Askew, Anne (c. 1521–1546)

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Askew, Anne (c. 1521–1546)

English Protestant martyr whose adherence to Sacramentarian doctrines led to her execution and subsequent renown as one of the heroines of the English Reformation. Name variations: Askewe, Ascue, Ayscoughe; (married name) Kime, Kyme, Keme. Pronunciation: ASS-que. Born Anne Askew at Stalling-borough, near Grimsby in Yorkshire, England, around 1521; burned at the stake in London on July 16,1546; daughter of Sir William Askew (a knight); mother unknown; married Thomas Kyme (separated); children: two. Following separation from husband, moved to London and presented for heresy (1545).

One July day in the closing years of Henry VIII's reign, a crowd gathered at London's Smithfield Market anticipating the terrible drama about to unfold. Four convicted heretics were brought in and tied to stakes placed at the center of the marketplace. At the last moment, the sole woman among them was presented with papers from the lord chancellor of England promising the king's pardon if she recanted her heretical opinions. The young woman refused even to look upon the papers, declaring that she had not come this day to deny her Lord and Master. Emulating her steadfast example, her three fellows also refused to regard the proffered pardons. Seeing that any further effort to secure a last-minute recantation was futile, the lord mayor of London cried out, "Fiat Justicia!" ("Let justice be done!") Lighted torches touched the faggots placed under each stake, and, as the flames leaped up, the surrounding crowd witnessed the untimely end of Anne Askew, one of England's most famous religious martyrs.

I confess there is something in the story of this noble woman which nerves me greatly. Was ever courage greater than hers? Was ever steadfastness more glorious? Did ever hero, plunging into the thick of the battle, … surpass the heroism of Anne Askew?


Despite the great fame she earned by her heroic death, little for certain is known about Anne Askew's earlier life. She is stated to have been born at Stallingborough, near Grimsby in Yorkshire, about the year 1521. She was raised, however, at Kelsey, in Lincolnshire, the second daughter of Sir William Askew, who descended from an old and established Lincolnshire family, and an unknown mother. The first decades of the 16th century saw aristocratic families like the Askews increasingly attuned to the new humanistic learning being imported from Italy and France. This "New Learning" was frequently bestowed on daughters and sons alike, and in keeping with this intellectual fashion, Anne was educated to a high standard. We know that she assiduously studied the Bible, which in her youth became widely available for the first time in a complete English translation. During her stays in the city of Lincoln, she often read the public Bible chained in the cathedral and even entered into discussions there with clergy about the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Anne later recalled, how accurately we cannot tell, that she invariably prevailed in these theological disputations. She nevertheless did earn a reputation for her intellectual abilities; John Foxe, the Protestant martyrologist described her as "studious, well-educated, thoughtful, and quick-minded."

While probably still young, Anne married Thomas Kyme, also of Kelsey. Sir William Askew had originally intended the marriage for Anne's elder sister, who died inopportunely after the conclusion of the marriage contract and the payment of her dowry but before the solemnization of the union. So as to prevent the forfeiture of his dowry money, Sir William substituted Anne, against her wishes, for her deceased sister. It was a pragmatic arrangement entirely typical of aristocratic marriages at the time, made more palatable by a social consensus that expected marital affection and love to grow only after marriage, not before. Askew had two children with Kyme, thus fulfilling the major dynastic objective of aristocratic marriage, yet she and her new husband did not develop a happy relationship. Anne refused publicly to explain the reasons for their marital discord, but its undeniable seriousness is emblematized perhaps in Askew's unconventional retention of her maiden name. It may well be that Anne's radical religious opinions and her continuing disagreements with the local priests to some extent caused the marital breakdown and led Kyme eventually to cast her out of his house. Whatever the basis for her leaving, Askew welcomed the separation: by early 1545, she had taken up lodgings in London near the Temple, the center of the capital's legal establishment, and was supposedly seeking a divorce.

It was in these circumstances that, in March, Askew was arrested for heresy and examined under the terms of the Six Articles, which Parliament had passed in 1539 to combat the spread of advanced Protestant beliefs. Although Henry VIII had rejected the authority of the pope and the Roman church more than ten years before, in the process creating the Protestant Church of England, the king nonetheless remained doctrinally orthodox in most religious matters. In the aftermath of Henry's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves and with Thomas Cromwell's fall, moreover, the conservative faction at court led by Stephen Gardiner and Thomas, duke of Norfolk, gained the upper hand and sought to enforce stricter limits on religious diversity. The legislative centerpiece to this religious reaction was the Act of Six Articles, which attached severe penalties to the denial of certain traditional religious beliefs.

