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1546: Anne Askew, the only woman tortured in the Tower

July 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1546, Protestant martyr Anne Askew was martyred for her Protestantism.

One of the more intriguing religious martyrs of Tudor England, Askew was a gentlewoman forced to take her older sister’s place in an arranged betrothal when said sister (as was the style in the 16th century) dropped dead young.

Askew’s adherence to Protestantism put her at loggerheads with her Catholic husband, a domestic prefiguring of the factional political dispute that would see her to a Smithfield stake: the Reformation that rent England was itself contested within, with more aggressively reformist Protestant types resisted by the more conservative Catholic-without-Rome faction. Taking the wrong line at the wrong time was taking your life in your hands, and in the treacherous Tudor court, religion became the stalking-horse of deadly politics.

A like conflict played out in townships and households throughout the realm.

Askew and her husband separated (but were not granted divorce) over her conversion to Protestantism; she moved to London and started preaching doctrines anathema to the doctrinaire. As a noblewoman herself, she was absorbed into social circles reaching Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr.

Askew’s outspoken heterodoxy soon brought her into conflict with anti-Protestants, and when the “send her back to hubbie” strategy didn’t take, they had her clapped in the Tower.

Here she evidently became a pawn in courtly politics; with the obese and aging king liable to drop dead any moment, religious and political authority during the succession was at stake.

Askew was therefore racked in the Tower in an effort to extract evidence against powerful women of known Protestant inclinations, possibly up to and including the queen herself.

Then came Rich and one of the council, charging me upon my obedience, to show unto them, if I knew any man or woman of my sect. My answer was, that I knew none. Then they asked me of my Lady of Suffolk, my Lady of Sussex, my Lady of Hertford, my Lady Denny, and my Lady Fitzwilliam. To whom I answered, if I should pronounce any thing against them, that I were not able to prove it. Then said they unto me, that the king was informed that I could name, if I would, a great number of my sect. I answered, that the king was as well deceived in that behalf, as dissembled with in other matters.

Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, and thereon they kept me a long time; and because I lay still, and did not cry, my lord chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nigh dead.

Then the lieutenant caused me to be loosed from the rack. Incontinently I swooned, and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours reasoning with my lord chancellor upon the bare floor; where he, with many flattering words, persuaded me to leave my opinion.

Askew didn’t talk, and the act of torturing a woman shocked contemporaries so much that it has never been officially repeated. She was burned to death with three fellow-heretics in Smithfield, so crippled by torture that she had to be carried in a chair to the pyre.


Anne Askew’s executed, together with John Lascelles, John Adams and Nicholas Belenian. Preaching in the pulpit is Nicholas Shaxton, who avoided the fagots with a timely recantation.

Askew survives to us as a particularly consequential Protestant martyr not only for her what-might-have-been proximity to a court plot that might have altered the course of English history, but because she left her own testimony to the ordeal.

Her Examinations — firsthand accounts of her interrogations — were reportedly smuggled out of England where they were published by John Bale. Still, we come by Anne’s own voice in the mediated form of other (male) publishers with their own agendas.

One reading of Bale’s editions that has now become conventional envisions Askew’s narrative as an embattled text: an authentic narrative, the autobiography of a learned and valiant woman, onto which Bale has imposed an insensitive, misogynistic misreading.

Specifically, Bale has been dinged for shoehorning source material that reveals a contentious and tough-minded critic into the vanilla pattern of the meek woman suffering for the faith — a cardboard cutout martyr shorn of less consumer-friendly unfeminine behavior.

While both Bale and Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, who also published versions of the Examinations, stand in that sense between us and the “real” Anne Askew, their polemical needs are precisely the reason we are able to descry the woman standing behind the martyr-archetype.

while her body was consumed by the flames, her identity remains at least partially preserved. The Henrician Anglo-Catholics made Askew famous through the process of her trial and public execution. The Protestant reformers rhetorically retrieved Askew’s broken, tortured, criminalized body from the stake and restyled it as a saint and symbol of their cause. Her identity thus paradoxically emerges in a variety of ways from the tensions … that we find in all the scraps of surviving archival material relating to her. (Theresa D. Kemp, “Translating (Anne) Askew: The Textual Remains of a Sixteenth-Century Heretic and Saint,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Winter, 1999))

