Courage and Conviction: Anne Askew

The life and court of King Henry VIII is a great source for novels and movies.  The stories, plots, and intrigues surrounding Henry’s six wives are more than a novelist would dare to invent, showing history is indeed more fascinating than fiction.  Though ignored by the film and novelistic depiction of Henry VIII’s court, some of Henry’s queens and the women of the court were influential in planting the biblical truths of the Reformation in England. This was especially true of Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Katherine Parr’s chaplain was even one of the early translators of the Bible into English, Miles Coverdale.  Katherine gathered around her a number of ladies-in-waiting interested in theology and Bible study.  One member of this ladies Bible study in the palace was Anne Askew (1521?-1546).[1]

Anne’s parents had arranged her marriage to Thomas Kelsey.  The couple had two children, but their marriage could not survive the couple’s different faiths.  Thomas was a staunch Catholic, while Anne was a devout evangelical Christian.  When Thomas forced Anne out of the house, she went to London and became part of Queen Katherine Parr’s household.

She was active in sharing the gospel in London by the distribution of Bibles, tracts, and religious books.

Though King Henry had separated from the Church of Rome, establishing himself as head of the Church of England, he had not embraced the biblical teachings of the Reformation.  The Church of England, for example, still held to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the teaching that during the ceremony of the mass, the bread and wine were transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ.  In 1545, Anne was arrested and examined about her attitude toward the mass.  She clearly told her examiners that the Scriptures said Christ died once for our sins, was buried, resurrected, and then seated at the Father’s right hand. To claim that the mass was a re-sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ was contrary to Scripture and negated the salvation Christ brought.

Though released, Anne was arrested again the following year. She was able to answer her examiners with Scripture, wit, boldness and courage, even under intense persecution and the threat of death.  When asked if she believed that private masses helped departed souls, Anne replied, “It was great idolatry to believe more in them than in the death which Christ died for us.”  When pressed if she believed the priest at the mass transformed the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, Anne replied, “I have read that God made man, but that man can make God, I never read, nor I suppose, ever shall read.”  She stated that “My God will not be eaten with teeth, neither yet dieth he again, and upon these words that I have now spoken will I suffer death.” The examiners tried to persuade Anne her views were heretical, but she always answered their claims with Scripture.  She was finally taken to the Tower of London where she was tortured and commanded to name other women in the palace who shared her beliefs.

With King Henry VIII in failing health, there was a political struggle as to who would control the future king, Edward, who was still a boy. Would England become closely allied with Spain and return to the fold of the Roman church, or would the teachings of the Bible and the Reformation shape the English church? The attempt to get Anne to name women involved in the palace Bible study was an attempt to bring reproach on Queen Katherine Parr, weakening her influence on the King and his young heir. In an effort to get information from Anne, the Bishop of London put her on the rack, a torture device that slowly pulled the victim’s hands and legs in opposite directions, painfully stretching the body to break any will to resist.   The whole process was illegal, since, the racking of women was forbidden and Anne was a “gentlewoman” besides. But Anne was isolated in the Tower away from any help her family, her friends at court, or the Queen might be able to give.

Even when several of her bones were dislocated or broken, Anne remained silent, not even crying out in pain.

Anne was promised she could have anything she wanted if she recanted her Protestant faith and threatened with death by burning if she stubbornly persisted in her beliefs.  Anne replied that she did not know of any Scripture where Christ or the apostles put anyone to death for their beliefs.  She later wrote, “My Lord God, I thank his everlasting goodness, gave me grace to persevere.”

While in the Tower awaiting execution, Anne wrote an account of her trials and tortures.  She concluded her account with this prayer:

“O Lord, I have more enemies now than there be hairs on my head.  Yet, sweet Lord, let    me not set by them which are against me, for in thee is my whole delight; and, Lord, I heartily desire of thee that thou wilt, of thy most merciful goodness, forgive them that violence which they do and have done unto me.  Open also thou their blind hearts that they may hereafter do that thing in thy sight which is only acceptable before thee, and set forth thy verity aright, without all vain phantasy of sinful men.  So be it, O Lord, so be it.”

Anne’s body was so broken by her tortures that when she was taken to Smithfield to be burned, she was unable to walk and had to be tied to a chair and carried.  On July 16, 1546, Anne Askew was chained to the stake and burned along with three others.  She was twenty-five years old.

Remaining firm in her belief in the Scriptures, Anne exemplified God’s power in her human weakness (II Cor. 12:9).  Her biographer, John Bale, wrote that when Anne “seemed most feeble, then was she most strong…and gladly she rejoiced in that weakness, that Christ’s power might strongly dwell in her.”[2] Bale compared Anne’s martyrdom to the second century martyr Blandina, who also was young and tender, yet whose faith never wavered under extreme torments.  The Spirit of Christ gave these young Christians joy in the midst of pain and boldness to witness to the truth of Christ when faced with lies and false religion.

Though we might not be called to endure the physical tortures and death that Anne Askew endured, Jesus promised that Christians in the world would have persecution.

“If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20).  The beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount concluded with a promise of blessing to the persecuted: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” (Matt. 5:10-12).  It was through her witness under persecution that Anne became salt and light to her generation (Matt. 5:13-14), testifying to the truth in Christ, even to our own day.

Dr. Diana Severance is the Director of the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University and the author of Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History (Christian Focus, 2011).  She has taught courses in the history of Christian women at SWBTS since 2004. Her greatest joy, besides the Lord Jesus, is being married to Gordon.

[1] This account of Anne Askew is derived from Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Chrsitian Hsitory (Christian Focus, 2011) 170-172.  Anne Askew’s story can be found in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Marie Gentert King, ed.).  Tappan, N.J.L Fleming H. revel, 1968, 162-168.

[2] Elaine V.Beilin.  Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance.  Princeton University Press, 1987, p.33.