Spartacus Blog

Why it is important to study the life and death of Margaret Cheyney in the history classroom.

Wednesday, 15th April, 2015

John Simkin

On the 25th May, 1537, Margaret Cheyney, was taken to Smithfield and burnt at the stake. Margaret, also known as Lady Bulmer, had been found guilty of high treason. The previous year, Anne Boleyn, had been found guilty of the same offence. Henry VIII commuted the sentence to beheading in private. This time he insisted on the victim being burnt at the stake in full public view. (1)

Margaret Cheyney is a name that has virtually disappeared from the history books. Even the wonderful Oxford Dictionary of National Biography does not provide an entry for this women who Henry was convinced posed a serious threat to his throne. Margaret had been accused of being one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace that had taken place during the final months of 1536. It is estimated that over 200 people were executed for their part in the resistance to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

It was the most serious rebellion that took place during the Tudor period. Scott Harrison has suggested that: "Twenty thousand men, women and children may have actively supported the rebellion at some stages, and many more may have taken the rebel oath before returning to their homes... If one accepts an estimate for the total population of the region of approximately seventy thousand in 1536, the fact that over one-third of the inhabitants were active rebels indicates a high level of involvement." (2)

Henry VIII wanted to demonstrate his anger at the people who questioned his rule. He also wanted to make sure that his subjects would never again consider taking such action against him. According to the court records, the men were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered in their local market square. "You are to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and there you are to be hanged by the neck, and being alive cut down, and your privy-members to be cut off, and your bowels to be taken out of your belly and there burned, you being alive; and your head to be cut off, and your body to be divided into four quarters, and that your head and quarters to be disposed of where his majesty shall think fit."

Francis Elizabeth Dolan, the author of Women on Scaffolds, has argued that women were never treated in this way. "No women of any class were ever disemboweled and quartered, or hanged in chains.... Understood as men's property, women's bodies played important roles in defining and securing masculine power... The executioner (of someone being hung, drawn and quartered) would appear as a brutal rapist." (3)

All women during the Tudor period who had been convicted of high treason were beheaded in private. However, Henry was aware that a large number of women had taken part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Women such as Lady Anne Hussey and Lady Katherine Rhys had played a prominent role in this demonstration against Henry's religious policies. However, they were members of the nobility who could not be punished in this way. Margaret Cheyney did not have any titles and so it was therefore acceptable to have her executed. But she was not guilty of being one of its leaders. Nor did she take part in any of the demonstrations. She had an excellent alibi because in October 1536 she was just about to give birth to her son.

The reason we know so much about Margaret Cheyney is that her story was recorded by two sisters, Madeleine Dodds and Ruth Dodds, in their comprehensive book on the subject, The Pilgrimage of Grace (1915). They discovered that although Tudor documents referred to her as Margaret Cheyney, her name at the time of her execution was Lady Margaret Bulmer, the wife of Sir John Bulmer. Margaret had been Bulmer's mistress but after the death of his wife they were married in 1534. (4) Bulmer, a large landowner in Lastingham, near Pickering, was one of the leaders of the disturbances in Yorkshire. (5) It seems that Thomas Cromwell was very keen to persuade the public that Margaret was Bulmer's mistress and not his wife.

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)

Henry VIII
Robert Aske leading the march to York in October 1536.

Henry VIII summoned Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, out of retirement to deal with the Pilgrimage of Grace. Norfolk, although he was 63, was the country's best soldier. Norfolk was also the leading Roman Catholic and a strong opponent of Thomas Cromwell and it was hoped that he was a man who the rebels would trust. Norfolk was able to raise a large army but he had doubts about their reliability and suggested to the King that he should negotiate with the rebels. (7)

Thomas Darcy, Robert Constable and Francis Bigod took part in negotiations with the Duke of Norfolk. He tried to persuade them 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. (8)

Robert Aske spent the Christmas holiday with Henry 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 Henry gave Aske a jacket of crimson silk. (9)

However, as soon as the rebel armies dispersed, the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace were invited to London for talks with Henry VIII. On their arrival they were all arrested and sent to the Tower of London. (10) When news reached John Bulmer and Margaret Cheyney in Lastingham about what had happened to Aske, Darcy and Constable, Bulmer apparently told a friend that he would rather die in battle in Yorkshire than as a prisoner in London. (11)

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." (12)

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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. (13)

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." (14)

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." (15)

Sharon L. Jansen agrees with this point of view. In her magnificent book, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) she argues: "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." (16)

It is very important that we do not forget women like Margaret Cheyney. To Henry VIII she was a symbol of resistance to his rule. To us, she should be a symbol of the long fight by women to play a role in the government of the country. I have produced a classroom activity on the Execution of Margaret Cheyney as my contribution to ensure we remember the background to this long struggle for women's rights.

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(1) Charles Wriothesley, diary entry (25th May, 1537)

(2) Scott Harrison, The Pilgrimage of Grace in the Lake Counties (1981) page 96

(3) Francis Elizabeth Dolan, Women on Scaffolds, Modern Philology (1994)

(4) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 7

(5) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 259

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

(7) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 59

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

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

(10) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 297-298

(11) John Sherren Brewer, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII: Volume XII (1862-1932) page 1084

(12) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 292

(13) John Sherren Brewer, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII: Volume XII (1862-1932) pages 1084-1087

(14) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 295

(15) Madeleine Dodds and Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace (1915) page 212

(16) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 23