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Nobility,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Women

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7 thoughts on “1546: Anne Askew, the only woman tortured in the Tower”

  1. patsi ringsdorf says:

    my 17th great aunt

  2. BanditQueen says:

    Anne Askew was one of the most heroic women of the Tudor Age. Forced to marry in exchange for her late sister, she married a man who was traditional in his beliefs. Thomas Kyme was not cruel, but Anne had a mind of her own and she taught herself from the scriptures and the new learning. She left her husband for some time and came to London where she preached, contrary to our laws and to the law of God. She was popular in London and she made friends in high places.

    Anne became part of the circle of reformers around the new Queen Katherine Parr in 1543, at the time of her first arrest, not for Bible reading, but for public preaching. She escaped lightly this time, but as an evangelical heretic she was on borrowed time. She was close to the Queen and having been thrown out by her husband whom she had gone back to live with, she was supported by the Seymours and by the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk. The Duchess was a reformer and would be very radical after her husbands death in 1545.

    The Queen began to encourage reform and her chambers held informal meetings. She used to read and preach to the King but one day went too far and Henry ordered her investigated. During this it became clear that one way to reach the Queen was via Anne Askew. Preaching again in public in 1546 Anne was arrested and questioned by Stephen Gardiner. He wanted to reach the other ladies around the Queen, and the Queen herself and condemn them as heretics. So Anne was condemned and then sent to the Tower to be questioned further.

    Racking a woman was illegal and Anne is the only known case. She would not betray the Queen and her friends and she was racked. She would not name anyone and Sir Richard Rich and Thomas Whrisley (excuse spelling) interrogated her. She was placed on the rack and at first gently racked. But Rich and the Chancellor became impatient and demanded that Kingston order her to be racked more. He refused and went to the King to protest this cruel treatment of a woman. Henry intervened and the racking was stopped. However, her editor or her own account: John Bale has Rich and W rack the poor woman themselves in his absense. She was so damaged that she could not walk or stand.

    When she was executed she had to be carried to her execution tied to a chair. It was terrible and we are told that someone put gunpowder around her nexk to quicken her end in the fires. Anne was heroic at the end and said nothing about the other women or the Queen. Katherine was accused but the warrant for her arrest fell into her hands. She came to the King , claimed she was only a woman and looked to him to advise and guide her and that her opinions were of no importance. He pardoned her and shouted at W the next day when he came to arrest the Queen.

    John Bale puts words into the mouth of Anne but she could not possibly have made these accounts had she been racked to such an extent. Therefore we have a choice to believe. Either she was racked to the extent claimed and Bale wrote the story and had her say what he believed she would say or John Foxe, known to exaggerate and invent his evidence, was lying and Anne was not racked to the extent that she could not walk or stand. If so, then how do we explain the chair at her burning? Simple: she was exhausted by the constant questions and weakened by her ordeal. I believe she was racked; I do not believe the Secretary and the Chancellor racked her themselves: they had a professional to do it for them; and I do not believe she was racked to such an extent as claimed. I believe she was released from the rack by Kingston before things got out of hand and then questioned by W as the account states.

    However, it is clear that she was a heroic woman and that she died for her faith.

  3. Susan Spreitzer says:

    My mother is a descendant of the Askew family, and we are relatives of Lady Anne Askew. I found out at a family reunion yesterday. This is so interesting! I had no idea that we are relatives of someone who was burned at the stake, and is included in the Book of Martyrs. Thank you for this enlightening information on your site.

  4. carole.living says:

    I have read in two places that (1) Ann had had placed around her neck a bag of gunpowder and (2) gunpowder was poured all over her body, both while she was at the stake for the purpose of killing her quickly. This was dramatized in the TV series The Tudors. Do you know the truth of this?

  5. Lorraine Courtenay says:

    We believe that Lady Anne Askew is a relative, as my grandfather’s family came from Lincolnshire.

    Her story has always fascinated me, so much so that I investigated her story by going to the Guild Hall in London and reading 16th century written accounts of her story. I truly wish though she had thought more of her life and not died such an unnecessary and agonising death – but then by speaking out and keeping to your beliefs it has made our society so more open today.

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