Anne Askew, a forgotten Protestant poet and martyr

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Religion, Royalty on Sunday, 10 February 2013

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This edited article about Anne Askew originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 126 published on 13 June 1964.

Anne Askew, picture, image, illustration

Anne Askew was racked in the Tower before being burned at the stake, by Mike Lea

That fat, imperious monarch, King Henry the Eighth, was making a speech to his Parliament about all the religious differences that were being aired in England.

“If you know,” said Henry to the assembled Members, “that any preach perverse doctrine, come and declare it to some of our council. I am very sorry to know, and hear how irreverently that precious jewel, the word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every ale-house and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same.”

All England at this time was in the throes of uncertainty about its religion, which was neither truly Protestant nor properly Catholic. But after Henry’s speech it was decided to enforce vigorously an Act of Parliament called the Six Articles, which laid down that everyone must practise certain tenets of the Catholic faith. The penalties for disobedience were so severe that Protestants called the Act “the whip with six strings.”

In the year 1545 a young, beautiful and learned woman named Anne Kyme, who lived in Lincolnshire, became a convert to the Protestant faith. Her husband, Mr. Kyme, was furious with her for this, and ejected her from his house. Anne then resumed her maiden name of Askew and threw herself into a busy campaign to proclaim her newfound faith.

She worked hard – so hard that the books she was circulating about the Protestant religion found their way to the court of no less a person than the King himself. Several of the ladies there read them with interest, including Lady Jane Grey, who was later to become the nine days Queen, and the Queen Consort – Katharine Parr.

Now the Englishmen who lived in Tudor times were not nearly so interested in religion for religion’s sake as might be imagined. To them religion was a matter of politics, a game to be played at the right time, not a matter of conscience. So for all they cared Anne Askew’s books and ideas could circulate almost anywhere; she was, after all, only a woman, and could be dismissed as a bit of a fanatic. But with the enforcement of the Six Articles, together with the fact that Anne was commanding the attention of the Queen herself, they decided to act.

Anne was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. There, on the command of Lord Chancellor Wriothesley, she was remorselessly tortured to make her confess that the Queen was a heretic for reading her books.

Anne knew full well Wriothesley’s motive for this act. She knew that he did not like the Queen, and that if she confessed the Chancellor could bring a charge against Katharine which might well cost the Queen her life.

But Anne’s lips were sealed. Nothing her inquisitors could do would make her speak. When someone – probably someone in the royal household – sent her funds and comforts while she was in prison, she was promptly tortured again to make her confess who her benefactor was. Still she said nothing.

One day poor Anne was put upon the rack and stretched, one of the cruellest forms of torture ever devised. At length the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Anthony Knevet, accustomed though he was to watching torture, could stand it no longer and signalled to the jailer to stop.

Chancellor Wriothesley, who had been standing by, was furious at this intervention. He sprang forward, threw off his cloak, and grabbing one of the handles of the rack, proceeded to work it himself until Anne was very nearly split in two.

Angrily Sir Anthony stormed from the torture chamber, jumped into his boat moored on the Thames, alongside the Tower, and commanded his oarsmen to row him with all speed to the King’s palace in Whitehall. There Sir Anthony went before the King and demanded that the tortures of Anne Askew should be stopped.

Henry, it seems, appeared to be displeased that a woman should be the subject of all this barbarity, but he did nothing about it. In fact, according to one man in his court, he had actually given the order for Anne to be stretched himself.

By the time Wriothesley had finished with Anne her body was broken and dislocated. But still not one word of a confession had passed her lips. His temper boiling over, Wriothesley ordered that she be burned at the stake.

Anne was taken to a big communal cell at Newgate Prison, where she met the three men who were to be burned with her for their religious beliefs. Among her visitors there was a lawyer named John Loud, who afterwards wrote of her: “She had an angel’s countenance and a smiling face.”

Many of Anne’s friends came to see her while she was in prison, and Loud wrote about the scene as they talked to her and tried to cheer her up. He recorded that one of the condemned men, named Laceles, climbed up on the window seat and looked out at the squalid high summer scene outside the shabby prison. Anne, her angel’s countenance masking the pain of her broken body, lay in a corner of the cell, smiling at her callers, while an unknown man went among the visitors whispering evilly, “Ye are all marked men that come here. Take heed.”

A few days later Anne Askew was carried to the bonfire at Smithfield, by St. Bartholomew’s Church. Chancellor Wriothesley and his friends were sitting on a bench in the sun outside the church when she arrived, and when someone pointed out that they would be perilously near the flames they moved back a little way.

Even when Anne was being fixed to the stake Wriothesley went up to her and offered her the King’s pardon if she recanted. She merely shook her head with scorn, and the three condemned men being tied to the other fires, it is said, were deeply impressed with the courage of the woman with whom they were about to share martyrdom.

The sun was at the top of the sky when the fire of persecution was lit and the flames that curled around brave Anne Askew were made transparent by its rays. The silent cluster of spectators – friends and foes and interested neutrals – saw her golden head fall forward on her broken chest and as the heat waves from the fire shimmered upwards Anne died.

Many a saint and many a sinner of many a religious faith was burned alive in Tudor times, and the tragic death of Anne Askew four hundred years ago for the faith in which she believed has been overshadowed by the executions of many more important men and women. So Anne will remain for ever in the shadow of that era’s history – an appendage to the records but a glorious one.

Perhaps the most ironic footnote to her death was supplied by the English Parliament whose action had hastened it. For a year after Anne died the Six Articles were repealed.

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