Robert Aske was a country gentleman who belonged to an ancient family long settled in Yorkshire, his mother being a daughter of John, Lord Clifford.
When in 1536 the insurrection known as the "Pilgrimage of Grace" broke out in Yorkshire, Aske was made leader; and marching with the banner of St Cuthbert and with the badge of the "five wounds," he occupied York on the 16th of October and on the 10th captured Pontefract Castle, with Lord Darcy and the archbishop of York, who took the oath of the rebels. He caused the monks and nuns to be reinstated, and refused to allow the king's herald to read the royal proclamation, announcing his intention of marching to London to declare the grievances of the commons to the sovereign himself, secure the expulsion of counsellors of low birth, and obtain restitution for the church. The whole country was soon in the hands of the rebels, a military organization with posts from Newcastle to Hull was established, and Hull was provided with cannon.
Subsequently Aske, followed by 30,000 or 40,000 men, proceeded towards Doncaster, where lay the duke of Norfolk with the royal forces, which, inferior in numbers, would probably have been overwhelmed had not Aske persuaded his followers to accept the king's pardon, and the promise of a parliament at York and to disband. Soon afterwards he received a letter from the king desiring him to come secretly to London to inform him of the causes of the rebellion. Aske went under the guarantee of a safe-conduct and was well received by Henry. He put in writing a full account of the rising and of his own share in it; and, fully persuaded of the king's good intentions, returned home on the 8th of January 1537, bringing with him promises of a visit from the king to Yorkshire, of the holding of a parliament at York, and of free elections. Shortly afterwards he wrote to the king warning him of the still unquiet state not only of the north but of the Midlands, and stating his fear that more bloodshed was impending.
The same month he received the king's thanks for his action in pacifying Sir Francis Bigod's rising. But his position was now a difficult and a perilous one, and a few weeks later the attitude of the government towards him was suddenly changed. The new rising had given the court an excuse for breaking off the treaty and sending another army under Norfolk into Yorkshire. Possibly in these fresh circumstances Aske may have given cause for further suspicions of his loyalty, and in his last confession he acknowledged that communications to obtain aid had been opened with the imperial ambassador and were contemplated with Flanders. But it is more probable that the government had from the first treacherously affected to treat him with confidence to secure the secrets of the rebels and to effect his destruction. In March Norfolk congratulated Cromwell on the successful accomplishment of his task, having persuaded Aske to go to London on false assurances of security.
He was arrested in April, tried before a commission at Westminster, and sentenced to death for high treason on the 17th of May; and on the 28th of June he was taken back to Yorkshire, being paraded in the towns and country through which he passed. He was hanged at York in July, expressing repentance for breaking the king's laws, but declaring that he had promise of pardon both from Cromwell and from Henry. It is related that his servant, Robert Wall, died of grief at the thought of his master's approaching execution. Aske was a real leader, who gained the affection and confidence of his followers; and his sudden rise to greatness and his choice by the people point to abilities that have not been recorded.