Robert Aske (c.1500-1537)

Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace

Location of plaque: Clifford’s Tower

Unveiled November 30, 2018

CLIFFORD'S Tower today is a popular tourist attraction. But any Yorkie knows that this is a tower with a grim history.

In 1190, the tower - then a wooden structure - was the site of a notorious massacre of the city's Jews. They gathered in the tower to escape persecution by a mob but, realising they could not hold out, many decided to commit suicide together rather than wait to be killed. Others, believing offers of safe passage, left the tower - only to be murdered once outside. As many as 150 people are thought to have died, and the wooden tower itself was burned down.

That is the most infamous event in the tower's long history. But another grim moment came in 1537 when Robert Aske, one of the leaders of a northern rebellion against King Henry VIII known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, was hanged in chains from the tower's walls.

That doesn't do full justice to the appalling nature of the punishment that was meted out to poor Aske, however. According to Geoffrey Moorhouse, in his book The Pilgrimage of Grace, Aske was 'hanged, almost to the point of death, revived, castrated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered' (ie his body chopped into four pieces).

So what had Aske done to earn such punishment?

Born in about 1500, Aske was the third son of Sir Robert Aske of Aughton near Selby, a cousin of the Earl of Cumberland, and distantly related to Queen Jane Seymour.

As a young man he was sent to London to study law, and became a Counsel at the Star Chamber, a higher court set up to ensure the law was enforced against members of the upper classes.

He was also a devout Roman Catholic, however, and, like many northern Catholics, opposed Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. This caused real hardship in Yorkshire and other northern counties, where rural economies were often reliant on monastic wealth.

Aske seems to have been caught up in a first rising, in Lincolnshire, almost by accident: he was on his way from Yorkshire to London in 1536 when he was seized by a group of rebels and pressed to swear an oath supporting the rising.

The Lincolnshire rebellion fizzled out: but Aske quickly became one of them leaders of a second rebellion, this time in Yorkshire, which he named the 'Pilgrimage of Grace'. On October 16, 1536, he led an army of 20,000 men into York. He requested that the dissolved monasteries be restored, and compiled a list of demands to be presented to the King. Hull fell to the rebels, and Pontefract Castle surrendered to Aske's army. Groups from all over the north swelled the rebel numbers to about 40,000.

Facing them was a much smaller King's army, of just 8,000. That army's commander, the Duke of Norfolk, decided to play for time, offering to take the rebels' demands to the king, and promising a parliament in Yorkshire to hear their grievances and a general pardon. The Pilgrimage of Grace ended on December 7, the rebels all believing they had been pardoned.

And so they might have been. Aske even spent Christmas at Greenwich Palace at King Henry's invitation. But in January, another rebellion broke out, in an attempt to ensure the king honoured his agreements of the year before.

The king sent the Duke of Norfolk to put down the rising, urging him to 'act without pity'. He did so. Trials were held and rebel leaders' bodies were left hanging in trees and on gallows as a sign of the king's displeasure.

Aske was imprisoned in the Tower of London. His own brother, Christopher, gave evidence against him. He was sent to York where, on July 12, 1537, he was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets to Clifford's Tower, according to Geoffrey Moorhouse. There he met his grim death, his fate a warning to all.

Stephen Lewis

For the stories behind other York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk