Robert Aske, the third son of Sir Robert Aske and Elizabeth Clifford Aske, the daughter of John Clifford, ninth Baron Clifford, was born in about 1500. His elder brother John Aske was heir to the family property. His father was a large landowner, from Aughton, near Selby, Yorkshire. Robert had four sisters, Margaret, Anne, Agnes and Dorothy. (1) Aske's biographer, Richard Hoyle, has pointed out: "The family was reasonably well-connected: he was a cousin of Henry Clifford, first earl of Cumberland, whose brother-in-law was Henry Percy, sixth earl of Northumberland. Aske's brother Christopher Aske was Cumberland's steward." (2)
In 1527 Aske briefly went to work for Henry Percy, the 6th Earl of Northumberland. However, later that year he was admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the four ancient Inns of Court in London. "These were sometimes collectively referred to as the Third University of England, because in them young men were not only trained for the law but were also taught history... The legal education was particularly rigorous, consisting as it did in the study of case histories going back to Magna Carta, and excruciatingly complex disputations designed to test the vocational skills of students in preparing intricate writs and pleadings." (3)
On his return to Yorkshire he worked as a lawyer. There is no evidence he ever married. (4) He was travelling to London on 4th October when he was captured by a group of rebels involved in an uprising that had started in the market town of Louth in Lincolnshire, concerning the decision to close the monasteries in that area. The rebels had captured local officials and demanded the arrest of leading Church figures they considered to be heretics. This included Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishop Hugh Latimer. The wrote a letter to Henry VIII claiming that they had taken this action because they were suffering from "extreme poverty". (5) Soon the whole of Lincolnshire was up in arms, but "the gentry promptly asserted their control over the movement, which might otherwise have got dangerously out of hand". (6)
Robert Aske agreed to use his talents as a lawyer to help the rebels. He agreed to use his talents as a lawyer to help the rebels. He wrote letters for them explaining their complaints. These letters insisted that their quarrel was not with the King or the nobility, but with the government of the realm, especially Thomas Cromwell. The historian, Geoffrey Moorhouse, has pointed out: "Robert Aske never wavered in his belief that a just and well-ordered society was based upon a due recognition of rank and privilege, starting with that of their anointed prince, Henry VIII." (7)
Aske now returned home and began to persuade people from Yorkshire to support the rebellion. 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". (8)
Within a few days, 40,000 men had risen in the East Riding and were marching on York. (9) Aske called on his men to take an oath to join "our Pilgrimage of Grace" for "the commonwealth... the maintenance of God's Faith and Church militant, preservation of the King's person and issue, and purifying of the nobility of all villein's blood and evil counsellors, to the restitution of Christ's Church and suppression of heretics' opinions". (10) Aske published a declaration obliging "every man to be true to the king's issue, and the noble blood, and preserve the Church of God from spoiling". (11)
A. L. Morton has suggested that all the evidence indicates: "The Pilgrimage of Grace... was a reactionary, Catholic movement of the North, led by the still half-feudal nobility of that area and aimed against the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. But if the leaders were nobles the mass character of the rising indicated a deep discontent and the rank and file were drawn in large measure from the dispossessed and from the threatened peasantry." (12)
On 11th October 1536, Aske and his army arrived at Jervaulx Abbey. The abbot, Adam Sedbar, later recalled that the rebels wanted him to take the oath supporting the Pilgrimage of Grace. According to his biographer, Claire Cross: "With his own father and a boy, Sedbar fled to Witton Fell and remained there for four days. In his absence the rebels tried to persuade the convent to elect a new abbot, and in this extremity the monks prevailed upon him to return." (13)
At first Sedbar refused to take the oath but after being threatened with execution he agreed to join the rebellion. Geoffrey Moorhouse doubts this story and suggests that "Sedbar was in a much less supine mood than he admitted, confident enough of the popularity of this burgeoning cause". (14) Sedbar agreed Aske's army could take control of the abbey's horses. He also travelled with them to Darlington where he spoke in favour of the rising.
