Thrown out by her husband for her beliefs. The first Englishwoman to demand a divorce on Scriptural grounds. A gospeller, or preacher, at a time when few women dared to speak or write in their own names. The only woman on record to have been tortured in the Tower of London, possibly at the hands of the Lord Chancellor himself. Dead at 26, burned at the stake as a heretic.
Her name was Anne Askew.
The Protestant Reformation was a messy affair throughout the whole of Europe, to say the least, and England under the reign of Henry VIII was no exception. Historians will debate until the end of time just what, exactly, Henry VIII’s goal was in breaking from Rome and establishing the Anglican Church. Was it really just about divorcing Katherine of Aragon so he could hook up with the homewrecking Anne Boleyn? (Yes, she was a homewrecker. She was intelligent, yes, and pushed for the reform of the church, but she was hardly a saint. I mean, come on, people. We’re talking divorce and affairs and possible bigamy and a baby probably conceived out of wedlock). Did he really have theological or practical objections to the teachings of the Catholic Church? Did he plan for the seizure of church lands and monies, or did that just sort of happen as a nice side-effect?
Henry VIII’s extant writings place him within the realm of Catholicism. He appears to have never fully embraced hallmarks of Protestant teaching such as justification by faith alone. His actions – for example, first commissioning an English Bible, then demanding its removal – left the entire nation decidedly on its toes. What was orthodox one day could be deemed heretical the next. Yet when it became clear that he was dying and a Regency council would have to be established for his son, Edward VI, it was stocked with staunch Protestants. It is next to impossible to separate the political man from the man of faith (and Henry VIII did consider himself to be very pious, nevermind the string of mistresses), the pragmatic from the spiritual.
These were the years when the metaphorical death bells tolled for the medieval world as the modern was born. An age of exploration, of ideas, of the proliferation of books. A time when, sadly, beliefs could lead to bloodshed.
Anne Askew, as the daughter of a gentleman of the court, would have been expected to follow a very narrow path: get married (very, very young – early teen years) and have as many babies as possible while managing her husband’s estate. She would not have been ignorant or illiterate; the Renaissance and Reformation movements both saw the advancement of women’s education. In a time and place riddled with disease, she probably would not have imagined a life much beyond her fourth decade, and she would have well understood just how dangerous childbirth was.
Thomas Kyme, Anne’s husband, was just as passionate in his beliefs. They may have had two children together (this is unclear), but this didn’t stop him from throwing her out. Of course, from the get-go she was anything but a typical wife; she refused to take his surname, an act that invites surprise today, let alone five centuries ago. It’s doubtful that they had anything resembling a normal sixteenth century marriage. She left Lincolnshire, where she’d lived her whole life, and traveled to London. There, with her preaching and writing, she gained a significant following, including Henry VIII’s last queen, Katherine Parr. (Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived).
Nobody knows for sure exactly why Anne was arrested in 1546. The goal of her jailers and torturers seems to have been less about her and more about her followers. Philippia Gregory, in her historical novel The Taming of the Queen, suggests that Anne’s imprisonment was orchestrated by a Catholic-favoring court faction (headed by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester) bent on taking down Katherine Parr. Despite being so broken by the rack that, had she lived, she would have been permanently disabled, Anne never named names. Not one.
Her interrogators were appalled when she asserted the primary authority of Scripture in the life of the believer, saying, “scripture doth teache me” and “I believe as the scripture informeth me.” They were enraged when she beat them at their own game; first they accused her of ignoring Paul’s instruction for women to be silent, then they asked her to expound on her understanding of certain verses. She pointed out the irony.
Anne was finally charged with heresy for denying transubstantiation, the teaching that the bread and wine of Communion literally become the body and blood of Christ. This was one of the most controversial topics of the Reformation, and at that time in England, to deny it was to deny the Six Articles of 1539 and find yourself dead.
Without much fuss, Anne accepted her fate. She refused to confess to a priest before her death, confident of her own innocence and assured of God’s forgiveness. She had to be carried to the place of execution. Chains were wrapped around her broken body to secure her to stake. John Lescalles and Nicholas Belenian, two other noisy reformers, joined her. The prisoners were offered one last chance to recant. Nicholas Shaxton, Bishop of Salisbury, preached before the grisly work was carried out. Anne listened attentively, agreed with some of what he had to say and told him flat-out when she thought he was wrong.
Due to her unwillingness to cooperate, Anne was burned slowly, without the relative mercy of being strangled first. The ordeal lasted about an hour.
May we strive to live with such courage.
Michelle DeRusha, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 65-69.
John Foxe, “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs: Anne Askew,” Exclassics, accessed September 21, 2015..
For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.