On this day in history, 18th June 1546, the Protestant martyr and poet, Anne Askew, was found guilty of heresy and condemned to be burned at the stake at Smithfield.
Anne Askew’s Background
Anne Askew was born in 1520 (some say 1521) in Lincolnshire. She was a noblewoman, being the daughter of Sir William Askew, and was well-educated. Karen Lindsey, author of “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived : A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII”, writes of how Anne was affected by the Protestant ideas that her brothers, who were students at Cambridge, would talk about when they came home to visit, but that the Askew family were conservatives and Anne’s father opposed the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537. It was the Pilgrimage of Grace that Lindsey gives as a reason for Anne turning her back on the old religion, because Anne saw the rebels attack her home and seize her brothers.
At around this time, Anne was forced to marry Thomas Kyme. Kyme had originally been betrothed to Anne’s older sister Martha but when she died Anne was offered as a replacement. It was not a happy union. Kyme was traditional in his religious views and Anne, by this time, had strong Protestant views. Lindsey believes that Anne probably survived the early days of her marriage by spending her time with her sister Jane, who was married to a Protestant, George Saint Paul. Saint Paul was friends with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and his wife Catherine (née Willoughby) who was a supporter of religious reform. From 1538-1543 the law allowed normal parishioners access to the English Bible in churches and those of Protestant leanings took the opportunity to conduct Bible readings and share their evangelical views, Anne was one of those people.
The Fair Gospeler
Henry VIII did an about turn in 1543 and passed an act which prevented all women (and men below the rank of gentlemen) from reading the Bible. However, this did not prevent people like Anne from sharing their views and preaching because they had memorised scripture. In fact, this law made Anne even more determined to share her Bible knowledge with those who were deprived from reading the Bible themselves. Kyme, a traditional conservative, could not and would not cope with his outspoken wife, a woman who even refused to take his name, so, as advised by his local priests, he kicked her out of the family home. Anne simply moved in with her brother Francis and petitioned for divorce. Her petition was denied by her local court so Anne headed to London where she was convinced that she would get her divorce. As Lindsey writes:-
“Like the king’s new wife [Catherine Parr], Anne revered Henry for freeing his people from the evil of popery. She was certain the king, who had himself disposed of several unworthy spouses, would allow a godly woman to be free of her unbelieving husband.”
While in London, Anne met up with an old friend and neighbour, John Lascelles*, a man of Protestant persuasion, and it was he who introduced her to people like Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester), Nicholas Shaxton (Bishop of Salisbury) and Dr Edward Crome. These men were not only high profile Protestants, they were also connected to Henry’s new queen, Catherine Parr. Anne flourished with the support of such friends and the climate of reform in London and “quickly, exuberantly, she became one of London’s most famous and beloved gospelers, her beauty and high rank marking her as the Fair Gospeler. She had found her home, and soon all London had heard about the lovely young gentlewoman who talked equally with servants and masters, who had such thorough knowledge of God’s word, who spoke with such intense conviction.”
Unfortunately, although some of London was open to reform and fell in love with this passionate woman, Anne was making enemies. Bishop Stephen Gardiner, a Catholic Conservative, was looking to discredit the new queen, Catherine Parr, and deal with Protestant climate that seemed to surround her. Anne Askew was not only an outspoken heretic stirring up the people of London, she was also linked to Catherine Brandon, the Duchess of Suffolk, who was a good friend of the Queen. Perhaps Anne could be used to bring down the Queen.
Anne Askew Arrested
In June 1545, Anne Askew, and a few other Protestant sympathisers, were rounded up and arrested for heresy but later released due to lack of evidence and witnesses. A few months later, in early 1546, Anne’s petition for divorce was dismissed and the court ordered her to return to Kyme, something which Anne refused to do. Lindsey writes of how Anne’s refusal to return to her husband was just the “weapon” that Gardiner needed. Although she had been arrested again in March 1546 and again released, Gardiner summoned her to London to order her to return to her husband and used this opportunity to question Anne on her religious beliefs. Lindsey writes:-
“Anne no longer attempted to evade admitting her own beliefs. She treated transubstantiation as a joke. Of course Jesus has said he was the bread of the Eucharist. He had also said he was the door to salvation — did that mean he was present in any door a priest chose to bless? She was courting martyrdom and on June 18 she was condemned to die at the stake.”
As well as being known for her gospel preaching and death at the stake, Anne Askew is also famed for being the only recorded woman to have been tortured at the Tower of London.
After being condemned to death, Anne Askew was taken to the Tower of London where she was subjected to torture on the rack at the hands of Gardiner’s right-hand men, Sir Richard Rich and Sir Thomas Wriothesley. Even though she had already been condemned to death, she was racked because Gardiner was determined to link Anne to the Queen’s friends, women like Catherine Brandon (Duchess of Suffolk), Anne Calthorpe (Countess of Sussex) and Anne Stanhope (Lady Hertford), and Anne was refusing to name names during interrogations.
As Anne had already been condemned and she was a gentlewoman, the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Anthony Kingston, refused to continue racking Anne after the first turn. He left the Tower in search of Henry VIII to inform him of this illegal and appalling torture and to seek a pardon for letting it happen. This did not stop Rich and Wriothesley, they simply racked the poor woman themselves until they were stopped by Kingston, who informed that the King had ordered that Anne should be taken off the rack and returned to her prison cell.
The Burning of Anne Askew
On the 16th July 1546, Anne Askew, John Lascelles and two other Protestants were burned at the stake at Smithfield. Anne had to be carried to the stake on a chair because of her injuries from racking and the stake had a seat to support her body. Lindsey writes:-
“As the ******s were piled high about them, Wriothesly made his way through the throng to offer the four a pardon if they recanted. Anne spoke for them all, crying aloud that she ” came not hither to deny my Lord and Master!” The torch was lit and the four died quickly thanks to gunpowder a friend had thrown into the flames. A fortuitous thunderstorm, breaking out suddenly, added to the legend that grew to surround the death of the Fair Gospeler: the thunder, the 18th century ecclesiastical historian John Strype tells us “seemed to the people to be the voice of God, or the voice of an angel”.”
There is no doubt that Anne Askew was a martyr and an incredible woman. She was just 25 years old when she died but what an amazing life she had led. In an age where women were supposed to be submissive, and have no voice or opinions of their own, she was an outspoken preacher and died for her faith, remaining true to her friends and beliefs, whatever the cost. I admire her.
You can see clips from Season 4 of “The Tudors” of Anne being arrested, tortured and burned in the following YouTube video. SPOILER ALERT – don’t watch it unless you don’t mind getting a sneak peak of Season 4!
What a woman!
Notes and Sources
- Divorced, Beheaded, Survived : A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey
- John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – online version
- Wikipedia page on Anne Askew
* John Lascelles – The same John Lascelles who was told, by his sister Mary, of Catherine Howard’s past relationship with Francis Dereham.