Women of the Reformation: Anne Askew
Born into a wealthy family in Lincolnshire, the fourth of five children of William and Elizabeth Askew, Anne’s life should have been one of ease and luxury. Anne received an excellent education by tutors at home and especially relished reading and studying the Scriptures. Her older sister Martha was to be married to Thomas Kyme, a neighboring wealthy landowner, but Martha died before the marriage took place. Anne’s father, very much against Anne’s will, had fifteen-year-old Anne marry Thomas. Thomas, a Catholic, could not abide Anne’s evangelical faith and eventually brutally forced her to leave the house.
Anne went to London, where her brother Edward was in the court of Henry VIII. There she joined the group of evangelicals around Queen Catherine, who had a Bible study in the palace. Anne actively shared her faith in Christ and distributed the Bible and religious books around London. In 1545 she was arrested; Anne wrote the details of her examinations, which were later published by John Bale and in 1563 were included in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. Her account is one of the earliest autobiographical accounts written by an English woman and reveals Anne’s familiarity with Scriptures as well as her wit and grace.
A Temple Not Made By Man
The central question in the examinations was what Anne thought or had said about the nature of the bread and wine in communion. Were the elements the literal body and blood of Christ as the Catholic and Henrican Church maintained? When asked, “if the sacrament hanging over the altar was the very body of Christ really,” Anne in turn asked “Wherefore was St. Stephen stoned to death?” When the inquisitor said he couldn’t tell, Anne said she wouldn’t answer his vain question either. Anne was going to point out that when Stephen was martyred, he saw the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. If Jesus’ body was at the right hand of God, how could it also be communion bread?
The inquisitors read to Anne what others had testified she had said – that God was not in a temple made by men and that she’d rather read five lines in the Bible than hear five masses. Anne explained that Stephen and Paul both said God did not dwell in man-made temples in Acts. If that were so, how could God be in bread made by the baker? Anne confirmed she said she would rather read five lines of the Bible, because it edified her, whereas the mass did not. When asked if she thought private masses for the dead helped them, Anne replied, “it was great idolatry to believe more in them, than in the death which Christ died for us.” When asked if she thought private masses for the dead helped them, Anne replied, “it was great idolatry to believe more in them, than in the death which Christ died for us.” Click To Tweet
Anne was further examined by the Lord Mayor and the chancellor to the Bishop of London, who asked many of the same questions. The bishop’s chancellor rebuked Anne for talking about the Scriptures, noting that St. Paul “forbade women to speak or to talk of the word of God.” Anne replied that Paul in 1 Corinthians said that a woman was not to teach in the congregation. She asked him if he had ever seen a woman going into the pulpit to preach. When he replied he had not, then she said he ought not to find fault with women unless they have actually offended the law!
God’s Strength Perfected in Weakness
Anne was placed in jail for eleven days, during which time a priest came to further examine her. The Lord Mayor said he wanted to counsel Anne in her difficulty, if she would unburden her soul to him and uncover what was in the depths of her heart. Anne said her conscience was not burdened. After further interrogations, and the intercession of a cousin, Anne was finally released on bail.
However, in 1546, Anne was again arrested and taken before the King’s Council in Greenwich. The inquisitors again asked her opinion of the sacrament. The interrogation lasted for two days, with repeated demands for Anne to acknowledge that the flesh and blood of Christ were in the sacrament. When the Bishop of Winchester said she would be burned, Anne replied, “I had searched all the Scriptures, yet could I never find that either Christ or his apostles put any creature to death.”
Anne was then sent to Newgate prison. While there she wrote out this confession:
I find in the Scripture, that Christ took the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my body which shall be broken for you; meaning in substance, his own very body, the bread being thereof only a sign or sacrament. For, after like manner of speaking, he said he would break down the temple. And in three days build it up again, signifying his own body by the temple, as St. John declareth it, and not the stony temple itself. So that the bread is but a remembrance of his death, or a sacrament of thanksgiving for it. Whereby we are knit unto him by a communion of Christian love; … Written by me, Anne Askew, that neither wish death, nor yet fear his might and as merry as one that is bound towards heaven.
Anne said that if they left the communion bread in the box three months it would turn moldy, which should persuade everyone that it cannot be God!
After her condemnation, Anne was taken to the Tower. There she was interrogated and tortured to reveal the names of others who shared her beliefs. In these last months of King Henry’s reign, there was a power struggle between the Catholic forces under Stephen Gardiner and those supporting the Reformation. Gardiner especially sought to convict Queen Catherine Parr of her Protestant faith. From Anne Askew he hoped to gain information incriminating the evangelical Queen and those around her. When Anne was put on the rack and asked to name others who shared her faith, Anne remained silent. Though she swooned from pain, Anne was thankful that the Lord God gave her grace to persevere.
Anne could not believe that the bread was the same flesh and blood of the Christ which hung upon the cross:
There be some do say that I deny the eucharist or sacrament of thanksgiving but those people do untruly report of me. For I both say and believe it, that if it were ordered like as Christ instituted it and left it, a most singular comfort it were unto us all. 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 have now spoken, will I suffer death.”
Before her death, Anne wrote out the following prayer:
O Lord! I have more enemies now, than there be hairs on my head; yet, Lord let them never overcome me with vain words, but light thou, Lord, in my stead; for on thee cast I my care. With all the spite they can imagine, they fall upon me, who am thy poor creature. Yet, sweet Lord, let me not set by them that 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 to set forth thy verity aright, without all vain fantasies of sinful men. So be it, O Lord, so be it!
She also wrote the thoughts of her prayer in a ballad which she sang in prison.
Anne’s tortures were so severe, that she could not walk to her execution on July 16, but was carried in a chair. Chained to the stake, Anne was offered a pardon if she would recant, but she said she had not come to deny her Lord and master. John Bale compared Anne to the second century martyr Blandina. They were both young (Anne was twenty-five) and tortured for their faith; neither were terrified of death, but both were filled with the joy of Christ. 2 Corinthians 12:9 said that God’s strength was made perfect in weakness, and when Anne “seemed most feeble, then she was most strong…and gladly she rejoiced in that weakness, that Christ’s power might strongly dwell in her.” John Foxe wrote that at her death, Anne left behind a “a singular example of Christian constancy for all men to follow.”
 All quotes are from John Foxe. The Actes and Monuments of the Church. London: George Veritas, 1851, Book 8, 209.
 John Bale. Select Works of John Bale, containing The Examinations of Lord Cobham, William Thorpe, and Anne Askewe. The Parker Society edition. Cambridge: The University Press, 1849, 144.