Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace
Plaque at Clifford’s Tower, Tower Street, York, unveiled Friday 30th November 2018
From a Star Chamber lawyer to a rebel leader, Robert Aske became caught up in the northern rebellion to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In his efforts to restore the Catholic monasteries and forms of worship, he would challenge Henry VIII and pay the ultimate price on the gallows at Clifford’s Tower in York.
Born around 1500, Robert Aske was the third son of Sir Robert Aske (d.1529) of Aughton, near Selby, Yorkshire, and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of John Clifford, 9th Baron Clifford of Skipton Castle. He had two brothers, John and Christopher, and four sisters. Through marriage, the Askes acquired the manor of Aughton around 1360 and it was their principal residence until 1645. The family was well-connected; Robert Jnr was a cousin of Henry Clifford, 1st Earl of Cumberland, whose brother-in-law was Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. Through the Clifford line, the Askes were also related to Queen Jane Seymour who was, later, to plead for Robert Aske’s life to Henry VIII.
Little is known about Robert Aske’s early life except that he lost the use of one eye during a fishing expedition. By the late 1520s, he was, for a short time, secretary to the 6th Earl of Northumberland. The Percys were one of the richest families in England and Wressle Castle, their principal seat, had been rebuilt in a lavish style by the 5th Earl in the early 16th century.
Counsel at the Star Chamber
In 1527, Robert Aske was sent to London to study common law at Gray’s Inn, which had a reputation for being radical and also pro-Catholic, qualifying as a lawyer and becoming a fellow of the Inn. Here he met Thomas Moigne and William Stapleton, two lawyers who would also play a major part in the Lincolnshire uprising and the Pilgrimage of Grace. During the vacations, Robert returned to the family home at Aughton, travelling from Yorkshire to London for the start of each term. His name appears as counsel on several Star Chamber bills. Based at the Palace of Westminster, the Star Chamber had been established in the late 15th century to act as a higher court to ensure the proper enforcement of the law against members of the upper classes who might escape prosecution if tried in lesser courts. Being so close to the royal court, Aske would have been aware of the growing concern about monastic wealth and the power of the church.
Dissolution of the monasteries
Having been refused an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon by the Pope, Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1531 and, in 1534, Thomas Cromwell was instructed to compile an inventory of the endowments, liabilities and income of the entire ecclesiastical estate of England and Wales, including monasteries, abbeys, priories and nunneries. Commissioners were also appointed to gather information on the quality of religious life being maintained in religious houses, gauging the prevalence of questionable practices such as the veneration of relics and discovering lurid stories about sexual impropriety. Having compiled a mountain of damning evidence, in 1535 Parliament enacted the Suppression of Religious Houses Act, legislation which applied only to religious houses with an income of less than £200. Henry VIII’s radical Dissolution of the Monasteries had commenced.
There was a mixed reception amongst the population to this first round of suppressions. Many communities benefited as monastic wealth was distributed more fairly. In the North of England, however, there was stronger opposition, particularly in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where rural economics relied on monasteries. There were also grievances about the restrictions on the observance of holy days and increased taxation. Henry VIII’s ‘base-born’ advisers, particularly Thomas Cromwell, were accused of having undue influence over the king and blamed for the introduction of these and other unpopular policies. When Robert Aske set off from Yorkshire to London in October 1536, he was unaware of the uprising which was taking place in Louth, Lincolnshire. He strayed into the conflict, in which he would play such a major part, almost by accident.
Revolution in Louth
Aware that Cromwell’s commissioners were about to visit the town, on Sunday 1 October 1536 Thomas Kendall, Vicar of St James’ Church, Louth, preached an impassioned sermon against the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the appropriation of church property. The Cistercian abbey at Louth Park had been dissolved on 8 September and it was feared that the church plate was also about to be taken. The following day around 100 men, led by Nicholas Melton, a local shoemaker, seized first John Heneage, the Bishop of Lincoln’s registrar, followed by John Frankish, the Bishop of London’s registrar. They were dragged to the market place to be hanged but, in the confusion, they escaped, travelling to London to inform the king of the uprising. On 3 October, the Louth commoners marched to Caistor where they joined around 2,000 rebels from other parts of Lincolnshire. The rebellion spread to Horncastle where the chancellor of the Bishop of Lincoln was dragged from his horse and impaled with staves on 4 October. A list of grievances to be sent to the king was drawn up with the help of the local gentry.
