On the 16th of July 1546, Anne Askew, an English poet, writer, and Protestant was burnt at the stake. In one horrific sweep, the position of religion in England had been put into a chaotic state of confusion, from which the country would struggle to recover.
From 1532, Henry VIII had been pushing for the reformation of the English church and a break from the Catholic religion. This was primarily caused by his desire to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon.
By 1536, a complete Protestant religious shift in England seemed nearly complete. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 and Treason Act of the same year had established Henry VIII as the ruler of the English church, and the Pope had been economically estranged from England through the Acts in Restraint of Annates, which had cut off the vast majority of financial support available to him by 1534. The Ten Articles had been published in 1536, undermining key Catholic doctrine, and the first English Bible had been published in 1539. Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Chancellor and key advisor, was well underway dissolving the monasteries, reaping great financial rewards. Thomas More, a close friend of the King, had been executed for treason and the Pilgrimage of Grace had been shut down, with its leaders executed and served as a grotesque example for others who might think of transgressing. The Henrician Reformation was in full force and there was no end in sight.
Yet by the end of 1540, Thomas Cromwell was dead, Catholic doctrine had been reasserted as the foundation of the English church, and England seemed back on the path to Catholicism. But why did this happen? What caused this sudden change in policy?
Largely, the sudden switch in England’s religious policy stemmed from the disagreements between Henry, Cromwell, and the English nobility. Whilst Cromwell’s personal convictions led him to push for Protestant policies and practices, Henry was most likely still a Catholic at heart. He was, after all, not given the title of “Defender of the Faith” in 1521 by Pope Leo X for no reason. This being said, the influence of the English Catholic nobility cannot be ignored. Specifically, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, possibly the most powerful noble at the time, spearheaded the Catholic counter-reformation in England, pushing the Act of Six Articles in 1539, which would serve to assert Catholic religious doctrine as the foundation of religious practices in England. Whilst failure to recognise Henry VIII as the head of the church was still a crime punishable by death, England was now much more Catholic. Norfolk was also key in pushing for Cromwell’s removal and subsequent execution. Cromwell’s isolationist policies — culminating in Henry’s failure of a marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1540 — as well as his religious beliefs, had led to the conservative Catholic nobility disliking his ambitions. To that end, Norfolk had established an “investigation” of sorts into Cromwell’s personal life and beliefs, resulting in deeming him a radical, even Lutheran, Protestant who was a threat to the Church of England. On 28 July 1540, following a rushed and unfair trial, Cromwell was executed and Norfolk’s niece, Catherine Howard, was married to Henry VIII. Cromwell had played right into Norfolk’s hand, and it had lost him is life. England now seemed on the way back to Catholic faith.
But where does the execution of Anne Askew come into this, and why have I put it as the title event despite the numerous other significant happenings?
It’s important to note that, whilst very interesting, Anne Askew’s demise is not the first example of a female being executed by Henry VIII.
Elizabeth Barton, a female nun nicknamed “The Nun of Kent”, had been executed in 1534 after prophecising against Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. What, however, separates Anne Askew from Barton is their religious convictions. Barton was a radical Catholic, and frankly considered by many to be a nutcase, and so it is no surprise that Henry was harsh in punishing her, due to his Protestant actions at that time. Conversely, Askew was a poet and writer, a woman of great intelligence, and the daughter of a wealthy landowner, William Askew.
Askew was also not the first Protestant martyr to die for their views, specifically on transubstantiation. Transubstantiation (the view that the bread and wine of Holy Communion is literally the body and blood of Christ) was disavowed in the Act of Ten Articles (1536) but was later re-established in the Act of Ten Articles (1539). John Lambert, a friend of Cromwell, was the first to be burned. That was in 1538, before the Act of Ten Articles had been passed and enacted as law.
Yet Askew’s execution is special. She was not only one of the first known female poets to compose in English but was also the first Englishwoman to demand a divorce on scriptural grounds. For these views, Askew was undeniably a radical Protestant. Her execution took place on the 16th of July in 1546. Before this, charged with heresy, she was tortured in an attempt to get her to reveal other female “heretics”, but the Chancellor (Thomas Wriothesley) was unable to get anything out of her. Even before her death, the religious turmoil that the event would cause manifested itself in the refusal of Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, to carry on torturing the woman.
On her execution day, Askew had to be carried to the execution in a chair. Due to the excessive torturing, she was unable to move and was in constant pain. This seemingly inhumane treatment of Askew led various Protestants to denounce the violent Catholic practices which had been allowed to occur. Anne herself wrote about her treatment in what was later published by John Bale as The Examinations of Anne Askew.
After the execution, England was in a state of religious confusion. Whilst the King was head of the Church of England and the Pope’s powers were severely limited, it seemed as though England was de facto Catholic, even if it was (to an extent) Protestant by law. This religious uncertainty is something which would carry forward into the reign of Henry VIII’s male heir, Edward VI. Specifically, it would lead to Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, being unable to properly govern the religion of England, as it was in a sort of midway state between Catholicism and Protestantism. As William Paget pointed out in a letter to Somerset in December 1549, the “old religion is forbidden by a law […] the new religion is not yet printed in the stomachs of the eleven of twelve parts of the realm”. This religious confusion would lead to events such as the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, led by Humphrey Arundell.
Overall, it seems clear that the Henrician Reformation was far from a linear progression towards Protestantism. There were setbacks and chaotic instances throughout the entirety of the process, culminating in the execution of Anne Askew, arguably the ultimate metaphor for Catholic violence, competing even with the gruesome executions carried out by Mary I during her reign.
For additional reading on the topic, this Wikipedia page offers a good starting point for learning about Anne Askew’s life and death. Elaine Beilin’s ‘Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance’ also offers information about Askew’s role as a writer and poet. For information about religion during Edward VI’s reign, Michael Rodman Jones’ ‘“There is no prophecy”: Robert Crowley, “Piers Plowman”, and Kett’s Rebellion’ is a very interesting read, albeit slightly detached from Anne Askew herself. For a general look at the English Reformation, David Newcombe’s ‘Henry VIII and the English Reformation’ provides a good overview of the entire affair.