The only portrait credited as that of Anne Askew is called “An Unknown Lady”, painted by Hans Eworth around 1560 and depicted as “Mrs. Thomas Kyme”, or “Anne Ayscough/Askew”. Nothing more fitting for her story which is not fully known until today.
What reinforces that it really is the face of this suffering and remarkable woman are the words added to her austere figure: RATHER DEATHE / THEN FALSE OF FAYTHE (Better death than false testimony). For years it was thought that the figure was that of Queen Mary of Scotland, but today it is accepted as the portrait of the first Protestant martyr who was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1546 for refusing to recognize that the Sacrament was the ‘flesh, blood and bone’ of Christ. More so, for having refused to hand over other Protestants, including Queen Katherine Parr, even under appalling torture before the execution of death.
The tragic story of Anne Askew is always a quick page as supporting the last wife of Henry VIII, which is repeated in the film Firebrand, which will premiere in Cannes and will have the talented Erin Doherty as Anne. Her death was featured prominently in The Tudors but only mentioned in Becoming Elizabeth. Alongside Margaret Pole, whose story did not go to the end in The Spanish Princess series, Anne Askew was the victim of false accusations and underwent violence so frightening that even within the bloody legacy of Henry VIII it ranks as one of the most tragic of all. the times.
Anne Askew‘s short life ended at age 25 in one of the most tragic ways for a religious: accused of heresy and burned alive. Anne, who may have her name spelled Ayscough or Ascue, or even referred to by her married name – Anne Kyme – was a writer, preacher, and poet. Daughter of a gentleman at the court of King Henry VIII, Anne had her life determined by her marriage at the age of 15. The forced union marked her family alliance, of “ancient and noble lineage,” with the wealthy Kyme. The chosen one had been her older sister, Martha, but she died unexpectedly and, in order not to miss the opportunity, the father determined that Anne would be the substitute.
Not even the birth of two children saved the young woman from an unhappy marriage, which led her to dedicate herself even more to the Protestant religion, where she found comfort in her suffering. Anne, born a Catholic, was converted when the Bible was translated into English and went from fervent to preacher quickly, gaining notoriety and bringing even more problems to her husband, who was Catholic. Described as “stubborn” and “talkative”, she suffered physical abuse from her husband but did not give in, being expelled “violently” from home and losing contact with her children. Still, she regarded the unexpected freedom as “a godsend” and the perfect justification for seeking a divorce decree in London. A determination that would lead her to cross paths with Queen Katherine Parr and King Henry VIII.
One of Anne’s many boldnesses at the time was that, once separated from her husband, she no longer used her married name and returned to Askew. In London, she joined the group of ‘reformers’ (including Joan Bocher), who wanted to put an end to Catholicism in English lands and gained repercussions as an “evangelizer”. She sent books to the Queen through Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, who also helped Anne financially. It was this never confirmed link that Katherine’s enemies used to try to destroy her reputation and even instigate the dangerous Henry VIII to execute (for the third time) a wife. In other words, Anne Askew was the scapegoat of a religious conspiracy.
Prison, torture and martyrdom
The religious issue that would later shake both Elizabeth I‘s England and Catherine de Medici‘s France (as we follow in The Serpent Queen), was born precisely from the schism created by the King when he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, creating an impossible religious polarization to eradicate, with both sides getting the wrong hand. Catholics were the ‘traditionalists’ and Protestants the ‘reformers’. Both tried to eliminate the other.
Henry VIII tried to maintain diplomacy between both faiths, a very tenuous tolerance that was often the trigger for violence and coups. At this point in his life, the king already wanted to return to having a better relationship with Rome and therefore listened to the traditional current to ‘interrupt’ or slow down the ‘reform’, which was used to effect arrests and restrictions on Protestants, many of them led by Thomas Wriothesley, Richard Rich, Edmund Bonner and Thomas Howard. The four men wanted to cut off Katherine’s growing influence over Henry VIII and used their religious suspicions as the quickest means.
One of the most absurd rules of the time was summarized by Bishop Stephen Gardiner who said that frankness or firmness of speech was “a tactic used by the devil to spread heresy”. Imagine shutting up women! Turning speech into sin and danger was an effective ploy to maintain submission. Katherine herself was almost arrested by her husband when she ‘wrong’ in the intensity of her speech and her enemies wanted to take advantage of the cue. To implicate her, pressure was placed on her ladies-in-waiting: Katherine Willoughby, Anne Calthorpe, Joan Champernowne, Lady Hertford and even the Queen’s sister, Anne Parr.
In this scenario, the opinionated and dedicated Anne Askew became easy prey, under the mantle of a threatening figure precisely because of her clear and effective speech, more cultured than her own inquisitors. This was noticed the first time that Anne was arrested and that she managed to baffle Bishop Edmund Bonner with simple and accurate answers from the Bible. Failing to deliver what they wanted, she was released but detained twice in the following months. Enemies of her managed to use her abhorrence of the Eucharist as proof of heresy (from the Catholic point of view) and had her transferred to the Tower of London to be tortured and “judged”. To escape the bonfire, they wanted the list of like-minded women, but Anne refused to speak.
Official documents from the time detail that there were two “examinations” before his execution, which lasted two full days. The interrogation was personally conducted by Wriothesley, Gardiner and had the participation of John Dudley and Sir William Paget (the king’s main secretary), making it clear who was the real target of the investigation. Faced with Anne’s refusal to name names, she was tortured incredibly cruelly even by the account of the Tower jailers. According to them, Anne was taken to a room in the basement of the White Tower, where the dreaded “rack” was located, the torture machine where the tied person is “stretched” until muscles and bones break. Stripped in front of the men, leaving only her nightgown, Anne was lifted about five inches above her bed and slowly stretched out. She collapsed from the pain, was revived, and underwent the procedure twice more, without naming a name.
There are versions that the King – upon learning of this – would have forgiven her, but that Wriothesley and Rich decided to work alone anyway, using so much force on the swings that “her shoulders and hips were pulled from their sockets and her elbows and knees were dislocated” . Anne Askew’s screams were heard by two witnesses who were in the garden outside the Tower. Still, she didn’t name anyone. The King’s pardon seems unlikely because the final sentence followed: she would be burned alive for heresy.
Thus, aged just 25, Anne was taken tied to a chair (she could no longer walk or sit) to the stake and burned on July 16, 1546, alongside three men who were also condemned. They say that, out of mercy, they would have tied gunpowder around their bodies to hasten death.
Unsurprisingly, Anne Askew became a Protestant martyr, although men of her day still described her as “weak”. She left texts that even today clearly document the conflicts of the bloodiest period of Henry VIII’s reign. In Anne’s texts, there are her confrontations with male authority figures of the time.
All of Anne’s suffering, however, is used in the background as the threat and danger that Queen Katherine Parr managed to escape. This is the basis of the story that leads Firebrand there, but the presence of actress Erin Doherty signals that, as in The Tudors series, the sad and chilling story of Anne gains prominence, even if in general, it is an addendum in the biography of Kings and Queens.