Sunday, September 30, 2012

Anne Askew

Anne Askew (born 1520/1521– died 16 July 1546) was an English poet and Protestant who was condemned as a heretic. She is the only woman on record known to have been both tortured in the Tower of London and burnt at the stake.


Born at Stallingborough in 1520 or 1521 into a gentry family of Lincolnshire, she was forced by her father, Sir William Askew (1490–1541), to marry Thomas Kyme when she was fifteen, as a substitute for her sister Martha who had recently died. Anne rebelled against her husband by refusing to adopt his surname. She had at least one child, a son, William Askew.
The Dictionary of National Biography says no more than that she left her children to go "gospelling". Her marriage did not go well, not least because of her strong Protestant beliefs. When she returned from London, where she had gone to teach against the doctrine of transubstantiation, her husband turned her out of the house. She then went again to London to ask for a divorce, justifying it from scripture (1 Corinthians 7:15), on the grounds that her husband was not a believer. Eventually, Askew left her husband and went to London where she gave sermons and distributed Protestant books. These books had been banned and so she was arrested. Her husband was sent for and ordered to take her home to Lincolnshire. She escaped and not long after was back preaching in London.

Background on 1546

In the last year of Henry VIII's reign, Askew was caught up in a court struggle between religious traditionalists and reformers. Stephen Gardiner was telling the king that diplomacy — the prospect of an alliance with the Catholic Emperor Charles V — required a halt to religious reform. The traditionalist party pursued tactics tried out three years previously, with the arrests of minor evangelicals in the hope that they would implicate those who were more highly placed. In this case measures were taken that were "legally bizarre and clearly desperate". The persons rounded up were in many cases strongly linked to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent most of the period absent from court in Kent: Askew's brother Edward Ayscough was one of his servants, and Nicholas Shaxton who was brought in to put pressure on Askew to recant was acting as a curate for Cranmer at Hadleigh. Others in Cranmer's circle who were arrested were Rowland Taylor and Richard Turner.
The traditionalist party included Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich who racked Askew in the Tower, Edmund Bonner and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. The intention of her interrogators may have been to implicate the Queen, Catherine Parr, through the latter's ladies-in-waiting and close friends, who were suspected of having also harboured Protestant beliefs. These ladies included the Queen's sister, Anne Parr, Katherine Willoughby, Anne Stanhope, and Anne Calthorpe. Other targets were Lady Denny and Lady Hertford, wives of evangelicals at court.

Arrest and interrogation

In 1545, Anne Askew was arrested and accused as a heretic. She was examined by Anglican clerics regarding her beliefs and found to disagree with their doctrine of transubstantiation. She often caught them in their own questions, which only enraged them more. She was brought before Lord Bonner, who was determined to see her burned. He was unable to draw anything from her that would incriminate her, so instead he taunted her with the insinuation that her life was not as pure as the Scripture required. She calmly challenged him to bring forth anyone who could prove dishonesty in her. He could not and eventually released her.
Thomas Wriothesley, Lord Chancellor of England at that time, undertook the prosecution. He subjected her to an examination which lasted five hours. He asked her opinion of the bread and the eucharist. She replied; "I believe that as oft as I, in Christian congregation, receive the bread in remembrance of Christ's death, and with thanksgiving, according to His holy institution, I receive therewith the fruits also of His most glorious passion." She was then asked; "How can you avoid the very words of Christ, 'Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you?'" She replied, "Christ's meaning in this passage ... is similar to the meaning of those other places of Scripture, 'I am the door', 'I am the vine', 'Behold the Lamb of God', 'That rock was Christ', and other such references to Himself. You are not in these texts to take Christ for the material thing which He is signified by, for then you will make Him a very door, a vine, a lamb, a stone, quite contrary to the Holy Ghost's meaning. All these indeed do signify Christ, even as the bread signifies His body in that place." She was sent back to Newgate.
Arrested again, she was examined in June 1546 by Martin Bowes, Lord Mayor of London. Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, was ordered to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name others. According to her own account, and that of gaolers within the Tower, she was tortured only once. She was taken from her cell, at about ten o'clock in the morning, to the lower room of the White Tower. She was shown the rack and asked if she would name those who believed as she did. Askew declined to name anyone at all, so she was asked to remove all her clothing except her shift. Askew then climbed onto the rack and her wrists and ankles were fastened. Again, she was asked for names, but she would say nothing. The wheel of the rack was turned, pulling Askew along the device and lifting her so that she was held taut about 5 inches above its bed and slowly stretched.
In her own account written from prison, Askew said she fainted from pain, and was lowered and revived. This procedure was repeated twice. Kingston refused to carry on torturing her, left the tower, and sought a meeting with the king at his earliest convenience to explain his position and also to seek his pardon, which the king granted. Wriothesley and Rich set to work themselves. They turned the handles so hard that poor Anne was drawn apart, her shoulders and hips were pulled from their sockets and her elbows and knees were dislocated. Askew's cries could be heard in the garden next to the White Tower where the Lieutenant's wife and daughter were walking. Askew gave no names, and her ordeal ended when the Lieutenant ordered her to be returned to her cell.


She was burnt at the stake at Smithfield, London, aged 26, on 16 July 1546, with John Lascelles and two other Protestants. She was carried to execution in a chair wearing just her shift as she could not walk and every movement caused her severe pain. She was dragged from the chair to the stake which had a small seat attached to it, which she sat astride. Chains were used to bind her body firmly to the stake at the ankles, knees, waist, chest and neck. Because of her recalcitrance she was burned alive slowly rather than being strangled first or burned quickly. Those who saw her execution were impressed by her bravery, and reported that she did not scream until the flames reached her chest. The execution lasted about an hour and she was unconscious and probably dead after fifteen minutes or so. Prior to their death, the young martyrs were offered one last chance at pardon. Bishop Shaxton mounted the pulpit and began to preach to them. His words were in vain, however. Anne, in spite of her sufferings, listened attentively throughout his discourse. When he spoke anything she considered to be the truth she audibly expressed agreement, but when he said anything contrary to what she believed Scripture stated, she exclaimed; "There he misseth, and speaketh without the book."


She wrote a first-person account of her ordeal and her beliefs, which was published as the Examinations by John Bale, and later in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments of 1563 which proclaims her as a Protestant martyr. The story of Askew's martyrdom was thus written into the Protestant hagiography, but as McCulloch comments, under a version of her unmarried name (which he attributes to some embarrassment over her desertion of her husband Kyme). He notes that Robert Parsons picked up on this aspect of the story.
Several ballads were written about Askew in the 17th century. As Thomas Fuller described it, "she went to heaven in a chariot of fire". There was a resurgence of interest in her story during Victorian times, and the Bleets company produced an Anne Askew doll complete with rack and stake. One is on show at the Leeds Toy Museum.

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