The direction of questioning during her examination implies that Askew had run afoul of the first of the Six Articles, the one having to do with the proper interpretation of the Eucharist (or Holy Communion). The orthodox position enjoined by the Six Articles and shared with the Roman Catholics held that the substance of the bread and wine used in Holy Communion was really transformed into the body and blood of Christ once a priest uttered the words, "Hoc est corpus meum" ("This is my body"), over the Host in emulation of Jesus at the Last Supper. Radical Protestants argued, on the other hand, that Jesus spoke these words not literally but figuratively, and that the bread and wine taken in Communion remained bread and wine in substance and thus had a merely symbolic function. This so-called "Sacramentarian heresy" was condemned by the Act of Six Articles, and it provided that those who denied transubstantiation or otherwise despised the sacrament of the Eucharist "shall, together with their supporters, be guilty of heresy and burned."

Askew therefore stood in mortal danger as she underwent her examination for heresy, yet her answers reveal a remarkable self-assurance and sang froid as she parried with her accusers. To Christopher Dare's question whether she believed the consecrated bread to be the very body of Christ, Askew avoided a direct answer by countering with another question: "Wherefore was St. Stephen stoned?," she asked. When Dare confessed that he did not know, Askew responded that neither would she answer his vain question. Askew did admit that she would rather read five lines of the Bible than hear five masses, for the Scriptures edified her while the masses did not, but while this statement obliquely attacked the saving power of Holy Communion, it did not amount to heresy. Having frustrated their desire that she incriminate herself, Askew was taken before the lord mayor of London who continued the interrogation but was even less successful in revealing the extent of her conformity to the religious tenets demanded by the Six Articles. In the end, he remanded her to prison to await further proceedings.

Throughout her examinations for heresy, Askew was protected not only by her considerable wit and circumspection, but perhaps more important by the fact that she was a gentlewoman who possessed influential friends and kin. Although she was isolated from her friends for 11 days while languishing in prison, her cousin Brittayne finally succeeded in visiting her, and he shortly thereafter applied to the lord mayor to have her released on bail. The lord mayor refused to release her without the approval of an ecclesiastical authority, at which point Brittayne enlisted the aid of Bishop Bonner, who seems genuinely to have attempted to help Askew. After interviewing her at length, on the 20th of March the bishop presented her with a confession of faith that he had specially drafted in order to remove any doubt about the orthodoxy of her faith. But rather than simply sign the document, Askew appended a declaration that she believed "all manner of things contained in the faith of the Catholic Church, and not otherwise." This last-ditch effort to reintroduce ambiguity about the doctrines to which she was subscribing greatly offended Bonner, who stormed out of the room, furious that his sincere attempts to help Askew had been met, as he saw it, with such brazen contempt and insubordination.

Once again, however, Askew's friends interceded on her behalf and persuaded Bonner to resubmit the confession of faith for her to sign. This she finally did and consequently was released on bond pending trial. Askew was arraigned on June 13, along with two others also accused of being sacramentarian heretics, but as no witnesses appeared to testify against her (the matter having already been settled by the signed confession of faith), Askew was acquitted and set free.

She remained at liberty until the following spring, when renewed accusations of heresy led to a summons issued on May 24, 1546, requiring that both Askew and her estranged husband appear before the Privy Council within ten days. In the intervening months since Askew's acquittal, England's deteriorating diplomatic position in Europe had led Henry VIII to pursue an increasingly conservative religious policy, with the result that accused heretics could now expect more aggressive prosecution and harsher treatment if convicted. One reason for this shift was the opening of the Council of Trent, which even at its inception posed the ominous threat of a politically united Catholic front capable of crushing the scattered Protestant states. In order to forestall this possibility, Henry sought to detach Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, from the alliance with France that acted as the diplomatic mainstay of the Council's authority. In an effort to shake off his reputation as a schismatic and woo Charles to his side, Henry both reinstituted a number of traditional Catholic rites and cracked down on those who advocated radical Protestant doctrines.

It was in these more stringent diplomatic and religious circumstances that Anne Askew and Thomas Kyme appeared before the Privy Council on June 19—nearly four weeks after the summons. One account, supplied years later by Askew's nephew, attributes the delay in her appearance to the fact that she was in hiding and was captured only when one of her letters was intercepted. In any case, her second examination began with inquiry being made into her separation from Kyme and her refusal to acknowledge him as her husband. Askew insisted that she would explain her marital situation only to the king personally, whereupon the Privy Councillors evidently decided that Kyme was of no interest to them, and he was allowed to return home. After further discussion with Askew, however, the Privy Council found that "she showed herself to be of a naughty opinion," and they remanded her to Newgate Prison.

