Anne Askew was born into a wealthy English family in Lincolnshire, England, in 1521 during a time when the Bible was becoming increasingly available to the general population. In 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Germany and in 1526 William Tyndale published his English translation of the New Testament. Thus began the Protestant Reformation. In 1534 King Henry VIII split with the church in Rome and established the Anglican Church, with himself as the “Supreme Head of the Church of England.”
Anne was described as a very intelligent and strong spirited individual. Well educated, she spent many childhood hours studying the scriptures. It seems by her early teens, she held firm views in support of the Reformation. In 1536 Anne’s older sister, Martha, died. Martha had been promised in marriage to Catholic landowner Thomas Kyme and for reasons of social benefit, and against her will, Anne’s father forced her into marriage with Kyme in her sister’s place. She was aged just 15.
It is believed the first few years of the marriage were at least amicable, if not happy, and two children were born. As Anne’s reformist convictions grew, however, Kyme became increasingly opposed to them. When Kyme challenged her she stated “I am a daughter of the Reformation”, upon which he threw her out of his home. Taking refuge with her brother, Anne sought local approval to divorce her husband but was denied, whereupon she decided to take her petition to London in the hope of a more positive outcome.
Meanwhile Henry VIII, despite having split with Rome over his marriage to second wife Anne Boleyn (also a Reformation supporter who would later lose her head), was now re-enforcing Catholic doctrine as the basis for faith in the newly established Church of England. In 1540 Henry began removing Bibles from public access and in 1543 had a law passed making it illegal for all women, and any man who was not of noble birth, to read the scriptures. In the same year, in his quest for a male heir, he married his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, who was also aligned with the reformers.
Within this tumultuous religious and political climate Anne took up residence in London where she renounced her married name and reverted to Anne Askew. With relatives and friends at Court she was soon associating with other reformers, including ladies close to the newest Queen, Katherine Parr.
In 1545, Anne with a number of other Protestants was arrested on suspicion of heresy. After two days of interrogation she was imprisoned for 11 days until a relative managed to secure her release on bail. Anne was ordered back to Lincolnshire under her husband’s authority, but refused to stay.
Back in London again Anne began a preaching ministry, boldly proclaiming justification in Christ alone and expounding on Bible passages before men and women of all classes. It seemed Anne had found her vocation and soon all London had heard about this gentle woman they called ‘the fair gospeler’.
Anne became renowned for her ability to converse equally with both wealthy and poor, her deep spiritual convictions and her excellent knowledge of scripture. One source says she was: “seen daily in the cathedral reading the Bible, and engaging the clergy in discussions on the meaning of particular texts.” ¹
But though many admired her, Anne was attracting the attention of some highly influential enemies who had the King’s ear.
In 1546 there was a dramatic escalation of events in Anne’s life. In March the King, reacting to rumours that the Queen was ‘under the influence’ of certain reformers, had Anne arrested for heresy. She was interrogated and tried before a Grand Jury, before being released to her brother’s house. In May she was once again arrested and interrogated by the King’s Chancellor and the Bishop of Winchester. On June 18th she was convicted and sentenced to death.
Convinced that Anne had secret influence over the Queen, (who had begun to freely share her Protestant views with Henry), the King ordered that Anne be tortured on the rack to ascertain who her associates in the Royal Court might be. Under torture Anne refused to name or implicate any fellow reformers and remained silent.
Enraged at her ‘lack of co-operation’, Lord Wriothesley the Chancellor, ordered more severe torture, taking over the levers himself until her joints were distended and her bones were broken. She fainted and would have died had not the horrified Lieutenant of the Tower hurried to inform the King and brought back an order for the torture to cease. Legally, Anne should not have been tortured because she was the daughter of a Knight, and had already confessed and was condemned to die.
On 16 July 1546 Anne, her legs too damaged to support her, was carried on a chair to her place of execution. Tied to stakes alongside her were three other reformers, including John Lascelles, Anne’s mentor, who were also to be burned.
At the last moment pardon was offered if Anne and her fellow Protestants would recant their beliefs and return to the Catholic faith. Each refused, with Anne boldly declaring: “I believe all those Scriptures to be true which He hath confirmed with His most precious blood. Yea, and, as St. Paul sayeth, those Scriptures are sufficient for our learning and salvation that Christ hath left here with us; so that I believe we need no unwritten verities with which to rule His Church.”
Anne, aged just 25, was burned at the stake, with one witness to her martyrdom later writing: “She had an angel’s countenance and a smiling face.”
We know much about the last few years of Anne’s life because she carefully recorded details of her interrogations in secret letters that were smuggled out of prison. These letters included many of the doctrinal questions posed by her accusers, and her answers. One of the major areas of contention for Anne and other reformers concerned transubstantiation, or the Catholic doctrine that the elements of wine and bread literally became the flesh and blood of Christ during the rite of communion.
Accused of heresy for refusing to confess Christ was speaking literally when He said “I am the Bread”, she replied: “Christ’s meaning in that passage is similar to the meaning of those other places of Scripture, ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the vine’. ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ ‘That rock was Christ.’ And other such references to Himself. We are not in these texts to take Christ for the material thing which He is signified by, for then we will make Him a door, a vine, a lamb, a stone, quite contrary to the Holy Ghost’s meaning. All these indeed signify Christ, even as the bread signifies His body in that place.”
On another occasion she responded: “God is a spirit, not a wafer cake. He is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth and not by the impious superstitious homage paid to a wafer converted, by popish jugglery, into a god.” It was on the same day as making this statement she was sentenced to death.
Anne Askew was a woman worthy of remembrance by all Christ followers, male and female, as one of the noblest (s)heroes of the Christian faith. In an age when Christianity had become immersed in superstition and extra Biblical practice, she boldly proclaimed scriptural truth to all who would listen. We will not know this side of Heaven how many were ushered into a saving faith in Christ as a result of her ministry….a ministry that cost her everything. We humbly give thanks for the life and testimony of Anne Askew, the ‘fair gospeler’.
Some more quotes from Anne Askew:
When questioned by the Lord Mayor of London: “You foolish woman, do you say that the priests cannot make the body of Christ?”
Anne: “I say so, my Lord; for I have read that God made man; but that man can make God, I never read, nor, I suppose, ever shall read.”
On transubstantiation: “But as concerning your mass, as it is now used in our days, I do say and believe it to be the most abominable idol that is in the world: for my God will not be eaten with teeth, neither yet dieth he again. And upon these words that I base now spoken, will I suffer death.”
“As for that ye call your God, it is a piece of bread. For a more proof thereof… let it but lie in the box three months and it will be mouldy and so turn to nothing that is good. Whereupon I am persuaded that it cannot be God.”
Anne’s prayer for her tormenters: “Lord, I heartily desire of thee, that thou wilt of thy most merciful goodness forgive them, that violence which they do, and hath done, to me. Open also thou their blind hearts, that they may hereafter do that thing in thy sight, which is only acceptable before thee, and to set forth thy verity aright, without all vain fantasies of sinful men. So, be it, O Lord, so be it!”
¹The Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 2 By Sir Sidney Lee; Macmillan, 1885; pg. 190
Resources used in researching for this article:
Other Suggested Resources:
Five Women of the English Reformation, by Paul F.M. Zahl
The Examinations of Anne Askew, edited by Elaine V Bailin
Dissent, Doubt and Spiritual Violence in the Reformation
The Ballad Written and Sung By Anne Askew in Newgate Prison: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs700E-BtIo
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