Robert Aske I & II

Robert Aske I and II

History knows two Robert Askes. The first (1500-1537), a Gray's Inn lawyer, was imprisoned in the Tower and executed for treason. The second (1619-1689); a wealthy silk merchant, left most of his fortune to the Haberdashers' Company and died peacefully in his bed. 

They were probably members of the same Yorkshire family, although Robert Aske I was unmarried and so not a direct ancestor of Robert Aske II. Each was involved in the political and religious struggles of his time. In 1536 Robert I led a major rebellion against Henry VIII (1509-1548) and during the 1680s Robert I had a minor part in the causes of the Glorious Revolution against James II (1685-1688). 

Henry VIII wanted a male heir. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, did not produce one, so he decided to marry again. Catherine's nephew, Charles V, controlled Pope Clement VII who refused to grant an annulment; thus Henry repudiated the Pope's authority and set up the Church of England. In May 1533 Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, obligingly annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine and declared his secret marriage to Anne Boleyn to be valid. From 1534 Thomas Cromwell, Henry's right hand man, began to challenge Catholic beliefs and practices, and in 1536 established commissions to assess and collect taxes, to dissolve the lesser monasteries, and to investigate the clergy. The commissions aroused hostility and suspicion.

When on 2nd. October 1536 the Bishop of Lincoln's registrar arrived in Louth to investigate its clergy, he was seized by parishioners who feared that he was about to confiscate their church's treasure, and within two days a popular rebellion had swept through north Lincolnshire. On 4th. October Robert Aske, who was returning from Yorkshire to London for the Michaelmas law term, crossed the Humber at Parton and heard about the rebellion from the ferryman. Later that day Aske returned to Yorkshire and tried to restrain the rebels there, but by 10th. October was regarded as their "chief captain" and on the 16th. led 10,000 armed men into York. By then almost the whole of Yorkshire, parts of Northumberland and Durham, and Cumberland and Westmorland were in revolt; the most formidable of all the challenges to Henry VIII.

Aske seems to have been a devout man who found that he agreed with the Lincolnshire rebels' opposition to Henry VIII's religious policies, and objected in particular to the dissolution of the monasteries. Able and energetic, and with a charismatic personality he used his legal skills to draft a statement of the rebels' aims, and devised an oath by which they swore not to seek their own profit but to take part in a quasi-religious Pilgrimage of Grace, the confusing and enigmatic name by which the Yorkshire rebellion has been known ever since.

He did everything possible to prevent the use of force: only one man was killed during the Pilgrimage. He did not want to overthrow Henry VIII, but to present him with the Pilgrims' views, persuade him to reverse his religious policies, and to dismiss evil councillors such as Cranmer and Cromwell.

Aske was a younger son of Sir Robert Aske of Aughton near Selby. The family was well-connected. One of Aske's cousins was the earl of Cumberland (whose eldest son, lord Clifford, had married the earl of Suffolk's daughter, the king's niece ), and he had served the sixth earl of Northumberland as secretary. The gentry with whom he cooperated had a mixture of economic, financial, legal, political and religious grievances against Henry VIII's regime, but may have associated with the rebellion in order to control it and prevent bloodshed and disorder, for they were certainly reluctant to fight. 

On 27th. October four of their leaders met the Duke of Norfolk on Doncaster bridge. He commanded the royal army and knew that he was outnumbered by about 30,000 to 10,000 so agreed to a truce and to allow two of the four (Robert Bowes and Sir Ralph Ellerker, another of Aske's cousins) to travel to Windsor to put there case to the king. After their return without any concessions the rebels lost confidence. On 6th. December Aske and his fellow leaders' met Norfolk in Doncaster, fell to their knees and begged for a free Parliament to discuss their views. Norfolk saw his chance, accepted their request, invited Aske to persuade the rebels to disperse, and kept the royal army ready for further trouble. By 8th. December the Pilgrimage of Grace was over.

Whether out of curiosity thanks for his part in ending the rebellion, or a cynical desire to detach him from the rebels, Henry VIII invited Aske to spend Christmas with the court at Windsor: but after further outbreaks in the north had him arrested in April, tried in May and executed on a specially built scaffold at Clifford's Tower in York on 12th. July 1537.

Henry VIII would probably have been content with an English version of Catholicism, but neither he nor his successors could control the religious changes which he had initiated. England became a self-consciously Protestant nation. The defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) convinced the English that Catholicism threatened their political and religious independence, and that they had a special relationship with God, for as Milton wrote in 1644 "God is decreeing to begin some new and great period. What does he do then but reveal himself, as his manner is, first to his Englishmen?"

Yet there was a serpent in Eden: intolerance. Protestant churches and sects hated one another, and were united only by their mutual fear of Catholicism. Non-Anglican worship was severely restricted, and unless Protestant Dissenters and Catholic Recusants took Holy Communion in an Anglican church, they were banned from most forms of political and public life, a system of legally enforced discrimination which reached its apogee in the 1660s and 1670s. 