Robert Aske and his rebels entered York on 16th October. It is estimated that Aske now led an army that numbered 20,000. (15) Aske made a speech where he pointed out "we have taken (this pilgrimage) for the preservation of Christ's church, of this realm of England, the King our sovereign lord, the nobility and commons of the same... the monasteries... in the north parts (they) gave great alms to poor men and laudably served God... and by occasion of the said suppression the divine in divine service of Almighty God is much diminished." (16)
Robert Aske now marched to Pontefract Castle. After a short siege, Thomas Darcy, surrendered the castle on 20th October. Darcy had sent a message to Henry VIII that he did not have enough soldiers to defend the castle. "Henry wrote to Darcy that he was surprised that he could do nothing more effective against the rebels, but assured him that he had no doubts as to his loyalty. Privately, Henry told his counsellors that he suspected that Darcy was a traitor." (17) Richard Hoyle claims that "it was Aske's contention that Darcy could not have resisted a siege, but would have been killed if the commons had stormed the castle". (18)
Edward Lee, Archbishop of York, was sheltering in the castle. He had a reputation as a conservative and in the autumn of 1535 had written to Thomas Cromwell, complaining about the new radical preachers who were active in the region. He followed this up six months later with the suggestion that nobody should be allowed to preach unless they had been granted permission from Henry VIII. Lee had also complained about the plan to close Hexham Abbey. (19) Aske and his followers assumed that the archbishop sympathized with their aims for the restoration of the church's liberties and when he took the pilgrims' oath he was allowed to go free. (20)
By the end of October the rising had spread to Lancashire, Durham, Westmorland, Northumberland and Cumberland. The rebels arrived at Sawley Abbey, near Clitheroe, which had recently been closed down and the land leased to a tenant farmer. The man was evicted and the monks were invited to return. When he heard the news Henry instructed Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby, to seize possession of the abbey, and hang the Abbot and the monks without trial. "They were to be hanged in their monks' habits, the Abbot and some of the chief monks on long pieces of timber protruding from the steeple, and the rest at suitable places in the surrounding villages. Derby explained to Henry that he did not have enough troops to carry out these orders in the face of the opposition of the whole countryside." (21)
The leadership of Robert Aske has been praised by historians. One of his requests was that Henry VIII should hold a meeting of Parliament in the north. Anthony Fletcher has argued: "Aske's intention throughout the campaign he directed was to overawe the government into granting the demands of the north, by presenting a show of force. Only one man was killed during the Pilgrimage. He did not want to advance south unless Henry refused the Pilgrims' petition and he had no plan to form an alternative government or remove the king. Aske merely wanted to give the north a say in the affairs of the nation, to remove Cromwell and reverse certain policies of the Henrician Reformation." (22)
Henry VIII summoned Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, out of retirement. 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 Aske. (23)
Norfolk had a meeting with Thomas Darcy and tried to persuade him and the other Yorkshire nobles and gentlemen to regain the King's favour by handing over "that villain 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. (24)
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 he gave him a jacket of crimson silk. (25)
While in London another rebellion broke out in the East Riding. It was led by Sir Francis Bigod who accused Aske of betraying the Pilgrimage of Grace. Aske agreed to return to Yorkshire and assemble his men to defeat Bigod. He then joined up with Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and his army made up of 4,000 men. Bigod was easily defeated and after being captured on 10th February, 1537, was imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. (26)
On 24th March, Aske and Thomas Darcy were asked by the Duke of Norfolk to return to London in order to have a meeting with Henry VIII. They were told that the King wanted to thank them for helping to put down the Bigod rebellion. On their arrival they were both arrested and sent to the Tower of London. (27) Aske was charged with renewed conspiracy after the pardon. (28)
Thomas Cromwell had kept a very low profile during the Pilgrimage of Grace but there is no reason to suppose that he lost his place as the king's right-hand man. (29) However, he now conducted the examination of Robert Aske on 11th May. Robert Aske was asked a total of 107 written questions. Geoffrey Moorhouse claims that Aske made no attempt to hide his early involvement in the Pilgrimage of Grace: "The most striking thing about all of Robert Aske's testimony is how very straightforward he was, especially for one in such a predicament as his. It was as though he was not only incapable of telling a lie but even of obfuscating the truth." (30)
Cromwell managed to obtain statements from some of the prisoners that implicated Aske in the Bigod rebellion. Cromwell also found a letter signed by Aske and Darcy that called on people not to join Bigod but to remain in their homes. Cromwell argued that by urging them to stay in their homes, they were by implication telling them not to join the King's forces and not to assist in the suppression of the rising. This, according to Cromwell, this was treason. (31)
Robert Aske was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Henry VIII insisted that the punishment should be carried out in York where the uprising began so that the local people could see what happens to traitors. Market day had been chosen for the execution. On 12th July, 1537, Aske was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets of the city. He was taken to the high upon the mound on which Clifford's Tower stood. On the scaffold Aske asked for forgiveness. Aske was hanged, almost to the point of death, revived, castrated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (his body was chopped into four pieces). (32)
It is feared that he (Henry) will not grant as he ought the demands of the northern people... The rebels... are sufficiently numerous to defend themselves, and there is every expectation that... the number will increase, especially if they get some assistance in money from abroad.