The following day, Askew and the Council debated for five hours, and her statements during this examination (at least as reported by her) reveal an even more assertive and opinionated woman than one interrogated before the lord mayor and Bishop Bonner a year earlier. At one point, when Bishop Gardiner complained that she spoke in parables and admonished her to make direct answer to the questions put to her, she replied that this was best for him, "for if I show the open truth ye will not accept it." Askew's examination continued for several successive days during which the Privy Councillors urged her to "confess the Sacrament to be flesh, blood, and bone." Yet all efforts to secure from her a voluntary recantation failed, and Gardiner began to warn darkly that she was in danger of going to the stake. On June 20, Askew fell seriously ill and seems to have expected to die at any moment of her sickness. Although repeatedly implored to renounce her erroneous opinions and sign a "bill of the Sacrament," Askew remained defiant. Accordingly, she was arraigned at Guildhall on the 28th along with three others: Dr. Nicholas Shaxton, former bishop of Salisbury, John Hadlam, a tailor, and Nicholas White, an attorney. All four admitted to their heresies, were summarily convicted, and condemned to be burned.

Efforts the next day by the bishops Bonner and Heath to exhort the condemned Sacramentarians succeeded in inducing Shaxton and White to abjure their heresies. But Askew was adamant. Bonner even brought in the newly rectified Shaxton to urge Askew to save herself. As she recounted, "Then came there to me Nicholas Shaxton and counselled me to recant as he had done. I said to him that it had been good for him never to have been born; with many other like words." Instead, she drafted her own confession of faith from her cell in Newgate, a shortened version of which she sent to Thomas Wriothesley, the lord chancellor, asking that he in turn forward it to the king. In it, Askew made plain her uncompromising Sacramentarian views.

Although she already stood condemned, Askew had to undergo yet another ordeal before her final suffering. On the afternoon of the 29th, Sir Richard Rich sent her to the Tower of London for a further round of interrogation, this time with the application of torture. The judicial torture of a condemned criminal was a highly unusual occurrence, and it has been alleged that the king himself authorized Askew's racking in order to ascertain whether she had infected certain ladies at court with heretical doctrines. Certainly the interrogation administered by Rich and Wriothesley in the Tower focused on the identity of her patrons. In fact, Askew's suspected relations with several highly placed aristocratic ladies like the duchess of Suffolk, the countesses of Sussex and Hertford, Lady Denny, Lady Fitzwilliam, and perhaps even the queen, Catherine Parr , may have been the motivating factor behind her rearrest for heresy in 1546. Henry, given the exigencies of his diplomatic policy, could not tolerate a notorious heretic such as Anne Askew gaining influence over the most powerful ladies of the realm. The conservatives at Court, for their part, saw Askew as a promising source of incriminating evidence that might be used to strengthen their hand against the advanced Protestant faction.

Despite a severe racking, however, during which Wriothesley and Rich personally lent a hand, Askew refused to divulge the names of any of her presumed confederates. She acknowledged only that, among the numerous gifts made to her by anonymous members of the public, small sums of money were said to have been conveyed to her by minions of Ladies Denny and Hertford, though she did not know even that to be a fact.

Now seriously injured from her torture and unable to walk, Askew returned to prison. Then on July 16, she was carried in a chair to Smithfield and chained to a stake along with the tailor Hadlam, John Lascelles, a gentleman of the court, and a priest named John Helmsley. None other than Dr. Shaxton, her former compatriot, delivered the sermon from a pulpit erected on the spot. Presiding over the ceremony were the lord chancellor, the dukes of Norfolk and Bedford, the lord mayor, and other notables seated on a dais. As Shaxton preached, Askew, ever contentious, offered a running commentary on his sermon, praising him where she agreed with his words, but other times saying, "There he misseth and speaketh without the book." Unrepentant to the end, pious, and steadfast in her faith, Anne Askew died a religious martyr.


"Above Rubies;" or, Memorials of Christian Gentlewomen. Nashville, TN: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, n.d.

Dickens, A.G., and Dorothy Carr, eds. The Reformation in England to the Accession of Elizabeth I. London: Edward Arnold, 1967.

Foxe, John. Foxe's Book of English Martyrs. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1981.

Gairdner, James. Lollardy and the Reformation in England, Vol. II. London, 1908 (reprinted, NY: Burt Franklin, n.d.).

Hughes, Philip. The Reformation in England, Vol. II: Religio Depopulata. London: Hollis & Carter, 1953.

Wriothesley, Charles. A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors. Camden Society, new series, Vol. 11. London: Camden Society, 1875.

suggested reading:

Bale, John. The First Examinacyon of Anne Askewe. Marburg, 1546.

——. The Lattre Examinacyon of Anne Askewe. Marburg, 1547.

Dickens, A.G. The English Reformation. NY: Schocken, 1964.

Wabuda, Susan Ruth. "Anne Askew (c.1520–1546): A Study of Women and Religious Dissent in England." Unpublished M.A. thesis, Wesleyan University, 1980.

Geoffrey Clark , Assistant Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia