Anne Askew:  Determined to Stand Alone

Before Anne Askew’s executioners could burn her at the stake, they had to tie her to a chair.  Askew had been so severely tortured, her legs and arms so twisted upon the rack, that she could not stand. 

In fact, Askew’s interrogators had been sufficiently cruel to warrant that the Constable of the Tower of London, Sir Anthony Kinston—no stranger to witnessing torture—left the chamber disgusted and outraged.  He hurried to the court of Henry VIII to beg for justice on her behalf. 
Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and a chap named Richard Rich took up the interrogation personally upon Kinston’s desertion.  They intensified their efforts, but Wriothesley and Rich could not get Askew to implicate Queen Catherine Parr into a protestant scheme as they had hoped.  They had believed that they could embroil Henry’s sixth queen in a heretical plot and rid themselves of a woman they suspected was far too sympathetic to the protestant cause, too much a spokeswoman for the Seymour faction of the king’s Privy Council.  Without Catherine Parr, their own influence would increase.  Surely Askew would say what they wanted her to say.  Surely they would be able to arrest the queen next.

It may seem odd that the English king would persecute protestants since he was himself protestant.  Indeed, Henry broke with the Catholic Church and founded the Anglican faith, but he was quite unlike Martin Luther in his basis for his rift with Rome.  Luther tacked his 95 thesis on his Wittenburg Church door because he had 95 points of theological disagreement with the doctrine of the Catholic Church.  Henry had precisely zero.  Henry, once named by the Pope Leo X himself as "Fidei Defensor"[Defender of the Faith] (1521), looked only to resolve his Great Matter (1533), the difficulty of ridding himself of Catherine of Aragon, his wife of twenty-three years who had only bore him one pitiful daughter so that he could marry the more beautiful—or at least more exotic—Anne Boleyn.

Four wives later (Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, then Catherine Parr), Henry remained ardently Catholic in his convictions despite heading The Church of England.  He would not consent to protestant nonsense, any more than he would endure Catholic monasteries.  Anne Askew was a protestant nuisance, a reformer and a preacher.  Henry was not about to allow protestant dissidents to voice their freethinking opinions.

But Kinston could not tolerate torture that was not legally applied.  Ever since Henry VII had instituted The Star Chamber, the Tower had adhered to certain niceties of torture. One did not hang, draw, and quarter and disembowel men of noble birth.  One did not rack a gentlewoman.  These acts were saved for lesser folk.

Kinston’s appeal to Henry VIII, begging that Askew be tortured like a lady, gained mild success with the king.  Henry offered justice:  He would allow Askew to recant her radical protestant drivel and she could live.

 The problem with Henry’s justice was that Anne Askew was not the sort of woman to recant.  She was not even the sort to take her husband’s surname.  She was who she was.  She believed what she believed.  It was her bad luck that it was the sixteenth century in Tudor England.
When Askew was brought to her execution in Smithfield just outside of the London Wall, she was presented with the king’s papers granting mercy should she decide to repent her earlier heretical statements.  Nicholas Shaxton, a preacher who had just himself recanted, gave a sermon which Askew interrupted to reiterate her precepts of religious faith, the same argument for which she was about to be executed. 

Transubstantiation, she argued, was a fallacy.  The wine in the communion service did not change into the blood of Christ when blessed by the priest.  She had read in the scriptures that God made man but, she dryly pointed out, she had not read that man could make God,  nor, did she suppose, would she ever read such a notion in the holy scriptures.
Her point was not well taken.  Askew’s body was covered with gunpowder and the faggots beneath her broken feet were lit.  Thus occurred the martyrdom of Anne Askew (16 July 1545). 
Hence was Catherine Parr saved from the machinations of the king’s ministers—at least for the time being. Wriothesley and the king’s Bishop Gardiner would have to get at the queen in another way.

Trouble most likely would have come Anne Askew’s way with or without Catherine Parr.  She was not one to go along with the status quo just because it was the path of least resistance.
Born in Lincolnshire to a wealthy family (1521), Askew objected when her father forced her to marry her dead sister’s husband, Thomas Kyme.  The two were unsuited for each other both in disposition and in theological belief.  Askew refused her husband’s name and despite bearing two children, refused to believe that her highest calling was to remain Kyme’s wife and her children’s mother. 

An avid reader, Askew studied the scriptures, memorized entire passages, and attracted a following when she began to teach the radical protestant faith she felt compelled to follow.  Unfortunately, her husband was not one of her devotees.  He forbade not only her public preaching but all study of the scripture.  Askew answered her husband’s demands by leaving his "protection" and journeying to London where she quickly gained a still wider following.  She may have come in contact with the queen during this time, although if Askew did meet with Catherine Parr, their contact was kept secret, as indeed, were most illegal protestant meetings.  They may have known each other prior to this time.  At any rate, when Askew was arrested upon her first offense of public preaching, the Queen Catherine Parr was reputed to have sent food and warm clothes to Askew and then helped to arrange her release.

Askew was freed from The Tower of London and told to cease her teaching, ordered to return to Kyme.  Askew argued that her husband [who was not a protestant] was an "unbeliever," and she asked instead for a divorce, citing Corinthians 7:15, a biblical passage which states that Christians need not stay "bound" or "yolked" to unbelievers, that God’s peace would be granted to those who pursued devotion to God above a marriage tormented  with issues of faith.
The court saw it differently.  Askew, who had been forced to marry her sister’s widower, no doubt thought that a king who had once chosen to marry his brother’s widow, might have some sympathy when the relationship did not work out quite so favorably as all parties had originally hoped.  Alas, the king missed the irony in their parallel situations, and Askew had not the clout to declare a new church and order her own divorce.  She was sent back to Lincolnshire.
Twice more Askew left her husband to preach in London and twice more was she arrested.  After her interrogators determined that she would not confess names of co-conspirators even under duress, she was condemned for heresy and sentenced to death (28 June 1545).

Askew’s execution drew a great deal of attention.  It was not that protestant executions were out of the norm so much as word of her likely fearlessness in the face of arrant cruelty drew an audience in anticipation of what promised to be a memorable event.  They were not disappointed.  The spectators repeatedly had to be pushed back from the flames for their own safety as Askew shouted out her faith even as her body went up in flames.

Naturally enough, eyewitness accounts were recorded and surreptitiously distributed.  Drafts of these accounts were smuggled out of England to the continent, increasing Askew’s already considerable fame.  One protestant reformer and publisher, John Bale, printed a version of Askew’s death although comparative drafts suggest that Bale edited, manipulated, and supplemented Askew’s actual words, which he called her "Examinations" into what he thought was a helpful attempt to make her a weaker, more docile, more acceptably feminine martyr than was her nature. 

John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was less mild, more verifiably true to the actual event of Anne Askew’s death according to eyewitnesses.  Foxe’s work, which chronicled the deaths of English Christians who died for their faith from the time of the Roman Empire to the reign of the Tudors, encouraged  protestants during the English reformation and was so crucial to the propagation of the faith that in 1570, after protestantism was firmly established (Henry VIII died [1547] and a more continental brand of protestantism established itself within the Church of England), the book was ordered by Parliament to be placed in all Anglican churches.  The account of Askew served as a favorite passage.  Her story inspired ballads even into the seventeenth century.

--researched by C. F. and written by A.Baylor