The Tudor Society

12 July 1537 – The execution of Robert Aske

Robert AskeOn this day in history, 12th July 1537, Robert Aske, lawyer and rebel, was hanged in chains outside Clifford's Tower, the keep of York Castle. Aske was one of the leaders of the rebels in the 1536 northern uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace - click here to see a Pilgrimage of Grace timeline and here to read an article on the rebellion.

Being hanged in chains was an awful way to die. Those executed this way were usually hanged alive in chains - rather than being hanged first in the usual manner and then put in chains on display - and took several days to die, being slowly suffocated to death.1 Horrible!

I haven't found an eye-witness account of Aske's suffering, but Hilda Prescott, in her novel The Man on a Donkey imagines Aske's final moments and last words:

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 forever, 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...

By this time that which dangled from the top of the Keep at York, moving only as the wind swung it, knew neither day nor night, nor that it had been Robert Aske, nor even that it had been a man.

Even now, however, it was not quite insentient. Drowning yet never drowned, far below the levels of daylight consciousness, it suffered. There was darkness and noise, noise intolerably vast or unendurably near, drilling inward as a screw bites and turns, and the screw was pain. Sometimes noise, pain, darkness and that blind thing that dangled were separate; sometimes they ran together and became one.

But in his dying, his consciousness moved on, beyond a point where any of us are ever entitled to knowledge [...]

[...] For now (yet with no greater fissure between then and now than as a man's eyes are aware, where no star was, of the first star of the night), now he was aware of One - vanquished God, Saviour who could as little save others as Himself.

But now, beside Him and beyond was nothing, and He was silence and light.2

Also on this day in history, 12th July 1543, King Henry VIII married Catherine Parr, Lady Latimer, at Hampton Court Palace - click here to read more.

Notes and Sources

Image: Gerard McSorley as Robert Aske in "The Tudors" series.

  1. Tracy Borman in The truth behind 'TheTudors', History Extra, August 2009, writes of "the agonising torture of being hung in chains for several days until he died of suffocation" but Stephanie Mann, in her article May 11, 1537: Hanging in Chains writes of H.M. Prescott's "description of Robert Aske's sufferings while hanging in chains, dying slowly by hunger, thirst, and exposure".
  2. Prescott, H. M. (1953) The Man on a Donkey, Eyre & Spottiswood, p. 688-90, quoted by Spufford, Margaret (1996) in Celebration: A Story of Suffering and Joy, Bloomsbury Academic, p. 84-5.
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