[A woodcut of the execution of Anne Askew and other religious dissenters. Accessed 15 January 2016. This image is in the Public Domain.]
This week’s historical hottie is probably familiar to those who know a bit about early modern British history (I’m looking at you, Tudors fans). I’ve found that students in tutorials, especially those interested in gender dynamics, enjoy learning about her, so I’m featuring Anne Askew here today.
Anne was born into a noble family in 1521. In her mid teens, Anne’s father arranged her marriage to the betrothed of her recently deceased sister. Anne, an increasingly radical Protestant, thus found herself married to a Catholic husband. Though Anne’s youth and gender might lead one to believe that she yielded to her father and husband, she and her husband couldn’t reconcile their beliefs and their marriage. They had two children, but then separated, and Anne worked toward a divorce. She was, and remains, known by her maiden name.
In either 1544 or 1545, Anne moved to London. Her unorthodox beliefs led to her investigation by London’s quest (the commission dealing with heresy). This investigation did not end in punishment, but she was interrogated much more seriously by king’s council in 1546. Anne was imprisoned, first in Newgate, and then in the Tower of London. She refused to recant, and was condemned to die.
As if often the case in religious trials (in the early modern Christian context), her interrogators would have preferred that she recant and name names in order to escape execution. In Anne’s case, her family’s close connection to Henry’s court led to her extensive questioning under torture about which women at court held radical beliefs. Anne refused to incriminate any other women, despite the presence of other radicals in Henry’s court, including his wife, Katherine Parr. Normally, Anne’s standing sentence of death and her position in English society would have exempted her from torture. After being tortured, Anne was allowed time to convalesce and recant. She did not, and was subsequently burned as a heretic. She was twenty-five.
People who die for their beliefs tend to inspire, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But we must be cautious when reading about such figures. In Anne’s case, authors John Bale and John Foxe both adopted her as a Protestant martyr. Now, both of these authors were male, and their individual views and agendas informed their respecting framing of Anne. For Bale, Anne was a physically weak and pious woman who exemplified femininised virtues like chastity and obedience. For Foxe, she was more rebellious, but since she was driven by Protestant piety, this was laudable. In either depiction, Anne’s words and actions are mediated by men. Even recent scholarship, which casts doubt on the factual accuracy of these accounts (especially Bale’s), is necessarily informed by them. This is equally true of this post.
It’s also important to remember Anne’s status in society. Although it did not protect her from investigation, torture and execution, the degree to which contemporaries seem to have accepted her separation from her husband, as well as her reputation for piety and learning, were almost certainly informed by assumptions about status.
Despite these issues, Anne Askew knew her own mind. She refused to live with the husband chosen by her father. She held fast to her radical beliefs, even when it led her to the rack and the stake. In short, those parts of her life about which we are the most certain demonstrate that she was, to a greater or lesser degree, a rebel.
Thomas S. Freeman and Sarah Elizabeth Wall, “Racking the Body, Shaping the Text: The Account of Anne Askew in Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs,” Renaissance Quarterly 54, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 1165-1196.
Diane Watt, “Askew , Anne (c.1521–1546),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/798, accessed 15 Jan 2016, accessed 15 January 2015.