However, Charles I (1660-1685) had married a Catholic, tried to promote Catholicism in England, accepted secret subsidies from Louis XIV, the despotic ruler of Catholic France, and declared himself a Catholic as he died. His brother James, who followed him as James II, had married an Anglican who had brought up their daughter, Princess Mary, as an Anglican, but he had become a Catholic and his second wife was a Catholic. It seemed that he would use his new-found power to strengthen Catholicism and to make himself an absolute monarch. During 1685 he attended Mass in public, ordered that the Gunpowder Plot should no longer be commemorated on its anniversary (5th. November), and rejoiced when Louis XIV expelled the Protestant Huguenots from France. During 1686 he claimed the right to dispense with and suspend existing laws, and in April 1687 and 1688 issued his First and Second Declarations of Indulgence, using the Royal Prerogative to override Acts of Parliament and give freedom of worship to Protestant Dissenters and Catholic Recusants. 

On 4th. May 1688 he ordered the Second Declaration to be read from the pulpit in all Anglican churches, but on the 18th. the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops told him they would not read it. James flew into a rage: "This is a great surprise to me. Here are strange words. I did not expect this from you. This is a standard of rebellion."

The bishops had been advised by Dr. John Tillotson, Dean of Canterbury, one of Robert Aske II's two executors. Robert Aske II was born on 24th. February 1619, the son of a well-to-do draper. In 1634 he was apprenticed to John Trott, a Haberdasher and East India Company merchant, in 1643 became a Freeman of the Haberdashers' Company, and in 1666 an alderman of the City of London. He may have been related to the John Aske who framed the charges for the trial of Charles I in 1649. His membership of the Haberdashers' Company certainly linked him to the crises of his time.

Haberdashers had been prominent amongst City opponents of Charles I, but had not united behind Parliament in the Civil War, and in 1660 had welcomed the Restoration of the monarchy, although their goodwill towards Charles Il had lessened as his pro-Catholic leanings had emerged. In the 1670s leading members of the Company had supported attempts to exclude James from the succession to the throne. Henry Cornish, Master in 1680, had been executed for his involvement in the Rye House Plot of 1683, an attempt to assassinate Charles and James. During November 1684 the Company had been forced to surrender its charter to Charles II, and within weeks of succeeding him in 1685 James had issued a revised charter intended to place the Company under the control of "men of known loyalty" and make it subservient to his wishes.

The new Master, Robert Aske, known to be an Anglican and a loyalist, and the four new Wardens, were required to take the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy, and the oath contained in the 1661 Corporation Act, "That it is not lawful upon any pretence whatsoever to take arms against the king." Commonly called the Non-Resistance Act, it reinforced the Anglican belief that no one had the right to resist an anointed monarch. That was the very point of dispute between James II and the bishops, who had believed in and acted on the doctrine until confronted by James's order to read the Second Declaration of Indulgence. As it became clear to James II that he could not rely on hitherto obedient Anglicans to consent to his pro-Catholic policies, he reversed his previous appointments and nominations and in September 1687 removed Robert Aske and two of the four Wardens from their positions in the Company.

Aske was therefore in a position of obscurity and safety when, emboldened by the birth of James's son on 10th. June 1688, and thus the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, seven of his most determined opponents invited William of Orange (Princess Mary's Protestant husband) to defend English liberty. William and his army landed on the very day on which the nation was accustomed to celebrate its deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot. On 24th. December James II fled to exile in France. His infant son would never be king of England. 

Robert Aske made his will on 18th. January 1689, added a clarificatory codicil two days later, and died on the 27th. Although he had been married twice he had no children, so after various bequests he left £20,000 and the residue of his estate in trust to the Haberdashers' Company to build and endow an Almshouse or Hospital. His wishes were embodied in a private Act of Parliament which on 20th. December 1690 declared "That for ever hereafter there shall be in the town of Hoxton in the Parish of St. Leonard Shoreditch, One Hospital of Twenty poor Decayed Freemen of the said Company of Haberdashers, and the Maintenance of Twenty poor Decayed Freemens sons with Meat, Drink, Clothing and Schooling; which shall be called, The Hospital at Hoxton, of the Foundation of Robert Aske Esquire."

In other words, the Act established a "Hospital" consisting of Almshouse for twenty resident old men and a School for twenty boy boarders. At its head was to be a "learned and Discreet Schoolmaster to read Prayers and Preach, and Teach ... Learning and Good Manners" - that is, a clergyman who would be Chaplain to the old men and Master to the boys. The school has changed a lot since then. 

John WIGLEY.

 

(First published in the OHA Magazine 2001-02)

 

 

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