Robert Aske set out for London on 4 October, crossing the River Humber on the ferry from Hessle to Barton-upon-Humber. He was soon apprehended by a group of rebels and was forced to swear an oath in support of the uprising. Aske’s skill as an orator and his management abilities marked him out as a leader. In other parts of Lincolnshire, the gentry, clergy and professional men were being forced to support the rebel cause, some being press-ganged into becoming leaders. At day break on 5 October, Aske set out at the head of a gang rebels to raise support for the uprising in other areas of north Lincolnshire. At Hamilton Hill near Market Rasen, he met the Louth rebels led by Thomas Moigne who had also been forced into service.
On 6 October, he returned to the River Ouse, instructing the commoners of the Marshland not to rise until they heard the bells of Howden ring and the commons of Howden not to rise until they heard the bells of Marshland. Aske’s motives for this are unclear but, it seems, he was aiming to control the uprising. Having spent the night at Howden, he travelled to Lincoln on 7 October where the rebels were gathering. Their numbers had now swelled to around 30,000. On reaching the city, however, Aske was advised to leave for his own safety as his actions had caused some suspicion and he was now considered a renegade.
At Lincoln the rebel leaders decided on their next move. The list of grievances was revised and sent to the king on Monday 9 October. Henry VIII’s eventual response was to be a strong rebuttal of each of their demands. In the meantime, mistrust was growing between the rebels and their chosen leaders. An army led by Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, was on its way north to put down the uprising. When news reached Lincoln on 10 October that the king’s army was at Stamford, the northern nobles waivered and the rebels began to disperse. By 12 October, the Lincolnshire rebellion was over.
The Pilgrimage of Grace
Back in Yorkshire, however, news of the Lincolnshire uprising had been spreading. The commoners of Beverley, led by William Stapleton, rose up on 8 October. Letters by Aske inciting rebellion had been circulated by the Yorkshire clergy in advance of his return to the county. By 11 October, he had been made chief captain of Marshland, Howdenshire and the Isle of Ancholme, issuing a proclamation requesting all men to assemble on 12 October at Skipwith Moor.
Alarmed at Robert’s involvement, his two brothers fled to Skipton Castle to take refuge with the fervently royalist Cliffords. Support for the uprising spread rapidly throughout the North of England and on 16 October, Aske led an army estimated at 20,000 men into York. The city, unable to withstand a siege, offered no resistance. Here, Aske spent two days planning his next move. Proving to be a skilful tactition, he named the uprising the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ to give the treasonable action a religious and moral justification; he ordered that the dissolved monasteries should be restored; he wrote the Pilgrims’ oath and compiled a list of demands to be presented to the king. Although both the oath and the demands were based on those of the Lincolnshire uprising, Aske prioritised the restoration and preservation of the monasteries and the right to worship as a Catholic. The Pilgrims also demanded the removal of Thomas Cromwell and the abolition of the proposed increase in taxation.
From York, the rebel army advanced to Pontefract Castle which was held by Lord Darcy. As well as being a strategic stronghold in Yorkshire, Pontefract Castle was where some of the county’s nobility and clergy who had not supported the Pilgrimage, including the Archbishop of York, had taken refuge. After a series of meetings, the castle was surrendered on 21 October – all too speedily in Henry VIII’s view – and Lord Darcy and the other nobles, who were suspected of sympathising with the rebels, took the Pilgrimage oath. Hull also fell without a battle on 20 October and one of its main citizens, Sir Robert Constable, became a joint leader with Aske. The rebellion had now spread to the West Riding of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Dales, Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancashire and Northumberland. Further rebel groups from all over the North of England joined Aske’s army at Pontefract.
Meeting at Doncaster
When the two sides met at Doncaster, the rebel force of around 40,000 faced a royal army of 8,000 commanded by the Duke of Norfolk. If the rebels had attacked immediately, the history of England may have taken a different course. Instead, both sides decided to negotiate. Aske expected the king to be reasonable and to accept the Pilgrims’ demands; Norfolk planned to use delaying tactics, reneging on any agreement at a later stage. He felt that the longer the delay, the more likely that the rebellion would collapse – and he was to be proved correct.
At the first meeting on 27 October, the Pilgrims and Norfolk agreed to a truce. Norfolk would take the Pilgrims’ demands to the king accompanied by rebel leaders Sir Robert Bowes and Sir Ralph Ellerker; the two armies would disband in two days’ time; a parliament would be held in Yorkshire; and there would be a free and general pardon for all those involved in the rebellion. The truce would remain in effect until the Pilgrims received the king’s response. Henry received the demands on 2 November. Although, three days later, his reply had been finalised, it was not sent; the king, too, had decided that a delay would be in their favour. It was not until 17 November that the Pilgrims received the king’s reply, but this was another delaying tactic. He offered no direct response to the individual demands, saying that they were too vague. Henry proposed that 300 leading Pilgrims should meet Norfolk at Doncaster in December to negotiate.
