English Protestant martyr (1521–1546)

1560 portrait by Hans Eworth

Anne Askew (sometimes spelled Ayscough or Ascue; married name Anne Kyme; 1521 – 16 July 1546)[1] was an English writer, poet, and Anabaptist preacher who was condemned as a heretic in England during the reign of Henry VIII of England. Along with Margaret Cheyne, wife of Sir John Bulmer, who was similarly tortured[2] and executed[3] after the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537, she is the only woman on record known to have been both tortured in the Tower of London and burnt at the stake.

She is also one of the earliest known female poets to compose in the English language and the first Englishwoman to demand a divorce (especially as an innocent party on scriptural grounds).[4]


Martyrdom of Anne Askew

Anne Askew was born in 1521 in Lincolnshire, England to Sir William Askew, a wealthy landowner, and Elizabeth Wrotessley, of Reading, Berkshire. Sir William was a gentleman in the court of King Henry VIII, as well as a juror in the trial of Anne Boleyn's co-accused.[5] Askew was the fourth of their five children, which included her brothers Francis and Edward, and sisters Martha and Jane. She also had two stepbrothers, Christopher and Thomas, by her father's second wife Elizabeth Hutton.[6] She was also related to Robert Aske who led the Pilgrimage of Grace.[7]

William Askew had arranged that his eldest daughter, Martha, be married to Thomas Kyme. When Anne was 15 years old, Martha died. Her father decided Anne would take Martha's place in the marriage to Thomas to save money.[8]

Askew was a devout Protestant, studying the Bible and memorizing verses, and remained true to her belief for the entirety of her life. Her reading convinced her of the falsity of the doctrine of transubstantiation, and her pronouncements created some controversy in Lincoln.[8] Her husband was a Catholic, and the resultant marriage was contentious as she felt compelled to read her Bible to all who would listen contrary to the wishes of her husband and brother, Francis.[9] Askew had two children with Kyme before he threw her out for being Protestant. It is alleged that Askew was seeking to divorce Kyme, so this did not upset her.[7]

Upon being thrown out, Askew moved to London. Here she met other Protestants, including the Anabaptist Joan Bocher,[8] and studied the Bible. Askew stuck to her maiden name, rather than her husband's name. While in London, she continued as a "gospeler" or a preacher to all.[10]

In March 1545, Kyme had Askew arrested. She was brought back to Lincolnshire, where he demanded that she stay. The order was short lived; she escaped and returned to London to continue preaching. In early 1546, she was arrested again but released. In May 1546, she was arrested for a third time, and tortured in the Tower of London (she is the only woman recorded to have been tortured there apart from Margaret Cheyne, wife of Sir John Bulmer). She was ordered to name like-minded women, but refused. The torturers, Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Sir Richard Rich, used the rack, but Askew refused to renounce her beliefs. On 18 June 1546, she was convicted of heresy, and was condemned to be burned at the stake.[7]

On 16 July 1546, Askew was martyred in Smithfield, London. Because of the torture she had endured, she had to be carried to the stake on a chair. She was burned to death, along with three other Protestants,[7] John Lassells, Nicholas Belenian, also known as John Hemsley ("a priest"), and John Adams, aka John Hadlam ("a tailor").[11] A secret supporter of the cause slipped gunpowder to the condemned four, which killed them quickly when it exploded.[12]

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 Roman 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".[13] The people 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 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.[13]

The traditionalist party included Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich (who racked Askew in the Tower), Edmund Bonner, and Thomas Howard. The intention of her interrogators may have been to implicate Queen Catherine Parr through her ladies-in-waiting and close friends, whom were suspected of having harboured Protestant beliefs. These ladies included Katherine Willoughby, Anne Calthorpe, Joan Champernowne, Lady Hertford, and the Queen's sister, Anne Parr.[13]

Plain speaking

The prevailing religious culture of Anne's time, summed up by bishop Stephen Gardiner, viewed "plain speaking" with suspicion, a tactic used by the devil to spread heresy: "and where playnes maye deceyve, he makethe his pretence to speake playnely, and professeth simplycytie". The inquisitors saw in Anne a particularly threatening example of such plain speaking, her agile answers demonstrating a mastery of scriptural language that rivaled the inquisitors' own. Under questioning from bishop Edmund Bonner, who commanded her repeatedly to "utter al thynges that burdened [her] conscience," she answered in unembellished language blended with Scriptural teachings: "God hath geven me the gyfte of knowledge, but not of utterance. And Salomon sayth, that a woman of fewe words, is a gyfte of God (Sirach 26:14)."[14]

