Anne Askew Biography

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A Brief Biography of Anne Askew

as excerpted from

" Divorced, Beheaded, Survived :
a Feminist reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII"

by Karen Lindsey (1995)

Well worth reading the whole book!

*No editing of this text - as this is an excerpt from a book and additions are in [brackets]*

"Askew is one of the most intriguing figures of the era. Katherine Parr and her ladies knew of her, as did everyone else in London, and no one with any Protestant sympathies could fail to be drawn to her. She was an awesome woman, this stark, witty, charismatic Protestant who had dared to appropriate two rights that belonged to Henry alone. She had decided for herself what constituted religious truth, and she had abandoned her spouse, resuming her family name and moving to London to spread the gospel.

Born in 1520, Anne was the daughter of a minor knight, Sir William Askew. He had allowed his daughters to be educated well enough to read and write English. Their learning was supplemented informally when their older brothers, Francis and Edward, were at Cambridge. On visits home the young scholars talked about the Protestant ideas floating around the university town - ideas that intrigued the girl, bored with the flat conservative world of Lincolnshire.

Whatever affection she might have retained for the conservative religion of her childhood Anne lost in 1536, during the uprisings in Lincolnshire [Pilgrimage of the Grace]. Sir William a loyal Henrician, opposed the rebels. In retaliation, they attacked his house while he was away, leaving the terrified women to watch helplessly as they seized Francis and another son, Thomas. The rebellion was defeated and the brothers returned unharmed, but Anne's loathing of the old religion was solidified.

Her father sympathized with her feelings, but he didn't let that stand in the way of practical decisions -- such as the choice of a husband for Anne. Thomas Kyme, a cloddish neighbor who was traditional in his religion, made up in wealth what he lacked in intellect. He was originally betrothed to Anne's sister Martha, who died suddenly before the marriage. Thomas' father was quite willing to settle for another Askew girl.

Anne escaped from the dreariness of life with Thomas Kyme as best she could. We may assume that she spent as much time as possible with her sister Jane, whose husband, George Saint Paul, was a protestant and a friend of the Duke of Suffolk and of his outspoken young wife. There are no records of a meeting between Anne Askew and Catherine [Brandon nee] Willoughby, but with so close a connection, the two intense Protestant women must have met on several occasions.

Anne had other outlets as well in the early days of her marriage. In 1538, in one of his swings toward progressivism, Henry had decreed that every parish must have a large English Bible in its church so that parishioners "may most commodiously resort to the same and read it". This allowed literate parishioners with Protestant or evangelical leanings to conduct informal public Bible readings in the churches. The priests could only watch in dismay as their former privilege was exercised by all sorts of laymen -- and even laywomen....

In 1543, Henry was in a more conservative mood and he passed the Act for the Advancement of the True Religion, prohibiting men below the rank of gentleman, and all women, from reading the Bible. Thomas Kyme rejoiced. Anne was not daunted. She had a prodigious memory and she had spent long hours in scriptural reading. If she could not read the precious book itself, she could recall large sections of it verbatim. The prohibition meant that she could and must, use her gift to help others now deprived of access to God's word. Her gospeling continued.

Thomas Kyme, driven to the end of his limited wits, sought out the local priests for advice on how to handle his unruly wife. They advised Kyme to kick her out of his house, reasoning that the humiliation would force her to see the error of her ways and return to him. Far from chastened, Anne took her sons and moved in with her brother Francis, pursuing her gospeling with renewed vigor....

The Lincoln courts rejected her petition for divorce and Anne decided to go to London and get her divorce there. Like the king's new wife, Anne revered Henry for freeing his people from the evil of popery. She was certain the king, who had himself disposed of several unworthy spouses, would allow a godly woman to be free of her unbelieving husband.

In London Anne resumed her family name and took rooms near the Inns of the Court, where she must have been an odd sight among her fellow lodgers, nearly all male, and young students of law. She contacted an old neighbor who was now at court, one of Henry's three "sewers" -- men who supervised the arrangement of the king's table, seated guests, and tasted the royal meals for poison. He was, in fact, John Lascelles, the man whose obliging sister had supplied him with the details of Kathryn Howard's early love life.

Lascelles gladly took his young friend under this wing, introducing her to the seething world of the London Protestantism. After the claustrophobic traditionalism of Lincolnshire, Anne was in her glory. All around her were Protestants whose devotion to their faith was matched her own. Men who had once been legends to her became regular associates -- Hugh Latimer, bishop of Worcester ; Nicholas Shaxton, bishop of Salisbury; the renegade priest Dr. Edward Crome. All were her friends, as they were the friends of the new queen, Katherine Parr.

The city was full of Bible study groups, whose members were a mixture of nobility and commoners, merchants, and apprentices, shopkeepers, students -- anyone, high or low, male or female, who revered scripture. The ban on Bible reading had intensified the hunger for it, and those who knew the Bible well became known as gospelers, a new breed of lay preacher, collecting an audience in every nook and cranny of London, from churchyards to taverns, expounding illegally but openly on God's word, as they now heard it, not in beautiful mysterious, inaccessible Latin, but in their own clear, vibrant English. Anne was familiar with such activities, though her audience had been small. Quickly, exuberantly, she became one of London's most famous and beloved gospelers, her beauty and high rank marking her as the Fair Gospeler. She had found her home, and soon all London had heard about the lovely young gentlewoman who talked equally with servants and masters, who had such thorough knowledge of God's word, who spoke with such intense conviction.

