Friday, September 7, 2018

Anne Askew: The Extraordinary Life of a Reformation Martyr

"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 base now spoken, will I suffer death." 1   Anne Askew  (1521 - July 16, 1546) 

Many of us celebrate Reformation Day every October 31st.  When we consider today's Evangelical climate we should pause to remember those who were willing to die for doctrines that many of us might view as non-essential. 
The most common reason for execution during the early years of the Reformation had to do with a refusal of  the Catholic Mass.    That is, the false belief that the literal body and blood Christ resides in the bread and wine administered by the priests, and that Christ’s once for all atonement is repeated over and over again with each Mass.   These heroes of the faith understood the necessity of drawing lines in the creedal sand and would rather die than acquiesce to this idolatrous teaching known as  transubstantiation.  

J.C. Ryle wrote:

“The principal reason why they were burned, was because they refused one of the peculiar doctrines of the Romish Church.   On that doctrine,  in almost every case,  hinged their life or death.   If they admitted it — they might live;  if they refused it — they must die!   The doctrine in question was the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord's Supper. 2

 One such martyr of the early Reformation was Anne Askew,  a  highly educated  young English woman who was an anomaly amongst  her peers.    Critics viewed her as  a truculent fanatic while supporters saw her as a courageous heroine.

HER FAMILY

Anne was born in 1521 to  Sir William Askew of  Lincolnshire and his wife Elizabeth Wrottesley four years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to The Castle Church door at Wittenberg, Germany.     We don’t know when Anne was converted to the “New Religion”, but we  know the early years of the Reformation knit together a tight band of advocates to which her family had ties.  

Anne was forced into an unwanted  marriage  with Thomas Kyme, a wealthy landowner and Catholic who had been engaged to her deceased sister Martha.    The constant friction  over Anne’s Protestant beliefs lead Thomas  to throw her out.    One of the accusations against her was  ‘that she was the devoutest woman he had ever known,  for she began to pray always at midnight, and continued for some hours in that exercise.' "3     Anne petitioned unsuccessfully for  a divorce and had  to leave her two  young children behind.    
 Resuming her maiden name,  Anne handed out tracts and literature  and  became known as a “Gospeller” for the  public speeches she gave  in London.    She debated doctrine with the local priests  and was “seen daily in the cathedral reading the Bible, and engaging the clergy in discussions on the meaning of particular texts,”4

ROYAL TROUBLE

Sir William had been knighted by King  Henry VIII and Anne’s  youngest brother Edward  served as the King’s cup-bearer.     The family connections at court presented the opportunity for Anne to become  one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Evangelical  Queen Katherine Parr,  Henry’s sixth and last wife.   While the King  looked the other way,  this close knit group of women , which included the young Lady Jane Grey,  met regularly to pray,  study the Scriptures,  and to hear from the Evangelical preachers Huge Latimer and Nicholas Ridley who  were later martyred.

The Reformation was as much about politics  as it was about  faith.   The self indulgent nominally  Catholic King was an equal opportunity tyrant and Catholics were just as likely to be executed for treason as were Protestants  for heresy.

When the Queen’s enemies noticed  her religious influence over others they plotted against her.   Worried that the Protestants would gain power when Henry died  Stephen Gardiner,  Thomas Wriothesley,  and Edmund Bonner  struck circuitously at Katherine's brightest lady, hoping she would implicate the Queen. 

 
  “Not daring to strike at the throne directly they found an easier target:   Anne Askew, bright, articulate and fearless, was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen.   Had she not been diligently promoting the spread of evangelical literature amongst the London apprentice boys?   She had even been heard to say ‘I would sooner read five lines in the Bible than hear five masses in the church’.   Such words were heresy in Catholic eyes.   Anne was seized, imprisoned and interrogated cruelly by Bonner” 5

TRIED BY FIRE

Anne’s first arrest and  interrogation  took place  in March of 1545  and she was jailed for 12 days.    She wrote detailed accounts of this and her second “examination” in June of 1546 which were edited and published separately by Bishop John Bale and  martyrologist John Foxe.  Anne's replies are spirited and articulate:

"As for that ye call your God, it is a piece of bread.   For a more proof thereof... let it but lie in the box three months and it will be mouldy and so turn to nothing that is good.  Whereupon I am persuaded that it cannot be God" 6

“Then the bishop’s chancellor rebuked me, and said I was much to blame for uttering Scripture. For St. Paul, he said, forbade women to speak or talk of the word of God.  I answered him that I knew Paul’s meaning as well as he, which is, in I Cor. xiv, that a woman ought not to speak in the congregation by way of teaching: and then I asked him how many women he had seen go into the pulpit and preach?  He said he never saw any.   Then I said he ought to find no fault in poor women, except they had offended the law.”7
Anne was taken to the Tower of London and  tortured on the Rack  until  her bones were pulled out of joint and she fainted.    Anne's tenacious  loyalty to her friends could not be broken even by such cruel attempts to get her to divulge names.   
A  final refusal to recant her beliefs  landed Anne a conviction  of heresy for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation and she was sentenced to death.   Unable to stand, she was carried on a chair to Smithfield just outside the London  Wall.     She was fastened to the stake by a chain wrapped around her waist to hold her up and then burned alive alongside three fellow martyrs.    These men were so greatly comforted by Anne’s  “invincible constancy”  and persuasions  that “they did set apart all kind of fear.”8 
HER LEGACY 
Whatever one’s opinion about this extraordinary woman might be,  her courage and determination to be true to Christ and the Scriptures in the midst of adversity cannot be argued.   Anne has left behind a legacy of encouragement  to live, and if necessary, to die for Christ with the utmost zeal.

"And thus the good Anne Askew, with these blessed martyrs, … having now ended the long course of her agonies, being compassed in with flames of fire,  as a blessed sacrifice unto God, she slept in the Lord A.D. 1546,   leaving behind her a singular example of Christian constancy for all men to follow.” 9

A Prayer of Anne Askew

 “Lord,  I heartily desire of thee,  that thou wilt of thy most merciful goodness forgive them,  that violence which they do, and hath done, to 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!
By me,  Anne Askew “10
__________________________________ 

1. Select works of John Bale D.D. Bishop of Ossory: edited by Rev. Henry Christmas
2. Five English Martyrs by J.C. Ryle 
3. Memorials of Baptist Martyrs; J. Newton Brown; 1854
4. The Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 2  By Sir Sidney Lee; Macmillan, 1885;  pg. 190
5. Lady Jane Grey: 9 Day Queen of England  by Faith Cook;  Evangelical Press 2004  page 47
6. The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe:  Rev. George Townsend;  1837-41
7. ibid.
8. ibid. 
9..ibid.
10.ibid.
Additional Sources 
Five Women of the English Reformation by Paul F. Zaul; Eerdmans Publishing; 2001
Women of the Reformation in France and England by Roland H. Bainton; Fortress Press; 2007
The Book of the Church by Southey, Esq. LL.D;  1823
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey;  Harper Collins Publishers; 2003;

This article has been revised and was first published at Out of the Ordinary on October 13, 2015   
 ©2018 Diane Bucknell

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