We have taken (this pilgrimage) for the preservation of Christ's church, of this realm of England, the King our sovereign lord, the nobility and commons of the same... the monasteries... in the north parts (they) gave great alms to poor men and laudably served God... and by occasion of the said suppression the divine service of Almighty God is much diminished.
Ye shall not enter into this our Pilgrimage of Grace for the Commonwealth, but only for the love that ye do bear unto Almighty God, his faith, and to Holy Church militant and the maintenance thereof, to the preservation of the King's person and his issue, to the purifying of the nobility, and to expulse all villein blood and evil councillors against the commonwealth from his Grace and his Privy Council of the same. And ye shall not enter into our said Pilgrimage for no particular profit to your self, nor to do any displeasure to any private person, but by counsel of the commonwealth, nor slay nor murder for no envy, but in your hearts put away all fear and dread, and take afore you the Cross of Christ, and in your hearts His faith, the Restitution of the Church, the suppression of these Heretics and their opinions, by all the holy contents of this book.
While an uneasy calm was settling on Lincolnshire a far more serious revolt broke out in Yorkshire, where the initiative was taken by Robert Aske, a minor gentleman and lawyer. Aske was an idealist, who gave to the rebellion most of its spiritual quality... His loyalty to the King was genuine, and he and Henry probably shared many of the same assumptions about religion.
They called this... a holy and blessed pilgrimage; they also had banners whereon was painted Christ hanging on the cross... With false signs of holiness... they tried to deceive the ignorant people.
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.
The Pilgrimage of Grace... was a reactionary, Catholic movement of the North, led by the still half-feudal nobility of that area and aimed against the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. But if the leaders were nobles the mass character of the rising indicated a deep discontent and the rank and file were drawn in large measure from the dispossessed and from the threatened peasantry.
Aske's intention throughout the campaign he directed was to overawe the government into granting the demands of the north, by presenting a show of force. Only one man was killed during the Pilgrimage. He did not want to advance south unless Henry refused the Pilgrims' petition and he had no plan to form an alternative government or remove the king. Aske merely wanted to give the north a say in the affairs of the nation, to remove Cromwell and reverse certain policies of the Henrician Reformation.
On Friday 15 December the king sent a message to Robert Aske by means of one of the gentlemen of the privy chamber. He wrote that he had a great desire to meet Aske, to whom he had just offered a free pardon, and to speak frankly about the cause and the course of the rebellion. Aske welcomed the opportunity of exonerating himself. As soon as Aske entered the royal presence the king rose up and threw his arms around him. "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."
The king then gave the rebel a jacket of crimson satin and asked him to prepare a history of the previous few months. It must have seemed to Aske that the king was in implicit agreement with him on the important matters of religion. But Henry was deceiving him. He had no intention of halting or reversing the suppression of the monasteries; he had no intention of repealing any of the religious statutes in force.
Aske spent Christmas at Greenwich as Henry's guest. Henry was very friendly, and Aske was flattered, charmed and completely fooled.... Within a few days, a revolt broke out in the East Riding. It was led by Sir Francis Bigod, which was a little surprising, for Bigod had been an active anti-Papist, and had hitherto played no part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. He tried to capture Hull, but was repulsed by the citizens. The rising was immediately condemned by Aske, Darcy and Constable, who did all they could to prevent it from spreading, for they feared that it would result in the withdrawal of the concessions which they had obtained from Henry... They also played an active part in suppressing the rising.
Cause such dreadful executions upon a good number of the inhabitants hanging them on trees, quartering them, and setting the quarters in every town, as shall be a fearful warning.
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.
When Aske was brought out his cell that Thursday morning at York, before he was tied to the hurdle that would take him to the scaffold, he confessed that he had offended God, the King and the world. He was then dragged through the centre of the city, "desiring the people ever as he passed by to pray for him." When he was taken from the hurdle he was led up the mound and into Clifford's Tower for a little while, until the Duke of Norfolk arrived. On being brought out again he was given the opportunity, like all condemned men, to make a final statement to the watching crowd. And in this he said that there were two things which had aggrieved him. One was that Cromwell had sworn that all northern men were traitors, "wherewithal he was somewhat offended". The other was that the Lord Privy Seal "sundry times promised him a pardon of his life, and at one time he had a token from the King's Majesty of pardon for confessing the truth". In reporting this, Coren added, "These two things he showed to no man in these North parts, as he said, but to me only; which I have and will ever keep secret." As soon as Norfolk was ready for the spectacle, Aske climbed to the gallows on top of the tower, asked for forgiveness again... When they had finished butchering his body, it was hung there in chains; and John Aske, summoned with others of the Yorkshire gentry to be present, was one of those who watched all the things they did to his youngest brother.