritans Hugh Latimer and John Foxe found their warmest welcome from the duchess of Suffolk at Grimsthorpe, especially after her marriage to Richard Bertie, her gentleman usher.

Such doctrinal convictions were probably rare. Some 81 clergy were ejected from their livings, mostly because they were married. But Mary’s reign produced no martyrs in this county. The area was fortunate; Bishop John White who left for Winchester in 1556 burned many heretics while his successor at Lincoln Thomas Watson burned none. Probably most people in the county did like Thomas Armstrong of Corby and his wife, who when convicted of heresy did penance in Lincoln and Grantham churches, but Anthony Meres who was accused of not receiving commu­nion at Easter was one of the many who, led by the duchess of Suffolk, fled into exile.

The exiles returned in 1558 when Elizabeth succeeded her sister. There was little persecution, although the bishop and 11 senior clergy (mostly archdeacons and prebendaries) were in their turn ejected. The county provided only one Catholic martyr, Hugh More, hung in London in 1588, just as it had provided only one Protestant martyr, Ann Askew of Stallingborough, burned in 1546. But the old religion was still strong in the region: ‘the common people wolde pontt them [married clergy] with fingers when they saw them’. Lord Burghley was concerned about the entry of ‘the obstinate recusarits into Lincolnshire [so much so that] part of Lincolnshire is more dangerous than the worst part of Yorkshire’. Gathered in small pockets, these Catholics were supported by gentry families like the Yarboroughs, Tyrwhits, Heneages and Dymokes of the Wolds and the Thimelbys of central Kesteven, who in 1580 baptised their son ‘in Poperie [and] uttered badd and unreverend wordes of her Majestie’. Similarly pockets of puritans grew up, for example at Grimsthorpe, and puritan ‘preachers’ were appointed to some Lincoln­shire churches; 23 non-subscribers were suspended in 1583 when arch­bishop John Whitgift (who came from Grimsby) ordered all clergy and preachers to subscribe to the Book of Common Prayer and the 1562 Articles of Religion.

Most people, however, continued to attend church whatever form of religion prevailed. Like William Cecil, Lord Burghley of Stamford, they were occupied with violence in the towns and countryside or with the state of the local economy. Cecil and the Trollope family were involved in a scheme ‘for setting up a mill to knoke hempe for the making of canvas and other linen clothes’, and some foreigners were brought in to practise and teach their skills. Plague struck the county in the 1580s and 1590s, checking the growth in population which had begun about the middle of the century. It was death and disease, poverty and abuse, which concerned the bulk of the Lincolnshire peasantry rather than abstruse points of theology.