Anne Askew was born in 1520 or 1521, the middle child of a family of landowners. Unlike most women of her era, many of whom left little or no written record, Anne was the author of a book outlining her first-person account of life in Tudor England. While her life was anything but ordinary, the very act of creating this book allows us a fuller understanding of her life than that which can be gleaned about many of the Queens and Princesses who lived at this same time. Anne’s short life ran in parallel to that of Henry VIII’s six marriages. She was born about midway through Henry VIII’s first marriage, married around the time of his third wedding, and died while he was nearing the end of his sixth. Her life was spent during a time of enormous religious upheaval, with Anne being just ten years old when Henry VIII switched the national faith from Catholicism to the Church of England.
Quick religious history aside: So, Anglicanism aka Episcopalianism aka The Church of England diverges from the Catholic church in a few key ways, most notably on the issue of transubstantiation. This is the belief that bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ during church services and Catholics believe in it, and Anglicans do not. Anne Askew was a believer in a kind of Protestantism similar to that espoused by Martin Luther, one which did not believe in transubstantiation, the hierarchy of the church, Purgatory, or the excesses of either Catholicism or Anglicanism. Anne’s faith was one in which people were encouraged to develop their own personal relationship with God, one not supervised or restricted by clergy or ministers, and that the written word of the Bible was the only law they should follow.
Anne was well educated both for this era and for a girl, and seems to have been extremely intelligent and scholarly. Her older brothers studied at Cambridge and likely it was partly their influence which instigated within her a lifelong curiosity about religion. She spent much of her time considering and memorizing the Bible, and her religious faith was of paramount importance to her. She was one of several siblings and half-siblings raised together, including an older sister named Martha. When Anne was about 15 years old, Martha died and Anne inherited her sister’s betrothal to a man named Thomas Kyme. Despite Anne’s strong will and fiercely independent spirit, she was still a teenage girl in the 16th century and she wasn’t able to avoid this marriage though she did try. Allegedly, her father had to physically force her into consenting to the match. The pairing between Anne and Thomas was troubled from the start due to Kyme being a devoted Catholic and a sort of traditional “women should be seen and not heard” type of guy whereas Anne was an evangelical Protestant and a sort of “I refuse to change my last name to yours” sort of gal.
In the midst of Anne’s unhappy marriage, English law changed regarding what types of religious practices were permitted. From 1538-1543, roughly the entire period of Anne’s marriage to Kyme, it was permitted for English subjects to read the Bible on their own and attend Bible studies. During this period, newer sects of Protestantism like the one Anne followed began to flourish around England. In 1543, the law was changed such no women, nor men below the rank of gentleman, were permitted to read the Bible on their own. Rather than its intended effect of discouraging evangelical practices, Anne felt moved by the passing of this law to share her Bible knowledge (as she had spend many years memorizing scripture) with those who were no longer permitted to read the Bible on their own. Kyme, who was socially conservative and religiously Catholic, kicked Anne out of their shared home. And Anne Askew became the first woman to petition for divorce on scriptural grounds, basing her request on Bible passages which she felt dictated that women married to godless men should leave them.
She first brought her request to her local court, who refused her probably because divorce just wasn’t a thing at that time. Undaunted, Anne headed to London to plead her case to King Henry VIII. Now, while Henry is now often thought of as having divorced three of his wives, in fact his marriages to Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Anne of Cleves had all ended in annulment, not divorce. But Anne, confident in her Biblical interpretation, felt sure she could convince the King to agree with her.
She was able to book an appointment with him due to the Askew family’s numerous connections to royal court. Her father, William Askew, was a gentleman of the court and had been a member of the jury who had convicted Anne Boleyn’s alleged lovers of treason and adultery. One of her brothers was the King’s cup-bearer, and another was a gentleman of the King’s privy chamber. So clearly these men were able to get Anne’s name put on a list of appointments, and she headed to the royal court to plead her case. Unfortunately, Henry did not agree with her and would not grant her dispensation to divorce her husband. In fact, her religious fervor was so apparent that the King assigned a spy to follow her and report back to him any heresy she was seen to partake in. And since Anne decided to stick around in London, it was easy for the spy to keep an eye on her.
What his spy saw would have seen was a 21-year-old woman who spent hours each day in prayer, who became quickly popular among the Protestant scholars of the time. She became friendly several high profile Protestants, all men, some of whom were connected to Henry’s Protestant-sympathizing wife, Kathryn Parr. Anne was living her dream in London, preaching on the streets by day and debating Biblical philosophy by night. Being young, beautiful, and charismatic, she became a popular gospeler just as comfortable preaching to peasants as to the nobility. She had truly found her life’s calling, but of course it was a dangerous thing to be doing in London in the midst of religious tension.
