Secret plea to invade England – via Whitburn

INVASION: Whitburn beach - where the regfos ran aground in 1947 - and King James V of Scotland was urged to start his invasion of England.
INVASION: Whitburn beach - where the regfos ran aground in 1947 - and King James V of Scotland was urged to start his invasion of England.

TODAY we recall the day the fishermen of Whitburn begged a ‘foreign’ king to get rid of Henry VIII.

“Details were buried in a letter deep within the 21 hefty volumes familiar to historians as the State Papers Foreign and Domestic of Henry VIII,” said historian Douglas Smith.

“It was the day the fishermen of Whitburn begged a Scottish king to rid them of the English King - a man they blamed for many of the miseries of life in a small fishing village.”

The plea for help followed a revolt in 1536, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, against several royal enactments - principally the dissolution of great monasteries and abbeys.

Much blame was popularly placed on Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, who was “the cause of all our miseries and heresies” - according to those behind the rebellion.

“A rebel army of thousands marched under the leadership of Yorkshireman John Aske, to demand an end to the destruction,” said Douglas, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Aske was encouraged to meet the king, with an assurance of safe conduct. But Henry, being fearful and furious, reneged on his promise and had Aske and his followers hanged.

“The revolt was then put down with great cruelty.”

In the meantime, James V - King of Scotland - travelled to France in January 1537 to wed Madeleine, daughter of the French monarch, who was a lady of rather delicate health.

James had hoped to return home to Scotland overland with his bride, due to her frailty, but Henry refused the request - seeing his popular nephew as a potential rival to the throne.

“The pair were forced to wait until May to sail home, when it was deemed calm enough. But, after dropping anchor at Scarborough on the way, they were surprised by visitors,” said Douglas.

“A dozen men pulled alongside in a fishing boat, and asked to speak to the king. James was no doubt astonished when they implored him to invade, saying they were sorely oppressed.”

Taken aback by the demand, James refused - and gave orders for the Royal fleet to continue north. He was, after all, eager to bring his bride home to Scotland.

But, when his ship later dropped anchor off the coast of Whitburn, yet another boatload of fishermen pulled alongside - this time accompanied by a priest called Robert Hodge.

“It is possible that James’s staff had planned to seek fish and fresh victuals for the remainder of their journey, but the fishermen arrived before provisions could be sought,” said Douglas. “Again, the men begged James to invade England to deliver them from ‘serial killer’ Henry. This time, a party of French and Scots agreed to come ashore, probably in search of food.

“One of this party was an Englishman in French service called James Crane. Unknown to the fishermen of Whitburn - and King James - Crane was one of Cromwell’s spies.”

Once ashore, as the crew searched for fresh provisions, Crane seized the opportunity to question Robert Hodge - believed to have been the curate of Whitburn parish - at length.

Unsuspecting, and obviously trusting a man he believed was loyal to the Scottish King, Hodge was more than ready to pour out the grievances of northern folk to crafty Crane.

And he especially blamed Crowmwell, as well as the Duke of Norfolk - who had been made personally responsible for the execution of the rebels - for most of life’s daily woes.

“What news on England?” queried Crane. “Ill news, for they kill and hang the men in the country,” replied Hodge - a reference to the reprisals taken against the Yorkshire rebels.

Then, after being asked if he knew where Norfolk was, Hodge gave two possible ideas - before adding that he “wished him hanged on one side of a tree and Cromwell on the other”.

“These were treasonable words, and ones that Crane no doubt was careful to take note of - especially as Hodge added he would have supported an invasion by James.” said Douglas.

“As they talked, Hodge suddenly swept his gaze over Whitburn and Seaburn beaches, pointing out ‘Lo! Here is as good and as ready landing for men as any place in England!’

“It may be that Crane left the royal progress at this point, for he certainly reported the seditious words to his master. Hodge would pay for those words - and pay dearly.”

Once the royal ships had rested a while, the fleet set off for Scotland. Sadly, the arduous journey was to prove too much for the delicate Madeleine - and she died shortly afterwards.

James went on to marry another French princess, and eventually invaded England too. He ended up badly defeated - and died just after his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was born. Meanwhile, the confiscation of the great abbeys continued under Cromwell and the monks of Durham surrendered to the King - leaving the fate of the cathedral hanging in the balance.

Even the shrine of St Cuthbert - under whose banner the rebels had marched - was plundered at Durham, with the wealth confiscated by the king for his war against France.

And, over in Whitburn, life was becoming tougher than ever. Hodge was brought before the dreaded Duke of Norfolk at Sheriff Hutton, in Yorkshire, in August - with James Crane his accuser. “Crane insisted Hodge had spoken ‘lewd words’ - but the men so contradicted each other that Crane was removed from the room,” said Douglas. “Norfolk then promised the priest he could sue for pardon on condition he told the truth about what he had said, what others had said and what the minister of Whitburn had said.

“Probably Norfolk wanted to see if there was a mastermind behind the scenes, but Hodge exonerated the minister - Dr Cuthbert Marshall - saying he often preached against the Pope. In the end the promise to sue for pardon proved an empty one. Hodge and another Whitburn man were hanged. So ended the revolt of the fishermen who had envisaged an invasion of England on Whitburn beach.”

l Sunderland Antiquarian Society is based at Douro Terrace, near the Civic Centre. The archives are open to the public each Wednesday and Saturday from 9am until noon.