Robert Aske – lawyer, rebel, martyr.
By Judith Arnopp
The Tudor period is renowned for inventive methods of punishing those who went against the crown. For the lowly law breaker there was the pillory, the whipping post and the branding iron and we have all heard of the burning of heretics during the time of The Reformation. Another method of capital punishment was boiling; the living victim was lowered into boiling water, or oil – unthinkable.
Death by Pressing was another form. The victim was laid upon a sharp stone, their body covered with a board onto which weights were piled until the offender’s bones broke and the victim eventually suffocated. This was graphically illustrated in the television drama series Gunpowder with the death of Anne Clitheroe, who was crushed to death for the crime of harbouring priests.
The Tudor era, being one of religious turmoil, was bloody indeed and needs little embellishment from the authors writing in the period. The Pilgrimage of Grace, the largest and most dangerous rebellion of the Tudor period, saw many gruesome deaths. Although only one person was killed during the uprising, the punishments the rebels received were harsh; commoners were hung, the nobles executed but it was Robert Aske, a main player in the proceedings who suffered the slowest, most excruciating death of all.
Aske was born around 1500 to Sir Robert Aske and Elizabeth Clifford, he was their third son and had family connections with the Percys and Cliffords. Robert Aske was admitted to Gray’s Inn, one of the ancient Inns of Court in London where he studied law and history, afterwards working as a lawyer in Yorkshire. Some believe Aske was always a dissenter, an agitator, others see him as law abiding and driven by a great sense of justice.
During the Lincolnshire rising, Aske and some other officials were captured by rebels and agreed to act on their behalf, writing letters to the court outlining their complaints. These letters emphasised the rebellion was not against the king but against Cromwell and the despoliation of the monasteries. Aske, who at this point had clearly never met King Henry, sought to re-educate the king and persuade him to change his mind. Erm … good luck with that!
In the weeks that followed, Aske persuaded the rebels of York to join what he termed a ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’, and people flocked to his support. The movement was not only fuelled by dissatisfaction with the monastic closures but also with years of unfair taxations, unpopular reformation laws and failed harvests. Within days, an estimated 40,000 people (estimates vary) were marching on York and a short time later, following a brief siege, Thomas Darcy surrendered Pontefract Castle and joined with the rebels.
By autumn the rising had spread, covering Lancashire, Westmorland, Northumberland and Cumberland. The new tenant of Sawley Abbey was thrown out and the monks moved back in, an act that prompted the king to order the Earl of Derby to re-take the abbey and hang the abbots and the monks without trial. But Derby, lacking the man power to move against the weight of Aske’s supporters, was forced to admit his misgivings to the king.
Thomas Howard. Hans Holbein
This forced Henry VIII to bring the seasoned warrior, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk out of retirement but Norfolk was a Catholic and an enemy of Thomas Cromwell and possibly had more sympathy with the rebels than was wise. Although he raised a large army, he claimed to have doubts as to their reliability and urged the king to negotiate with the rebels instead. On failing to persuade Darcy to hand Aske over to the king, he returned to London where he advised the king to offer a pardon to the commons, and punish the leaders once they’d dispersed.
The king duly issued a pardon in early December and invited Aske to court for Christmas where he promised to consider his complaints. Like a lamb to the slaughter, Aske spent Christmas at Greenwich where he was given a warm welcome by the king who gifted him a crimson silk jacket. Aske was wooed with false promises. The king feigned agreement with the terms he put forward, and seemed to concur with his opinions of Thomas Cromwell.
Unfortunately for Aske, during his time in London further rebellion broke out in the north. This time the rebels were led by Sir Francis Bigod who viewed Aske’s gentle approach as traitorous to the cause. Aske promised the king to try and put the rebellion down and returned to Yorkshire in the company of Norfolk. On the 10th of February Bigod was imprisoned in Carlisle Castle.
In early March Norfolk invited Aske and Darcy to London to receive royal thanks for their part in quelling the rebellion but on their arrival they were arrested and sent to the Tower charged with renewed conspiracy.
