"Then they asked of my lady of Suffolk, my lady of Sussex, my lady of Hertford, my lady Denny, and my lady Fitzwilliams. I said, if I should pronounce anything against them, that I would not be able to prove it."
~~~~ Anne Askew, 1546 ~~~~
When I was a child in the 1960's, a woman close to our family married, but chose to keep her maiden name. Later, she left her husband, divorcing the man and leaving her children with him. Why was she so selfish? Well, this feminist had a passion. She set off for a career, placing her dreams to change the world before traditional motherhood. She had to do it. If not her, then who? My God, that woman was a radical. When she was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, and then when she was arrested a second time and a third time and yet a fourth time for doing the very same thing, we all thought her unpatriotic, a traitor, a second "Jane Fonda".
Just what kind of woman was she? And just what other "bra burning" women and radical hippies was she in cahoots with? As I grew to an adult, with opinions based on my own thoughts rather than those of my parents, I came to admire this woman for her passion, her courage, her willingness to take risks in her attempt to make the world a better place, at least from her own perspective.
With those childhood memories in the back of my mind, I am truly in awe of those strong women in 16th century England, who within the constraints of medieval expectations, were leaders and change agents. Catalina de Aragón reigned in her husband's absence, leading a battle that brought Scotland to it's knees, King James IV killed, along with most of Scotland's nobility. Anne Boleyn held King Henry VIII's attention, keeping his advances at bay for seven long years, ultimately wearing the crown. Her influence on the Henrican Reformation may be overstated, but is noteworthy nonetheless. Queen Mary I led a successful coup d'état, becoming England's first female reigning monarch. Queen Elizabeth I reigned over an empire, becoming one of World History's most acclaimed and revered government leaders.
Beyond queenship though, was it possible for women to lead and influence the thoughts and beliefs of others? Could women forge their own lives, without male influence, outside of royalty or cloistered communities? Could any woman keep her own name upon marriage or divorce a man if unhappy? Could women truly be change agents? Obviously, these notions were completely unthinkable. Women were subservient to men. No person, man or woman, could question the established order. In an age of supreme monarchy and cruel torture, deprivation and execution methods, who beyond the insane would even try?
Anne Askew, a well educated daughter of a wealthy gentleman and knight once in King Henry VIII's service, and in one of the oddities of history, a juror in Queen Anne Boleyn's treason trial, was a devout Protestant forced into a marriage with a Roman Catholic named Thomas Kyme, a man once promised to her dead sister. The marriage was a complete and utter disaster.
In 1543, King Henry VIII, in concert with his conservative faction, changed his view on just who in the realm could read the Bible. By Parliamentary Law it became illegal for any women or man below the rank of gentleman from reading God's Word. This dramatic shift in acceptable theology practice did not deter Askew. Though two children were born of the marriage, she is said to have been studying the Bible with like minded Protestants when her husband kicked her out of the home for her disobedience to him, heresy and treason.
Anne Askew, retaining her given name despite her marital status, moved in with her brother and pursued a divorce based on her scriptural interpretation that Christians need not be "yoked to non-believers". Unsuccessful in her attempts, Askew moved to London. Taking the unlikely leadership role of a pious woman with a mission, Anne Askew became a "gospeller", more commonly known today as a preacher. Through her intelligence and scholarship, Askew set out to share her Protestantism with those not permitted access to the Bible themselves through scripture committed to memory. Askew also continued to pursue her desire for divorce.
Upon arriving in London, Askew connected with Protestant friends who introduced her to several people close to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who by this time was absent from court, retreating to Kent. Cranmer's absence from London clearly signaled King's Henry's change in stance, which became increasingly more traditionalist since the establishment of the Six Articles and the fall of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. Through Askew's connections, she came to know and associate with Bishop Hugh Latimer, Dr. Nicholas Shaxton, Dr. Edward Crome most certainly, and perhaps, though unproven, more clandestinely with known Protestant sympathizers Catherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, Anne Stanhope, then Countess of Hertford, and other ladies close to Queen Catherine Parr.
|Anne Askew as Portrayed by Emma Stansfield|
By 1545, traditionalists with Roman Catholic leanings including Bishops Stephen Gardiner and Edmund Bonner, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley were actively gunning for people of high authority within King Henry VIII's inner circle, including Queen Catherine Parr and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Together they developed a strategy to bring Parr and perhaps even Cranmer down by first focusing their attentions to more minor evangelicals with the intention those targeted would implicate others with more power closer to the King. Within this context, Anne Askew became tangled in a web, caught in the midst of a power struggle between the conservative traditionalist faction and reformers.
