The Pilgrimage of Grace was a rebellion whereby several different areas of the country were covered by different rebel groups, so it is difficult to establish one single reason why all of the risings failed. It failed for a combination of reasons: the actions of the king such as success in battle, those of the rebels including poor decisions, and other contributing factors.
In the Lincolnshire rising, Henry knew he was outnumbered and the King instructed Norfolk to play for time and agree to the demands of the rebels on a temporary basis. Faced with the stark choice of being charged with treason and defeated by the large royal army on its way the rebels choice to accept the king’s terms, namely that he would consider their demands if they went home peacefully. So, it is debatable as to whether the failure of the Lincolnshire rising can be blamed on the naivety of the rebels’ actions and their loyalty or the careful tactics of the king.
The significant reason for the failure of the risings in the north was the well planned and operated moves of the king and his forces. In early December 1536, the rebels began to negotiate with the Duke of Norfolk who promised a general pardon, to stop the dissolution of the monasteries until further notice and discussion and all issues raised by the revels would be dealt with in a Parliament that was to be called in the north in 1537. Aske believed Henry and convinced leaders to accept the term offered; rebels began to drift home and poor weather set in. In many ways Aske failed due to his loyalty to the king because if Aske had have not believed the king he may have been more successful in this particular rising.
Henry did not have the means to force the rebels to disperse if they refused to do so voluntarily. Having dispersed, it is unlikely the rebels could have assembled in such numbers again if they changed their mind. For the most part, it was the successful, merciless actions of the king that prevented the rebels triumph in this respect.
With the rebels dispersed it was easy for Henry to destroy the leaders and seek vengeance on some of the rebels. The rebels gave Henry the time to roll out an enormous propaganda campaign to build up his forces. Also, Cromwell wrote to the English ambassadors in France in order to dampen down any thoughts of invasion and the gentry started to seek forgiveness from Henry.
As part of the Cumberland risings, the rebels were defeated in an attack at Carlisle; the reason for their failure here was simply a lack of success in battle. Henry was decisive, sent out a clear message and expected loyalty and obedience and because of this around one hundred gentry lost their lives. The outbreak of unrelated revolts in Westmorland and elsewhere in early 1537 gave Henry the excuse he needed to carry out earlier promises; during the Lincolnshire rising Henry threatened ‘the utter destruction of them, their wives and their children’. Ring leaders were arrested and taken to London for interrogation and consequently execution, preventing and discouraging anyone from continuing the rebellion to its success.
In conclusion, the Pilgrimage of Grace was unsuccessful due to an unfortunate sequence of naïve decisions on the rebels’ part and the manipulative actions of their trusted king. Through his actions and a fortunate addition of unrelated revolts, Henry managed to overcome an army of around 42000 men. However, it could be argued that it was not a complete failure. While the rebels were physically defeated, some of their demands actually came true – some smaller monasteries stayed open.