A council of the Pilgrims was held at York on 21 November and it was agreed that they would meet Norfolk on 5 December. The Pilgrims’ demands were revised at Pontefract on 2 December and they were presented by Aske to Norfolk at Doncaster on 6 December. Ignoring the king’s instructions, Norfolk agreed to a free pardon for the rebels and to a York parliament which would address the rebels’ grievances. Norfolk did not, however, agree to allow the monasteries which the Pilgrims had restored to stand, only that they could continue for the time being. Aske returned to Pontefract to address around 3,000 Pilgrims on 7 December. On hearing that they would be pardoned they let out a ‘great shout’ and, after being supplied with written proof of the agreement, the Pilgrimage of Grace ended.
The peace proved to be very fragile and Aske spent December travelling around Yorkshire in an attempt to calm the commons. Surprisingly, Henry invited Aske to spend Christmas at court at Greenwich Palace. Whilst this was an acknowledgment that Aske was key to the settlement of the conflict, his presence only served to arouse the suspicions of the commons in the North further; they suspected that Aske would betray them. On his return to Yorkshire in the New Year, Aske found the country ‘in a flutter and readiness to rise’. Once more he travelled around the North attempting to prevent a further uprising, but his efforts were in vain. Sir Francis Bigod and John Hallom, two of the leaders of the Pilgrimage, believed that, to secure the king’s adherence to the agreement, the Pilgrims should take Hull and Scarborough. The attempt to take Hull by stealth on 16 January was a disastrous failure. Although the rebel army led by George Lumley managed to enter Scarborough on 17 January, Lumley left the town and dismissed his troops assuring them that the king would honour the Doncaster agreement. On 18 January, the rebel troops reassembled at Bainton and, led by Bigod, 800 men advanced on Beverley but were defeated by a force loyal to the king. Bigod escaped but was captured in Cumberland on 10 February. A third uprising in Carlisle on 12 February would be the last of the rebellions in the North.
Bigod’s uprising had breached the Doncaster agreement and Henry sent the Duke of Norfolk north to exact retribution. The king urged Norfolk to ‘act without pity’, to teach the rebels a lesson. Trials were held and hangings commenced, the quartered bodies being left in trees and on the gallows for weeks as a sign of the king’s displeasure. Norfolk kept Aske at his side ‘thinking him better with me than at home’. In April 1537, Aske and Darcy requested an audience with the king and by the end of the month the two men, together with Constable, were incarcerated in the Tower of London awaiting their fate. A trial was held in May at which Aske’s brother, Christopher, gave evidence against him, describing Robert as ‘his unworthy brother’. The rebels were found guilty and condemned to death. Being a noble, Darcy was beheaded on Tower Hill on 30 June. Constable was returned to Hull where he was hanged in chains from the Beverley Gate. Similarly, Aske was sent to York where he was hanged in chains from Clifford’s Tower.
Monks who had opposed the reformation were hanged and Henry now continued the Dissolution of the Monasteries with renewed vigour. Having distanced himself from his brother’s acts of treason, John Aske benefited from the Dissolution, being granted the site of Ellerton Priory as well as a mansion house in York that had belonged to Bolton Priory, Thykhede Priory and manor and also Deighton manor. In 1536, Christopher Aske paid for the rebuilding of the tower of All Saints Church, Aughton, which had blown down in a gale in 1533, incorporating a cryptic Latin inscription which translates as:
‘Christopher, second son of Sir Robert, ought not to forget the year 1536’.
Keith Altazin, ‘The Northern Clergy and the Pilgrimage of Grace’, unpublished LSU Doctoral Dissertation 543 (Louisiana State University, 2001)
Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536-1537 and the Exeter Conspiracy 1538 (Cambridge, 1915)
R.W. Hoyle ‘Robert Aske (c.1500-1537)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
R.W. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s (Oxford, 2001)
John and Wendy Rayne-Davis, Robert Aske, The Man Who Could Have Toppled Henry VIII (London, 2014)
John Rayne-Davis, The Martyrdoms at Clifford’s Tower 1190 and 1537 (York, 2018)
I would like to thank John Rayne-Davis for his contribution to the research for this article.
© Richard Wilcock