In 1545, Anne Askew was arrested and interviewed by Christopher Dale, under mayor of London, and then later Bishop Edmund Bonner and other religious conservatives. The charges of her heresy laid within her Protestant opinions of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which Roman Catholics view as celebration of the Eucharist liturgy, the bread and wine which after the consecration are "transubstantiated" into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Any disbelief of the Eucharist liturgy was considered gross heresy, punishable without recantation by burning.
On June 13, 1545, Anne Askew was arraigned for violation of the "Act of Sacramentaries", but no witnesses appeared to testify against her, so she was released. A few months later, Anne Askew's petition to divorce was denied, and she was ordered to return to her husband. In some accounts, she is said to have been forced back to her husband, soon after escaping and returning to London. In others, she flat out refused to go altogether. In either case, Askew's stance on the court order was highly disobedient and provocative, giving ammunition to her detractors.
Bishop Stephen Gardiner summoned Anne Askew under the guise of ordering she return to her husband. Upon questioning of her husband, Askew refused to answer. Gardiner then turned his attention to her religious views. Askew honestly and pointedly denied the existence of "transubstatiation", and in doing so sealed her fate. On June 18, 1546, Anne Askew was arraigned at Guildhall, along with Dr. Nicholas Shaxton and two others. They all confessed and were convicted of heresy, condemned to die at the stake. Although the others recanted the next day, Anne Askew held firm to her convictions. Before burning Askew, however, the traditionalist conservative faction was eager to know who her "like-minded" supporters were, and they suspected, perhaps correctly, that those close to her included Queen Catherine Parr, along with the Queen's high ranking friends and ladies-in-waiting.
In the most grotesque of cruelty even condemnable for the era, Anne Askew became the first and only woman tortured in the Tower of London. On June 19, 1546, she was imprisoned in the Tower. Askew was aggressively interrogated by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Sir William Paget for two long days. Continually threatened with execution, Askew refused steadfastly to name other Protestants or recant her beliefs. Unsuccessful in securing the damning information they sought from her, most importantly an admission that she was associated with Queen Catherine Parr, the order was given to exercise torture. Askew was brought to a lower torture room in the White Tower and was shown the rack. Still refusing to name other Protestants and recant her beliefs, she was unmercifully racked by Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Solicitor General Richard Rich.
Sir John Gage, Constable of the Tower and witness to much torture in the context of his job responsibilities, was appalled by the torture of a woman. He refused to participate beyond one turn of the handle, and left for court to find King Henry VIII to secure command that Wriothesley and Rich discontinue. By the time Sir Gage was able to meet with the King and secure his command, Wriothesley and Rich had turned the handles so hard after Askew's continued refusals to name other Protestants that she was drawn apart, her arms and legs ripped out of their sockets and her elbows and knees dislocated. By some reports, even after she was returned to her cell, Wriothesley continued questioning Askew hours thereafter, as she lay on the floor writhing in pain. Still, Anne Askew held firm to her convictions, refusing to recant or name other Protestants.
On July 16, 1546, the 26 year old uncommon commoner Anne Askew, who maintained her maiden name despite convention, who sought her freedom from a loveless marriage through attempting to obtain a divorce, who provocatively "gospelled" scripture to people prevented from reading the Bible by Parliamentary Law, who refused to return to her "husband" after court order, and who refused to recant her beliefs or name other Protestants to protect them from harm's way, was burnt at the stake. Unable to move her body in any way and obviously still in excruciating pain, she was brought to and tied to the stake in a wooden chair. Still defiant, Anne Askew refused a last chance at recantation and chimed in her disagreement to points made ironically by Dr. Nicolas Saxton in his sermon before the fags were lit.
Though burned alive as a heretic, Anne Askew through her courage, conviction and martyrdom became one of English history's most cherished national heroes and earliest feminist change agents.
Claire Ridgway, Anne Askew Sentenced to Death, The Anne Boleyn Files (www.theanneboleynfiles.com)
James Gairdner, Anne Askew 1521-1546, Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project (www.luminarium.org)
Wikipedia, Anne Askew
Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of