Anne Askew (1521 - 1546) of South Kelsey, Lincolnshire, England, lived at a time when it was extremely dangerous to challenge the doctrine of the Roman Catholic religion, but that didn't put her off. For doing so she was tortured and executed, but her story didn't end there, as we shall see.
Anne was born during the reign of Henry VIII, who had his own issues with Rome. She was the fifth and last child born to Sir William Askew and his second wife Elizabeth (née Wrottesley). Elizabeth Askew died when Anne was still a baby. William married again and had two more children with his third wife Elizabeth Hutton, so Anne was raised by her stepmother.
The Askew family were rich landowners belonging to the gentry. Some men from this class, known as gentlemen, became Members of Parliament, while others, like Anne's father William, sought work serving their king. Sons of such families were educated by private tutors at home until they were sent away to university. The daughters would be schooled in the art of becoming a lady, with deportment lessons, classes in needlepoint, and making the most of what God had given them. This may have been satisfying for many girls, but not Anne Askew. She had an enquiring mind and helped herself to the books in the library room to satisfy her urge to learn. By the time she was a teenager, Anne was well educated in law and could recite passages of the Bible by heart. And she had ambitions of her own.
What she understood about her own interpretation of Bible texts brought her into contact with a group of people called Protestants who did not accept the authority of the Pope. One of the creators of this new branch of Christian religion was Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) – he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X in 1521, the same year that Anne was born.
When she was just a teenager Anne would travel to Lincoln, visit the cathedral and locate the priests, with whom she would discuss Bible passages. Such discussions usually entailed arguments about certain teachings, which was, at the very least, likely to cause offence to the clergy. Anne began to preach herself, garnering quite a following in the process. It is known that Anne spoke up for the reformers in public, something which was exceedingly dangerous at the time. This behaviour probably earned Anne many enemies. Reformers were classed as heretics and the Pope's followers would consider it their sacred duty to report such blasphemers, even if they were members of their own family. The challenging of religious doctrine in Tudor times was responsible for the spilling of a lot of blood and the ruthless premature ending of life, much the same as it is today in some countries.
The daughters of the gentry were expected to make good marriage matches, unions which strengthened their birth family. They had no say in the matter of choice of husband and were expected to acquiesce. Anne's older sister Martha was engaged to Thomas Kyme, who belonged to a lower class but he was a great deal richer than the Askew family. When Martha unexpectedly died prior to the wedding, Sir William forced his daughter Anne to replace her sister at the altar. Anne had no choice, she was just 15 years old and had to obey her father, but she rebelled in her own way by refusing to change her name to that of her husband.
Thomas Kyme was a staunch Catholic whose idea of what a good wife should be must have come as a great shock to Anne. Some historians say the couple had one or two children but all agree that the union was not a happy one. Anne frequently left the family home to go 'gospelling' (preaching about the gospels), and once went as far as London. No doubt at the end of his tether after that, Kyme refused to accept her back into his house so Anne returned to London to seek a divorce. In court the judge refused to grant one and ordered that her husband be forced to take her back. Kyme travelled to London to collect Anne and escorted her back to Lincolnshire. However, as soon as she could get away Anne fled back to London, never again to return to the county of her birth.
Life in London
In 1543 Henry VIII introduced the Act for the Advancement of True Religion, which forbade men below the rank of gentleman and all women from reading the Bible. In July of the same year the King married his last wife Catherine Parr, whose own interest in Protestantism earned her enemies among the King's hangers-on. Queen Catherine had her own court comprising close friends, ladies-in-waiting and her sister. It is possible that some of those women befriended Anne when she returned to London in 1545. Never one to keep a low profile, she had been preaching and handing out English Bibles. In March of that year Anne was arrested and questioned. Although careful not to implicate herself, she was locked up in Compter Prison for 11 days. Anne spent the time writing about her arrest, the interrogation and imprisonment without trial.
Even after her release from jail, Anne continued to preach Protestantism. She was becoming well-known and even came to the attention of the King himself. When his courtiers reported to him that Anne had connections with Queen Catherine, the King ordered Anne's re-arrest. In March 1546 Anne was tried for heresy but they couldn't prove anything so she was released without charge into the custody of her brother.
A few months later she was arrested again and questioned before the King's Council at Greenwich by church luminaries such as the Bishop of Winchester. She argued with each one of her questioners and when they couldn't beat her with words they threatened to burn her at the stake as a heretic. Anne's answer to this was that she had read the Bible and in all the Scriptures she couldn't recall Jesus or any of his disciples putting anyone to death for their views. Defeated, her accusers sent her, untried by any jury, to Newgate Prison.
Abuse, Torture and Martyrdom
Whether Anne received humane treatment in jail is not recorded, but she soon became ill. She wrote: in all my life afore I never was in such pain. From Newgate she was transferred to the Guildhall and condemned as a heretic. From there she petitioned the king to hear her case but the appeal fell on deaf ears. Anne was taken from the Guildhall to the Tower of London to be tortured on the rack in order to divulge the names of her consorts, but she remained silent about her friends.
Present in the torture chamber were members of the Privy Council as well as Anne's jailer and the Constable of the Tower of London who was performing the racking. So outraged were her accusers at Anne's refusal to name other suspected heretics that two of them, Sir Richard Rich and the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, Christians both, removed their robes of office and set to work turning the rack themselves. This was an unprecedented act of barbarism which shocked every person who later heard of it. When Anne was finally released from the rack, she continued arguing with the two 'gentlemen' who had tortured her. Finally they gave up trying to extract information from her and her execution was set for 16 July, 1546.
A huge crowd gathered in Smithfield on the day of the burning. A dais was installed for the viewing dignitaries who included Lord Chancellor Wriothesley and the Lord Mayor of London. Four poles were erected for Anne and three other condemned prisoners. The kindling was piled up for the pyre. As she could no longer walk, Anne had to be hauled to the stake in a chair carried by her jailers. She couldn't stand so they chained her to the stake. Bishop Nicholas Shaxton, himself a reformer who recanted to save his own skin, read a sermon. Anne was offered a final reprieve if she would recant. She refused, then told Bishop Shaxton what she thought of his sermon. The Lord Mayor gave the nod to set the fire.
And so Anne Askew died a martyr, but her voice would not be silenced.
Anne Askew Remembered
Anne's writings about her time in prison reached the ex-Bishop of Ossory John Bale, who was living in exile abroad thanks to his own ideas of reform. Knowing how Anne's life ended meant Bale could tell the whole pitiful story – he wrote, published and distributed it. John Bale was a great PR agent; the slip of a girl interrogated, tortured and condemned by the landed gentry, a Christian heroine who refused to betray her friends and who met her fate with bravery. The public in England lapped it up – the reformist movement gathered pace when King Henry VIII died some six months after Anne Askew.
Thanks to John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (1563)1, which is still in print, Anne's fame has lasted well into the modern era. She remains the only woman in British history to have been both tortured on the rack and burned alive on the orders of the state.