Tudor Martyr & Author
Even being from a minor noble family and with some royal connections in Tudor England in the mid 16th century, Anne Askew might have remained obscure. If she had kept her religious beliefs to herself. However, as she did speak about her deep faith it brought her to the official attention that eventually brought her to die bravely at the stake. To many then and now she was a martyr for her faith.
Born about 1521, the daughter of a knight, Anne was married and may have had children, but the marriage was troubled. However, Anne was educated and when she read her Bible, she became persuaded to adopt an evangelical point of view.
The 1530s–1540s was a time of religious turmoil in Tudor England. It came when King Henry VIII formed the Church of England since the Roman church would not grant him a divorce, yet though ostensibly Protestant, this new institution retained many aspects of the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, since there were now English Bibles available, their readers became persuaded that many of those Catholic doctrines were wrong. These dissenters were often called evangelicals and Anne Askew was one of them.
So as Anne began to share her new beliefs with her traditionally minded husband and friends her husband rejected her. She could not receive a divorce locally so she moved to London to find success. There she had family connections to royalty. For example, her sister Jane was married to an important lawyer, in the household of Queen Catherine Parr.
Possibly these connections, as well as espousal of her beliefs, attracted official attention. Especially when enemies of the Queen sought to use Anne to discredit Catherine who was believed to have evangelical sympathies. So in March, 1545 local authorities questioned her, demanding that she declare her belief in the Church of England doctrines, but she objected. An attempt at a trial was unsuccessful and she was released.
Still officials on the King’s Council, and the Queen’s enemies, were not finished with Mistress Askew. In May 1646 Anne was brought before the Council for a three day interrogation. Anne answered her critics, drawing on her knowledge of the Scriptures, and then when Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester claimed to be her friend stating that he only wanted to save her soul she rejected his attempts. The frustrated Council members lodged her in Newgate Prison where she began to write about her experiences—but there were more ordeals to come.
By the end of June, 1546 Anne was charged with heresy and though she could have surrendered to the pressure to recant she did not. Still her enemies were intent on getting evidence from Anne about the Queen so they had her removed to the Tower of London to be tortured on the rack. Though technically racking a woman or anyone without royal permission was illegal, Anne’s enemies were determined.
She was stripped to her shift, and then climbed on the rack where her feet and hands were tied, and the ropes tightened. Anne continued to refuse to provide any information or to recant but so intent were two of her enemies that they put aside their outer garments and operated the rack personally.
As Anne wrote later, “Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion” the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted” and then they recovered me again.”
Despite the torture Anne refused to give them the information they needed to support their case but they weren’t about to give up. Again Anne wrote: “After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor…With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion I said that I would rather die than break my faith.”
Anne was then allowed to be moved to a private house to recover, but the damage had been done. Her joints were dislocated and she could not walk, but there followed an official cover-up of the injustice. She continued to write her story after returning to Newgate, until an execution date was set for burning at the stake for July 12, 1546.
At that time since Anne could not walk because of the torture, she was carried to the execution site in a chair. And since she couldn’t stand the chair was placed at the base of the stake and her ankles, wrists, chest and neck were secured to the pole. Her accusers were present to tell the crowd that she could be spared if she would recant, but she still refused. As she put it she “came not hither to deny my Lord and Master.”
There were varying stories that her death was made more merciful by the use of gunpowder to hasten the process, but all accounts agreed that Anne faced death with great courage! Her story was later related by not just her own writings, but by two contemporary authors. One of these was John Bale, who wrote The Examinations of Anne Askew in 1547 and also John Foxe in his 1563 classic Acts and Monuments or also known as the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Anne’s first person account of her ordeal and her beliefs was published as The Examinations and later covered in Foxe’s book. One source called her writing as “one of the most important autobiographical accounts of 16th century religious turmoil we have to date and is a testament to her intelligence of outstanding bravery.”
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Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.