Sermon delivered 30th November 2018 by Father Richard Duffield Cong.Orat. in All Saints Church, Pavement prior to the unveiling of a plaque at Clifford’s Tower.
“There may not be another significant figure in English history of whom we know so little.” These are the words of the historian, Geoffrey Moorhouse, in what I think is the most recent full-scale history of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
I would like to make a case for calling Robert Aske: history’s best-loved least-known Yorkshire man.
So today’s event is significant. We are unveiling a plaque in Robert Aske’s honour at the site of his execution so as to try make him as much known as he is loved. For this those of us who do love and admire Robert Aske have great cause to thank John Rayne-Davis and the Knights of St Columba for the efforts they have made for this to happen; the York Civic Authorities for their consent; and Bishop Terence for coming to perform the ceremony.
Geoffrey Moorhouse follows up on his concise summary. There may not be another significant figure in English history of whom we know so little. BUT he continues We know what he did every day of his life – sometimes every hour – for nine months of 1536-37 – otherwise it is almost a complete blank.
These nine months of detail in an otherwise unrecorded life are what those who admire Robert Aske find so compelling. The documentary evidence tells of his devotion to a cause; his willingness to defend it and to suffer for it; and his final willingness to lay down his life for it in a particularly bloody and public way.
We are celebrating Robert Aske in an ecumenical celebration; we have prayed to put aside past differences and bloodshed; and shortly we will pray some more for the same cause.
But one of the really interesting things about Aske is that most of what we know about him comes from records made by those who opposed him and for whom he was a threat. We cannot expect the documents to make a flattering portrait. Yet in spite of this Robert Aske seems to be attractive to almost anybody who reads them, even from among those we might expect to be unsympathetic to his cause.
Aske has long had his admirers from among quite surprising and diverse characters. The admiration of the conservative and the Catholic we may perhaps take for granted. After all his cause was the preservation of the ancient faith and the old monastic foundations.
But what about Madeleine Dodds and Ruth Dodds? These Quaker sisters from County Durham produced a work of scholarship in 1915 still indispensible to scholars working on the reign of Henry VIII. The Dodds were pioneers of higher education for women. As well as being superb historians they were socialists, suffragettes and non-conformists. And yet Ruth Dodds wrote in her journal: “Oh Aske, Robert Aske. You are my patron saint. Oh if only I could write your story as it should be written.” This rather gushing admiration led some later historians to doubt her reliability as a scholar.
Archbishop Rowan Williams made favourable references to Robert Aske at a sermon in 2010 in the old London Charterhouse commemorating the 475th Anniversary of the Carthusian Martyrs – some of whom were martyred at York in the same year as Robert Aske and for the same reason – to scare the citizenry into submission. Rowan Williams makes a case for Robert Aske’s martyrdom to be considered alongside the vocation of the contemplative and the mystic like the Carthusians who shared his fate, one willing to give everything for what he believed.
Most memorable of all, we have the fictionalised death of Robert Aske in the much underrated historical novel The Man on a Donkey set in Yorkshire in the 1530’s. The author, Hilda Prescott, was a daughter of the vicarage who taught history at Manchester University. Her book – and it is a great one – is that most unusual thing, a historical novel that is convincing both as literature and as history.
Here is a part of her account of Robert Aske’s death on 12 July 1537. He has been tried and dragged through the crowded streets of York on market day – all verified by the sources. Then he is hanged for all to see from the top of Clifford’s Tower. For those of us who know the place, the description, though imaginary, is both graphic and gripping.
When he swung out, and the irons bit him, he did struggle, because he must. One of his shoes came off, and it seemed to him a frightful thing that he should have to go short of a shoe, until he remembered that he would not ever again tread upon anything but the empty air. He was alone now. Close beside him the roundway was empty, but when he glanced down into the sickening depth below his feet, he could see that the green space was full of white faces turned up to him. With a groaning of iron upon iron, he was turning slowly round. The Minster came into sight just as the bells sounded, tossing out their bubbles of sweet sound upon the air. Still he turned; now he saw Fishergate Bar, half ruinous since it had been blocked up for so long, now the wide country beyond, patched golden with harvest, and far away the low hills beyond Aughton. The hours wore on, and pain grew. Towards evening he began to suffer from thirst.
It is clear from Hilda Prescott’s account that she understands Robert Aske in his hidden life and public death as a kind of Christ figure.
Perhaps we should not be too surprised at these reactions. Many people – even, perhaps especially, historians – are not as disinterested as they ought to be when it comes to history. Most of us are unashamedly partisan. Whether we look to history to find justification for our politics, our regional loyalties or our religion, we find, in the history of the Pilgrimage of Grace, echoes of the grievances that Robert Aske made his cause. Echoes which sound again and again in English history, perhaps especially in northern England, in people and events as diverse as the Jacobites, the victims of Peterloo and the Jarrow marchers.
People see something of Jesus Christ in Robert Aske, in his loyalty, his suffering, his perseverance even, perhaps especially in the hopelessness of his cause in the face of the relentless and repetitive evil of the world.
This was clearly what Hilda Prescott thought. This man is an alter Christus, another Christ. I will let my last words be her account of his Robert Aske’s moments:
Thunder came after dark and with it rain, a rushing sluice of unseen waters that mashed down great swathes of the tall, head-heavy wheat. Rain beating on his head and neck brought Aske back for a little while out of nightmare into conscious horror. He saw in the scribble of lightning which split black night the sheer drop of the wall beside him; the green far away below. And as his eye told him of the sickening depth below his body, and as his mind foreknew the lagging endlessness of torment before him, so, as if the lightning had brought an inner illumination also, he knew the greater gulf of despair above which his spirit hung, helpless and aghast. God did not now, nor would in any furthest future, prevail. Once He had come, and died. If He came again, again He would die, and again, and so for ever, by His own will rendered powerless against the free and evil wills of men. Then Aske met the full assault of darkness without reprieve of hoped for light, for God ultimately vanquished was no God at all. But yet, though God was not God, as the head of the dumb worm turns, so his spirit turned, blindly, gropingly, hopelessly loyal, towards that good, that holy, that merciful, which though not God, though vanquished, was still the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man.