During my research into some of the oldest churches in Yorkshire, I came across a small inscription in the church tower of Aston-cum-Aughton. It begs the reader: ‘do not forget the year of our Lord 1536.’ This is the year that Katherine of Aragon died; Anne Boleyn met her dramatic end; and Henry VIII took a third wife in his quest for a son. But, for the people of this small Yorkshire parish, it would have been remembered most for what would become known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, ‘the most serious of all Tudor rebellions’. 1
The Pilgrimage of Grace, an insurrection that would include 30,000 men throughout Yorkshire and further north, was famously named, and given its purpose, by the charismatic lawyer Robert Aske, whose immediate family was the very same who built this church, whose heraldry accompanies the inscription, and whose family had held links with this small religious community for generations. 2
The Pilgrimage followed a quickly stamped-out but influential Lincolnshire uprising in October 1536, and has divided historians, with possible causes including the first wave of the dissolution of the monasteries; the influence of Thomas Cromwell at Court; increased religious taxes; and poor harvests. 3
It ended, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a failure to resolve any of these grievances, and with bloody suppression – all of the leaders were hanged within months. It was unlikely, then, that any of the Aske family, or the people of Aughton, would forget the events of 1536.
So the inscription in this small Yorkshire church is intriguing – it reminds us, in the twenty-first century, of how the Askes wanted, like their ancestors, to be remembered within the spiritual community, how they wished to demonstrate their piety and their commitment to their parish church, and how their involvement with the Pilgrimage of Grace became fundamental to their family identity.
During my research, undertaken for a History and Archaeology module in partnership with the Church of England here at the University of Sheffield, it became clear the effort and expense that many medieval Yorkshire residents went to in order to be remembered in and by their parish church, physically instilling self-memorialisation. 4
Sixteenth-century wills by the Aske family reveal a conscious preoccupation with being actively remembered through their parish church. John Aske, in November 1543, left the substantial sum of £20 to the church wardens, in order for them to ‘finish the steple [steeple] of the churche of Aughton’. Katherine Hastings, the sister of Robert Aske, in 1506 stressed that she should be buried at Aughton, even though her husband is buried at Norton Priory and her daughter at another Yorkshire church, demonstrating a commitment to her spiritual heritage, rather than her newly formed nuclear family. 5
A late fifteenth-century will by Sir John Aske even more literally asserted the family’s connection to the parish of Aston-cum-Aughton. Changing the name of Aston to Askton, he deliberately amalgamated and connected his family heritage to that very central local place. Even half a century later, in 1542, the will of a later Robert Aske requested that ‘my bodie to be buried in the quere [choir] of Aughton where my ancestors lieth’, reflecting the same fundamental need to be remembered despite the dramas and upheavals of sixteenth-century Yorkshire.
For the Askes, especially after their involvement in a huge religious and political scandal, these links to the past were all the more vital, revealing a medieval preoccupation with local religious identity as well as national politics. This ability to physically preserve, connect, and solidify one’s spiritual and family heritage was vital for any medieval or early modern family and can be seen across fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Britain.
On Yorkshire Day, then, we can remember this prominent Yorkshire family not only for their famous involvement with ‘the most serious of all Tudor rebellions’, but also as an example of how medieval and early modern people curated and demonstrated their own memories of their heritage and piety through their parish church. By exploring our local churches and their sensational stories and sources, we can build a more vivid picture of the heritage that permanently, physically surrounds us.
Dr Elizabeth Goodwin is a historian of medieval and early modern women religious. She is currently working on emotions, family and the Reformation in the writing of Caritas Pirckheimer, a sixteenth-century German nun. You can find her on Twitter @ElizMGoodwin.
Image: Fred Kirk Shaw, The Pilgrimage of Grace (1913) [via Wikicommons]
- Claire Cross, ‘Participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace’, Oxford DNB, http://www.oxforddnb.com/templates/theme-print.jsp?articleid=95587. ↩
- As Aske wrote in the Pilgrim’s Oath, issued after the rebels entered York: ‘Ye shall not enter into this our Pilgrimage of Grace for the commonwealth, but only for the love that ye do bear unto Almighty God his faith, and to Holy Church militant and the maintenance thereof; to the preservation of the King’s person and his issue, to the purifying of the nobility, and to expulse all villein blood and evil councillors against the commonwealth.’ ↩
- Though the Pilgrimage of Grace is a term used often to refer to all the northern uprisings, including the initial Lincolnshire one, the term technically only refers to the mass protest taken on in Yorkshire under the lead of Robert Aske. See Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s (Oxford, 2001) for a full and fascinating explanation. ↩
- Research kindly funded by Arts Enterprise Small Grants, The University of Sheffield, for the development of a joint MA module between History and Archaeology, to be led by Dr Eliza Hartrich, Dr Charles West and Dr Hugh Willmott. ↩
- Another of 1529 requested, after his burial in Aughton, that ‘stones be laide of [my] brother, and another of my father and mother, and on after of my sister Hastinges’, to solidify their remembered place within the centre of their religious community. ↩