Her answers infuriated the inquisitors, who found they were not able to force from her the answers they wanted to hear. Faced with Bonner's deepening rage, she repeated only that she believed "as the scripture doth teache", making it clear that she would not accept non-scriptural authorities over her own engagement with the Scriptures – which she quotes from directly – "That God dwelleth not in temples made with handes" (Acts 17:24).[15] When Christopher Dare asked for her interpretation of this saying, she mocked them, invoking the Sermon on the Mount: "I answered, that I wolde not throw pearles amonge swyne, for acornes were good ynough." (Matthew 7:6)[16]

When questioned about the Eucharist she answered "if the host shuld fall, and a beast ded eate it [did the] beast ... receyve God or no?" She often played upon traditional gender roles to mock her questioners telling them "it is agaynst saynt Paules lernynge, that [she] beynge a woman, should interprete the scriptures, specyallye where so many wise men were."[17]

Of particular interest to the questioners was Anne's relationship with the Holy Spirit. Asked if she acted with the Holy Spirit inside her, she answered "if I had not, I was but a reprobate or cast awaye." Anabaptists were especially feared because they claimed the authority of the Holy Spirit, and rejected other laws (like the Münster rebellion which declared the establishment of a "kingdom of a thousand years").[18]

Arrest and interrogation

Torture of Anne Askew

Anne Askew underwent two "examinations" before she was finally burned at the stake for heresy. On 10 March 1545, the aldermen of London ordered for her to be detained under the Six Articles Act. Askew stood trial before the "quest", which was an official heresy hearing commission. She was then cross examined by the chancellor of the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner. He ordered that she be imprisoned for 12 days. During this time she refused to make any sort of confession. Her cousin Brittany was finally allowed to visit her after the 12 days to bail her out.[19]

On 19 June 1546, Askew was, yet again, locked away in prison. She was then subject to a two-day-long period of cross examination led by Chancellor Sir Thomas Wriothesley, Stephen Gardiner (The Bishop of Winchester), John Dudley, and Sir William Paget (the king's principal secretary). They threatened her with execution, but she still refused to confess or to name fellow Protestants. She was then ordered to be tortured. Her torturers did so, probably motivated by the desire for Askew to admit that Queen Catherine was also a practising Protestant.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] This procedure was repeated twice. Sir Anthony Knevet, then Lieutenant of the Tower, 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.[22] They turned the handles so hard that 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.[23]

Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew, for heresy, at Smithfield in 1546


Anne Askew was burned at the stake at Smithfield, London, aged 25, on 16 July 1546, with John Lascelles, Nicholas Belenian and John Adams.[24][25] She was carried to execution in a chair wearing just her shift, as she could not walk and every movement caused her severe pain.[26] She was dragged from the chair to the stake which had a small seat attached to it, on which she sat astride. Chains were used to bind her body firmly to the stake at the ankles, knees, waist, chest and neck.

Those who saw her execution were impressed by her bravery, and reported that she did not scream until the flames reached her chest.[citation needed] Prior to their death, the prisoners were offered one last chance at pardon. Bishop Shaxton mounted the pulpit and began to preach to them. His words were in vain, however. Askew 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."[27]


Askew 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 MacCulloch comments, it is written under a version of her unmarried name (which he attributes to some embarrassment over her desertion of her husband Kyme).[28] MacCulloch notes that Robert Parsons picked up on this aspect of the story.[29]

John Bale and John Foxe's writings on Askew are the most well-known accounts of her life, but a closer look at their writing causes some critics to question whether these editors help or hurt readers' understanding of Anne Askew. John Bale was the first to publish any work commemorating Askew's life, and he claimed to have solely taken Askew's writings and added only a preface and notes; but critics Thomas S. Freeman and Sarah Elizabeth Wall contest this claim (1169). It is unlikely that Bale invented the entire text, but they find that certain quotes within Askew's narrative have a Baleian tone (1169), and some sections may have been deleted (1170). The exacts are unknown, but Bale seems to have made considerable changes to the account. They also point out that Bale's work has imposed a misogynistic (or adverse towards women) misreading on the narrative. Askew is a woman who is remembered for taking a stand against the church's oppression, but Bale insists on her being a "weak vessel of the lord" (1166). Her narrative clearly disproves this, and shows that she was an educated woman who actively fought and challenged male control. Because of these criticisms, some argue that Askew's story is improved if read independently of Bale's notes and additions in order to understand her legacy without the distraction of an intrusive author (1167). Foxe's translation and interpretation are often considered an improvement from Bale's original. He eliminated Bale's notes and frames the story more around Askew's narrative (1167). But Foxe also took some artistic liberties by altering language to make certain allusions more obvious (1171) and breaking the narrative into paragraphs (1177). Critics have noted six clear Biblical citation errors within the work (1171); and Foxe also added new information that may have become known through eyewitnesses coming forward with new details, but the exact sources are unclear (1185). While Bale is criticized and Foxe is often commended for doing a better job with capturing her narrative, it is important to point out the accuracy issues of the two texts principally responsible for Askew's legacy.[30] It is also important to notice the impact that Bale and Foxe had on the overall reputation of martyrs of the 16th century; with Anne Askew serving as a prime example. While Askew was writing her accounts of her arrests and trial, she used strategies other men were using at this time, such as John Lascelles (Hickerson, 2006, 53). She stayed silent, did not give up her allies, and stayed true to her faith. Although, other men were doing this at the same time, Askew was highly criticized for doing so and was portrayed as a weak woman. Bale also saw this as a chance to add his thoughts and comments to her published writing to make it more legitimate in the eyes of the people (Hickerson, 2006, 56–58). Her criticism and Bale's comments changed her impact on the Protestant Reformation movement.