Unfortunately, not all London was pleased. Bishop Gardiner had been warned of her by the disgruntled priests in Lincoln even before her celebrity in London. The Bishop of Winchester's idea of a good woman was a quiet and submissive one -- a woman like the king's third wife [[[Jane Seymour]]] whose only fault was dying in childbirth and leaving the king vulnerable to more aggressive women. Gardiner did not like the queen. He did not like his goddaughter, the sharp-tongued Duchess of Suffolk [[[Catherine Brandon]]]. And he did not like the Fair Gospeler. The new religion, he thought bitterly bred such women. Angrily he wrote to one Protestant correspondent, "ye give women courage and liberty to talk to their pleasure so it be of God's word". The queen and the duchess were, as yet too powerful to keep from their dabbling in religious reform, but this arrogant young gentlewoman was another matter. Undoubtedly Gardiner's spies had told him of Anne's link to Catherine [Brandon nee] Willoughby -- and a link to Catherine Willoughby was a link to Katherine Parr. If the bishop could use this to discredit the queen, perhaps he could pick the king's seventh wife....

How strong those connections were we don't know. Certainly Anne had managed to get to court and at least had seen, from whatever distance, the king she idolized. With her connection to the duchess and to John Lascelles, she had some access to the outer circles of the court, and later she mentioned in a poem that she had once seen Henry on his royal throne.

In June 1545, she was arrested with two of her co-religionists on charges of heresy but there were no witnesses and the charges were dropped. ...

Early in 1546 Anne's petition for divorce came up in Chancery. But though she had been certain she would win her appeal in London, she didn't. Her plea was dismissed and she was ordered to return to her husband.

She could not bring herself to obey. On March 10 1546, Anne was again arrested on heresy charges. This time she was tried before the "quest", a kind of grand jury whose job was to determine whether the accused was likely to be heretical, and if so to turn her over to a higher court for further examination."...

[Again after much interrogation she was released and she returned to her brother's house]

"By returning not to Thomas Kyme but to her brother's house, Anne had given Gardiner a useful weapon against her. She was summoned to London and ordered to return to her husband. Once again she was questioned about her religious beliefs, this time by members of the king's council. One of them was Katherine Parr's brother, William whom Anne berated along with other Protestant sympathizers, for arguing "contrary to their knowledge". She made her contempt of Gardiner even clearer. ...

Anne no longer attempted to evade admitting her own beliefs. She treated transubstantiation as a joke. Of course Jesus has said he was the bread of the Eucharist. He had also said he was the door to salvation -- did that mean he was present in any door a priest chose to bless? She was courting martyrdom and on June 18 she was condemned to die at the stake.

She was moved to the Tower of London to await execution. There something extremely unusual happened. Anne was visited by two council members, Richard Rich and Gardiner's sleazy henchman Wriothesly [[[Risley]]], who asked questions about her 'sect'. Did it include any of the queen's ladies? The Duchess of Suffolk [[[Catherine Brandon]]], perhaps , or the Lady Sussex, or Hertford [[[Anne Stanhope]]] or Denny? Anne shrugged. She knew nothing about those ladies and their beliefs. But the king , they said, had been told otherwise. The king, she retorted bitterly, had been lied to about many things. When she continued to deny knowledge of the queen's women, she was put on the rack.

The Lieutenant of the Tower, Anthony Knevet, was appalled. Torture was a tool for eliciting confessions, and this woman had already been condemned to die. Moreover, it was not to be used on a gentlewoman. When the first turns of the rack elicited only grim silence, he refused to continue. Rich and Wriothesly rolled up their sleeves and began turning the rack themselves. Knevet fled to the court and forced his way into Henry's presence and there flinging himself to his knees, told the king what was going on. He begged to know if it was His Majesty's will that he torture the woman. Publicly confronted, Henry has no choice but to affect ignorance and horror. He thanked Knevet and ordered the racking stopped....

Anne was unable to walk to the stake, so she was carried on a chair. She was executed along with three men, among them her old friend and mentor John Lascelles. As the faggots were piled high about them, Wriothesly [[[Risley]]] made his way through the throng to offer the four a pardon if they recanted. Anne spoke for them all, crying aloud that she " came not hither to deny my Lord and Master!" The torch was lit and the four died quickly thanks to gunpowder a friend had thrown into the flames. A fortuitous thunderstorm, breaking out suddenly, added to the legend that grew to surround the death of the Fair Gospeler: the thunder, the 18th century ecclesiastical historian John Strype tells us "seemed to the people to be the voice of God, or the voice of an angel".

Anne Askew died without betraying the queen or any of her ladies. Whatever Katherine Parr's relationship to the Fair Gospeler, she could hardly have been pleased to see the young woman die so horrible a death for beliefs with which she herself sympathized. She may have even shown anger in some way to Henry, and thus elicited his anger. He was beginning to show signs of disaffection...."