Guest post from Elisa Tersigni, John Rylands Research Institute Digital Humanities Fellow. Elisa recently completed her Phd on the role of women in the English Reformation.
This week marks both the closing of our Reformation exhibition and International Women’s Day, so we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the ways in which women participated in the English Reformation by drawing attention to one woman who was particularly important: Anne Askew.
Almost everything we know about Askew’s life comes from her own writing and from the men who edited it for publication – she was one of the first published English women writers. Her autobiographical work has been widely read for the past 500 years and she is arguably the most famous Protestant woman martyr as a result.
Anne Askew was born in 1521 in Lincolnshire, England. Her father, William Askew, arranged a marriage between Thomas Kyme and Anne’s older sister, who, before being married, suddenly died. William offered Anne in her place. That Anne was a devout Protestant and her husband a Catholic made for an unhappy match. Anne’s editors report that, after having two children, her husband “violently drove her out of his house”. Anne went to London to seek a divorce – one of first English women to attempt to do so.
At the time that Askew came to London, tensions between Catholics and Protestants were high. While Henry VIII had broken from Rome a decade earlier, his Church of England prescribed beliefs that walked a fine line between traditional (Catholic) and radical (Protestant). Denying transubstantiation (the belief that bread and wine blessed by a priest is really and wholly Christ’s body and blood) was a felony punishable by death, and many Protestants died under this law. But denying that Henry VIII was head of the church was treason, also punishable by death. Many Catholics died under this law.
In London, Askew caught the attention of the authorities, who arrested her and interrogated her at least twice for her Protestant beliefs. Askew records her accounts of these interrogations – each of which takes place over several weeks – in The First Examination and The Latter Examination. In her accounts, she details the ways in which her interrogators intimidate her and attempt to trap her into confessing to heretical beliefs. She explains the ways in which she evades their questions, using her womanhood to her advantage. For instance, when one of her interlocutors, Doctor Standish, asks her to “say [her] mind, concerning the same text of Saint Paul” she responds with, “it [is] against Saint Paul’s learning, that I being a woman, should interpret the scriptures, specially where so many wise learned men [are]”. When another of her interrogators asks her why she has so few words, she replies, “God hath given me the gift of knowledge, but not of utterance. And Salomon sayth, that a woman of few words is a gift of God.” Askew’s various tactics are clever and reveal her nuanced understanding of theology and how to navigate the legal system as a woman.
In her recording of her second interrogation, Askew tells us that she decides to confess to her beliefs, which she knows will result in her death. Her interlocutors illegally torture her on the rack to try to obtain information about other gentlewoman who they are convinced have financially supported Askew; because she does not give any woman’s name, Askew says that her interrogators personally rack her in their frustration.
Askew was burned at the stake on 16 July 1546 at Smithfield with three Protestant men. Contemporary reports mention that her body was so broken from the torture that she had to be carried to the stake on a chair. She managed to record her story in spite of her pain.
Her accounts of examinations were reported to be smuggled out of England, printed in Germany, and smuggled back into England, where they were well received and re-printed at least six times in the sixteenth century alone. Her proto-feminist work continues to be read today.