Anne Askew's autobiographical and published Examinations chronicle her persecution and offer a unique look into sixteenth century femininity, religion, and faith. Her writing is revolutionary because it deviates completely from what we think and expect from "Tudor women or, more specifically, Tudor women martyrs" (51). It depicts her confrontations with male authority figures of the time who challenged every aspect of life: from her progressive divorce, which she initiated, to her religious beliefs, which set her apart in England as a devout Protestant woman. Her ability to avoid indictment in 1545 points to what Paula McQuade calls Askew's "real brilliance", showing "her being familiar enough with English law to attempt to use the system to her benefit" (52). While her Examinations are a rare record of her experiences as a woman in Tudor England, they also show her unique position in this world as an educated woman. Not only was she able to write down her experiences, she was also able to correspond with select learned men of the time, such as John Lascelles and Dr. Edward Crome who was also arrested for heresy. As stated above, Askew's Examinations are imperfect and were altered by John Bale and John Foxe, but read as they were originally intended, Anne Askew's writing is one of the most important autobiographical accounts of 16th century religious turmoil we have to date, and is a testament to her intelligence and outstanding bravery.[31]

In popular culture

In the episode "Secrets of the Heart" of the television series The Tudors, Askew is played by Emma Stansfield. She is executed alone, with the gunpowder that hastens her death secretly supplied by Anne Seymour, Countess of Hertford, played by Emma Hamilton.

See also


  1. ^ Lindsey 1995, pp. xv, 190.
  2. ^ Smith, Lacey Baldwin; Ridley, Jasper (April 1986). "Henry VIII: The Politics of Tyranny". The American Historical Review. 91 (2): 391. doi:10.2307/1858184. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 1858184.
  3. ^ Wriothesley, Charles (1508?–1562). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. 28 November 2017. doi:10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.013.30071.
  4. ^ Merle D'Aubigné 1994.
  5. ^ Ives 2005, p. 339.
  6. ^ Beilin 1996, p. xvii.
  7. ^ a b c d Gairdner 1885.
  8. ^ a b c Pollard, Albert Frederick (1911). "Askew, Anne" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 762–763.
  9. ^ Wilson, Derek. (1973). A Tudor tapestry: Men, Women and Society in Reformation England Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 164-165. ISBN 0-8229-3242-3.
  10. ^ Porter 2011, pp. 252–253.
  11. ^ Anne Askew (1996). The Examinations of Anne Askew. Oxford University Press. pp. xxii–xxiii. ISBN 978-0-19-510849-1.
  12. ^ "anne askew sentenced to death". The Anne Boleyn Files. Claire. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  13. ^ a b c MacCulloch 1996, pp. 352–354.
  14. ^ Loewenstein, David (2013). Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern. p. 86.
  15. ^ Loewenstein, David (2013). Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern. p. 87.
  16. ^ Loewenstein, David (2013). Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern. p. 86.
  17. ^ Loewenstein, David (2013). Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern. p. 94.
  18. ^ Loewenstein, David (2013). Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern. p. 89.
  19. ^ a b Watt 2004.
  20. ^ Beilin 1996, p. 127.
  21. ^ Beilin 1996, p. 130.
  22. ^ Beilin 1996, pp. liv, 127, 187.
  23. ^ Beilin 1996.
  24. ^ Beilin 1996, p. 192.
  25. ^ Foxe's Book of Martyrs: 210. The Martyrdom of John Lacels, John Adams, and Nicholas Belenian
  26. ^ Beilin 1996, p. 191.
  27. ^ Foxe V 1838, p. 550.
  28. ^ MacCulloch 1996, pp. 352–4.
  29. ^ Parsons 1604, pp. 492–496.
  30. ^ Freeman & Wall 2001, pp. 1165–96.
  31. ^ Hickerson 2006, pp. 50–65.


External links