And so it was that, in June 1545, Anne was among a group of Protestants arrested for heresy. They were released due to lack of evidence and witnesses, but Anne was again caught up in a raid in March 1546. She was questioned for hours by a man named Edmund Bonner, nicknamed Bloody Bonner for his ruthless persecution and questioning of suspected heretics. Knowing what we do about Anne’s outspokenness, her faith, and her knowledge of the Bible, it’s easy to understand how this questioning wound up taking hours and hours. After twelve days in prison, she was released — but there was a catch. She was sent back to live with her husband in the countryside. Anne, obviously, refused and instead stayed for a short time with one of her brothers outside the city before returning to London for more gospelling.
The climate was now even more fraught for Protestants, and that was because some of the King’s top officials were now obsessed with proving that Queen Kathryn Parr was secretly a heretic as well. Kathryn had put a target on her back when — prior to her even being married to Henry — she had criticized legislation that declared English subjects shouldn’t study the Bible, except on their own in private. In opposition to this new law, Kathryn hosted Bible study groups with her ladies in waiting, at some of which they invited evangelical preachers to speak to them. These facts were known, but it wasn’t enough to arrest the Queen herself.
And so the Queen’s enemies enacted a plan to arrest sort of low-level, less important Protestants, and then threaten them until they revealed the names of the more important people. Why were Protestants seen as such a threat? Basically, their faith was predicated on everyone having a personal relationship with God — no middleman like a priest or a bishop was needed to interpret the text of the Bible, everyone could look to their own heart and to the Bible to learn how to live. This meant powerful government and church officials weren’t necessarily being respected or followed by the Protestants which meant: they, including Anne, were a threat to society.
So it was that Anne Askew was arrested for a third time, again one of a group of numerous Protestants to be arrested on the King’s orders. Among her many professional acquaintances, Anne had had some dealings with Catherine Brandon, one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. The arresting gentlemen hoped that the vivacious and outspoken female preacher would agree to reveal the Queen’s secret religious practices in order to save her own life. But they hadn’t counted on Anne’s resiliency and strength of character.
First they tried flattering Anne, acting like her friend. When that didn’t work, they tried to change her mind about transubstantiation, but she would not not budge in her beliefs. So finally, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London was instructed to torture her in hopes she would name the Queen, or other prominent people, as Protestants. This was unprecedented before or since, as at the time it was illegal to torture a woman and, other than Anne Askew, no woman was recorded before or since of having been tortured. The illegality of the request caused the Lieutenant to refuse the instruction. In his absence, others took on the task, subjecting Anne to torture on the rack. Although the Lieutenant petitioned the King to put an end to the torture, this new instruction did not come until after Anne had already been subjected to a lengthy amount of suffering on the rack. She fainted from the pain, was revived, and continued to be questioned but still would not name names. As Anne herself describes in The Examinations of Anne Askew:
“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.”
The rack had dislocated Anne’s shoulders, hips, elbows, and knees, and following the torture she lay on the bare floor as the inquisitors continued to pressure her to name names and/or confess to her own heresy. When an order came from the King to stop the torture and return her to jail, Anne was sent to a private house to recover from her injuries, and offered yet another opportunity to confess. After refusing yet again, she was transferred to Newgate Prison to await execution. It was at this time that she set to work on the writings which would form her book Examinations, from which we now know these details of her torture.
Anne’s execution date was July 16th, 1546. Still too injured to walk on her own, with every movement of her broken body causing her severe pain, Anne was carried in a chair to the stake at which she was to be burned. In another accommodation to her injuries, rather than having to stand at the stake, she was chained to a special chair that had been affixed there for her to sit upon. One of the Bishops delivered a speech encouraging the prisoners to repent and save themselves from execution, but none took him up on the offer. In fact, Anne is said to have paid close attention to his speech and responded audibly both when she agreed with what he had to say as well as when she disagreed. Strong-willed, opinionated, and vocal right to the end, our Anne.
A sympathizer had thrown gunpowder onto the wood being used for the burning, causing an explosion which mercifully cut short the prisoners’ pain. Allegedly the skies clouded over at the moment of their deaths, taken by many as a sign that their martyrdom had displeased God. Almost immediately, the 25-year-old Anne became revered among many Protestants as a martyr to the faith. Her writings were published quickly after her death as The Examinations of Anne Askew, lending her even more fame in death. This book, still available today, not only details her experiences in prison but also describes her opinions about women in society as well as expands upon her religious convictions.
Anne Askew is remembered for her bravery in the face of religious persecution, her devotion to her faith, her independence, and for her strength in standing apart from what was expected of women in her society. Through her writings, we gain fascinating and important details about the daily lives of women in Tudor England, as well as a hint of the great things she may have achieved had her life not been cut short.
Anne Askew (Spartacus Educational)
Anne Askew Sentenced to Death (The Anne Boleyn Files)
Anne Askew: Dangerous Convictions (Dangerous Women Project)
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter