Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Anne Askew: "I Would Rather Die Than Break My Faith"

Anne Askew (executed 16 July 1546)


Anne Askew was burned at the stake for heresy on 16 July 1546.

A 1548 woodcut depicting Anne Askew's execution
Probably born about the year 1521, she was the second daughter of Sir William Askew and his first wife, Elizabeth Wrottesley.

Although she is believed to have been well educated at home, there is no real information about who might have taught her or what that education may have been like.

Since William Askew was wealthy, a landowner, and a man knighted by Henry VIII, his daughter may well have been offered the kinds of educational opportunities that some privileged young women of sixteenth-century England had. 

What we know about Anne Askew comes primarily from her own writing, a first-person account of her arrest and two "examinations," published after her death by the Protestant churchman John Bale.

According to Bale, William Askew had arranged for the marriage of his elder daughter, Martha, to Thomas Kyme. When Martha died, he substituted his second daughter, Anne, about fifteen years old, so that he would suffer no financial loss--although this was not a marriage agreeable to Anne. But, "in the end she was compelled against her will or free consent to marry with him." 

Whether the marriage was happy or not, Anne behaved herself "like a Christian wife" and bore Kyme two children. But then, again as Bale tells the story, "in process of time by oft reading of the sacred Bible, she fell clearly from all the old superstitions of papistry to a perfect belief in Jesus Christ."

Conflict and confrontation followed her conversion to the Protestant faith, and her husband "violently drove her out of his house." For the Protestant Bale, Anne Askew had no choice but to abandon her husband and pursue a legal separation; for later Catholic writers, she had committed a crime, leaving her husband so she could go "gad" about, "gospelling and gossipping."

By 1544, she was in London--perhaps to seek a divorce, which she would have had to secure through Chancery court. (A brother and a half-brother had connections to the court, so she would also have had family in London.)

Anne Askew's activities in London quickly drew attention to her religion. By March of 1545 she was arrested and questioned about her reading and her beliefs, but she was released. In 1546 she was against arrested; this time, her husband was required to appear at her examination, though Anne, who continued to call herself Askew rather than Kyme, denied that he was her husband. 

On 28 June 1546 she was arraigned for the crime of heresy and convicted. She was then transferred to the Tower and tortured (on the rack)--she had contacts with a number of women at court, and she was specifically asked about those women who were closest to Queen Katherine (Parr). Anne refused to give the names of any women who belonged to her "sect."

After her execution, Anne Askew was renowned as a Protestant martyr--that is certainly why Bale published her story, and why, later, her story was included in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (published in 1563, this is sometimes referred to as Foxe's Book of Martyrs). But in recent years, Askew has gained a reputation as a writer.

Askew recorded her account of the two examinations and of her beliefs. Bale published The First Examination of Anne Askew, Lately Martyred in Smithfield in 1546, and The Later Examination of Anne Askew the following year.

According to Diane Watt, who is the author of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Askew, Bale was an "intrusive editor," and some of the material he attributed to her--for example a paragraph of Psalm 54 and a ballad that, according to Bale, she wrote and sang in Newgate Prison--may not have been written by Askew.

But she did record her own story--and, as Watt points out, there is an interesting discrepancy between the young and weak female presented by Bale and Foxe and the "disputatious" and confident Askew as she represents herself in her record of her examinations.

In 1673, Bathsua Makin, a woman about whom I have posted recently, called Askew "a person famous for learning and piety," saying that she had so "seasoned" the queen and the ladies at court that, "by her precepts and example"--and by her own account of her beliefs--"that the seed of reformation seemed to be sowed by her hand."

Anne Askew was twenty-six when she died.

You can read an excellent and comprehensive essay on Anne Askew, by John Simkin, by clicking here. Along with biographical information, there is a comprehensive bibliography if you're interested in going further. For an excellent edition of Anne Askew's writing, I recommend Elaine Beilin's The Examinations of Anne Askew