Aske was examined by Thomas Cromwell. He gave honest answers to the one hundred and seven questions asked of him but Cromwell produced rebel statements implicating him in the Bigod rebellion. He also possessed a letter, allegedly signed by Aske and Darcy, imploring the people not to join Bigod. This letter, Cromwell argued, proved Aske to be a traitor because by instructing the pilgrims to remain in their homes and not join the rebels also meant they were not to assist the king’s men. In other words the letter was of treasonous intent.
Condemned as a traitor, Robert Aske received the death penalty, the execution to take place in York where the uprising had begun as a lesson to his followers. Opinion differs as to the exact nature of his death, some say he was hung drawn and quartered, and his remains placed in a gibbet to rot but most believe he was hung alive in chains over the walls of Clifford’s Tower, a slow, agonising death that would have taken several days.
Images, in order of appearance:
Weglinde [CC0], from Wikimedia
Shaw, Fred Kirk [Public domain], via Wikimedia
Andrew Benjamin Donaldson (1840-1919): Photo credit: The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)
Simon Cope from High Wycombe, United Kingdom
Thomas Howard. Hans Holbein [Public domain]
Thomas Cromwell: Hans Holbein [Public domain]
Below is an (unedited) excerpt from Sisters of Arden.
She nods toward the castle mound and for the first time, I drag my eyes from the tragedy of her face to the sombre crowd gathered beneath the walls of the keep. Some are kneeling, some stand, the murmur of their combined prayers ebbing and flowing as they focus on one object. I follow their line of vision to the towering walls of the castle, a shiver crawling over me when I notice the figure of a man hanging in chains. Horror scuttles like an insect across my skin.
His robes have been torn away, displaying the marks of violence upon his body. He is filthy, his limbs smeared with his own blood yet, as bruised and battered as he is, I know I am looking on all that remains of Robert Aske. With bile rising in the back of my throat, I stagger to my feet, but I force the sickness down. Making the sign of the cross, I call down a blessing.
“Do you think God cares?” Grace snarls. “Didn’t we pray for his help from the moment it all began? Didn’t we pray for the king’s return to grace? Haven’t I prayed every day since he was taken? God didn’t listen when there was time to save him, why should he listen now?”
“Oh Grace, sometimes the Lord’s plan is hard for us to understand. In time it will make more sense …”
She turns on me, spittle on her lips.
“This will NEVER make sense to me. Aske is a good man, an honest, religious man whose loyalty to the king NEVER wavered. Not once did he seek to undermine his rule, he merely wanted to show him the error of his ways …” Her voice breaks. I place my hand over hers and squeeze gently.
“At least his suffering is over now. Take comfort from that.”
Her head jerks up, her eyes bore into mine. Eyes full of anguish and – oh, such pain!
“Oh no, they are not, Margery. You do not understand. Aske’s suffering is very far from over. Do you not see? Look at him! He still lives: do you not see?”
My head turns stiffly, unwillingly, but I force myself to look again upon the ravaged body. Grace must be mistaken. No king would be so inhuman as to inflict that much suffering upon a man. Aske is very still but as I watch, his head moves just a little, the chains that hold him clank as he squirms feebly against his fate. His weak groans evoke further prayer from the crowd – disciples, I see now, who are sharing his suffering.
Grace lowers her head, her words so quiet I can scarcely hear them.
“That is why I cannot leave. Until he has gone from this world all of us gathered here will bear witness to his death. When he has gone we will take word of it, spread the reality of what has happened across the country, across the world. Every man and woman must know the true nature of the king of England.”
Those of us who hold vigil during those last hours of Aske’s life feel each moment of his suffering, inhale with him each tortured rasping breath. Beyond thirst, beyond hunger, his existence is reduced only to suffering. Each time he lapses into unconsciousness, the cruel changing wind sets his broken body swaying and the chains bite deeper into his flesh. When Aske cries out, we all weep with him.
We pray for the lord to take him, pray for it to be over and when he is silent at last, we thank God for ending his torment, and ours.
Judith Arnopp is the author of: