Sunday, September 23, 2012

Anne Askew: Mother, Minister, Martyr

by Sandra Byrd

A hot day in July, 1546 was about to get hotter for Anne Askew, who was tied to a bundle of sticks between two friends who were likewise restrained.  Her jailers had secured the wood to her mid-section because she'd been tortured — racked — to the point where she could not hold herself upright any longer.   Anne was the married mother of two young children, was twenty-five years old, and she was about to burn to death for her faith.

Anne had been born to an up-and-coming gentry family in Lincolnshire and at the age of fifteen she'd been forced to marry her dead sister's fiancé, a not-unusual arrangement.  She and her new husband, Thomas, did not get along well, in part because Anne was fervent and active in the budding English Reformation.  The Dictionary of National Biography says that she left her family to go "gospelling",  the sixteenth century word most often used for preaching scripture.  

This, of course, was unusual in a time when by law women were not only under the constant legal authority of their husbands, but were also forbidden from reading the Bible aloud to any but their close friends, in private.  But it was not preaching which so offended the council of Henry VIII, it was Anne's stubborn refusal to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation. 

The doctrine, an important one in the some Christian churches then and now, states that during Mass, also called Communion or the Lord's Supper depending on denomination and tradition, the bread and wine become the actual body of Christ.  Many reformers, such as Askew, believed that the elements were representative, instead. Although it may seem like a "live and let live" issue to us in the twenty-first century, at that time, according to Henry's laws, the belief was heresy and punishable by death.

Woodcutting of the Burning of Anne Askew
Anne was caught in the middle of the maelstrom that was religion in the Tudor Court.  Religious traditionalists wanted a return to the Roman Catholic faith which had been foundational in England for more than a thousand years.  Reformers wanted change in the church, or perhaps to establish a new church altogether.  Although many on both sides had deeply held convictions for which they lived and died, others were more interested in the temporal power that rested with the final decision, namely, control of Prince Edward, and the future of the kingdom. 

Henry, sick, seemed to lean more and more upon his sixth wife Queen Kateryn Parr, a strong reformer.  She, too, hoped to continue to influence her step-son, Edward, after her husband's death, for both religious and personal reasons; she was very fond of him.   Religious conservatives wanted Edward under their control instead. By implicating Parr through her friend Askew's heresy, they hoped to bring down the queen, too.

Anne has the dubious honor of being the first woman tortured on the notorious rack in the Tower of London.  She was brought before it and asked to name other highborn women in the queen's household who believed as she did, the implication being that the Queen should be named, too.  When she refused she was stripped of her clothing down to her shift and racked - a means of torture in which ankles and wrists are strapped to a pulley which stretches until all joints are dislocated.  Afterward, Askew was brought to the stake in a chair.
After the fire was lit, Anne continued to correct the bible teaching of Bishop Nicolas Shaxton, so recently a friend and fellow reformer till he'd recanted when faced with torture and death.  As the flames grew higher, she'd speak out, correcting Shaxton on his scripture. "Yes, he's got that right," she'd boldly call out on a passage, or, "No, there he misseth and speaks without the book."  

John Foxe, author of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, tells us that someone provided gunpowder to be added to the stakes below Askew to speed her death and more quickly ease her pain.  Many believe that the same strong women at court that she protected — the Queen and her highborn ladies in waiting — supplied that gun powder to speed the bold and courageous Askew heavenward on her "chariot of fire."

To learn more about Sandra's Ladies in Waiting Series, set in Tudor England, please visit For blogs on England and English history, visit:


  1. fascinating! I wonder if this is where we get the word askew.

  2. Wow, those are a few unfortunate reasons for being remembered. The interesting thing I find about Tudor religious battles is how many stories must be forgotten because the victims weren't as highly-connected as Anne, although the ones that remain are certainly chilling enough.

  3. I don't know, Heidi - sometimes her name was spelled Ascough. But it's possible! Her entire family turned on her at the end, very sad. The queen kept faith with her, though, literally and figuratively.

    CharmedLassie, I do think it's true that many lower born people were killed on either "side" of the issue; a compelling case for freedom of religion, for sure. I admire her courage. We don't often read about women as forthright and courageous as she was in the 16C.

  4. Dangerous times, but absolutely fascinating to read about.

  5. True, marybelle. If they were typical times we wouldn't be so fascinated with them!

  6. Thank you for posting about this. I had never heard of her before but am trying to learn more about the history of the Reformation. Just purchased a giant book about Luther but unfortunately I can't find a lot of books at my local bookstores.

  7. Part of the reason her story is so well known and recorded is because even to this day her family have named first born daughters after her as an act of remembrance.


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